Middle East

Syria's Kurds undecided over future

Syrians, some holding up the Kurdish flag, at a protest in Qamishli, Syria on 12 March
Image caption Protesters in Qamishli in March 2012, some waving Kurdish flags

Syria's Kurds appear divided and unsure whether to join the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad as they marked the anniversary of bloody clashes between the Kurdish minority and security forces in 2004.

Syria's Kurds live mostly in the north-eastern border region with Iraq and Turkey, and make up 10-15% of the population.

For decades the authorities have discriminated against the Kurds for fear that they might seek self-determination. Many were denied citizenship under a controversial law in the early 1960s.

Frustration at this treatment boiled over in March 2004 in the town of Qamishli, when Kurds rioted before security forces moved in.

Although the world's media have largely forgotten the riots, online activists opposed to President Bashar al-Assad have found new significance in the Qamishli events and urged their compatriots to mark the date.

Qamishli riots

The Syrian football teams Al-Fatwa, which is largely supported by Arabs, and Al-Jihad, favoured by the Kurds, played in Qamishli on 12 March 2004.

Riot police moved into the stadium not long after play began, and a slanging match turned violent. Six supporters were killed and another three died in a stampede to escape the stands.

The next day anger amongst Kurds erupted when security forces fired on the funerals of the supporters, and unrest spread to neighbouring towns and villages.

Kurds demonstrated in the streets of Qamishli, chanting anti-government slogans and even toppling a statue of the former president, Hafez Assad.

In a now familiar development, Syrian security forces moved swiftly to crush the unrest, and many Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Eight years on

In light of the uprising in Syria, President Assad's online opponents have sought significance in the Qamishli events, seeing clear parallels with the current nationwide crackdown.

Since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011, social media sites have carried reports and footage from Syria, where journalists have been prevented from reporting freely.

Image caption Many Syrian Kurds have taken part in the current protests against the government

Some of these sites advertised the eighth anniversary of the Qamishli clashes in the weeks running up to 12 March, encouraging Syrians to mark the date.

These calls were initially published on sites aimed at Syrian Kurds, but spread to larger Facebook pages like The Syrian Revolution 2011, which has over 300,000 members.

The commemoration appears to be part of a new trend, as activists have used the anniversary of past crackdowns in Syria to further discredit the government and persuade more to oppose it.

In February, online activists marked the 30th anniversary of the bloody attack on the central town of Hama in 1982, during an insurrection by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Kurds undecided

The 2004 riots showed that the Kurds have little love for the government in the main, and many have been ready to take part in protests in the current uprising.

But many of the Kurdish political parties, which have been operating secretly in Syria for decades, have yet to join the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella body trying to unite opposition groups.

Some community leaders feel the SNC has not done enough to ensure Kurdish rights, which has led them to withhold full support. The SNC has more recently tried to reach out to minorities in Syria, including Kurds.

There are also tensions between some Kurdish groups due to long-standing political differences.

Some Kurdish anti-Assad activists in Syria have accused members of the Democratic Union Party of Kurdistan (PYD) of supporting the government.

The PYD, a party that operates clandestinely in Syria, has denied the allegations, but the episode shows the minority is far from united.

In a gesture to placate the Kurds, President Assad granted full citizenship to many Kurds last April, although there has been no clear indication of how Syrian Kurds have received this.

The priority for Syria's Kurds is to secure their civil rights rather than to ally themselves with any particular opposition group. Whatever their decision, it is certain that Kurds will play an important role in the outcome of the Syrian uprising.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.

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