Posts Tagged With: Syrian Kurdistan

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories (by Estella Carpi, August 2015)

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories. The Syrian Kurdish Exodus and the Lebanese Akkaris.

Beyond Legal Definitions: Migrants and Refugees as Ungraspable Categories. The Syrian Kurdish Exodus and the Lebanese Akkaris.

August 20, 2015

Social Science Researcher at TRENDS Research & Advisory

Migrants are definable as people who spontaneously choose to leave their country and build a better life elsewhere. Before their departure, migrants are therefore able to ask for information about their destination and what opportunities they may have there. Moreover, they remain free to go back to their home country whenever needed or desired. The United Nations defines a ‘migrant’ as an individual who has resided in a foreign country for longer than one year regardless of the causes, voluntary or involuntary, and the means, regular or irregular. Nevertheless, at the international level, no universally accepted definition for “migrant” exists.

Conversely, refugees have no other choice but leaving their country because they are persecuted, tortured, being their life somehow jeopardised if they remained in their home country. In specific, Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. In such cases, the very reasons behind refugee influxes are political and human rights, safety and security, rather than individual and collective economic upgrading. People’s departure is mostly unexpected and unplanned due to warfare or natural disaster. Their journey towards the so-called “host-countries” is full of risks, yet in relentless search for protection and safety. In most cases, refugees, unlike migrants, cannot return unless the political and social scenario back home changes in their favour.

If those described above are the de facto and legal defining conditions according to which we are supposed to distinguish a migrant from a refugee, the latest flows of people on the move throughout the Middle East point to a less clear-cut category of mobile populations. In the cases of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, and Lebanon, which will be discussed later, the 1951 Geneva’s Refugee Convention has not been ratified by the governments: thus, until the time individuals seeking refuge do not receive their official status from UNHCR[1] (or UNRWA[2] in the case of Palestinians), they are to be legally considered asylum seekers or forced migrants. Even once they obtain the official documentation, refugees fear repatriation and detention, in that UNHCR and UNRWA simply clinched bilateral agreements with most of the Middle Eastern governments hosting the newcomers, as they are not signatories to the 1951 Convention. This explains the chronic indoor life that many refugees, other than the Palestinians, lead to be able to reside in the Middle East.

Yet, international law’s regulations and the orthodox language of the human rights campaigns seem to create more confusion in addressing changing and blurred mobile groups of people, by engendering a gap between real needs, rights’ achievement, and programs meant to addressing social and political issues on the basis of forced and non-forced migrations. It is how “forced” such migration flows are which increasingly become ungraspable. As mentioned above, international law does not contemplate cases in which people who are not subjected to persecution are eligible for such a legal status. However, it became evident that people, even when not directly persecuted or personally endangered, still find themselves in the condition to have no other choice than leaving, as the Syrian exodus is currently proving. Consequently, speaking of and tackling migrants as a different category from refugees – and vice versa – becomes misleading on a pragmatic and a legal level, rather than ensuring rights and meeting needs appropriately.

For instance, in the first instance, UNHCR did not consider external compelling reasons for migration as mandatory criteria for registering refugees from Syria. In Lebanon, the rash policy of considering anyone coming out of Syria as aprioristically eligible – as potentially subjected to persecution by one of the warring parties – led to a daunting and premature shortage of aid which the humanitarian agencies were supposed to provide, as well as to an unbelievable number of registered refugees (now 1,172,753) until the January 2015 tightening of the new Lebanese immigration laws.

Therefore, to make up for resources’ waste, UNHCR subsequently introduced refugee status cancellation policies in accordance with the Lebanese government when registered families or individuals did not collect their assigned aid packages more than three times in a row. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that Syrian refugees often reported the lack of successful communication between them and aid providers. Many of them therefore found themselves in extreme need of assistance after being cancelled from the UNHCR list. In a nutshell, the random registration of refugees at the outset of the refugee crisis, and the consequent UN compensation policy to make aid suffice for all, have unavoidably been perceived as aggressive policies by the refugees, for whom such measures were standing for the carelessness of the international community.

A further example is provided by the paradox that defining an individual as ‘economic migrant’ rather than ‘refugee’ can mean denying her/him access to the process of applying for asylum. Likewise, those who do not have the status of asylum seeker can legally be returned to their country of origin whenever the latter is considered safe. The distinction inevitably leads legal institutions to introduce a list of countries from which either only asylum seekers or economic migrants can come. For example, countries ridden by longstanding conflict like Syria are viewed as merely producing influxes of refugees and not economic migrants. The complexity and differentiation of the types of mobility that the Syrian political crisis has gradually given birth to goes here unheeded.

