An image taken from a video posted online purports to show a fire truck spraying… (-, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Beirut — Syrian security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, ignoring international pressure, fired on anti-government protesters, killing at least 34 on a day activists tried to draw the country's Kurdish minority into the nationwide movement for political change.
The violent response to the demonstrations defied President Obama's call just hours earlier for Assad to either embrace political change in Syria or give up power. Security forces and plainclothes shabiha militiamen recruited from Assad's dominant Alawite minority, a small Shiite Muslim sect, fired on protesters, burned down the homes and shops of suspected protesters, and rounded people up and took them to detention centers, activists said.
Amid the continuing crackdown, pro-democracy activists tried to broaden their movement by appealing to the country's ethnic Kurdish minority, which harbors its own grievances against the government. The activists dubbed the loosely organized day of mass protests after weekly prayers "Azadi Friday" or "Friday of freedom." Azadi is the Kurdish word for freedom.
The call drew thousands of protesters into the streets in Kurdish towns along the country's northern border. In the Kurdish stronghold of Qamishli, in the northwest, protesters held up signs calling for freedom in Arabic, Kurdish and Aramaic, the language of the country's Assyrian Christian minority, in a show of unity across Syria's ethnic and sectarian divisions.
Assad has tried to prevent Kurdish discontent from fusing with the general uprising against his family's authoritarian rule, recently reversing decades of policy that denied Kurds citizenship. And while tens of thousands of demonstrators in and around the cities of Homs, Hama, Dair Alzour, Idlib and Damascus were met with gunfire and arrest, security forces generally showed some restraint in dealing with the Kurdish protesters.
"At first security forces moved towards the protest and tried to prevent some people from joining," said a resident of Qamishli who is not being named for his safety. "But the security forces quickly withdrew and the protest got under way."
After the demonstration, Syrian forces raided the offices of the Assyrian Democratic Organization in Qamishli, arresting 13 people for participating in the protests and destroying computers, said an Assyrian activist reached in Damascus.
Experts say Syrian authorities have used caution when dealing with the Kurds because they are fearful of inciting nationalist aspirations. With a distinctive language and culture, Kurds are said to be the world's largest ethnic group without a homeland, inhabiting a region that straddles parts of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
"The Kurds are very important because they are the best organized group in Syria," said Siamend Hajo, director of the Berlin-based website Kurdwatch.org, which monitors human rights violations against Syrian Kurds. "The Kurdish opposition has political parties and has in the last years demonstrated that it has experience with this type of political activity."
Many of Syria's Kurds, who make up about 10% of the country's population of 22 million have migrated in recent years from their ancestral villages in the north to the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, where activists hope they can play a leading role in drawing protesters into the streets.
Thus far, protests have not erupted in the country's capital and second-largest city in the same scale as in the smaller cities and towns. But on Friday, protesters in the Damascus neighborhood of Rakan Din chanted "Azadi" as they marched through the streets after prayers.
Assad's longstanding treatment of Kurds contradicts the regime's claims that it has protected the country's minorities. Syria's Kurds, who happen to live in an oil-rich area of the country, are not allowed to use or study their own language or celebrate their holidays. Assad brutally crushed a 2004 Kurdish uprising in Qamishli that garnered little support from other Syrians, making parts of the community wary of joining the current movement against him.
"They don't want a repeat about what happened in Qamishli" in 2004, said Nadim Houry, who monitors Syria from Beirut for Human Rights Watch. "Shooting at Kurds led to bigger protests. Buying Kurdish allegiance seems to have failed so far, but has created a bit of confusion among Kurds."
In an attempt to placate the Kurdish community, Assad recently hurriedly granted rights to hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds stripped of their citizenship decades ago.
The concessions, activists acknowledged, have created a rift between the small constellation of Kurdish political organizations and other Kurds eager to join in the demonstrations.
"There is the Kurdish youth movement, and there is a Kurdish political movement," said the activist in Qamishli. "Some Kurdish parties are asking people not to go to the protests and to stop the demonstrations."
Sandels is a special correspondent.