ISTANBUL — The Kurds' current battle against the Islamist forces of ISIS in the border city of Kobani is just the latest in a long, hard struggle for the Kurdish people in the regions that encompass modern Syria. An estimated 8% of Syria's 20 million citizens are Kurds; and except for some Yazidi clans, all the Syrian Kurds are Sunni Muslims who speak the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish. 

Kurds have made their home in Syria since the 12th century, and additional Kurdish clans relocated to Syria from the Anatolia region of what is now Turkey and Iraq.

The Ba'ath Party came into power in 1963 and made the already difficult life for Kurds worse by narrowing their freedom. Mohammad Hilal, who was then Ba'ath Police Chief for the area around Aleppo, expressed it this way: "The Kurdish issue is only a tumor growing on the body of the Arab nation. The only medicine is cutting them off."

Since 1945, the northern areas of Syria have attracted many uneducated and poor Kurds from neighboring countries, and they were seen as a problem even before Ba'ath came into power. After the number of Kurds there rose to 340,000 in 1962, the Syrian government stepped in: Some 200,000 people who couldn't prove they had been in the country before 1954 lost their citizenship status and were labeled "ajanip" or "maktumin" ("foreigners" or "illegal immigrants"). Among these people were poets, politicians and soldiers.

Hilal proposed dealing with the Kurds in the same way authorities in neighboring Turkey had done: relocating them, confiscating their property, depriving them of opportunities for business and education, denying them the rights of citizenship, banning the Kurdish language.

Syria also created an exchange agreement with Turkey for "wanted" persons, as well as locating Arabic clans among Kurdish populations and forming an "Arab Belt" by removing Kurds and placing Arabic settlers across the Turkish border and declaring martial law.

Ethnic hostility was not the only reason for these precautions: the hills of Qarachok and Remilan housed rich oil reserves.

Today, the population of those still dubbed "foreigners" and "illegal immigrants" is estimated to be between 70,000 to 300,000. They are only able to own property, get an education, travel, find employment, get married or divorced and benefit from public services as the state sees fit. Education in Kurdish or publishing and broadcasting in Kurdish are banned. Kurdish folk songs are not even allowed at a wedding. The names of places in Kurdish have been changed into Arabic since 1970.

Life for the poorest

The "maktumin" is the poorest class in Syria. The Arabs call them "those who eat bread and onion." After the father of current President Bashar al-Assad, Hafiz Assad, came into power via coup in 1970, the "maktumin" volunteered to enlist in the special forces working directly under the president to get on the state's good side, which was understandable. Assad was satisfied with their service and returned the favor by releasing Kurdish political prisoners and building infrastructure services for many Kurdish villages. Their good relations were interrupted by a press statement in 1992, on the 30th anniversary of the country's efforts to limit citizenship rights. Some 260 members of the Kurdish People's Union Party were arrested in four cities.

As the regime grew stricter, the number of supporters for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which had been active in Syria since 1979, increased. There were PKK offices in eight Syrian cities, including Aleppo and Kobani, in 1992. The PKK was easily enlisting the voluntary "maktumin" for their forces. But when Syria deported PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan after nearly going to war with Turkey for harboring him in October 1998, the PKK presence in Syria was shattered, and all its offices shuttered.

An 1873 photo of Kurds from Syria and Turkey — Photo: Funkynusayri

When Bashar al-Assad became president after his father's death in 2000, the first thing he did was visit the Kurdish areas. He promised to end to the "ajanip" and "maktumin" practice and give Kurds constitutional rights. But the post-9/11 security politics of the United States had its impact on Assad's Syria, which suffered a harsh embargo. If Assad had hastened the democratization of Syria and kept his promises, everything would be better today. But he did the opposite. So the Kurds organized and founded the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with the same vision of PKK in 2003.

There was a 2004 uprising after a football match in Qamishli, which saw dozens of Kurds shot dead by the Syrian authorities and thousands of others arrested. Syria saw another uprising in 2005 when Kurdish religious leader Sheikh Khaznawi was assassinated. Still, in 2006, leaders of the forthcoming Kurdish clans met with Assad and received the promise that Kurds without identification papers would get them.

Fighting back

The PKK remained active in Syria, and the PYD and its armed wing — the People's Protection Units (YPG) — became stronger after the 2011 Arab Spring. The organization came to an agreement with Assad the same year: The "ajanip" and "maktumin" started to get their citizenship rights in return for a Kurdish buffer zone in Rojava to ease things for him in the widening civil war.

After four key people in the Damascus regime were assassinated in 2012, Assad suspected Turkey of being behind the acts, and as a slap to Ankara handed all settlements in Rojava with more than 30% Kurdish population to PYD (except Qamishli). Finally on July 19, 2012, "autonomous democratic governance" was declared in three cantons: Al-Jazira, Kobani and Efrin. It was a milestone for the Kurdish political movement.

These three cantons are separate from each other because of the Arab villages placed between them as part of last century's Arab Belt project. Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians live there alongside the Kurds. These factors make it harder for the Kurds to preserve their political victories. All the Arabic organizations in the area aim to drive the Kurds outside of Rojava, and Turkey aims to destroy the Kurdish governance.

Indeed, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) current sympathy for ISIS is not so much ideological, as it is rife with historical significance.