It is of use to recall that many Syrians were undergoing political harassment and persecution from the side of state institutions in the 1970s and later, who were therefore fleeing to neighbouring and western countries in the capacity of ‘economic migrants’ rather than ‘political refugees’. The lack of officially declared emergencies, and the unwillingness to deal with the Hafez al-Asad regime at an international level at that time, influenced the definition and the management of Syrian people’s mobility in those years, in a bid to depoliticise or simply undercut the matter for the sake of regional and international stability.

A further suitable example nowadays is offered by the North-Eastern region of Syria, the semi-independent area which is co-ruled in practice by Bashar al-Asad’s regime and the Syrian Kurdish Party PYD (Democratic Union Party), despite the highly controversial relationship that these two political actors have intertwined.

Especially in 2013, two years after the outset of the Syrian uprisings taking place across the whole country, Syrian Kurdistan produced big flows of ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ altogether towards the neighbouring Turkey and Iraq. A large number of those who fled into Iraqi Kurdistan (where over 90% of Syrian refugees are now Syrians Kurds) and Turkey – where segments of their families were already living – should properly be defined as ‘economic migrants’, if the very reasons for their migration were considered. Indeed, the traditional inhabitants of Syrian Kurdistan had long been neglected by the central state’s services, and the regime’s politics of meeting the Kurds’ needs and granting Syrian citizenship to many of them only at the beginnings of the Syrian revolution (April 2011), were primarily aimed at averting a greater turmoil, therefore limiting the use of force to curb the popular protests in these areas. Similarly, the regime’s aviation has never bombed the Kurdish-majority areas since 2011, except for the territories presently held by the so-called Islamic State (mainly al-Hasake’s governorate).

Aside from chronic poverty, hence, longstanding lack of social services, schools, and roads, and the decreasing presence of basic goods, electricity, and clean water during the ongoing conflict, Syrian Kurdistan mostly became a region of spontaneous migration rather than refugehood caused by indiscriminate political persecution and bombing against the local population (i.e. the Hama governorate in central Syria). Nonetheless, the life conditions of the average Kurdish Syrian citizen were dire to the extent at which migrations towards an unknown future and a refugee-camp life in Turkey or Iraq were still considered as a better option.

In sum, the Syrian Kurdistan region, called in Arabic “Rojavà”, has long been neglected by the Syrian central state as well as by international media before the Syrian crisis. The mechanic and aprioristic association of Syrians with refugee influxes in the Middle East and elsewhere, operated from outside, has also induced many Syrian Arabs and Syrian Kurds living in this region to abandon their homes and look for a better life outside of the country. The use of the refugees’ label and the livelihoods at their disposal – the emergency aid supposedly destined only to the war-stricken – have turned out to be great assets for disadvantaged people desiring to find a job and a higher economic status far away from home.

Likewise, many among the older date Syrian migrants in Lebanon decided to leave their previous life of exploitation and social marginalisation to opt for a more hopeful life in Europe or elsewhere. Their Syrian passports have helped them to pursue their mobility purposes and concretely move towards an economic betterment and a “life of dignity” only in times of regional emergency.

The typical phenomenon of viewing refugee status as opportunity, whenever the international community legally acknowledges an emergency and its political consequences, also appeared in recent times with chronically poor Lebanese citizens, especially from the Akkar region, which is deemed as the poorest in Lebanon. Akkar’s residents started “capitalising” the miserable status of Syrian refugees to comply with their own very needs and legitimate desires of migration. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the drowning of seventeen Akkaris from the village of Fneideq who had bought fake Syrian passports in order to be shipped towards the Australian coasts. After the tragic episode, Akkar’s roads were blocked as a sign of “protest and solidarity, to express our frustration… When will we redeem ourselves from chronic poverty and deprivation?!”.[3]

Neither the status of economic migrant nor that of refugee seems to be able, per se, to redeem diversely needy people, as long as such international labels remain embedded in the increasingly laborious applicability of legal definitions, the way in which the latter discipline the material management of people’s mobility, and the predominant political order which is strategically upheld by these labels.

While law should sort out social issues on the basis of social justice and overall security, its recurrent submission to international politics keeps on labeling departures, resettlements, continuous movements, personal decisions, and human lives at its will. Nothing more ungraspable. Nothing more fruitlessly ambitious.

