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Dr. Josef Olmert

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Assad Speaks, the Protests Continue -- and the Kurds Come Into Play

Posted: 06/20/11 12:43 PM ET

President Bashar Assad gave his first speech in two months to a carefully selected gathering of dignitaries at the University of Damascus, but it was not a game changer. As soon as the speech ended, thousands thronged the streets in many Syrian towns, including suburbs of the capital, chanting their displeasure with the leader. Bashar Assad repeated the old allegations about conspiracies inspired by unspecified countries, but the old goods seem to have no effect anymore. The uprising continues and with it the merciless crackdown.

In recent days the protest and the retaliatory indiscriminate killings took place in the heavily Kurdish northeast region of Syria. A book published some years ago by K. Yildiz referred to the Kurds of Syria as "the forgotten people". Not anymore. The Kurdish population of Syria numbers two million, and mainly in the Jazeera region along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, separated from their ethnic brothers through the artificial demarcation of boundaries in the aftermath of the First World War and the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

A large population of Kurds has resided for generations in the big cities, including Damascus and Aleppo. In fact, members of this group played a significant role in the early history of independent Syria. The first three military dictators of Syria, Husni Zaim, Sami Hinawi and Adib Shishakli were of Kurdish descent. Yet the Kurds of the Jazeera were always a thorn in the side of the Syrian state, maintaining their traditional way of life. The Ba'ath regime, coming to power in 1963, decided to resolve this problem by initiating a policy of Arabization of the Jazeera. The prominent Kurdish historian Ismet Cheriff Vanly wrote in the late 1960's about attempts at ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, but the Ba'ath regime failed.

Northeast Syria is still mainly Kurdish, so the regime enforced an iron-fist policy there, while neglecting completely its economic development. The inevitable results were poverty, near starvation due to the dwindling water resources, mass immigration to the big cities, and inevitably growing Kurdish political radicalization.

In 1986 and 2004, there were violent outbursts of angry Kurds, which were typically quelled by the use of brute force. The Kurds may have been forgotten but they were not quiet. While Syria repressed it own Kurdish population, it encouraged, for many years, subversive anti-Turkish activities by Kurdish elements from the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), operating from its territory. This Ba'athi dangerous game came to an abrupt end in October 1998, when Hafiz Assad capitulated to a Turkish ultimatum and removed the PKK from its territory, including their leader, Abdallah Ucalan, who surprisingly enough found himself in a Turkish jail some weeks later...

Now, the Kurdish question seems to get back to the limelight, as the Syrian regime loses its grip over large parts of the country. The Kurds of the Jazeera were slow to react to the uprising in Syria. They are Sunni Muslims as most of the protesters are, but they constitute a distinct ethnic minority, and this is the prime motivation for their behavior. They remembered that their past protests against the regime failed to elicit support among the Sunni Arabs, and they preferred sitting on the fence, but the ongoing protest and the increasing likelihood of collapse in Damascus, finally brought them to the streets. The killings in Deir A Zor and in Qamishli will not stop their protest, as the killings in the rest of Syria will fail to put an end to the uprising there.

With that happening, the Kurds are going to play their traditional role in Middle East politics -- that of the inevitable victims of geopolitical circumstances. The Turks are increasingly worried about the Kurdish situation in Syria, and they are openly threatening to intervene there militarily, while the PKK has intensified its operations in Turkey itself. That is not good news for the oppressed Kurds of the Jazeera, which can expect no sympathy from the Syrian regime. This is a classic situation of being between the hammer and the anvil, something that is not new for the Kurds, who continue to be the largest ethnic minority in the Middle East without an independent state of its own.

This is a tragedy, and not the least of the tragedies that befall upon Syria, something that Bashar Assad's latest speech did nothing to stop.