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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Syria

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 16 July 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Syria, 16 July 2009, available at: [accessed 24 September 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Syria is home to ethnic minorities including Kurds and Palestinians. The state, while exercising some tolerance, has been repressive of groups such as Kurds forming what could be political alliances. Human Rights Watch has reported that in 2008 Syria's multiple security services 'continue to detain people without arrest warrants ... in effect forcibly disappearing them'.

Syria also has a large number of minority religious groups, including Allawi, Christians (including Assyrians and Armenians), Druze, Ismaili Shias and Yezidis. The state has a history of reasonable religious tolerance; all these groups appear able to practise their religions.

The official language in Syria is Arabic, however a number of religious minorities in Syria, such as Aramaic, Armenian and Assyrian speakers, have their own schools offering instruction in their mother tongues.

The most marginalized group appears to be Syria's Kurds. Of Syria's estimated 1.7 million Kurds the UK government's human rights report states that 300,000 continue to be denied citizenship. These Kurds have been denied Syrian passports and nationality, and their identity papers are stamped 'alien'.

Tensions between the government and Kurdish groups, heightened by the US invasion of Iraq, continued in 2008. In 2007, Syrian security services responded with force to major protests by Kurdish groups in the town of Qamlishi, near the Turkish border. In March 2008, security services again opened fire, this time apparently on civilians during a celebration of the Kurdish New Year, leaving three dead.

There have also been a number of arrests of Kurds in 2008. One well-known Kurdish leader, Osman Mihemed Sileman Heci, died on 18 February after several months in prison, according to the NGO the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), and Kurdish rights groups.

Syria bans political parties other than the ruling Baath party, and Kurdish parties are outlawed. The Syrian government has linked a number of the arrests or detentions of Kurds to individuals participating in banned political parties, or seeking a separate state. However, there is also a clear element of identity-based discrimination against Kurds.

Kurdish is an officially prohibited language and there are no Kurdish schools in Syria. Kurdish students are forbidden to learn in their native tongue, and even studying it is illegal. In summer of 2008, Darwish Ghalib Darwish and Zaki Ismail Khalil, two Kurds who decided to teach Kurdish to some of their friends, were arrested by Syrian security services. Their case is still pending.

Kurdish cultural activities are also firmly restricted, and there are reports of Kurds being arrested for wearing the colours of the Kurdish flag. Decree No. 49 also requires government approval for those wishing to sell, rent or lease land near the Turkish border, which Kurdish groups say is discriminatory. In October 2008, seven Kurdish parties demonstrated against the decree and 187 people were arrested.

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