[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[2] United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

[3] Quotations taken from in-depth interviews undertaken 13 October 2013, in Lebanon.

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Yazidis benefit from Kurdish autonomy in Northeast Syria

How Syria’s Yazidi community sees an opportunity to revive its identity on the tails of rising Kurdish power in the country’s northeast. 

Yazidis Benefit From Kurdish Gains in Northeast Syria

View of Yezidi temple in Lalish some 50 km north from Iraqi city of Mosul May 11, 2003. The Yezidi religion, seen by its followers as the original Kurdish faith, is believed to date back several thousand years and blends ideas from sources as diverse as Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov REUTERS SZH/AS - RTRNBQ2

View of Yezidi temple in Lalish some 50 km north from Iraqi city of
Mosul May 11, 2003. The Yezidi religion, seen by its followers as the
original Kurdish faith, is believed to date back several thousand years
and blends ideas from sources as diverse as Zoroastrianism, Islam and
Christianity. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov REUTERS

AMUDA, Syria — “Some years ago I tried to open a bus company and call it Roj, which in Kurdish means sun,” said Adnan Ammo, a 50-year-old farmer from Merkeb. “I was summoned by political security for a suspected connection with Roj TV [one of the satellite channels affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)]. Even after I explained to them that I am Yazidi and we venerate the sun, they forced me to change the name. I proposed Judi, the name of my son, but that was rejected too, as it’s a Kurdish name. In the end we had to shut down the activity.”

The followers of the Yazidi religion have been historically discriminated against on both ethnic and religious grounds, being part of a Kurdish pre-Islamic sect. The Yazidi faith is currently exposed to the risk of extinction, as expatriates tend to neglect its traditions and a growing number of Yazidis are leaving Syria to escape radical Islamists. On the other hand, most Kurdish parties seem to bank on the revitalization of the Yazidi identity in order to back historical land claims and belittle the Islamization of Kurds, as part of an opposition to Islamist brigades.

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Rojava: What about the Arabs?

An article I wrote for Al-Monitor in October 2013. Kurdish autonomy in north-east Syria will struggle if Syria’s Kurdish forces do not reach an understanding with local Arab residents. (Forget about the nonsense title given to this piece on Al-Monitor: the content has nothing to do with the PYD’s rise…no comment 🙂

a Syrian beduin woman source ICRC

RAS AL-AIN, Syria — The Mesopotamian Al-Jazira plain is populated by a majority of Arabs, but the northern districts of the province of Hasakah, including the two main cities Qamishli and Hasakah, will soon see the first steps of a Kurdish-led administrative and political decentralization. Arabs here hold different views on Kurdish autonomy, ranging from support to skepticism and opposition. Regardless of the political shape of these regions, it is urgently necessary to reconcile both communities and solve the land disputes caused by the presence of Arab settlers, in order to ward off a Kirkuk-like ethnic strife.

“The self-management plan won’t discriminate among the different communities,” said Ahmad al-Ahmad, an Arab staff member in the Ministry of Education from al-Jabriyya, a village next to Amuda. “Therefore, I support it. We want to see locals, whether Arabs or Kurds, managing and developing these regions,” he told Al-Monitor. Ahmad is originally from Tabqa in Raqqa province and he settled in al-Jabriyya 37 years ago. He belongs to the so-called maghmurin, “flooded,” Arab tribes resettled by the government along the northern border of the province of Hasakah in the 1970s, in order to compensate them for the loss of their lands flooded by the construction of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates between 1968 and 1973. It was part of the Arabization plan drafted by Hasakah’s police chief, Mohammad Talab Hilal, in 1963 to change the demographic balance at the expense of Kurds.

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Syria: Arab opposition’s agreement with Kurds irrelevant without PYD

An article I wrote for Al-Monitor on the agreement achieved between the Syrian National Coalition and the Kurdish National Council in Sept. 2013 (the one where they finally reached an understanding on renaming the Syrian “Arab” Republic as Syrian Republic…though conditions applied, ,making it an agreement void of any meaning…). 

Syrian Opposition, Kurd Agreement Irrelevant Without PYD

Syrian Kurd Syrian opp agreement source kurdpress

QAMISHLI, Syria — The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) approved on Sept. 16 the first agreement to incorporate a major Kurdish bloc, the Kurdish National Council (KNC). Despite reservations on both sides, the two groupings are supposed to meet to announce the alliance officially by the end September

However, on Sept. 8, the KNC reached a separate deal with the other main Kurdish alliance — the People’s Council of West Kurdistan (PCWK) — which is affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to draft the constitution of a transitional Kurdish government to be elected 4 to 6 months later.

