While the world’s attention is focused on the war in Iraq, the internal Palestinian strife, the Israeli-Hamas confrontation in Gaza, and the clashes in Lebanon between the Lebanese army and Syrian supported Fatah al-Islam, scant attention has been paid to developments inside Syria.
The regime of Bashar Assad has used this opportunity to re-launch the campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Kurdish region of Hasakah. The Syrian press, controlled by the regime, prevents access to the foreign press and the abuses of the Kurds have gone practically unreported. News of the ethnic cleansing is arriving almost exclusively through letters and faxes from persecuted Kurds.
The champion of pan-Arabism, Egypt’s former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, was the first to consider the Arabization of the Kurdish region of Hasakah when he led the United Arab Republic (UAR) - a merger between Syria and Egypt that lasted from 1958-1961. In 1959, the UAR government began to settle Arabs in the Derrick area, located on the west bank of the Tigris River. Nasser had hopes of transferring 1.5 million landless Egyptians to the Kurdish region of Syria, and managed to establish at least two villages populated by Egyptians.
According to Sherkoh Abbas, President of the Kurdistan National Assembly-Syria, “The UAR government was determined to inflict maximum damage on the Kurds because they were viewed as agents of Israel. In 1960, the Syrian government issued a decree that denied the Kurds the right of grazing livestock on their own land. As a result, millions of livestock perished of starvation, causing the Kurds severe economic hardship.”
In 1961, agents of the UAR’s government deliberately torched a movie theatre in the Kurdish city of Amude. Three hundred Kurdish students were forced into the theatre to watch a film on the Algerian Revolution. The doors were then locked and they set the theatre on fire. All 300 youngsters were burned alive.
When the UAR broke up, Syria was in a chaotic state for 18 months. By March 1963 the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), led by a group of leftist Syrian military officers, and civilian officials of the Baath party were installed, taking over the executive and legislative functions of government.
As soon as the Baathists came to power, they announced a program of Agrarian Reform, which ostensibly meant the confiscation of Kurdish land. The land would be used to build the “Arab Belt,” a euphemism for ethnic cleansing, and serve as a buffer zone between Syrian Kurds and their brethren in Turkey and Iraq. “The Baathists seized Kurdish lands in 1966 and continued to do so well into the 1970’s and 1980’s,” Sherkoh Abbas asserted, “In 1974, the regime of Hafez Al-Assad created a buffer zone, ethnically cleansing the Kurds along the Turkish border at a depth of 35 km. Now, his son Bashar Assad is doing the same by creating a buffer-zone along the Iraqi border, to separate Syrian from Iraqi Kurds.”
The decision to launch the “agrarian reforms” was directly related to findings from a census, which indicated an absolute Kurdish majority in the Hasakah region of northeastern Syria. In the aftermath of the census, the Syrian regime in Damascus stripped approximately 150,000 Kurds of their citizenship and confiscated their land under the guise of land reform and the establishment of government sponsored farms.
The Syrian security agencies in the Kurdish area have been given extraordinary powers. They can confiscate, detain, torture, and kill with impunity. The Syrian government does not officially recognize the Kurds as being Kurds. Kurds are seen, and see themselves as “second class Arabs.” Harsh conditions in the Kurdish areas of northeast Syria, in addition to the lack of infrastructure or employment opportunities, has forced many Kurds to flee Syria and settle in Germany and Scandinavia.
On March 12, 2004 Kurds staged an uprising against the Bashar Assad regime. Syrian security forces killed 85 Kurds and thousands were imprisoned. Determined to oppose further ethnic cleansing by the regime, the Kurds, who have now become desperate, are ready to do battle with the regime.
A decree issued in January 2007 by Dr. Adel Safar, Syrian Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, approved the resettlement of 150 Arab families to the Kurdish region. The decree would bring Arabs from South Abdulaziz Mountains to the Kurdish town of Derrick. The resettlement policy commenced in 1962, when the Syrian regime began to seize Kurdish properties and transfer them to Arab ownership. In the 1970’s, under Hafez Assad, the Syrian regime created 45 settlements and brought 30,000 Arab families to the Hasakah region.
The Baathist regime redrew the boundaries of the Kurdish region, dividing it into four provinces, in order to undermine the Kurdish majority. In addition, the Syrian regime gerrymandered portions of the Kurdish region to neighboring Arab provinces.
The discovery of oil in the Hasakah region served as further motivation for the Syrian regime to engage in their ethnic cleansing of Kurdish areas. According to intelligence estimates Syrian oil reserves will be depleted in the near future and the Kurdish region may be the target of future oil exploration. Strategically, this may also increase Damascus’ dependence on Tehran for energy supplies.
Asked to sum up the current situation in Syria Abbas said “In my view, the Basher Assad regime is trying to complete the ethnic cleansing process by isolating Syrian Kurds from Iraqi Kurds. It is intended to prevent future support from Kurds in Iraq. Damascus seeks to revive its deterrence amongst the Kurds by re-imposing the fear factor that evaporated during the March 2004 uprising. The Assad regime is employing pan-Arab nationalism in northern Syria to shore up support among the Arab population by portraying the Kurds as agents of America and Israel. Kurds, who comprise 20% of the Syrian population, are tired of being victimized and are demanding their legitimate civil and human rights.”