The Kurds in Syria have undergone a long policy of repression in their history. From the 1950s, the Arab nationalism of successive Syrian governments set up policies of identity repression against the Kurds, perceived as a threat toward a united Syria. In 1962, the Syrian government conducted a “special census” in the province of Hassakah, concluding that many of the Kurds in northern Syria had illegally come from Turkey. Following this decision, 120,000 Kurds were deprived of their civil rights, and their everyday life became very difficult, particularly, their access to education and employment. They were also deprived of the right to land. Following the demographic evolution, two Kurdish generations (about 300,000 descendants of the original 120,000) remained illegal, deprived of Syrian citizenship, and abandoned to their fate.
The Ba’ath Party—a doctrine combining socialism and Pan-Arab nationalism—came to power in 1963 and pursued the same policy of denying the Kurdish identity through other methods. The party’s politics handled the Kurdish question by changing the demographic balance of power and eliminating the Kurds. A policy of “demographic change,” through numerous projects, aimed at the assimilation and Arabization of the Kurds via displacement. From 1965 until 1975, 30,000 Kurds were forced to leave their homes.
In 1963, Ba’ath officer Muhammad Talib Hilal began a project of Arabization by evacuating the Kurdish populations from about 332 villages near the Turkish border, replacing them with Arabs from Raqqa. The so-called pretext was meant to lead an agrarian reform in the region. This “Arab belt” project affected the continuity of the Kurdish demography by separating Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) from Kurdistan of Turkey. The plan was only partially realized, though, and finally suspended under Hafez al-Assad in 1976: the Syrian regime was fearful of a Kurdish uprising, especially if it continued to relocate Arabs to Kurdish-populated regions.
The Damascus government’s decades-long policy of Arabization did not limit itself to the setting-up of Arab colonies in Kurdish zones; it also contained an economic aspect. In the Kurdish regions, the Syrian state pursued an “Arabization of employment” policy in the public sector. This included adopting measures intended to deprive Kurds of local jobs in favor of Arabs, including bringing Arabs from other Syrian cities such as Raqqa or Deir al-Zor. By establishing an economic marginalization of the Kurdish region, this employment policy favoring the Arabs increased the unemployment rate and forced Kurdish families in Rojava to emigrate massively. Between 1990 and 2008, Kurds moved to major Syrian cities, especially in Damascus where Kurdish suburbs began to form. For example, the informal district of Wadi Al-Mashariah. These policies, whose objectives were to empty the Kurdish zones of their original inhabitants, created unfavorable living conditions and contributed to the fall of the Kurdish population in the region. These discriminatory politics also contributed to an exile of the Kurds toward Europe.
Challenges for Rojava
Forty years later, the question remains problematic, and the solution so far has been to postpone any political decision after a phase of transition and national reconciliation between Kurds and Arabs. The ruling Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Rojava has called for a phase of peaceful negotiations when the Syrian war ends. Problems within the Arab groups of Syria persist, and a Kurdish push for independence in Syria would risk diverting the Kurds from the fight against the Islamic State (IS). Rather, the PYD wants to win the trust of Arab parties, so they can cooperate within the “Democratic Federation of Syria of the North” whose development is crucial for the long-term survival of Kurdish autonomy inside Syria.
The Kurdish Emigration After 2011: Exile and Exodus
Since 2011, the northern and southern borders of Rojava were almost completely closed-off. In the north, Turkey imposed a blockade; in the south, IS controlled all the bordering territories of Rojava which had an impact on the region’s economy. From 2014 until 2016, any economic exchange inside Syria was suspended because roads were cut. The only way to reach Damascus was by air. The only airport in Qamishli remaining in service was under the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This economic isolation considerably affected the daily life of the Kurds in their cantons. Although they relied on an economy focused mainly on agricultural self-sufficiency which produced an amount of food necessary for their survival, it was not enough to guarantee a future for young people.
An important movement toward the Kurdistan Region, where about 240,000 refugees emigrated, resulted from the economic crisis. A massive exodus of the Kurdish population in Syria due to the rise of IS in 2014 during their attack on the Kurdish city of Kobani where hundreds of thousands left for Turkey, cannot be forgotten. If Turkey says it has welcomed approximately one-and-a-half million Syrian refugees today, we cannot ignore the proportion of Kurds among them. The waves of Syrian refugees included Kurds who left for Europe and those who took refuge in other regions of Syria. Approximately 350,000 people emigrated to the city of Hasakah in the southeast, according to Kurdish activists, and hundreds of thousands of others toward Afrin in the west. During the ongoing Syrian crisis, between 2011 and 2017, the Kurdish demography was weakened again by the wave of emigration toward the Kurdistan Region, Turkey, and Europe. Such an exodus remains a challenge for the autonomous region of Rojava under the administration of the PYD.
Aimad Hesso is a researcher in geopolitics at Sorbonne University, Paris.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany