Democratization in Syria, perspectives and prospects, Syria and Kurds at the crossroads of change

  • 24/10/2012 00:00:00

Hosted by the Kurdish American Education Society-Los Angeles


As the humanitarian and political crisis in Syria unfolds, the world increasingly needs to become more aware of the need for understanding the gravity and the multilayered regional and international implications of this crisis. Our primary motivation for organizing this seminar was to respond to such a need. The seminar was designed to provide multiple perspectives and insight into the challenges that Syrians as a whole and Kurds in particular face in their struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms.

Seminar Setting

The program was offered in two sections, providing an opportunity for the speakers to know each other’s perspectives better in 10 minute talks that contextualized the issue from their perspectives and expertise. The second session combined the individual presentations with an engaging panel discussion of the proposed topics and themes of the conference, led by Dr.Sharifi and Mr.Ranj Zuhdi.

Twelve panelists from different parts of the world had participated either directly or through Skype. The panelists came from different disciplines and backgrounds, offering the audience an invaluable mix of experiences, expertise, and insight. The audience totaled 170 people at its peak. The enthusiastic participation of the audience during the second panel revealed that the seminar was appreciated and thought provoking as many participants asked the panelists probing questions.

Scope and Objectives of the Seminar

The seminar had been designed to bring together a plurality of views and perspectives on a variety of topics to help elucidate the complex issues surrounding Syria’s political landscape as a whole, Kurds, in particular. The program began with a welcome message by Mr.Hiwa Nezhaidan; the vice-president of the Kurdish American Education Society, Los Angeles; he briefly outlined the aims of KAES-LA and highlighted the legitimacy of the popular struggles and uprisings for freedom and equality in the Middle East, stressing the linkage between genuine democracy and recognition of Kurdish autonomy and the right to self-determination. Mrs. Whitson, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, the New York Division was one of the key note speakers; she compared the historical causes and legitimacy of the Syrian movement against tyranny and flagrant violations of human and political rights with similar uprisings in the region. However, she noted that the negligence of the international community, the insistence of the Syrian security forces to defend the establishment, and divisions within the movement itself have created “a far bloodier and messier outcome”. Mrs.Whitson concluded by expressing concern at continuing violations of human rights by both sides and called for the Security Council to take action to end the crisis. Professor Gelvin, a prominent historian and scholar of the Middle East with specialization on Syria, in analyzing different scenarios and comparing the Syrian uprising with those of Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia, argued that given the structure of the state, sectarinization and militarization of the movement itself, the prospects for a political solution do not appear plausible. Professor Jordi Tejel of the Graduate Studies Institute, as one of the key note speakers and an expert on Kurdish nationalism , revisited the Kurdish political history in Syria and shed light on the evolution of the, Kurdish emergence of nationalism from the French Mandate to the rise of contemporary Kurdish nationalist movement and the current struggle. Professor Tejel attributed the advent and rise of leftist organizations such as PKK to a void left by traditional political parties such as Kurdish Democratic Party. He noted that this new organization by promoting a united Kurdistan and reassertion of Kurdish denied identity created new possibilities for its own popularity. In describing the current situation he identified among others two main issues i.e.; an intergenerational disconnect between the traditional Kurdish politics and the youth and increasing militarization of the Kurdish areas. Professor Gunter a distinguished scholar and historian of Kurds from the University of Tennessee Tech characterized the current state of affairs as a stalemate caused by conflicting and contradictory forces and divisions - the ancient Sunni-Shiite divide, the NATO—Russian & Chinese divide, the roles of Iraq, the KRG, the PKK, the PYD, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the divided internal Syrian opposition including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Syrian National Council (SNC), Kurdish National Council (KNC), and Muslim Brotherhood. In the context of international law and human rights, Dr. Fisher, a Los Angeles based lawyer and human rights advocate explored Syrian history, law, past and present and the ways in which international law has been made irrelevant to Kurds in Syria as recently evidenced in Turkish incursions into Syria with the complicity and silence of the world community. He argued that Syrian constitution cannot in violation of international law ignore the historical injustice inflicted on Kurds and that there is a legitimate basis for international law to intervene on behalf of Kurds over these crimes and injustices in international criminal court mandated by Security Council. He expressed concern over the resurgence of organized religion and its intolerance for ethnic and civil rights, using the law as a tool of the state. He argued that international covenants despite their limitations, offer Kurds some possibilities to challenge the status quo and the imposed boundaries that have led to their cultural genocide.. Mr. Reese Erlich, an investigative journalist from Oakland California, reported on his recent visit to Kurdish refugee camps and the oppressive conditions under which Kurdish refugees live. He noted that the media coverage of the Kurds was distorted and biased, reflecting more the Turkish perspective. In his assessment, Kurds have to adopt three plausible solutions including resolving their differences, opposing foreign intervention, and working with the Syrian opposition. He characterized the status quo as one of promise and peril. Unfortunately we were not able to establish contact with Dr.Kamiran Haj Abdo, member of the Foreign Relations of the Supreme Committee. Dr. Christian Sinclair , the assistant director of Kurdish Studies at Arizona State University, argued that constitutional rights have long been denied to minority and other groups in Syria and that it was essential that any new constitution in Syria ensure the rights of all its citizens through constitutional checks and limitations. He further contended that Syria’s dominant ideology, one enshrined in the country’s constitution, is that of Arab nationalism coupled with totalitarian repressive regimes, leaving no room for expression of non-Arab identity. He contended that only a total restructuring of the state would bring about fundamental changes for Kurds in Syria who constitute up 10% of the country’s population. Sirwan Kajjo, a Kurdish journalist based in Washington D.C explained the conceptual framework of political decentralization as defined by the Kurdish opposition (Kurdish National Council & People’s Council of Western Kurdistan) “as a key resolution to settle the Kurdish issue.” The concept is based on geography rather than ethnicity, a territorial claim leading to the key division between the Kurdish and Syrian oppositions. Dr.Sharifi, a lecturer at the California State University, Long Beach (whose talk was added to the report and the presentations after the conference because he did not have time to present) in explaining the status of Kurds in Syria, cast light on the ways in which the Kurdish language and culture were treated and viewed in Syria. A brief history of discriminatory practices was provided, followed by a description of various forms of linguistic and cultural discrimination and their consequences and implications. Ironically the problems of the ethnic minorities including language rights remain marginal in political discourse of the Syrian opposition and its political platform thus undermining attempts towards democratization of the country. Mr.Salih Muslim, the president of the PYD, and a member of the Supreme Council in the Kurdish opposition described the challenges that they face in their area. He described the Supreme Kurdish Council as the ultimate representative of Kurds in Western Kurdistan, arguing that their main mission is organizing Kurds in Syria who seek democratic and peaceful changes through demonstrations. He said that their main task was to protect themselves from clashes with armed groups and sectarian violence and that local committees are organizing teachings, workshops, and language classes for different groups.

Mr. Luqman Barwari, the president of the Kurdish National Congress in North America. In retracing the colonial division of the Kurdish areas and the historical injustice committed against Kurds, discussed how frustrating the Kurdish attempt to regain its most fundamental rights has been. He called for a more humanitarian and comprehensive international approach to the Kurdish question and the inclusion of Kurdish political, cultural and linguistic rights in the new Syrian constitution. Shirko Abbass: Washington, D.C. President of the Kurdish National Assembly of Syria, political opposition and alliances described the key plans and strategies of the Kurdish and non-Kurdish opposition in their attempt to overthrow the Syrian regime. He argued that the Syrian opposition is exclusionary and the Syrian National Council was keen on establishing an Islamic rather than a democratic government in which minorities such as Kurds can find their rightful place.

Mr. Mohammad Zadeh, a Kurdish human rights activist from Syria in Los Angeles related his personal experiences and observations of recent visits to his homeland. He recalled and related chronicles and patterns of discrimination to which his family- divided between Turkey and Syria after the colonial parceling of the land, had been subjected. He concluded by stressing the importance and need for peaceful changes in an area that is historically theirs.

The second session was conducted in the form of a panel discussion moderated by Dr.Sharifi and Mr.Ranj Zuhdi. The audience asked numerous questions about the sociopolitical realities, contextual influences, Kurdish movement, the status of Kurdish women in the current movement, international diplomacy and U.S policy, political perspectives prospects of the Syrian uprising, political character, features of the opposition, Kurdish demands, and American students’ responsibility in relation to the current crisis,…etc. The questions and the response created a dialogic site for an engaging discussion of the key issues. Dr. Sharifi in his concluding remarks noted that although the seminar had provided an insight into a wide scope of discussions and approaches to the grave and complex Syrian and Kurdish political landscape, the Syrian situation, the past, present, and future status of Kurds needed more contextualized international and scholarly attention. Dr. Sharifi concluded the seminar by thanking the esteemed panelists, the inquisitive audience, and the sponsors of the event for their participation in and contribution to the success of the seminar.

The seminar proceedings and presentations will be made available on the seminar website soon.


Seminar Sponsors

Department of Linguistics

  • 24/10/2012 00:00:00