By Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi:
Among analysts of the ongoing unrest in Syria, it is a truism that the main reason Christians are generally not participating in demonstrations against Assad’s rule is because they fear reprisals at the hands of the Sunni Arab majority if the Alawite-dominated regime falls.
Alawites, who have incorporated Christian practices into their syncretic, Shi’a-rooted religion such as the celebration of Christmas and wearing of crosses, have always felt an affinity with Syrian Christians and have thus protected them since the establishment of the Baathist regime in 1963.
Less widely noticed, however, is the problem of tensions between the country’s traditionally marginalized Kurdish minority and the Christians. Several aspects of the Kurdish-Christian animosities have recently been documented by Dutch journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg. Specifically, disclosures from the U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks reveal that Christians in the northeastern region of al-Jazirah consider the Kurds to be recent intruders, and fear that the Kurdish presence could lead to the formation of a Greater Kurdistan.
The cables in question date from March 2009, and partly touch on the subject of the fourth anniversary of the Kurdish uprising in Syria in 2005. The Christian community apparently blames the Kurds for causing damages to public property in excess of $2 million during the uprising, while not mentioning that the Syrian security forces opened fire on crowds of unarmed Kurds, who were fleeing riots incited by anti-Kurdish rhetoric.
The Christians of al-Jazirah have also claimed that mass-immigration of Kurds and high Kurdish birthrates have transformed al-Jazirah from an area with an historical 80-90% majority Christian population into one now dominated by Kurds with a 35% Christian minority.
Hence, Kurdish participation in the protests against Assad’s rule has done nothing to allay Christian fears. The Syrian opposition, of course, suffers from problems of internal tensions, and during a recent opposition conference, Kurdish figures walked out in protest that most of the attendees wanted Syria to remain defined as an “Arab” country (as per the country’s current official name, “Syrian Arab Republic”).
Such a development no doubt suggests to the Christians that, if the Kurds are not striving to incorporate parts of Syria into the Greater Kurdistan, they might at least be aiming for an autonomous region similar to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Yet it is surely the example of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq’s north that partly underlies the anxiety of Syrian Christians over how Kurds might behave post-Assad. Since gaining autonomy in 1991 after the First Gulf War, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has engaged in an active campaign of discrimination and cultural imperialism against the Assyrian Christians (as well as other non-Kurdish minorities like the Yezidis and Shabaks, who are not recognized as separate ethnic groups in the KRG Constitution), a problem that has only intensified since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Most notably, Peshmerga militias have routinely confiscated Assyrian land, and in October 2002, a resolution was passed by the KRG to legalize such thefts by Peshmerga militiamen. In addition, the Iraqi Kurds have attempted to marginalize the legitimate representative of the Assyrian people in Iraq: namely, the Assyrian Democratic Movement. As Assyrian scholar Peter BetBasoo points out, during the 2005 general elections in Iraq, Kurdish authorities tasked with delivering ballot boxes to Assyrian districts in the north failed to do so as part of an attempt to block them from voting, while Assyrian election workers were fired on and killed.
Indeed, as a 2007 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom notes:
“KRG officials were also reported to have used public works projects to divert water and other vital resources from Chaldo-Assyrian to Kurdish communities…leading to mass exodus, which was later followed by the seizure and conversion of abandoned Chaldo-Assyrian property by the local Kurdish population.”
Meanwhile, as part of its cultural imperialism, the KRG promotes pseudo-history in the same way Palestinian media have denied historical Jewish connections to the land of Israel. In particular, the KRG falsely portrays the Kurds as the true indigenous inhabitants of northern Mesopotamia and southern Anatolia. For example, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan- one of two parties in the ruling KRG coalition- recently reaffirmed the claim to oil-rich Kirkuk as a Kurdish city that was supposedly founded by Kurds.
In reality, Kirkuk’s foundations date back to 4000 B.C., well before the arrival of the Kurds in northern Iraq in the twelfth century CE. In Old Assyrian it is called Arraphkha, and is one of the four cities that originally formed the Assyrian heartland.
It is therefore no surprise that many Syrian Christians are deeply suspicious of local Kurdish aspirations. Pundits frequently (and rightly) complain of the maltreatment of minorities by those who identify as Arab Muslims. Nonetheless, it is also evident that appreciation of tolerance and diversity is a virtue yet to be learned by Kurds at large. The sooner the KRG is pressured to reverse its discrimination against minorities, the better for future Kurdish-Christian relations, both in Iraq and the wider region.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University and an intern at the Middle East Forum.