Syria: the situation of Kurds, including their treatment by the authorities since the start of the uprising (March 2011-July 2012) [SYR104167.FE]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. Situation

Some sources report that the Kurds represent 10 per cent of the Syrian population, nearly three million people (Le Monde 12 Oct. 2011; AFP 10 Oct. 2011), while other sources estimate that they represent 15 (Xinhua News Agency 23 July 2012; The Atlantic 20 Jan. 2012) to 20 per cent of the population (ibid.). According to the Xinhua News Agency, most Kurds reside in the northeastern part of the country (23 July 2012); however, according to Le Nouvel Observateur, they mostly live in eastern Syria (30 Mar. 2012). There are also significant Kurd populations in Damascus and Aleppo (Le Nouvel Observateur 30 Mar. 2012; Reuters 11 Jan. 2012).

2. Political Activities of Kurds since March 2011

Media sources report that, historically, Syria’s Kurds have opposed the current regime, which has been in power for decades (ibid.; Le Nouvel Observateur 30 Mar. 2012). Al Jazeera reports that all Kurdish political parties have been banned by the government (30 Jan. 2012). Similarly, Agence France-Presse (AFP) indicates that Syria has 12 Kurdish political parties that have been banned (10 Oct. 2011). However, several sources report that Kurds are divided in their reaction to the uprising against the regime (Reuters 11 Jan. 2012; Le Nouvel Observateur 30 Mar. 2012). Media sources state that, despite their long-standing opposition to the regime, Kurds are suspicious of Arab opposition movements (ibid.; Reuters 11 Jan. 2012). Reuters (ibid.) and the New York Times (17 Apr. 2012) state that Kurds mistrust Arab opposition movements because they fear such movements will oppose Kurds’ demands for more rights.

Nevertheless, according to media sources, anti-regime demonstrations have taken place in Kurdish regions (Al Jazeera 10 June 2012; RFE/RL 7 Dec. 2011). In an interview in April 2012 on the KurdWatch news site, which covers human rights violations against Kurds in Syria (n.d.), a leader of the Kurdish Left Party claimed that there had been demonstrations in almost all of the Kurdish cities in the country (18 Apr. 2012). In addition, a Guardian article notes that the Kurds mobilized on the streets well before the organized political parties took a stand on the conflict (The Guardian 26 Apr. 2012).

The Guardian also reports that youth organizations, particularly the Kurdish youth movement (Tevgera Ciwanên Kurd), the largest Kurdish organization in Syria, are actively participating in the organization of street demonstrations (26 Apr. 2012). Reuters similarly refers to the participation of Kurdish youth in demonstrations (11 Jan. 2012).

However, media sources report that the demonstrations that have taken place in the Kurdish regions have been less intense than those that have taken place elsewhere in the country (Reuters 11 Jan. 2012; Al Jazeera 10 June 2012). In the KurdWatch interview, the Kurdish Left Party leader explained that several Kurdish parties continue to fear reprisals from the Assad regime for their political activities (KurdWatch 18 Apr. 2012).

2.1 Syrian National Council

The Syrian National Council (SNC) is the leading opposition coalition (AFP 10 Oct. 2011; Xinhua News Agency 12 July 2012; Al Jazeera 20 June 2012). Sources report that a Kurdish dissident living in exile in Sweeden, Abdulbaset Sieda [also spelled Abdul Basset Sayda or Abdelbasset Sieda], was appointed leader of the SNC in June 2012 (ibid.; ORSAM 28 June 2012). This measure was seen as an attempt by the SNC to connect with Syria’s minority groups (ibid.; Al Jazeera 10 June 2012). However, according to some critics, the majority of power within the SNC is the hands of the Islamists (ORSAM 28 June 2012; The Guardian 26 July 2012).

2.2. Kurdish National Council

The Kurdish National Council (KNC) is a Kurdish coalition that includes most of the Kurdish opposition parties (Le Nouvel Observateur 30 Mar. 2012; The National 15 July 2012).

2.3 Democratic Union Party (PYD)

According to sources, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey (The National 15 July 2012; AFP 27 July 2012), has ties to the Syrian authorities (The Daily News Egypt 21 July 2012; Le Nouvel Observateur 30 Mar. 2012). Some sources suggest that the PYD is a pro-Assad organization (The Daily News Egypt 21 July 2012; Intelligence Online 5 July 2012). Kurdish opposition parties have also claimed that the PYD acts on behalf of the authorities (The National 15 July 2012; Le Nouvel Observateur 30 Mar. 2012). An article published by Intelligence Online, an independent organization that analyzes the activities of intelligence services around the world (n.d.), indicates that [translation] “[t]he Syrian Regime is still holding the north and east of the country thanks to backing from armed Kurdish groups like the PKK and Democratic Union Party" (5 July 2012). According to an article in the Abu Dhabi-based the National, the PYD denied any collaboration with the Syrian regime (15 July 2012). However, media sources report that Kurdish opposition parties have accused the PYD of killing dissidents and cracking down on demonstrators in the Kurdish regions (The National 15 July 2012; Le Nouvel Observateur 30 Mar. 2012).

