Kurds have dwelt in the Syrian hinterland for hundreds of years, melting into the Syrian-Arab society, and some of them even became champions of the Arab revival at the turn of the 20th century. In Syria’s north, on the border with Turkey, another group of Kurds dwells. They find their roots in more recent upheavals and their aspirations have been shaped by modern ideas of Kurdish nationalism.
In the heart of Damascus stands a statute of legendary Muslim commander Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders and took back Jerusalem. Saladin was a Kurd from Iraq’s Tikrit, who went on to establish the Ayyubid dynasty in Damascus. Many of the Kurdish legions he brought with him settled in Damascus some 900 years ago, and their descendants still dwell in the city. In the 1600s, Kurds began to settle the area of Afrin, which became known as Kurd-Dagh (Mountain of Kurds). During the Ottoman period, many feudal families of Kurdish origin emerged in Syria’s major urban centers of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and Homs. Some of these families continued to play a leading role in Syrian politics well into the 20th century. They completely melted into Syrian society and a Kurdish nationalist identity never developed among them.
In 1918, Muhammad Kurd Ali, whose grandfather immigrated to Damascus from Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah region, founded the Arab Academy of Damascus, which is the oldest and most prestigious authority for regulating the Arab language in the modern era. The academy, which Kurd Ali headed until his death in 1953, oversaw the revival of the Arabic language following centuries of Ottoman rule. Another notable Syrian of Kurdish origin was Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro, who served as Grand Mufti of Syria from 1964 until his death in 2004.
As for northeastern Syria, the story is quite different. When the Ottoman Empire was abolished, an autonomous Kurdistan was defined under the Treaty of Sevres. On paper, this new entity would extend from the current Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq up to the borders of a proposed Greater Armenia. Unlike the peoples of Syria and Iraq, falling under French and British mandates, the Kurds were granted a mandate-free right of self-determination. These plans, however, were dashed three years later following Mustafa Kemal’s rise to power in Turkey.
From Saladin to Kurd Ali, Kurdish people have played a significant role in the country’s development — but their efforts to achieve self-determination have been far from straightforward.
In 1925, Turkey crushed a Kurdish rebellion that erupted in southern Anatolia, and many Kurds fled to the Syrian province of Al-Hasakah. To these Kurds, the frontier between the new states of Syria and Turkey, drawn along the Mosul-Aleppo railway, meant little. Rather, for the Kurds of Turkey, Syria was “below the railway line,” and for the Kurds of Syria, Turkey was “above the railway line.”
The Kurds found themselves sharing Al-Hasakah with sedentary Arab tribes and Syriac and Armenian Christians, survivors of the Ottoman massacres. Under the French mandate, Kurdish intellectuals began to develop a nationalist movement, away from the traditional authority of tribal leaders. These Kurdish nationalists, however, were more focused on the land above the railway. They founded the first Kurdish political party, called Khoyboun (independence). Khoyboun, which had an armed wing, instigated an unsuccessful uprising among the Kurds of Anatolia in the late 1920s.
In 1928, five Kurds from Al-Hasakah were elected to Parliament in Damascus, but their efforts to lobby for making Kurdish an official language (after a Khoyboun member gave it a Latin alphabet) or gain any administrative autonomy failed. The French, having at first supported the emergence of Khoyboun, began to clamp down on the party in response to Turkish pressure.
In 1958, Syria became part of the United Arab Republic, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. The UAR immediately took measures against Khoyboun’s successor, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, which was established a year before the union. Syria and Egypt drifted apart in 1961 following a military coup in Damascus. The new anti-Nasserist government undertook a general census in 1962, in the aftermath of which a government decree classified some 120,000 Kurds living in Al-Hasakah as foreigners who could not vote, own property or work in government jobs. The KDP itself splintered due to internal disputes and never carried real weight in Syrian politics.
Unlike their counterparts in Iraq, who received support first from the Soviets, then from the US, the Kurds of northeastern Syria did not clash with the central government throughout the years of the Cold War. Instead, many of them were drawn to the leftist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which waged an insurgency against the Turkish state. The PKK’s presence in Syria came to an abrupt end following the 1998 Adana agreement between Damascus and Ankara. The party resurfaced in Al-Hasakah in 2003 as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and played a role in the Qamishli riots the following year.
During the Syrian conflict, the armed wing of the PYD — the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — emerged onto the scene. It became an integral part of US strategy not just in Syria, but in the wider Middle East. This greater role came with many troubles, as it provoked another round of the decades-old Turkish hostility towards Syria-based Kurdish nationalism. Yet the fate of the YPG and its future role in Syria will only be another chapter in the long history of Syria’s Kurds.
• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.