As War Looms, the Voice of Kurds Is Heard in Syria ; 250,000 Kurds in Syria Are Struggling for Legal Rights and Recognition

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A yellowing scrap of paper wrapped in Scotch tape, along with a faded black and white photograph, is the only document proving that Massoud Omar exists.

Mr. Omar is one of about 25,000 Kurds in Syria who are classified as maktoumeen - or "unregistered." It means that he cannot own any property, so his house and clothing shop are registered in other people's names. He cannot travel abroad. His marriage to his wife, Salaam, is illegal under Syrian law, and his four children simply do not exist officially at all.

Other Kurds do not fare much better. Other than the maktoumeen, another 225,000 out of about 1.7 million Kurds in Syria are categorized as "foreigners," holding only a red identity card for domestic travel. But the prospect of a war in neighboring Iraq appears to have spurred the Syrian authorities to reassess their 40- year suppression of Kurdish identity.

The Kurdish population of neighboring northern Iraq is expected to gain some form of autonomy in the wake of a US-led invasion to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. And Damascus fears that Syria's own Kurds may be inspired by the achievement of their brethren in Iraq to begin agitating for self-rule in their area of northeast Syria adjacent to the Iraqi and Turkish borders.

One Western diplomat in Damascus described the Kurdish question as a "time bomb." "I think the authorities are very concerned about the Kurdish issue," says Ibrahim Hamidi, who writes on Syrian affairs for the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper. "If the situation changes in northern Iraq, it will inspire the Kurds here, so I think that the authorities are going to start being nice to them."

The Syrian regime's concerns are reinforced by the fact that the Kurds populate the country's wealthiest province, source of most of Syria's oil and gas. The Kurds live in the flat fertile plain between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers - known locally as Al Jazeera or "The Island." The endlessly level skyline is broken only by small man-made hills and villages of single-story mud-plastered houses which seem to merge effortlessly with the natural landscape. Tractors and trucks laden with bulging sacks of soft white cotton clog the arrow-straight roads. The district is Syria's largest cotton-growing area.

Two months ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid a rare visit to Hasake, the principal town in the area, in an apparent attempt to appease the disenfranchised Kurds. "The message from the president is: 'Yes, we will look into your problems, but don't use this as a card to press for more,' " says a Damascus-based analyst. Most Kurds, however, say that their goal is citizenship and not autonomy.

"Our problem is very different from that of the Kurds in Iraq," says Ahmad Barakat of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party. "Their aim in Iraq is to get a state of their own. But in Syria, we just want our culture and freedom as Syrian nationals."

The repression of the Kurds began in 1962, with a controversial census undertaken by Syria's ruling Baath party in which some 120,000 Kurdish Syrian nationals were stripped of their citizenship overnight. Their offspring were also classified as foreigners or maktoumeen, swelling the population of dispossessed to around 250,000 today. …