Syria's Assad makes gesture to Kurds amid protests

AP News
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Posted: Apr 07, 2011 11:16 AM
Syria's Assad makes gesture to Kurds amid protests

The Syrian president granted citizenship Thursday to thousands of Kurds, fulfilling a key demand of the country's long ostracized minority and making another overture amid extraordinary anti-government protests that have shaken Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime.

State-run television said Assad issued a decree granting citizenship to more than 250,000 Kurds registered as aliens in the records of the northeastern Hasaka province. In a separate decree, Assad fired the governor of central Homs province, which has been the scene of clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces over the past three weeks.

The overtures are part of a series of concessions by the regime designed to subdue the protests that erupted in a southern city on March 18 and spread to other parts of Syria. The decrees come on the eve of more protests planned by Syrian activists, who used social networking sites to call for nationwide demonstrations Friday.

Local and international human rights groups have said at least 100 people have been killed in the crackdown on demonstrations that echo the recent uprisings across the Arab world.

Many Syrian activists were skeptical about the concessions.

"All these decisions are cosmetic, they do not touch the core of the problem," said Haitham al-Maleh, a leading opposition figure.

Al-Maleh, an 80-year-old lawyer and longtime rights activist who spent several years in jail, said the protests that began in Syria will "continue to snowball until real changes are made."

He said among those changes are lifting the state of emergency in place since 1963, separating the state from the judiciary, a new law that allows formation of political parties and free elections.

Kurds _ the largest ethnic minority in Syria _ make up 15 percent of the country's 23 million people and have long complained of neglect and discrimination. The more than 250,000 Kurds who have been denied citizenship were barred from voting, owning property, going to state schools or getting government jobs as a result.

The government had argued that they are not Syrians but Kurds who fled to the country from neighboring Turkey or Iraq.

Tensions between Kurds and the authorities have exploded into violence on several occasions. In March 2004, clashes between Syrian Kurds and security forces in the northeastern city of Qamishli spread to the nearby cities of Hasaka and Aleppo, with at least 25 killed and 100 wounded.

Kurds have so far not joined anti-government protests that started last month, but authorities have been concerned they would _ making Thursday's move a likely attempt to pacify the community.

Many Kurds in Syria welcomed the step. Omar Osso, head of the Kurds' National Initiative, said it will help "tighten the unity" of the Syrian people.

"This is a historic step that has humanitarian and social dimensions," Osso said.

But Khalil Hassan, a Kurdish exile living in Beirut, described it as a "comedy."

"This would have been a good move had they done it years ago. Now it just shows the entire world that the regime is collapsing," he said. "What is the use of citizenship if one doesn't have dignity," he said.

Six Syrian rights groups said Wednesday that judicial authorities ordered the release of 48 Kurds detained last year in the northern city of Raqqah after throwing stones at Syrian police who ordered Kurds celebrating their new year to replace their ethnic flags with Syrian ones.

Assad on Thursday dismissed Governor Mohammad Iyad Ghaza, answering a major demand by Homs residents after deadly clashes between protesters and security forces in the province.

The Syrian leader has already fired the governor of Daraa, an impoverished southern province where the protests began nearly three weeks ago.