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Dissent and Exodus in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava)

Here’s an article I wrote for Al-Monitor while I was in Syria in early September 2013. It deals with the PYD’s policies as the party was struggling to contain a massive exodus…

Syrian Kurdish Party Struggles With Dissent, Exodus

Syrian refugees, fleeing the violence in their country, wait to cross the border into the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, August 21, 2013.  The government of Iraqi Kurdistan has set an entry quota of 3,000 refugees a day to cope with an influx of Kurds fleeing the civil war in Syria, but there are signs many more are still coming in, aid agencies said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION) - RTX12SKT

Syrian refugees, fleeing the violence in their country, wait to cross the border into the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, August 21, 2013. The government of Iraqi Kurdistan has set an entry quota of 3,000 refugees a day to cope with an influx of Kurds fleeing the civil war in Syria, but there are signs many more are still coming in, aid agencies said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani (IRAQ – Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION) – RTX12SKT

AMUDA, Syria — On Aug. 17, between 5,000 and 8,000 Syrian Kurds fled their country following the reopening of the Pesh Khabur border crossing between Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. On Aug. 21, the mass exodus prompted the de facto Syrian Kurdish authorities — the Kurdish Supreme Commission (KSC), which is dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — to implement a resolution issued in April to block emigration with the exception of certified medical reasons.

PYD officials claim the decision was taken to counter a plot aimed at changing the demographic balance of these regions at the expense of Kurds, while calling on locals to remain in Syria and exploit this unique chance to achieve Kurdish autonomy.

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The road to Kurdish autonomy still passes from Damascus

My first article from the province of Hasakeh (Syrian Kurdistan). It appeared on Al-Monitor on May 7. (follow the link to keep reading, unfortunately I cannot post the whole article here for copyright issues…)

Kurdish Group Gaining Autonomy
In Northern Syria


(photo from

QAMISHLI, Syria — Bilingual signs, “Western Kurdistan” (Rojava in Kurdish) on car license plates, Kurdish security forces (Asayish), Kurdish courts, municipalities, flags, unions and schools teaching Kurdish. This is the new look of the Kurdish-majority Syrian northern regions, the outcome of the withdrawal of regime security forces in July 2012 and the result of a delicate coexistence between Baathist and Kurdish institutions.

Syrian Kurds now have the chance to reap the benefits from the stalemate between the regime and the Arab opposition. But all this would not have been possible without a certain degree of connivance with the regime by the main Kurdish militia on the ground — the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Regardless of the de facto autonomy achieved and the growing popularity of the PYD, some fear the authoritarian features of the party’s agenda.

Read more:

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4. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: Kamal Sheikho boycotts Semiramis meeting

Semiramis Meeting of the Syrian Opposition: why someone decided not to participate?

