June 15, 2005


A murder stirs Kurds in Syria: Syria's 1.7 million Kurds are impatient over their rights, and key to Syrian stability. (Nicholas Blanford, 6/16/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

A moderate Islamic cleric who once worked with the Syrian government to temper extremism, Sheikh Khaznawi was emerging as one of its most outspoken critics. He advocated Kurdish rights and democracy, galvanizing many of the 1.7 million Kurds against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, Kurds were gaining political power in Iraq, Lebanon was casting Syrian troops out, and the US was criticizing Syria's government.

"[Syrian intelligence] wrote a report saying he ... should be stopped. They said he would start a revolution," says Sheikh Murad Khaznawi, the eldest of Sheikh Mohammed's eight sons.

On May 10, the cleric disappeared in Damascus. Three weeks later, he was found dead.

His murder sent shock waves through Syria's marginalized Kurdish community, sparking mass demonstrations earlier this month and mobilizing a community that represents the most potent domestic threat to President Assad.

"The sheikh was a symbol for the Kurdish people and he wanted all the people to unite and struggle peacefully," says Hassan Saleh, secretary-general of Yakiti Party, a banned Kurdish group.

The Syrian authorities deny involvement in Khaznawi's killing. But analysts and diplomats note that the cleric's death coincides with a crackdown by Damascus against internal political dissent.

"The stability of Syria is in the hands of the Kurds," says Ibrahim Hamidi, correspondent of the Arabic Al Hayat daily. "They have a unique position. They are organized, they have an Islamic identity, regional support through the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, international support with some European countries lobbying for them, and political status because of [the Kurdish empowerment in] Iraq."

Syria's 1.7 million Kurds comprise the largest non-Arab group in Syria, making up about 9 percent of the population. [...]

Khaznawi's disappearance spurred some 10,000 Kurds to demonstrate in Qamishli on May 21, calling on the government to reveal his whereabouts. But the government denied any knowledge of the kidnapping.

On June 1, Khaznawi's family was informed that their father had been found dead in Deir ez-Zor. His body, which was buried in a cemetery on the edge of town, showed signs of torture. "The security told us he had been buried for 12 days," says Sheikh Morshed Khaznawi, another of Khaznawi's sons. "We didn't believe them because the depth of the grave was only 70 centimeters [two feet] and Deir ez-Zor is very hot. He should have decayed very badly."

The Syrian authorities blamed the cleric's murder on a "criminal gang." Two gang members were arrested and were shown confessing on television.

Tens of thousands of mourners attended Khaznawi's burial and some 10,000 (mostly Kurd) protesters took to the streets of Qamishli on June 5. The demonstration turned violent when police and Arab tribesmen beat the protesters, including women, then looted dozens of Kurdish-owned shops.

"We have exceeded the culture of fear that the regime planted in us," says Machal Tammo, of the Tayyar Mustaqbal, a Kurdish Party.

Time for W to meet with a Syrian Kurd.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 15, 2005 8:49 PM

Better yet - let him meet with a Syrian turd, namely Assad - and give him a hard deadline for reform - or else.

Posted by: obc at June 16, 2005 1:38 AM

what's the point of issuing a deadline ? just go in. if you are willing to do it at all then do it, otherwise just keep quiet.

Posted by: cjm at June 16, 2005 12:29 PM