Published On: Sun, Mar 27th, 2016

Kurds in Syria: Demographics

Kurds in Syria

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, and made up between 10 and 15 percent of the Syrian population as of 2011—between 2 and 2.5 million people. The Kurdish population in Syria is relatively small in comparison to the Kurdish populations in nearby countries, such as Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. The majority of Syrian Kurds speak Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect spoken in Turkey and northeastern Iraq and Iran, and are mainly Sunni Muslims with the exception of some Yazidis and Kurdish Christians.

It is estimated that at the beginning of the 20th century around 12,000 Kurds lived in Damascus; an unknown number of Kurds lived in the Kurd-Dagh region; 16,000 Kurds lived in the Jarabulus region; and an unknown number lived in the Jazira province where they were likely the majority. In the 1920s after the failed Kurdish rebellions in Kemalist Turkey, there was a large influx of Kurds to Syria’s Jazira province. It is estimated that 25,000 Kurds fled at this time to Syria. According to Stefan Sperl, these Kurdish newcomers constituted no more than 10% of the Kurdish population of Jazira at the time and all were granted citizenship by the French mandate authorities who recognized their agricultural skills. However this contradicts with the estimates of the French geographers Fevret and Gibert; the French geographers Fevret and Gibert estimated that in 1953 out of the total 146,000 inhabitants of Jazira, agriculturalist Kurds made up 60000, nomad Arabs 50000 and a quarter of the population were Christians.

Even though Kurds have a long history in Syria, the government has used the fact that many Kurds fled to Syria during the 1920s to claim that Kurds are not indigenous to the country and to justify the government’s discriminatory policies against them.

Kurds in Syria: Geography

Kurds in Syria

Kurds mostly live in a geocultural region in northeastern Syria. This region covers the greater part of the governorate of Al Hasakah, a region also inhabited by many Armenians, Arameans and Assyrians. The main cities in this region are Qamishli and Hasakah. Another region with a significant Kurdish population is Kobanê in the northern part of Syria near the town of Jarabulus. The Kurdish inhabited northern and northeastern parts of Syria are called “Kurdistana Binxetê” in Kurdish. An area of Kurdish concentration is Kurd Dagh in the northwest, around the town of Afrin in Aleppo Governorate, a region that extends to the Turkish districts of Islahiye and Kırıkhan. Also, many Kurds live in the large cities and metropolitan areas of the country, for example, in the neighborhood of Rukn al-Din in Damascus which was formerly known as Hayy al Akrad.

Kurds in Syria: History

Kurds in Syria

Early Settlements

Kurdish settlement in Syria goes back to before the Crusades of the 11th century. A number of Kurdish military and feudal settlements from before this period have been found in Syria. Such settlements have been found in the Alawite and north Lebanese mountains and around Hama and its surroundings. The Crusade fortress of Krak des Chevaliers, which is known in Arabic as Hisn al-Akrad, was originally a Kurdish military settlement before it was enlarged by the French Crusaders. Similarly, the Kurd-Dagh has been inhabited by Kurds for more than a millennium.

Ayyubid period

In the 12th century, Kurdish and other Muslim regiments accompanied Saladin, who was a Kurd from Tikrit, on his conquest of the Middle East and establishment of the Ayyubid dynasty, which was administered from Damascus. The Kurdish regiments that accompanied Salidin established self-ruled areas in and around Damascus. These settlements evolved into the Kurdish sections of Damascus of Hayy al-Akrad and the Salhiyya districts located in the north-east of Damasacus on Mount Qasioun. The Kurdish community’s role in the military continued under the Ottomans. Kurdish soldiers and policeman from city were tasked with both maintaining order and protecting the pilgrims’ route toward Mecca. Many Kurds from Syria’s rural hinterland joined the local Janissary corp in Damascus. Later, Kurdish migrants from diverse areas, such as Diyarbakir, Mosul and Kirkuk, also joined these military units which caused an expansion of the Kurdish community in the city.