30 June 2011
kamal_sheikoHere I transcribe part of the interview I had with a prominent figure in the opposition, who is really close to Michel Kilo, Luay Hussein and the other intellectuals who took part in the Semiramis meeting on June 27. I won’t name him because of security reasons, I will call him Ala*, since he has spent enough of his time in jail for his ideas. In 2010 Ala has been jailed for more than 8 months and he protested against his detention through a long hunger strike. After having been released in 2011, he spent only few days free to join the ongoing protests, but now he is out and resolute to pursue his struggle. Ala is still participating in demonstrations. He is an independent dissident not tied to any political party
.Q: What can you say about the status of human rights in Syria at the moment?
A: There are more than 1300 dead, 10.000 refugees in Turkey, 1000 in Lebanon, more than 13000 arrested since the 16 of March [the symbolic date in which protests started], more than 4000 wounded by undefined gangs [often referred to as shabbiha] and many people kidnapped.
The regime thinks it can keep on stifling demonstrations by violence, whereas protesters have asked the end to violence first of all. The regime thinks by killing the demonstrators people will go back home and won’t ask neither reforms nor to change the system.
QMilitary repression is the strategy adopted by the Syrian regime. What about those rumors which have been circulating about increasing division withing the armed forces, particularly along sectarian [sunni-shi’a] lines?
A: No, this is not the case, we are talking only about individual choices and low-ranking officers, when we speak about defections. There has been no relevant defection, I mean a phalanx or a brigade, as it happened in Libya or Yemen. While I was in prison, I heard the story of the division between the Fourth and the Fifth Brigade [the Fourth Brigade is the one headed by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the President] but I don’t believe it. In reality, we are not allowed to know what is currently happening within the Syrian army, because of the high secrecy surrounding this information. We don’t know if there are sectarian divisions.
Q: What is your evaluation of the current status of the Syrian uprising?
A: We have now entered in a phase of civil disobedience. Some call it a revolution, a protest, I call it a civil disobedience. Syrians have been 40 years under this regime. What is happening now is that a part of the Syrian people has said no, this is what I define as a civil disobedience. Naturally, we cannot compare our condition with Egypt or Tunisia, even if Syria is part of the Middle East.
From 2000, when Bashar took power, what his father was doing he started to do it, without any sort of difference in interior affairs. He preserved the ban on demonstrations, the imprisonment of dissidents, the security state, the ban on political associations and so on.
Q: What about the Damascus Spring in 2000?
A: The Damascus Spring was promoted by a group of intellectuals, -more or less the same ones who have participated now in the Semiramis meeting- who asked for limited political reforms and the end of the single-party system. The ruling regime refused the proposals and imprisoned 10 opposition leaders, with sentences ranging from 3 to 10 years: Dr. Aref Dalila was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Then we went through another crisis, the so-called Damascus-Beirut Declaration in 2006, which called for the normalization of relations between Lebanon and Syria. I was among the signatories and, together with other intellectuals, I was once again arrested.
At the end of 2007, when the signatories of the Damascus Declaration (2005) held a meeting in the Syrian capital, 11 figures of the opposition were arrested. I mean that there have always been arrest campaigns and long sentences under this regime. In 2005, Dr. Kamal Labwani, only for having given some interviews to satellite TV channels in England, France and the US, was arrested and sentenced to 12 years, upon his return in Syria.
All these events created among a Syrians a big bubble waiting to explode. We were in need of the Tunisian revolution to break that glass, which we have been afraid of crashing so far. People took the streets to ask for the end of the state of fear the Mukhabarat have been able to create.
Q: Actually, the main impression I had, while talking with people who take part in demonstrations, is that their uprising is first of all an act of rebellion against the power of the Mukhabarat. Do you agree?
A: Bashar and his father have been ruling this country by the strength of the security forces. There have never been democratic elections: the presidential elections take now place through a popular referendum and not trough regular elections, after the Constitution has been amended for this purpose.
Even the 10 parties, members of the National Progressive Front together with the ruling Ba’th Party, are scared to say a single word differing from the position of the Ba’th Party.
Q: Even the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP)? I personally got to know some young members of the party, who are taking distances from the official positions of the party, claiming also to respect the opposition legacy of their political history.
A: No, absolutely no. I talk as an individual dissident, I met with leaders of the SSNP and they are not dissidents, on the contrary, even historically the party has never been opposed to the regime.Q: What is the future of the Syrian uprising after more than 100 days from the beginning of demonstrations?A:I think the government has dragged Syria to a point of no-return. Why? If the government and the opposition had accepted small concessions in the beginning, thus reaching an agreement, then we might have been able to avoid what happened later on and these big figures of martyrs. For this reason, personally I cannot go back, I walk towards the collapse of the regime. If this revolution fails and Bashar al-Assad stays in power, I told the other dissidents many times that, even after 10 years of political activism, I will resign and leave politics forever. It is necessary to depose the current regime to start building a new modern Syrian city-state.

Q: Some of the youth participating to the demonstrations is getting upset by the slow, bloody pace of the revolution. There are people increasingly convinced of being more helpful by leaving the country and coordinating the struggle against the regime from abroad. Some believe that Syria might not be ready for a successful revolution and maybe it still needs time to overthrow the political elites. Are you more optimistic?

A: We cannot affirm whether three months are enough or not for a successful revolution in Syria. In Egypt three weeks were enough, in Tunisia one month. I think the Syrian situation is currently intertwined with the fate of two other regimes, which are supposed to collapse: Yemen and Libya. If one of these three dictators falls, then you’ll see the other ones following him. I think the situation is really similar to what happened in Eastern Europe in the 80’s. Poland started a 8 years-long successful uprising in 1982, when the Soviet Union was still a strong regime, following the example of Bulgarian and Romanian dissidents, who rose up first against totalitarianism. The effect of the downfall of another regime would be to encourage the rebels to insist and succeed in their revolution. Ok, If I was the Syrian President, and I listen now to the words of the streets, I wouldn’t feel myself exposed to the risk of ending like Mubarak in Egypt [being prosecuted in a court]. But I think that in the near future, the Syrian streets will become intransigent and call for the accountability of Bashar and high officials in his government. Because the Syria regime will continue with brutal repression, the people will start to ask to put on trial the President.