An AFP article reports that an offshoot of the PYD, the People’s Assembly of Western Kurdistan (CPKO), also denied any collusion with the regime. However, the article notes that the CPKO had put in place [translation] “People's Defence Units … to maintain order” (27 July 2012).

2.4 Kurdish Supreme Committee

According to AFP, in July 2012, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) joined with the CPKO to form the Kurdish Supreme Committee (27 July 2012). According to an article published on Rudaw, a news site based in Iraqi Kurdistan (n.d.), under the agreement, the KNC and the PYD were each to govern half of the Kurdish cities from which the Syrian army withdrew in July 2012 (25 July 2012).

3. Treatment of Kurds by the Authorities

According to media sources, in 2011, the government announced that it would grant a number of Kurds Syrian citizenship, something they had been denied for several decades (The New York Times 17 Apr. 2012; Le Monde 23 Nov. 2011). This measure is described by some sources as an effort to appease the Kurds in order to dissuade them from joining the opposition forces (Human Rights Watch 14 May 2012; The New York Times 17 Apr. 2012; MRG 2012, 208). In addition, according to Minority Rights Group International (MRG), the process of obtaining citizenship involves an interview with the security forces, during which they make use of “intimidation”; moreover, young Kurdish men who obtained citizenship were "asked" to perform military service (ibid.).

Media sources report that the authorities’ attacks against opposition forces were less severe and less violent in the Kurdish regions than in the rest of the country (Reuters 11 Jan. 2012; Le Monde 12 Oct. 2011). Similarly, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) states that “the security forces have been in many cases restrained” in their responses to demonstrations that took place in Kurdish cities (7 Dec. 2011). The regime is also reported to have authorized the PYK to open cultural centres and Kurdish schools (Le Monde 12 Oct. 2011; MRG 2012, 209). However, the authorities reportedly made violent attacks against opposition forces in Damascus and Aleppo in July 2012 (Le Monde 1 Aug. 2012; Euronews 22 July 2012).

According to MRG, since March 2011, Kurdish activists have been arrested for participating in activities against the Syrian regime (2012, 209). Similarly, Amnesty International reports the alleged forced disappearance of a Kurdish activist (16 March 2012), as well as another activist who was arrested “solely for his activism” by Syrian security forces and allegedly “tortured” (24 Jan. 2012). According to Human Rights Watch, a Kurdish political activist was arrested in Damascus in July 2011 and was “severely beaten” because he was recognized by the authorities as a “regular at protests;” he was released after having signed a guarantee that he would refrain from participating in protests (14 May 2012). According to KurdWatch, whereas security forces refrained from using torture against activists who were arrested and detained in the Kurdish regions until August 2011, “[l]ike detainees in other regions, detainees in the Kurdish regions are now subject to severe torture.” (10 Aug. 2011).

In October 2011, Meshaal Tammu [also spelled Mishaal al-Tammo], a member of the Kurdish Future Party who had recently joined the SNC (Al Jazeera 8 Oct. 2011), was murdered by unidentified individuals at his home in Qamichli (AFP 10 Oct. 2011; RFE/RL 9 Oct. 2011). According to RFE/RL, the Syrian security forces were blamed for the murder (7 Dec. 2011). Al Jazeera reports that Syria’s official news agency, SANA, indicated only that the assailants were armed men (Al Jazeera 8 Oct. 2011); however, according to AFP, the Minister of Foreign Affairs blamed this murder on [translation] “an armed terrorist group” (AFP 10 Oct. 2011). At Meshaal Tammu’s funeral, Syrian security officials fired shots into the crowd of 50,000 people (ibid.; MRG 2012, 209). Sources report that security officials killed between two (AFP 10 Oct. 2011; Le Monde 12 Oct. 2011) and six people (MRG 2012, 209).