Ottoman period

During the Ottoman period, large Kurmanji-speaking Kurdish tribal groups both settled in and were deported to areas of northern Syria from Anatolia. The largest of these tribal groups was the Reshwan confederation, which was initially based in the Adiyaman region but eventually also settled throughout Anatolia. The Milli confederation, which was documented in Ottoman sources from the year 1518 onward, was the most powerful tribal group and dominated the entire northern Syrian steppe in the second half of the 18th century. Their influence continued to rise and eventually their leader Timur was appointed Ottoman governor of Raqqa. The Danish writer Carsten Niebuhr who traveled to Jazira in 1764 recorded five nomadic Kurdish tribes and one Arab tribe. According to Niebuhr, those tribes were settled near Mardin in Turkey, and paid the governor of that city for the right of grazing their herds in the Syrian Jazira. These Kurdish tribes gradually settled in villages and cities and are still present in Jazira.

In other parts of the country during this period, Kurds became local chiefs and tax farmers in Akkar and the Qusayr highlands between Antioch and Latakia in northwestern Syria. The Afrin Plateau northwest of Aleppo, just inside what is today Syria, was officially known as the “Sancak of the Kurds” in Ottoman documents. Ibrahim Pasha of the Milli confederation became one of the leading Hamidiye cavalry leaders of the late 19th century Ottoman Empire. After his death in 1908, the Millis again revolted against the Ottoman government and eventually settled for the most part on the Syrian side of the newly drawn Turkish-Syrian border of 1922.

The demographics of this area underwent a huge shift in the early part of the 20th century. Some Kurds cooperated with the Ottoman authorities in the massacres of Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Upper Mesopotamia and were granted their victims’ land as a reward.

Syriac Christians began to emigrate from Syria after the Amuda massacre of August 9, 1937. This massacre, carried out by the Kurdish tribal leader Sa’ed Agha, emptied the city of its Syriac population. In 1941, the Syriac community of al-Malikiyah was subjected to a vicious attack. Though the assault failed, Syriacs were terrorized and left in large numbers, and the immigration of Kurds from Turkey to the area converted al-Malikiya, al-Darbasiyah and Amuda into completely Kurdish cities. The historically-important Christian city of Nusaybin had a similar fate when its Christian population left after it was ceded to Turkey through the Franco-Turkish Agreement of Ankara in October 1921. The Christian population of the city crossed the border into Syria and settled in Qamishli, which was separated by the railway from Nusaybin. Nusaybin became Kurdish and Qamishli became a Syriac Christian city. Things soon changed, however, with the immigration of Kurds beginning in 1926 following the failure of the rebellion of Saeed Ali Naqshbandi against the Turkish authorities. During the 1920s, waves of Kurds fled their homes in Turkey and settled in northeastern Syria where they were granted citizenship by the French mandate authorities.

French Mandate

Following World War I, the victorious Allied powers and the defeated Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sevres of 10 August 1920. The treaty stipulated that Ottoman Kurdistan, which included Kurdish inhabited areas in present Syria, was to be given autonomy within the new Turkish Republic, with the choice for full independence within a year. The Kemalist victory in Turkey and subsequent territorial gains during the Turkish War of Independence led to the renegotiated Treaty of Lausanne of 24 July 1923, which made no mention of a future Kurdish state. The majority of Ottoman Kurdish territory was given to Turkey and the rest was divided between the newly established French Mandate of Syria and British Mandate of Iraq.

Under the French Mandate of Syria, the Kurds enjoyed considerable rights as the French Mandate authority encouraged minority autonomy as part of a divide and rule strategy and recruited heavily from the Kurds and other minority groups, such as Alawite and Druze, for its local armed forces. Between December 1931 and January 1932, the first elections under the new Syrian constitution were held. Among the deputies there were three members of the Syrian Kurdish nationalist Xoybûn party from the three different Kurdish enclaves in Syria: Khalil bey Ibn Ibrahim Pacha, Mustafa bey Ibn Shahin and Hassan Aouni.

