Kurdish-Christian Tensions Emerge in Syria
AMSTERDAM -- Non-Kurdish residents of northeastern Syria consider Kurds troublesome intruders and fear that the area region could become part of a larger "Kurdistan region", according to a US embassy cable from March 2009.
US Public Diplomacy officers visited Deir al-Zur, Al-Hasaka and Al-Qamisli between March 10 and 13, 2009 during the fourth anniversary of the Kurdish uprising according to a US embassy cable published recently by Wikileaks.
Seda Altug, an expert on the Al-Jazirah region in northeastern Syria from Utrecht University, agreed that there were tensions between privileged Christians and marginalized Kurds.
"Tension was revealed in private conversations as opposed to public rhetoric which praises harmony between races and religions," said Altug, who blamed "the Baath state's divide-and-rule policies."
However, Altug noted that the tension played out through the groups not interacting "rather than an open, armed or other conflict between the Christians and Kurds." Furthermore she emphasized that there are many lower class Christians who do not share the anxieties of middle class establishment Christians, who enjoy good ties with the Baath-regime.
The Christian community blamed the Kurds damaging over US$2 million in public property during a Kurdish uprising in 2004 but the did not tell US officials that Syrian security forces opened fire on crowds of unarmed Kurds fleeing riots provoked by anti-Kurdish chants, the former ambassador to Syria, Maura Connelly, noted. In these clashes, around 30 Kurds were killed.
Both Muslim Arabs and Christians told US officials that Kurds were taking advantage of Syria's generosity.
"They came during the last 50 years;" a doctor in Al-Qamishli told US officials. "They knew nothing and had no skills; we taught them our handicrafts and artisanal skills; the government gave them education, housing, and health care. Now they are very rich and hold the majority [sic] of government positions. They have all their rights. We do not understand what they want or why they cause trouble."
None of the people US officials spoke with mentioned efforts to improve relations.
"To the contrary, there was a heavy sense of resentment against Kurdish sentiments in favor of autonomy and even an independent country," the cable mentioned.
In Al-Hasaka, a Syriac Christian human rights activist told US officials that, "Al-Jazirah is not Kurdistan," and that the non-Kurdish population would never support breaking away from Syria, claiming independence was the ultimate goal of the Kurds.
Another Christian told US officials that in the past, the Jazirah region was 80-90 percent Christian, but that due to Christian emigration, immigration by Kurds and others and high Muslim birthrates, the Kurds now dominate and Christians form only 35 percent of the population.
Robert Lowe, an expert on Syrian Kurds at the London School of Economics, told Rudaw that there is indeed suspicion among non-Kurds.
"Some communities, notably the Christian ones, are long settled in the area and consider the Kurds to be more recent arrivals, whether this is true or not. There is sensitivity toward Kurdish political and cultural aspirations as these people do not share these [goals]."
He added that the fears are heightened because of the large numbers of Kurds in the region.
"However, I would think that the wording of the cable is a little strong, and that the dislike or fear is not unanimous," Lowe argued.
Khalaf Dahowd, co-chair of the Support Kurds in Syria Association, told Rudaw that these fears are unfounded.
"Any fear is illogical, based on unrealistic expectations," he said. "They have nothing to fear from Kurds. Kurds have no practical policy to separate the land from Syria, and whilst they may have some power in the area, they are certainly not in a position to make such changes. Kurds would like to have some level of autonomy in that area, and would ensure Christians and Arabs will have their rights protected."
According to Sherkoh Abbas, president of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria and a founding member of the Syrian democratic opposition group known as the Syrian Democracy Council, Christians shouldn't fear Kurdish aspirations.
"In my view as Kurd, we want to remain part of Syria; however, Kurds and other minorities in Syria should get their rights in terms of federalism or autonomy. Kurds, Assyrian, Christians, and Arabs -- the original people -- are brothers and do not hate each other," he said.
Dahowd fears that the tensions between Kurds and Christians could give rise to hostility in the wake of anti-regime demonstrations. "Some Christians and Arabs in the region are loyal to the regime, and have been for a long time," he said. "They are treated in a privileged way by the current system. At this moment these people are pro-Assad, although they may change their allegiance when the regime changes. They are actually afraid of losing their privileges, not of Kurds."