Q: Don’t you think that Bashar al-Assad is more popular in Syria, if compared with other rulers like Ali Abdallah Saleh and Qaddhafi?

A:No, absolutely no. Those joining rallies in support of the regime do this exclusively out of terror and fear of the future. They don’t trust the opposition, they believe the downfall of the regime will lead to a civil war, to a Lebanon-like scenario.

Q: And you don’t consider likely the possibility that the uprising will turn into a civil war?

A: No, I totally exclude this. I read Syrian history very well. We have numerous ethnicity and religious sects, but, historically, there has never been a single war between these communities. The situation in Syria differs from the one in Lebanon or in other Middle Eastern countries. In Islamic history, Damascus has been the capital of the ‘Ummayad Caliphate (661-750 AD) and, even in those times, fitna (sectarian strife) has never erupted. The regime describes the current events as sectarian strife to scare people, but this is not the reality on the ground.

Q: It happened to me to talk with some Sunni demonstrators, who clearly expressed their resentment towards Alawis in a way, which easily exceeds the hatred for the Ba’th regime to become pure religious hate. How do you comment on this aspect? Is there a risk of sectarian killings targeting Alawis, in case the revolution succeeds?

A: This is nothing more than a personal view, which has nothing to do with the Syrian situation. We don’t accept this way of thinking. There is a vision and among the opposition leaders, who will lead the transitional phase, there are personalities, who will not allow sectarian strife. I am not telling you there are no people willing to take revenge on other sects, but they are limited cases. Syria is composed of geographical areas mixed with regards to sectarian distribution and this has allowed everyone to get to know the cultural ‘Other’. To have the risk of sectarian strife, you need sectarian icons, figures representative of their sects. Now mention me one personality in Syria who is able to say: “I speak in the name of the Alawis, Sunnis, etc.”…Even Bashar al-Assad is not able to say: “I am an Alawi”, he is used to say: “I am the President of Syria.” On the other side, opposition prominent figures like Aref Dalila are Alawis and, in the same way, he doesn’t identify himself according to the sect.

Q: So you don’t think there is a sort of resentment towards the Alawis, due to their ties with the regime?

A: No, and I tell you why: many of the opposition leaders incarcerated in the past years are Alawis. The problem is that the poor status of our politics and the lack of cooperation among opposition groups have led Kurds, for example, to think that Alawi are privileged compared to them. The Kurd doesn’t know that the Alawi is even more oppressed than him: there are Alawi dissidents who have been jailed for 30 years. And the same goes for other minorities like Christians, if you think of Anwar al-Bunni and Michel Kilo. The regime is repressive on all Syrian citizens.

Q: What is your position on the meeting organized by the opposition in Damascus, at the Semiramis Hotel, on June 27? Why you didn’t participate to it?

A:The meeting was conceived only to gather under one roof the independent opposition leaders and express their position towards the regime and their support for peaceful demonstrations. Personally, I think it was a positive step and I share the ideas of the organizers. However it was not a ‘well studied’ step, it was organized hastily and, in fact, protests took place against this meeting. I didn’t receive any invitation for this meeting, because they knew perfectly that I wouldn’t have attended the gathering. At the beginning of the preparations for the meeting, I told to my friends, Michel Kilo, Luay Hussein and Fayez Sarah, who were organizing it: “Are you going to ask for the resignations of the President?” They told me: “No”. Then I replied them: “I cannot attend the meeting, because now there is a big proportion of the Syrian people, I won’t say everyone, who is calling for the downfall of the regime, and you cannot claim to represent the streets, if you don’t report the words of the streets.” I told the organizers personally that I don’t believe in diplomacy at this step, it is either you are the voice of the streets or you are not the opposition

Q: Are you still going to collaborate with these opposition leaders in the future?

A: Sure, I will participate in their meetings when there will be a clear vision and a shared agreement.

Q: So do you think diplomacy is useless at this stage? What about those dissidents who would approve armed resistance against the regime?