In the mid-1930s, there arose an autonomist movement in the Jazira province among Kurds and Christians. Its Kurdish leaders were Hajo Agha, Kaddur Bey, and Khalil Bey Ibrahim Pasha. Hajo Agha was the Kurdish chief of the Heverkan tribal confederation and one of the leaders of the Kurdish nationalist party Xoybûn. He established himself as the representative of the Kurds in Jazira maintaining the coalition with the Christian notables, who were represented by the Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Gabriel I Tappouni and Michel Dôme the Armenian Catholic president of the Qamishli municipality. The Kurdish-Christian Coalition wanted French troops to stay in the province in case of Syrian independence, as they feared the nationalist Damascus government would replace minority officials by Muslim Arabs from the capital. The French authorities, although some in their ranks had earlier encouraged this anti-Damascus movement, refused to consider any new status of autonomy inside Syria and even annexed the Alawite State and the Jabal Druze State to the Syrian Republic.

Syrian independence

Osman Sabri and Daham Miro along with some Kurdish politicians, founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria in 1957. The objectives of KDPS were promotion of Kurdish cultural rights, economic progress and democratic change. KDPS was never legally recognized by the Syrian state and remains an underground organization, especially after a crackdown in 1960 during which several of its leaders were arrested, charged with separatism and imprisoned. After the failure of Syrian political union with Egypt in 1961, Syria was declared an Arab Republic in the interim constitution.

Syrian Arab Republic

Jazira census

On 23 August 1962, the government conducted a special population census only for the province of Jazira, which was predominantly Kurdish. As a result, around 120,000 Kurds in Jazira were stripped of their Syrian citizenship. In fact, the inhabitants had Syrian identity cards and were told to hand them over to the administration for renewal. However, many of those Kurds who submitted their cards received nothing in return. Many were arbitrarily categorized as ajanib, while others who did not participate in the census were categorised as maktumin, an even lower status than the ajanib; for all intents and purposes, these unregistered Kurds did not exist in the eyes of the state. They could not get jobs, become educated, own property, participate in politics, or even get married. In some cases, classifications varied even within Kurdish families: parents had citizenship but not their children, a child could be a citizen but nor his or her brothers and sisters. Those Kurds who lost their citizenship were often dispossessed of their lands, which were given by the state to Arab and Assyrian settlers. A media campaign was launched against the Kurds with slogans such as Save Arabism in Jazira! and Fight the Kurdish Menace!.

These policies in the Jazira region coincided with the beginning of Barzani’s uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan and discovery of oilfields in the Kurdish inhabited areas of Syria. In June 1963, Syria took part in the Iraqi military campaign against the Kurds by providing aircraft, armoured vehicles and a force of 6,000 soldiers. Syrian troops crossed the Iraqi border and moved into Kurdish town of Zakho in pursuit of Barzani’s fighters

Arab cordon

In 1965, the Syrian government decided to create an Arab cordon in the Jazira region along the Turkish border. The cordon was 300 kilometers long and 10-15 kilometers wide, stretched from the Iraqi border in the east to Ras Al-Ain in the west. The implementation of the Arab cordon plan began in 1973 and Bedouin Arabs were brought in and resettled in Kurdish areas. The toponymy of the area such as village names were Arabized. According to the original plan, some 140,000 Kurds had to be deported to the southern desert near Al-Raad. Although Kurdish farmers were dispossessed of their lands, they refused to move and give up their houses. Among these Kurdish villagers, those who were designated as alien were not allowed to own property, to repair a crumbling house or to build a new one.

Newroz protests

In March 1986, a few thousand Kurds wearing Kurdish costume gathered in the Kurdish part of Damascus to celebrate the spring festival of Newroz. Police warned them that Kurdish dress was prohibited and they fired on the crowd leaving one person dead. Around 40,000 Kurds took part in his funeral in Qamishli. Also in Afrin, three Kurds were killed during the Newroz demonstrations.

