Baath Party

Syria Is Not a Nation-State: The Baath Party’s Denial of Kurdish Identity

The official Syrian credo of Arab nationalism may allow safe haven for Christians, provided that they do not defy the state or attempt to convert Muslims. But it gives no such concessions to the Kurds, whose very identity challenges the Baath ideology of the Syrian state, which is based on the political priority of Arabs. Baath leaders in both Syria and Iraq have tended to view the Kurds as alien elements threatening the national essence. As such, the situation of the Kurdish population of Syria remains grim, as it had been in Iraq before the removal of Saddam Hussein and his Baath-party establishment.

Maps reflecting the official Syrian position minimize the Kurdish presence in Syria (see the first map posted above), but in actuality the Kurdish-speaking population of the country is substantial. Most sources put it around two million, or roughly ten percent of the total population, but Kurdish sites peg it at more than 15 percent. Counting the Kurds of Syria is not easy. The Syrian government does not conduct transparent censuses, and it hardly acknowledges Kurdish existence in the first place. According to the Wikipedia article on Syrian Kurdistan, even the United States Department of State and the CIA refused to acknowledge the Kurds of Syria through the 1980s.

The difficulties faced by the Kurds in Syria go well beyond being overlooked by their government. Some 300,000 of them are denied citizenship, relegated to statelessness with no access to passports and, in many cases, governmental services. Evidently, a Syrian census of 1962 found a sizable majority of Kurds in the northeastern Al Hasakah Governorate; considering such a situation intolerable, the government began stripping away the national status of local residents, accusing them of being illegal immigrants from Iraq or Turkey. Fearing that a border-spanning Kurdish nationalist movement could threaten its territorial integrity, Syria also began clearing Kurds away from sensitive areas. It subsequently initiated a program of “Arabization,” importing Arabic-speakers to inhabit the boundary separating Syria from Iraq and Turkey. This resettled border zone is called the “Arabian Racist Belt” by some Kurdish sources (see the second map above).

Most sources concur that the lot of the Kurds of Syria is worse under the rule of Bashar al-Assad than it had been under that of his father, Hafez al-Assad. Their plight intensified after pro-Kurdish demonstrations angered the government in 2004. According to a recent report in Kurdish Aspect, Kurds subsequently began fleeing Syria for Europe and Iraqi Kurdistan, where many remain in refugee camps. A 2009 report from Human Rights Watch highlights the current state of repression:

Syrian security forces have repressed at least 14 Kurdish political and cultural public gatherings, overwhelmingly peaceful, and often resorted to violence to disperse the crowds. Not only have the security forces prevented political meetings in support of Kurds’ minority rights, but also gatherings to celebrate Nowruz (the Kurdish new year) and other cultural celebrations. In at least two instances, the security services fired on the crowds and caused deaths.

Mapping the Kurdish area of Syria is made difficult by such conditions. If some maps show very little Kurdish presence in the country, others depict all of northern Syria as “Western Kurdistan.” This maximal view, seen in the second map, is based on both past distribution and on a dream of eventual expansion. (Note that this map shows Kurdistan extending to the Mediterranean Sea, even though the coastal strip has never had a Kurdish majority.) The final map depicts contiguous areas in Syria with Kurdish-speaking majorities, as reflected in several language atlases.

The situation of the Kurds in Syria has significance beyond that of human rights. It also speaks to the basic world model that structures our diplomatic system, guides our educational efforts, and informs our global news reporting. According to that model, all independent countries are automatically nation-states, their governments legitimized through appeal to the nation, the political community composed of the citizens inhabiting the territory of the state. But in Syria, the “nation” that is identified with the state is far from universal within its own boundaries, as it expressly excludes the Kurds. If one regards Syria as an unproblematic nation-state, one might be accused of accepting Baath ideology and consigning the Kurds of Syria to a stateless position of political oblivion.

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Iraqi Assyrians and Other Christians in Syria

As Assyrian Christians have been forced out of their homes, they have had to seek sanctuary elsewhere. Many have migrated overseas, primarily to the United States, Germany, Australia, and Sweden, but visas are difficult to obtain, costs are formidable, and subsequent expulsions are not uncommon; even asylum-friendly Sweden has been vigorously deporting Assyrians after somehow determining that there is no longer any “inner armed conflict” in Iraq. For most displaced Assyrians, the only obtainable havens are local. Syria has played a particularly important role.

Of the roughly 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, up to 550,000 are estimated to be Assyrians by Iraqi Christian organizations; other groups put the number at around 350,000. The conditions faced by these displaced persons are debated. Evangelical organizations in the United States often voice concern; according to Christian Solidarity International, the very existence of Syria’s Christian community is now “under threat” as violence against its members “goes unpunished.” Assyrian organizations themselves tend to view the situation much more positively. In 2009, the Assyrian Universal Alliance 26th World Congress voted to commend the government of Syria, as well as those of Jordan and Lebanon, for their “treatment of Assyrian refugees of Iraq.”

Syria is generally portrayed in the American press as an authoritarian regime, harshly antagonistic to Israel, that sponsors Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization. Less commonly noted is the secular nature of its ruling Baath Party, founded on an Arab nationalism that cuts across religious lines. The founding figure of Baath ideology, Michel Aflaq, was a Syrian Christian. Syria may support Islamist militants as proxy forces in its struggle against Israel, but it does not tolerate them at home; when the Muslim Brotherhood initiated an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, the Syrian military responded with a devastating assault that killed an estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people. The Syrian government has a strong incentive to oppose Islamism, as its upper echelons are dominated by Alawites, members of an extremely heterodox sect of Shiite Islam noted for their belief in the transmigration of souls, their Christian-influenced religious practices, and the fact that they have no problems with wine. Most Sunni Muslims do not view Alawites as members of the Islamic community, and extremists among them would target them for physical attack.

Iraqi Christians relocating in Syria join an Assyrian population, several hundred thousand strong, that was established by refugees fleeing massacres in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq in the early twentieth century. This previously established group of Assyrians is concentrated in the northeast; recent arrivals tend to live in low-income urban areas further to the west. All told, Christians account for about ten percent of Syria’s population. The largest denomination is the Orthodox Church of Antioch, which claims descent from the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. As can been seen on the section of Mehrdad Izady’s map posted above, Syria’s main Christian belt partially separates its Alawite-dominated coastal mountain strip from its Sunni Muslim heartland.

Christians in Syria may have broad religious liberties and safety from physical attack, but they hardly enjoy freedom of expression; Syria ranks 178th out of 196 countries in freedom of the press, comparable to Saudi Arabia and China. Syrian Christians, moreover, have agreed never to proselytize to Muslims, nor to accept Muslim converts. But despite such restrictions, their lot remains enviable in many ways. The government subsidizes churches and allows Christians to organize their own civil courts. On Easter, tens of thousands of Syrian Christians take to the streets of Damascus to publically demonstrate their faith. According to a recent GlobalPost story, many Syrian Muslims are keen to witness such celebrations:

On Thursday night, the courtyard of the Greek Catholic cathedral resembled a rock concert. At least 2,000 people gathered to watch a Passion play, in which Jesus’ crucifixion is re-enacted. Vendors sold cotton candy and popcorn outside the gates. Attendees included many Muslims, said Ghissa, the church’s choir director. “They’re curious to see how we celebrate,” he explained. “And why not? We all get along well in Syria.”

Curiosity may not be the only driving force behind such behavior. As the author of the GlobalPost story goes on the relate:

Inside a pub in the Christian Quarter recently, two friends, one Muslim and one Christian, joked about using each other’s faiths to double their number of holiday celebrations.

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