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SYRIA - The Kurdish Issue.

When the Kurdish unrest broke out this month, critics of the Baathist regime said that was the beginning of a long spell of troubles in Syria. But the old guard got the authorities on March 15 to arrest scores of Kurdish leaders and activists who had been watched closely by intelligence agents months before the March 13-14 rioting.

What alarmed the old guard most was the fact that the US flag was hoisted by the Kurdish rioters and President Bush was hailed as their hero. The unrests spread to Damascus and Aleppo, where Kurdish students took to the streets to demonstrate against the deaths in the Kurdish regions.

It is important to note that the March 12 violence started in the predominantly Kurdish town of Qamishli - in the Jazeera region bordering with Iraq - before a football match between a Syrian Arab team, Al Fatwa, and a predominantly Syrian Kurdish team, Al Jihad. Scuffles broke out after Al Fatwa fans brandished pictures of Saddam Hussein, infuriating Kurds. Police dispersed the crowds by shooting in the air but Kurds accused police of shooting directly at demonstrators. More people were killed during funerals on March 13 which turned into riots, and Kurdish party leaders say hundreds of Kurds were arrested in Damascus on March 15, although this could not be independently confirmed.

The government-owned Tishreen newspaper said the committee set up to investigate the causes of the riots would "severely punish the perpetrators and instigators of these crimes". But by March 19, the Kurdish areas in the north-east of Syria had remained tense, with an unusually big number of secret agents deployed along the main streets in Qamishli, Amouda and other towns where the Kurdish community is large.

The Kurdish unrest was the first for decades in a tightly controlled Baathist state. It was not only a sign of growing discontent among the Kurds, but also of a feeling among many Syrians that the regime can be challenged as it faces uncertain times after the defeat of the Baathist regime in Iraq and growing US pressure.

Abdel Baqi Youssef, secretary of the Kurdish Yakiti Party, said: "Syria's Kurds were heartened by the positive developments in Iraq with the signing of the Iraqi (temporary) constitution, which gives Kurds their rights and recognises Kurdish as an official language". Although he did not make a direct link between the riots and the Iraqi constitution, Youssef said Kurds in Syria were disappointed that Damascus continued to deny them their rights.

In line with the pan-Arab, non-sectarian ideology of the Baath Party, Syria does not grant any special rights to the Kurds, Those 200,000 Kurds who do not have Syrian nationality must serve in the military; they cannot vote, own property, go to state schools or hold government jobs. Syria fears the creation of an independent Kurdish state that would threaten its territorial unity.

Apart from marches in London and Paris, about 500 Kurds demonstrated and marched to the US and British embassies in Berlin to appeal for international support after the events in Syria. In Geneva, about 20 demonstrators occupied the offices of the Syrian mission to the UN.
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Publication:APS Review Gas Market Trends
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Previous Article:SYRIA - The Political Leadership.
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