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Assessment for Kurds in Syria

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 30 March 2005
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Kurds in Syria, 30 March 2005, available at: [accessed 23 May 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Syria Facts
Area:    185,180 sq. km.
Capital:    Damascus
Total Population:    16,673,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Kurdish people of Syria exhibit some factors pointing towards organized wide spread rebellion or high level of violence. Most signiricant is the high level of restrictions faced by Kurds. Syria has an Arabization policy and does not allow Kurds to practice their cultural. The Kurdish language, holidays, marriage and right to organization are restricted. Also, the government during the 1980s forcefully relocated some of the Kurdish people to various areas of Syria. However, other than one incident of rebellion in the spring of 2004, Kurds have not employed violence. Overall, more factors weigh against violence. A large majority of Kurds in Syria are located in the northeast mountainous regions and some in the major cities. They are largely spread out and do not have high levels of cohesion. Unlike Kurds in neighboring Iraq and Turkey, Syrian Kurds do not have strong political organizations. The Syrian government, in power since the 1960s, has a strong system of oppression in place to keep its people under control.

When Bashar al-Assad came into power in 2000, he held talks about more openness and more democratic practices within the Syrian government. These efforts never stimulated any change in policy or practices towards Syrian Kurds. There has been support for reform in Syria but mainly from outside sources and activists abroad who are concerned with the Kurdish people as a whole. These efforts however have not made much progress on the ground. They are more concentrated on the treatment of Kurdish people in Turkey and Iraq because of the continuing conflicts in those countries.

Recently, in the spring of 2004, there was a riot of primarily Kurds in a northern town of Syria. This riot destroyed some business and infrastructure of the city. It was quickly and violently ended by Syrian troops, police and paramilitary.

The Kurds within Syria receive very little support from any part of the world or kindred groups abroad if any at all because of their lack of cohesion. More support and voice is given to the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. The Syrian government actually supports the PKK (Kurdish rebels) in Turkey by hiring Syrian Kurds to fight the Turkish government.

Analytic Summary

The Kurdish people live mainly in the mountainous northeastern region of Syria bordering Turkey and Iraq (GROUPCON = 2). More recently some Kurdish have started moving into the larger cities to seek employment, but a large majority still live in the mountainous north-east. The main distinctions between the Kurdish people and the majority Sunni Muslims in Syria are language, cultural beliefs and holidays (CULDIFXX03 = 2). They share the same religious beliefs and general customs as the majority Sunni Muslims but they strongly consider themselves independent of Sunni Muslims. They also differ in religion from the Alawi political elite.

Within Syria, Kurds are disadvantaged in many ways. Successive governments have pursued forced Arabization policies. A majority of Kurdish people are considered non-citizens or some lower level form of citizen. They do not receive equal education, health services, right to organization, or the right to equal legal protection (POLIDFXX03 = 4). Also, they have lower levels of income, are not allowed to own land and are not located in professional positions or receive higher education (ECDIFXX03 = 4).

Throughout the 1980s there was a system of forced resettlement by the government and competition for land because of resources (DMCOMP80-99 = 1; DMEVIC80-86, 95-04 = 2). During the 1990s, the forced resettlement tapered off but the competition and disposition of their lands remains a steady issue. Between 1995 and 1999, the Kurdish area of Syria experienced a drought, causing some demographic stress. The drought exacerbated the steady, low-level migration to urban areas and external migration.

Kurdish grievances include equal legal protection under the Syrian constitution, better education and economic opportunities and the cessation of Arabization policies. This would allow them to speak their language and practice their cultural customs. Like Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, there is also some support for an independent Kurdistan.

The Kurdish people within Syria are not highly organization because of the mountainous region they live in and because they are so dispersed throughout the area. There is very little communication between different Kurdish tribal groups. The organizations that have formed restrict their activities to non-violent forms of political protest. Kurds in Syria have not suffered from intracommunal conflict in recent years.

The Syrian government's policies of Arabization and oppression of the Kurdish people are still in place. Other Arab groups live side by side with the Kurdish people, and there isn't much communal conflict between the groups. There has been little open protest or rebellion by the Kurdish people besides in the spring of 2004 when the Kurdish people rioted in a northern Syrian city after a soccer match (PROT02-03 = 2, PROT04 = 4). They destroyed a few businesses and city infrastructures but the riot was quickly squashed by government military, police and paramilitary forces.



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