The history behind the 2004 ‘Kurdish Intifada’

By Sasha Hoffman

QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – Today, March 12, marks the 20th anniversary of what some have termed the ‘Kurdish Intifada’. In 2004, tens of thousands of Kurds rioted against the government of Bashar al-Assad. The protests spread from a football match in Qamishli to other Kurdish cities, and on to Aleppo and Damascus. Seven years before the general uprising against the government of Syria, what made Kurds rebel?

The March 12 riots need to be rooted firmly in the history of Baathist rule over Syria’s Kurds, particularly in the Jazira region, northeastern Syria. Even before 1963, when the Baath party took control of the country, Kurds had been treated as second-class citizens. The Kurdish language was outlawed; high-level jobs in the government and army were out of reach for the Kurds. In 1962, a so-called ‘extraordinary census’ left around 20% of Syria’s Kurds, particularly in Jazira, stateless. By 2011, their descendants numbered roughly 300,000.

In the 1970s, new Baathist government resettled Arabs into northern Jazira to thin out the Kurdish population along the border. The new settlers were allowed to graze their animals on Kurdish land; the Kurds could not protest. 

In the late 1970s and early 80s, Syria’s Moscow-aligned government invited Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the nascent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, to settle in Damascus in order to pressure the NATO member state to its north. This uneasy alliance continued until 1998, when Syria and Turkey aligned their interests. The Adana Agreement between both governments outlawed the PKK and committed Damascus to crack down on the Kurdish party.

Waves of repression against Syria’s Kurds followed. According to reports, at least 150 PKK cadres were handed over to Turkey by Syrian government forces; “dozens” more were assassinated. By the turn of the millennium, the PKK had been forced out of Syria. The exiled PKK party shifted its thought from national liberation to democratic autonomy.  

In the early 2000s, new Syrian Kurdish parties emerged that pledged allegiance to this new paradigm, such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in 2003, and the Kurdish Youth Movement in 2005. The PYD became the largest of around 14 Kurdish political parties in Syria. At the time, its base was mainly Kurdish youth, the poor and small-scale farmers.  

The 2004 riots   

Riots erupted in Qamishli in 2004 at a football game between the local team and one from Deir ez-Zor. Fans of both teams had been heckling each other, praising George W. Bush for waging war against their Deri (from Deir ez-Zor) kin in Iraq, and applauding Saddam Hussein for gassing Kurds at Halabja, respectively. At an ensuing pitch battle, the government forces took the side of the visiting fans, further angering local Kurds.

The local Baath party offices were burned down; a statue of Hafez al-Assad, former Syrian president, was toppled. Security forces deployed tanks and helicopters. Solidarity protests mushroomed in other Kurdish cities. Even Damascus and Aleppo, which are home to a significant Kurdish minority, saw protests. The government’s brutal crackdown killed 36-43 people, injured over a thousand, and displaced many thousands into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Over 2,000 people were arrested. Syria would not see a comparable anti-government protest until 2011.

Remarkably, despite the inter-ethnic violence, which included the government’s use of Arab tribal elements to subdue the protests, the nascent PYD began forging alliances with the Arab opposition in Jazira in the riot’s aftermath.

When Syria as a whole rose against the Assad government in 2011, the Kurdish regions were well-organized. Rather than crack down on the population, Damascus attempted to win over Syria’s Kurds with the restoration of full citizenship and cultural rights. When this proved not to be enough, it abandoned the regions in 2012 in hopes of one day returning.

Today, the political alliance forged in the aftermath of the 2004 riots not only rules Jazira and other Kurdish-majority areas of Syria, but around half of the Deir ez-Zor region, too. March 12 is commemorated every year with a friendly football match between a Deri and a local team in Qamishli.