Syria’s leader issued a decree on April 7 granting nationality to people in the eastern al-Hasaka region where many Kurds live, part of efforts to ease resentment over nearly five decades of strict Baathist rule.
It was not immediately clear how many would be given nationality, but at least 150,000 Kurds are registered as foreigners as a result of a 1962 census in al-Hasaka. There are an estimated 300 000 Kurds living in al-Hasaka.
But Kurdish leader Habib Ibrahim said Kurds would press their non-violent struggle for civil rights and democracy to replace autocratic rule despite President Bashar al-Assad’s decree.
“Our cause is democracy for the whole of Syria. Citizenship is the right of every Syrian. It is not a favour. It is not the right of anyone to grant,” Ibrahim, who heads the Democratic Unity Kurdish Party, told Reuters.
State television said that Assad had fired the governor of Homs province, one of the areas affected by nearly three weeks of protests calling for greater freedoms. Replacing the governor was one of the main demands of protesters last week.
In another move to appease the ethnic Kurds, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 48 Kurds were released on April 5, more than a year after they were arrested in the eastern city of Raqqa.
Assad also met provincial leaders from the Kurdish east of the country earlier in the week to listen to their demands, the official news agency reported.
Assad cracked down on ethnic Kurds, who make up about 10-15 percent of Syria’s 20 million people, when they launched violent demonstrations against the state in 2004.
Once unthinkable popular protests have shaken mainly Sunni Muslim Syria for nearly three weeks, with demonstrators demanding an end to emergency law and one-party rule by the Baath Party.
Syria’s ruling hierarchy, packed with minority Alawites, has tolerated no dissent and has used emergency laws to justify arbitrary arrests, including those of other minorities such as Kurds who say they are discriminated against.
In a move to mollify conservative Muslims, Syria also lifted on April 6 a ban on teachers wearing the full face veil and ordered the closure of the country’s only casino.
The pro-democracy protests first erupted in the southern city of Deraa, where many Sunni Muslim tribes resent the power and wealth accumulated by the Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam.
However, a day after Kurds were granted citizenship, protests erupted against Baath Party rule in Kurdish regions of eastern Syria, Kurdish activists said.
“The citizenship gesture only helped fuel the street (protests). The Kurdish cause is one for democracy, freedom and cultural identity,” Hassan Kamel, a senior member of the Democratic Kurdish Party in Syria, told Reuters.
Activists and witnesses said thousands of mostly young Kurds marched in the northeastern city of Qamishli on April 9 chanting: “No Kurd, no Arab, the Syrian people are one.”
“We salute the martyrs of Deraa,” they also chanted in reference to the Arab Sunni city where protests erupted against Assad’s rule three weeks ago before spreading across Syria.
The demonstrators also demanded freedom for thousands of political prisoners, many of them Kurds.
“Kurds are part of the Syrian people. They will not stop the struggle with their Arab brethren against the regime to lift emergency law for good. They will not be fooled by the so-called terrorism law in the making,” said Massoud Akko, a Kurdish activist in exile in Norway.
Akko said the Kurdish street will not calm down until Syria as a whole enjoyed freedom of speech and assembly and the Baath Party monopoly of power was ended.
Protests also erupted in the towns of Amouda near Qamishli and in Derabasiyeh on the Turkish border, activists said.
Mohammad Ismail, a leading Kurdish figure, told Reuters from Qamishli that a meeting between President Bashar al-Assad and members of Kurdish tribes earlier in the week helped fuel the protests.
“The authorities are trying to reduce the Kurdish nation into a bunch of tribes. The response of the street is a resounding ‘no’,” said Ismail, pointing a slogan of the protests “tribes do not represent the Kurdish movement.”