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Monday, February 19, 2007

The PKK and Syria's Kurds

By James Brandon
In January, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) appointed "Doctor Bahoz," the nom de guerre of Fehman Huseyin, a Syrian Kurd, to lead the People's Defense Forces (the HPG), putting him in charge of the movement's day-to-day military operations. The appointment of a Syrian—and a noted hardliner—to head the military wing of the Kurdish group seems likely to increase tensions between the movement's older members, who are largely supportive of the Syrian government, and its younger recruits, who see Syria's 1.7 million Kurds as an oppressed minority ripe for liberation.

Although Bahoz's rise to the top of the PKK—a movement that is ostensibly Turkish—is unusual, there are thousands of Syrian Kurds in the PKK, which is the result of a long-standing alliance between the guerrilla movement and Damascus. Anecdotal evidence suggests that as much as 20 percent of the PKK's 4,000 troops in Mount Qandil, the PKK's headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan, are of Syrian origin [1]. These Syrian Kurds fall into two rough categories: older members who joined the PKK to fight against Turkey, and younger, more radical recruits who have joined more recently and who believe that all Kurdish lands—including those in Syria—should be liberated.

The tension between PKK members loyal to the Syrian government—of whom Bahoz is one—and those who believe the PKK should fight Syria could have serious regional consequences. The PKK is in a crisis, struggling to remain relevant to ordinary Kurds, while caught in a region-wide struggle between Islamism and ethno-nationalism; between Western democracies and Arab dictatorships. The winner of the struggle within the PKK will decide whether men like Bahoz continue their traditional, Maoist guerrilla war against Turkey, or if power will fall to younger, more radical recruits who advocate a broader, pan-Kurdish campaign of urban warfare.

History of Syria's Kurds

Syria's estimated 1.7 million Kurds make up around 10 percent of the country's population and are concentrated in a geographically compact area of northeast Syria in the triangle formed by the Turkish and Iraqi borders. The region's main towns are Qamishli and Hassaka, which also have large Christian populations. There are Kurdish villages scattered along the northern border with Turkey. In addition, at least 100,000 Kurds live in Damascus. Some of these Kurds are recent migrants, while others are from families that have lived in the Syrian capital for generations.

Historically, the Kurds of the rolling plains of eastern Syria have adopted a far-more quietist attitude than the Kurds in the rugged mountains of Iran, Syria and Iraq. While these latter Kurds have been engaged in almost continuous rebellions against their central governments since at least the 1960s, Syria's Kurds have no comparable history of revolt against Damascus.

Syrian Kurds—like those elsewhere—have largely rejected the political Islam promoted by Gulf Arab states, preferring to mix secular politics with a personal attachment to conservative and rustic "village" Islam. Although Syrian Kurds are proud of their ethnic identity, this only rarely translates into a desire for independence or even regional autonomy. In general, the Kurds' grievances against the government are those of most Syrians—they desire political freedom, basic human rights and greater economic opportunity.

"The Kurdish people in Syria don't want autonomy; they just want their democratic rights in a democratic Syria," says Kawa Rashid, the Netherlands representative of Yekiti, one of the largest Syrian Kurdish political parties. "They also want their language and culture to be respected" [2].

Syria and the PKK

For the last quarter century, Syria has aimed to weaken its neighbors by stoking pan-Kurdish sentiments around the region, while also urging its own Kurdish minority to subordinate their ethnic identity to Syria's Arab—and increasingly Islamic—identity. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Syrian government backed the PKK against Turkey by providing its fighters based in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley with arms and training. Simultaneously, Syria supported Iraqi Kurds against Baghdad. In particular, Syria aided the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which was founded by Jalal Talabani in Damascus in 1975.

In return, Turkish and Iraqi Kurds, backed by Damascus, abandoned all claims to lead Syria's Kurds. Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's founder and leader, even publicly said that Syria's Kurds were not fully Kurdish [3]. In 1998, however, Syria, under heavy Turkish pressure, ended its support for the PKK, expelling Ocalan from his home in Damascus and closing PKK camps in Lebanon. While this precipitated Ocalan's arrest soon afterwards in Kenya, the PKK survived by moving their camps to Iraqi Kurdistan.

This did not, however, end Syrian involvement with the PKK since Syria had already encouraged thousands of its own Kurds to join the PKK to fight against Turkey. Many of these traveled to the camps in Mount Qandil in Kurdistan where they have been joined by a steady trickle of Syrian Kurds eager to fight for an independent homeland. Syrian PKK members have also continued to take part in attacks in Turkey. For example, when a Syrian PKK member was killed near Trabzon in northern Turkey in August 2005, Kurdish activists returned his body to his family in Syria (Journal of Turkish Weekly, August 24, 2005). There are also widespread rumors that Syria continues to covertly fund, supply and train the PKK.

Growing Activism

Despite Syrian success in co-opting the PKK, the last few years have provided evidence that Syria's formerly placid Kurds are becoming increasingly angry with the Syrian government—and increasingly determined to take action against it. In 2004, Kurdish restlessness peaked when Syrian police shot dead seven Kurds during a riot at a football match in Qamishli on March 12 (Amnesty International, March 16, 2004). Further violence took place at the men's funerals, leading to a rapid escalation of hostilities. On March 13, events akin to a spontaneous uprising began in Qamishli, Aleppo and Afrin. In Qamishli, thousands of Kurds attacked police stations and government buildings, burning some of them.

Events climaxed when Kurds in Qamishli toppled a statue of Hafez al-Assad in imitation of the toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad just a year earlier. The Syrian army responded quickly, deploying thousands of troops backed by tanks and helicopters. At least 30 Kurds were killed as the security services re-took the city. According to Amnesty International, more than 2,000 Kurds were subsequently jailed for their role in the violence.