According to Human Rights Watch, Syrian border guards fired shots on Kurds attempting to cross the Iraq-Syria border (14 May 2012). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

Media sources report that, in July 2012, the Syrian army withdrew from a number of Kurdish cities, surrendering control of the government to the PYD (AFP 27 July 2012; BBC 27 July 2012). However, a BBC article indicates that the Syrian armed forces have maintained their presence in a few cities under PYD control (ibid.). The Syrian armed forces’ withdrawal from these cities has been seen by some as an agreement between the PYD and the regime (ibid.; AFP 27 July 2012).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


Agence France-Presse (AFP). 27 July 2012. “Les Kurdes tentent de s’unir pour préparer la Syrie de demain.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. 10 October 2011. “Syrie : l’assassinat de Tamo va pousser les Kurdes à la révolte (analystes).” (Factiva)

Al Jazeera.10 June 2012. “Syria Opposition Leader Seeks to Revamp SNC.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. 30 January 2012. “Syrian Army in Offensive near Damascus.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. 8 October 2011. “Kurdish Activist Among Latest Killed in Syria.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Amnesty International (AI). 16 March 2012. “Urgent Action: Disappearance of Syrian Kurd Student Activist.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. 24 January 2012. “Urgent Action: Health Concerns for Detained Syrian Activist.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

The Atlantic [Washington, DC]. 20 January 2012. Michael Weiss. "Syrian Kurd Leader: Revolution Won't Succeed Without Minorities." [Accessed 31 July 2012]

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 27 July 2012. Wyre Davis. “Crisis in Syria Emboldens Country’s Kurds.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Daily News Egypt. 21 July 2012. Maryam Ishani and Connor Molloy. “The Battle for Control in Syria.” [Accessed July 31. 2012]

Euronews. 22 July 2012. “Syrie : violents combats à Alep et Damas.” [Accessed 3 Aug. 2012]

The Guardian [London]. 26 July 2012. Ian Black. "Splits Widen Within Syrian Opposition." [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. 26 April 2012. Thomas McGee. “Syria’s Kurds: Part of the Revolution?” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Human Rights Watch. 14 May 2012. Samer Muscati. “Syrian Kurds Fleeing to Iraqi Safe Haven.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Intelligence Online. 5 July 2012. “Les Kurdes, derniers soutiens de Bachar al-Assad.” (Factiva)

_____. N.d. “About Us.” [Accessed 3 Aug. 2012]

KurdWatch. 18 April 2012. “Interview: Salih Gado, Member of the Politburo of the Kurdish Left Party in Syria.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. 10 August 2011. “Al-Qamishli: Demonstration Participants Severely Tortured.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. N.d. “About Us.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Minority Rights Group International (MRG). 2012. “Syria.” State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012: Events of 2011. [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Le Monde [Paris]. 1 August 2012. Laurent Van der Stockt. “A Alep, la rébellion dispose désormais d’armes lourdes.” [Accessed 3 Aug. 2012]

_____. 23 November 2011. “Le régime aux petits soins pour les Kurdes de Syrie.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. 12 October 2011. “L’assassinat de Mechaal Tamo met à l’épreuve la retenue des Kurdes de Syrie.” (Factiva)

The National [Abu Dhabi]. 15 July 2012. Phil Sands. “Syria’s Kurds Play the Long Game.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

The New York Times. 17 April 2012. J. Michael Kennedy. “Kurds Remain on the Sidelines of Syria’s Uprising.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Le Nouvel Observateur. 30 March 2012. Khaled Yacoub Oweis. “Les Kurdes, les grands oubliés du conflit syrien.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

ORSAM, Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies. 28 June 2012. Magdalena Kirchner. “Syria’s Kurds - the Screw in the Regime’s Coffin?” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). 7 December 2011. Dorian Jones. “Syria’s Kurds Divided on Syrian Opposition.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. 9 October 2011. “Turkey Condemns Killing of Syrian Kurd Opposition Leader.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Reuters. 11 January 2012. Jon Hemming. “Syria’s Kurds Mistrust Government and Opposition: Activists.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Rudaw. 25 July 2012. Hevidar Ahmed. “Liberated Kurdish Cities in Syria Move into Next Phase.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

_____. N.d. “About Rudaw.” [Accessed 7 Aug. 2012]

Xinhua News Agency. 23 July 2012. “News Analysis: Syria’s Kurds Raise the Stake of Partition.” [Accessed 31 July 2012]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: The coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Network was unable to provide information for this response.

Internet sites, including: AK News; Alliance for Kurdish Rights; Foreign Policy Association; France24; Kurdish Human Rights Project; Kurdistan Democratic Party Syria; Kurdistan National Assembly; Middle East Research and Information Project; Reporters Without Borders; Society for Threatened Peoples; Support Kurds in Syria; Syrian Human Rights Committee; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; Syrian Uprising Information Centre; United Nations — UNHCR; UN Human Rights Council; United States — Congressional Research Service.