Sunday, July 03, 2005

Kurds, Emboldened by Lebanon, Rise Up in Tense Syria - New York Times

Kurds, Emboldened by Lebanon, Rise Up in Tense Syria - New York Times

QAMISHLI, Syria - Here on the fringes of Syria's agricultural heartland, the veneer of normalcy is all around.

A statue of former President Hafez al-Assad, which was brought down during riots last year, has been rebuilt in a traffic circle. Slogans scrawled on walls still call out for him. Few signs remain of the violence that struck the city just weeks ago.

Muhammad, left, and Murshid al-Khaznawi blame the government for their father's killing, which led to protesters' clashes with the police.

But as Syria endures heavy international and domestic pressure to change, storm clouds are gathering here once again. In this predominantly Kurdish city on Syria's border with Turkey, a growing movement of Kurds is demanding recognition and representation in Syria's government.

Emboldened by their brethren in Iraq and inspired by Lebanon's opposition movement, which helped force Syria out of that country, some advocates are even calling for Kurdish administration of Kurdish areas.

"There is a kind of anxiety and restlessness now," said Hassan Salih, secretary general of the Yekiti Kurdish party based in Qamishli. "We are disappointed with all the unfulfilled promises."

Tensions in this city of 150,000 reached new levels this month after the body of a prominent cleric, Sheik Muhammad Mashouk al-Khaznawi, was found halfway between here and Damascus. Days later, protesters calling for an international investigation of the sheik's killing clashed with security forces, who beat women and fired at demonstrators, Kurdish politicians say.

One police officer was killed, a dozen protesters were wounded, dozens more remain in custody, and Kurdish businesses were looted, they say. A day after, Kurdish hopes were dashed when Syria's governing Baath Party passed on calls to grant Kurds more rights and freedoms at its 10th Congress, ending the meeting with little more than platitudes, Mr. Salih said.

"Lebanon affected us a lot, and we learned from it that demonstrating can achieve many things without violence," he said. After riots flared in Qamishli in 2004 after a brawl at a soccer match, he said, "the regime sought to frighten us, but the assassination of the sheik has made us rise up again."

Syria's 1.5 million Kurds are the country's largest ethnic minority and historically its most downtrodden. Eschewing the Arab identity at the core of the Baath Party, the Kurds have become the most organized opposition to the embattled government.

But tensions have simmered since 1962, when a census taken by the government left out tens of thousands of Kurds, leaving them and their children - now hundreds of thousands in all - without citizenship and denying them the right to obtain government jobs or to own property. They now carry red identification cards identifying them as "foreigner."

The government also resettled thousands of Arabs from other parts of the country into areas along the border to build a buffer with Kurdish areas in neighboring Iran, Iraq and Turkey, pitting Kurds against Arabs. A long-running drought has not helped, as many in the farming region, especially Arab sharecroppers, have seen their incomes and tolerance for one another plummet.

In 2004, a soccer game incited the brawl between Arab and Kurdish fans that grew into the country's worst civil unrest in decades, spreading to many other cities in Syria and leaving at least 36 people dead, some of them policemen. President Bashar al-Assad, in an effort to cool tempers, visited the region for the first time and called for national unity, while pardoning 312 Kurds who were accused of taking part in the violence. But Kurds say the ethnic rifts remain.

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