A: I am absolutely against the use of weapons. For sure, I don’t want neither my son nor my grandson to live under such a regime. It is about becoming a democratic, modern and developed country, if this won’t happen, then we don’t have to consider diplomacy. Politics is about listening to the people and implementing their will, diplomacy is about listening to the people, but implementing what is deemed more convenient. I don’t agree with this rule. The essential meaning of terms like ‘law’ and ‘democracy’ are unknown to everyone, hence the meaning of diplomacy has to change as well and become the implementation of people demands. The opposition which gathered in Semiramis is actually telling the people: “We are in front of a strong regime and we fear the failure of the revolution, therefore we have to accept limited gains and build the Syrian future on them.” They believe in the possibility of a political solution with the regime staying in power. What this will mean? The government preserving its security apparatus and allowing the opposition to have a few seats in the Parliament? Have them participating in local councils? I don’t think it’s enough. We, the opposition, need first to reverse the balance of power with the regime. This approach doesn’t convince me. For me it’s either the collapse of the regime or the failure of the revolution.

* ‘Ala is Kamal Sheikho. At the time I was worried about protecting my sources, but Kamal has published enough articles under his  real name, so that there is no need to conceal his identity anymore.

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2. Blogging and reporting on five months of revolution from Syria: Interview with Hervin Ose (Kurdish Future Movement)


