Minorities in Syria
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Kurds and Assyrian Christians discriminated
Minorities in Syria
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09. Juni 2005

The brief Damascus Spring of 2000

Many hoped the presidency of Bashar Al-Assad would bring reforms and improvement to the human rights situation for Syria’s minorities. However after a brief period of press freedom and releasing of some political prisoners, Syria’s regime soon went back to its old ways, imposing restrictive press laws and brutally crushing any criticism of its policies.

Its recent party congress (June 2005) did little to spark hope of change. President Assad focused on economic reforms, hardly mentioning political reforms. While the legalisation of new political parties was discussed, as well new press laws, the Ba’ath party maintains the monopoly on power, which is even enshrined in the Syrian constitution. Parties are still not permitted to be based on ethnic, religious or regional grounds, ruling out the Baath Party’s main opposition groups, the Kurdish minority and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The constitution (1973) describes The Syrian Arab Republic as a democratic, popular, socialist, and sovereign state, where "Freedom is a sacred right” . 19 August 2004 marked Syria’s accession to the UN Convention against Torture. However, Syria’s commitment to human rights appears to exist only on paper.

The Fate of the Kurds

The 1.5 million Kurds, who represent about 12% of the total population do not enjoy any of the rights stipulated by the constitution. For over 50 years they have been subjected to an aggressive Arabisation policy, denied the right to speak or be taught in the Kurdish language or to practice Kurdish traditions. Those who are not members of the reigning Ba’ath Party face discrimination, are denied the rights to freedom of speech and association.

As a result of a census in 1962, an estimated 120,000 Kurds were expatriated, thus denying them their citizen’s rights. Today around 200,000 stateless Kurds are unable to apply for a passport, register their children to attend school, or to have marriages registered.

Criticism forbidden

Any attempt to criticise the Syrian regime, such as the demonstrations in Damascus on 10 December 2002 and 25 June 2003 is brutally silenced by Syrian security forces. Following these demonstrations many were arrested and some are still in custody today held on vague charges such as "attempting to change the constitution by illegal means" and "spreading false information”

In March 2004 Syrian security forces intervened in a clash between supporters of rival Kurd and Arab football teams in Qamishli, leaving several dead and many injured. In the demonstrations which followed this incident, at least 30 Kurdish civilians were killed, over a 1000 were injured and more than 2500 were arrested. According to the SftP’s information, at least five Kurds were tortured to death during imprisonment following the demonstrations. Six Kurds were murdered during their military service.

The Syrian authorities have consistently refused to disclose information on the number or identity of people in detention and have denied human rights organisations access to the country. Of those prisoners who have already been released, many report being tortured while in Syrian custody.

Sheikh Muhamed Maschuk Al Khznawi(Xiznewi)

On May 2005, Sheikh Maschuk(Maashuq) Al Khznawi, a popular Kurdish religious leader, and outspoken critic of the Ba’ath regime, was murdered, after having "disappeared” a few weeks previously. Although Syrian authorities claimed the Sheikh was murdered by bandits, the Sheikh’s family said al Khznawi’s body bore marks of severe torture and that he was treated in Tesrin hospital for 15 hours before he died on 30th May.

The Sheikh’s death caused a huge outpouring of grief among Kurds and demonstrations took place in Qamishli. Once again, Syrian security forces intervened and opened fire on the crowd. More than 50 Kurds were arrested.

Other minorites – the Assyrian Christians

Assyrian Christians face similar discrimination. On 30 October 2004 2 Assyrian Christians were murdered by an off-duty Sunni military officer and his brother in Hassakeh province. The Syrian authorities responded to the resulting protests from the Assyrian community by arresting 12 Assyrians. No charges were brought against the perpetrators of the murders.

Instability in the region: consequences for Lebanon

Among others at risk in Syria are journalists, human rights activists or indeed anyone who dares to speak out and criticise the government. The consequences of these oppressive policies extend beyond its borders, causing instability in the region, particularly in Lebanon. On 2 June 2005, Lebanese journalist Samir Qaseer, an open critic of the Ba’ath Party’s policies, was assassinated in a car bomb attack outside his house in Beirut. The murder is universally believed to have been carried out by Syrian security forces and their intelligence operatives in Lebanon. Qaseer himself is said to have spoken of threats from Syria intended to silence him. This attack was the sixth in Lebanon since the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, on 14 February.

EU-Syria Association Agreement, WTO Application

The Barcelona Process, which began in 1995, aims to create a Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area by 2010. Syria, the EU’s biggest trading partner, will be the last country to sign an Association Agreement with the EU.

To date, the EU has done little more than express concern at human rights violations in Syria. So far this concern has not translated into actual consequences for EU-Syrian trade relations. Although "respect for human rights and democratic principles are an essential element” of the Agreement, and it "can be suspended in the event of major human rights violations”, the EU has not indicated that a stop to current human rights violations in Syria is a pre-condition for its ratification. The arbitrary arrest of political dissidents, reports of torture and inhumane conditions in custody and the systematic oppression of the Kurds as well as other minorities have not stood in the way of negotiations for Syria’s Accession to the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area nor to EU providing some € 200 million in funding for projects in support of the Syrian Government's modernisation and reform process, including areas such as higher education, private sector development, environment, tourism, energy, telecommunication and health.

In addition, Syria applied for membership of the World Trade Organisation in October 2001.

The EU has agreed to an early entry into force of the trade chapter of the Association Agreement following signature and pending parliamentary ratification of the agreement, despite continuing massive human rights violations in Syria.


Population 18.6 million (UN, 2005)
Capital Damascus
Area 185,180 sq km
Languages Arabic (official); Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian widely understood
Religions Islam ( majority Sunni Muslim, Alawite, Druze and others), Christian minority and tiny Jweish communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli and Aleppo)
Ethnic groups Arab (majority), Kurds (largest minority), Armenians, Assyrians
Life expectancy 70 yrs (men), 73 yrs (women) (UN)
Monetary unit 1 Syrian = 100 piastres
Main exports Oil, gas
Syrian Exports to EU (2003) € 3.1 billion (41% of total exports)
Syrian Imports from EU (2003) € 2.2 billion (39% of total imports)
Total EU assistance per year € 28.8 million
Total EU assistance in 2003 € 65.89 million

Brief History

Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516 until the British invaded in World War I. After the war it became a French mandate; it achieved independence in 1946 after a UN Security Council Resolution calling on France to withdraw its troops. Syria united with Nasser’s Egypt in the United Arab Republic (1958–61) until Syria seceded from it after a military coup in Damascus and established the Syrian Arab Republic.

After various coups, the Alawite-controlled pan-Arab Baath (Renaissance) party took control in 1963. It still rules the country today. Hafez al-Assad became president in 1970 and ruled the country until his death in June 2000. His son, Bashar al-Assad was elected President on July 10th.

Syria is home to many diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Alawite Shias and Druze, as well as the Arab Sunnis who make up a majority of the Muslim population.

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