Qamishli riots

After an incident in a football stadium in Al Qamishli, 65 people were killed and more than 160 were injured in days of clashes starting from 12 March. Kurdish sources indicated that Syrian security forces used live ammunition against civilians after clashes broke out at a football match between Kurdish fans of the local team and Arab supporters of a visiting team from the city of Deir al-Zor. The international press reported that nine people were killed on 12 March. According to Amnesty International hundreds of people, mostly Kurds, were arrested after the riots. Kurdish detainees were reportedly tortured and ill-treated. Some Kurdish students were expelled from their universities, reportedly for participating in peaceful protests.

KNAS formation

The Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria was formed to represent Syrian Kurds based on two major conferences, one at the US Senate in March 2006 and the other at the EU parliament in Brussels in 2006. The Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria seek democracy for Syria and granting rights to Kurds and other Syrian minorities. They seek to transform Syria into a federal state, with a democratic system and structure for the federal government and provincial governments.

Syrian Civil War

Following the Tunisian Revolution and the Egyptian Revolution, 4 February 2011 was declared a Day of Rage in Syria by activists through the social website Facebook. Few turned out to protest, but among the few were Kurdish demonstrators in the northeast of the country. On 7 October 2011, Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo was gunned down in his apartment by masked men widely believed to be government agents. During Tammo’s funeral procession the next day in the town of Qamishli, Syrian security forces fired into a crowd of more than 50,000 mourners, killing five people. According to Tammo’s son, Fares Tammo, “My father’s assassination is the screw in the regime’s coffin. They made a big mistake by killing my father.” Since then, Kurdish demonstrations became a routine part of the Syrian uprising. In June 2012, the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, announced Abdulbaset Sieda, an ethnic Kurd, as their new leader.

Kurdish rebellion

Protests in the Kurdish inhabited areas of Syria evolved into armed clashes after the opposition Kurdish Democratic Union Party and Kurdish National Council signed a cooperation agreement on 12 July 2012 that created the Kurdish Supreme Committee as the governing body of all Kurdish controlled areas.

Under the administration of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, the People’s Protection Units were created to control the Kurdish inhabited areas in Syria. On 19 July, the YPG captured the city of Kobanê, and the next day captured Amûdê and Efrîn. The KNC and PYD afterwards formed a joint leadership council to run the captured cities. By 24 July, the Syrian Kurdish cities of Dêrika Hemko, Serê Kaniyê, Dirbêsî and Girkê Legê had also come under the control of the People’s Protection Units. The only major Kurdish inhabited cities that remained under government control were Hasaka and Qamishli.

In 2014, Kurds in Syria declared cantons of Cizîrê, Kobanê and Efrîn, as parts of autonomous Syrian Kurdistan.

Kurds in Syria: Human rights of Kurds

International and Kurdish human rights organizations have accused the Syrian government of discriminating against the Kurdish minority. Amnesty International also reported that Kurdish human rights activists are mistreated and persecuted.


Efrin Kobanî Hasakah Qamishli Kurdish inhabited areas are shaded in blue for areas inside Syria and light blue for areas outside the country. Kurdish inhabited areas are shaded in pink, in 1976 Kurds in Syria refers to people born in or residing in Syria who are of Kurdish origin. The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, comprising less than 10% of the country’s population according to the CIA, or 10 to 15 according to Minority Rights Group International. Syrian Kurds have faced routine discrimination and harassment by the government. “Syrian Kurdistan” is an unofficial name used by some to describe the Kurdish inhabited regions of northern and northeastern Syria. The northeastern Kurdish inhabited region covers the greater part of Hasakah Governorate. The main cities in this region are Al-Qamishli and Al-Hasakah. Another region with significant Kurdish population is Kobanî in the northern part of Syria near the town of Jarabulus and also the city of Afrin and its surroundings along the Turkish border. Many Kurds seek political autonomy for the Kurdish inhabited areas of Syria, similar to Iraqi Kurdistan in Iraq, or outright independence as part of Kurdistan. The name Rojava is also used by Kurds to name the Syrian Kurdish inhabited areas in relation to Kurdistan. Since the Syrian Civil War, Syrian government forces have abandoned many Kurdish-populated areas, leaving the Kurds to fill the power vacuum and govern these areas autonomously.