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
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
"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. …