Syria's tough response silenced the Kurds, but only temporarily. Soon after, Sheikh Mashuq Khaznawi, a popular Kurdish Sufi religious leader, began to speak out against the government and met Muslim Brotherhood members abroad. Later, on May 10, 2005, he was kidnapped, tortured and killed. The government blamed criminals, yet his family and supporters blamed the security services. Thousands attended his funeral where, again, violence erupted between Kurds and the police.

As Syria tightly controls and monitors political activity, this rise in activism seems to be largely spontaneous and organic, inspired in part by Kurdish achievements in neighboring Iraq and by Saddam's overthrow. A pan-Kurdish message has also been broadcast around the region by Roj TV, a Denmark-based satellite channel supportive of the PKK. Kurdish assertiveness has been stoked by regional trends such as the spread of the internet, increasing unemployment and a general polarization of Middle East politics.


Rising Kurdish national feeling is also the belated blowback from Syria's schizophrenic policy toward the Middle East's 25 million Kurds. For the last 30 years, successive Syrian governments have backed Kurdish nationalists against Iraq and Turkey, while seeking to preemptively intimidate their own Kurds, aiming to stifle their separatist ambitions without triggering an outright rebellion.

In the modern era, Syrian repression of its Kurds began in the 1960s, when around 150,000 Syrian Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship and declared to be "foreigners." Today, their similarly disenfranchised descendents number over 200,000. Around the same time, the Syrian government removed many Kurds from a 10 kilometer deep strip along the country's northern and northeastern borders, replacing them with Arab settlers.

Today, the Syrian government continues to harass, arrest and occasionally kill Kurdish activists, fueling broader Kurdish resentment. For example, in 1993 when the main prison in Hassake burnt down, killing 61 Kurds, including many prominent activists, many Kurds accused the government of starting the fire deliberately. Syrian Kurdish activists say that at least 300 Kurds are in prison today for political reasons. In addition, Kurdish culture has been forced underground. The use of the Kurdish language is prohibited in business or government. The government strictly curtails Kurds' expressions of other aspects of Kurdish culture such as music and celebrations of the spring Newruz festival.

Fearing the cumulative effects of these factors—and un-nerved by the 2004 Kurdish "intifada"—the Syrian government has periodically attempted to placate the Kurds. In March 2005, 312 Kurds who were jailed following the Qamishli violence were pardoned (al-Jazeera, June 8, 2005). Soon afterwards, the Syrian government promised to address Kurdish grievances by granting them greater social and cultural rights. Syrian ministers also proposed awarding nationality to the stateless Kurds. These concessions, however, came as Syria reeled from a series of international and domestic crises, in particular the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in early 2005. By 2007, the Syrian government, strengthened by the United States' difficulties encountered in Iraq and the success of Hezbollah's summer 2006 war with Israel, has reverted to its traditional intolerance.

As a result, Kurdish discontent remains high and is likely increasing, fortified by the knowledge that a post-Assad regime is unlikely to treat them any better. Even moderate Syrian democrats and secular reformists regard the Kurds with a mix of fear, disgust and contempt [4]. Islamic opposition figures also distrust the Kurds' separatist and secular inclinations and have made little attempt to include them in their plans [5].

PKK Action in Syria

Just as Syrian policies toward the Kurds have helped make Syrian Kurdistan a potentially fertile ground for future uprisings, so have the PKK's own contradictions threatened to undermine the decades-old understanding between the PKK and Damascus, by radicalizing not only its own members, but also Kurds around the region. The PKK's longstanding strategy of using Syrian Kurds to fight Turkey—while also working with the Syrian government—therefore threatens to constantly backfire.

This danger is exacerbated because the PKK's camps on Mount Qandil currently have a revolving-door effect of radicalizing and training Kurds and then spewing them out across the region. Just as many Turkish Kurds are leaving the PKK disillusioned by the party's aging leadership, its peace overtures to Turkey and the sense of lethargy prevailing on Mount Qandil, so too are many Syrian Kurds (Terrorism Monitor, September 8, 2006). Trained and motivated, some of these Syrian Kurds may someday return to their homelands to engage in activism there—just as the shadowy Turkish group the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons has evolved as a radical rival to the PKK (Terrorism Focus, October 17, 2006).

This problem may be even more acute for Syrian Kurds who must be baffled by their leaders' denial of the Syrian Kurds' nationalist aspirations and by their enduring loyalty toward the Syrian regime. The PKK's hypocritical attitude toward Syria also contrasts with its overt support for PJAK, the PKK's Iranian clone, whose success in mobilizing Iranian Kurds is attracting ever-increasing interest from Washington (Terrorism Monitor, June 15, 2006).

Therefore, in the internal struggle to decide the future of the PKK, the appointment of Dr. Bahoz marks a victory for pro-Damascus factions of the PKK. It may also, however, mark the increasing marginalization of the aging Kurdish leadership from the Kurdish mainstream, while also accelerating the flow of younger Syrian PKK members away from the group and into smaller and potentially more radical movements.


1. Author interviews at PKK base camp, Mount Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 20-22, 2006.
2. Author interview with Kawa Rashid, Netherlands representative of Yekiti, February 12, 2007.
3. Author interview with Jawad Mella, president of West Kurdistan Association, London, Spring 2006.
4. Author interviews with Haitham Maleh, Ayman Abdel Nour and Sami Moubayed, Damascus, Spring 2006.
5. Author interview with Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni, secretary-general of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, June 2006.
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