tammo funeral
And here is a piece I wrote out of an interview with a Kurdish activist…
I have been trying getting in touch with Shanar* since I arrived in Syria at the beginning of April. She is an experienced Kurdish activist I met in Damascus last year, who has been jailed several times, the last time after one of the first protests which broke out in Damascus by mid-March. Shanar recalls that episode, when they dragged her by the hair across the street of Damascus and almost broke her hand, by beating her savagely in prison. She got used to the behavior of the security forces, like most of the Kurds in Al-Jazira, the Kurdish stronghold in North-Eastern Syria. The region already witnessed riots in 2004 in Qamishli, when a football match between an Arab and a Kurdish team degenerated into clashes with security forces and the subsequent decision to send the army to ‘restore security’. The death toll at the end of the unrest was of at least 36 Kurdish citizens.
The condition of Kurds in Syria has been constantly affected by discrimination.
 Following a census carried on in 1962 in the Al-Hasaka province, some 120.000 Kurds were stripped off their citizenship rights and registered as ‘foreigners’ (Ajanib). According to UNHCR, the Kurds without Syrian citizenship today are around 300.000. On 8 April 2011, in an attempt to contain Kurdish participation to the uprising, President Al-Assad issued a decree granting citizenship to those ‘foreigners’ of Al-Hasaka, but most of the Kurds have rejected this late concession. Another discriminatory measure was taken in 2008, when Decree 49 was issued to restrict the freedom of certain border areas to sell and purchase lands without prior government approval. The Kurds saw this as a further attempt to exacerbate their living conditions and force them to leave their lands.
When asked about Bashar’s latest concession, Shanar shows no hesitation replying: “Was it a compensation? We are not asking for citizenship now, we’re calling for freedom. We demand fundamental constitution amendments, like the abrogation of article 8 and not gifts from the President.” Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution states that “the leading party in state and society is the Socialist Arab Ba’th Party.” Another important aspect in the agenda of Shanar’s Future Movement (Tayyar al-Mustaqbal), one of the main Kurdish youth group, is that they demand “the recognition of Kurds not as a minority or the second largest ethnic group in Syria, but as first class citizens without any sort of distinction.”
Shanar made no mention of the historical aspiration to be part of an independent Kurdistan. However, at least among some Arab activists, a form of mistrust seems still to affect the relations with Kurdish parties: Ahmed, a university activist of the University of Damascus, is still convinced that the Arabs should beware of Kurdish support, because the Kurds will have a different agenda after the revolution. In fact, the cooperation between Arab and Kurdish opposition groups has not been smooth so far. Shanar told me her group had a meeting with the signatories of the Damascus Declaration on March 5. The Damascus Declaration is a document subscribed by several Arab and Kurdish opposition groups in 2005, which partially anticipated the current demands for political freedom. The outcome of that meeting was particularly frustrating for Shanar. First of all, the Arab parties did not seem to have a clear vision on whether there should have been reforms or the only acceptable solution was the collapse of the regime; secondly, unlike the Future Movement, they did not enjoy a base of support among activists in the streets; thirdly, there was no agreement between Kurds and Arabs on the days to be chosen for mobilization, with the latter not willing to take the streets on March 12, the anniversary of the Qamishli riots.
If disaccord affects the relations with the Arab opposition, the Syrian Kurdish political scene is already fragmented by itself.
There are 12 Kurdish parties for around 1.5 million Kurds in Syria, many of them tied to the Kurdish parties based in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Turkey. Shanar prefers to be member of a fully local Kurdish party, strongly connected with the network of young activists. “As Future Movement, we insisted on ‘stopping the violence’ (waqf al-‘unf) as a conditio sine qua non for national dialogue,” recalls Shanar about one of their meeting with the National Movement of Kurdish Parties [ndr the major coalition of Kurdish political forces in Syria], “other parties preferred a more diplomatic approach, talking about ‘avoiding the violence’ (tajannub al-‘unf), as if brutal repression was not already taking place!.” On March 16, following major disagreements, the Future Movement, the Yakiti Party and the Azadi Party quit the greater Kurdish coalition. Shanar’s conclusions on the Kurdish political scene are quite eloquent: “I call the Kurdish coalition a ‘Group of Division and Nothing Else’ (Majmu’a taqsim wa la shi’).”
On the other hand, Kurdish groups seem to have developed substantial organizational skills and a greater freedom of mobilization than their Arab ‘allies’.
The youth taking to the streets of Qamishli during the day, usually sleep in the surrounding villages to avoid security raids in the night. They also thought about new ways to expand the uprising, bringing people from other neighborhoods to ignite those areas still relatively quiet. This is a strategy said to be adopted even in Midan (Damascus) and in the university campus of Aleppo, populated by Hourani and Kurdish students.
In the Future Movement, not everyone is active by joining the demonstrations: there is a press room, formed by a group of online activists coordinating people on the ground and spreading news outside Syria. Nonetheless, Shanar agrees that, because the epicenter of the riots is located in rural and peripheral areas with no regular internet access, the Syrian uprising will never be a ‘facebook revolution’.
The lesson learned in 2004 helped developing new modes of action. In these days, Shanar’s movement goes knocking on people’s doors to have them joining the protests, while ensuring the participation of whole families to maintain the demonstrations completely peaceful. This is clearly a freedom of movement, which dissidents in ‘security-armored’ Damascus cannot enjoy. According to Shanar, the Syrian authorities have avoided to intervene militarily in Qamishli for two reasons, firstly, because no campaign of civil disobedience has paralyzed the city yet; secondly, because military intervention would have meant opening two diametrically opposed fronts (Dara’a and Qamishli), thus weakening the state capability to control unrest in the rest of the country. In case of military intervention in Qamishli, the Syrian regime would still have to consider the reaction of the big Kurdish community living in Damascus and already active in the protests of Rukn el-Din. However, in the last weeks, military intervention has become the norm in several flashpoints –Jisr al-Shughur, Tal Kalkh- so that the opening of a new front cannot be categorically ruled out.
Remarkable mobilization skills cannot bring about alone the collapse of the regime. After three months of unabated bloodshed this is a matter of fact, even for Kurds.
Those dissidents who gathered in Antalya, between May 31 and June 1, are confident of affecting internal change by agreeing upon a platform of demands from abroad.  The Kurds, like their ‘brothers’ did before in Turkey and Iraq, do not oppose the idea of coordinating the opposition from abroad, but the Antalya conference was not welcomed by all the Kurdish factions. According to a blog on Kurdish affairs (Kurdistan Commentary), only 5 of the 12 Syrian Kurdish parties were invited to the conference and, even among these ones, some refused to participate because of the choice of Turkey, which is not exactly the most sympathetic country to the Kurdish cause. Shanar has no objection to the choice of Turkey, but she admits that a meeting in Europe would have been a better option.
Shanar is expecting more from the international community and particularly from Europe, for example an arrest warrant for Bashar al-Assad issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, it is unlikely that such a resolution would stop the violence, considered the limited powers the ICC showed to have when willing to extradite political leaders. Syria, like Sudan, has never ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Since no one is eager to see neither an embargo imposed on Syria, which would cause grievances mainly among the population, nor military intervention from the West, the international community does not seem to have many options left.
The fate of the Syrian revolution is more dependent on two other factors: economic asphyxiation and military defection. It is more about which one of these factors, if not the combination of the two, will turn the balance of power in favor of the opposition. “Even one million people working in the Mukhabarat are not enough to stifle the protests,” says proudly Shanar, “this is why they deploy the army, but relying on the armed forces is dangerous on the long run.” It is dangerous, firstly because defections could increase with the continuation of the bloodshed and, secondly, because it requires extraordinary military expenses.
* Shanar is Hervin Ose, one of the prominent figures of Mishaal Tammo’s Future Movement. Tammo was killed on October 7 (2011), while she left Syria in 2012.
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