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Syrian government introduces Kurdish in universities

The Syrian regime has offered another carrot to the Kurdish minority: the Kurdish language as a university course.
Syrian Kurds practise reading the Kurdish language at a school in Derik, Al-Hasakah October 31, 2012. Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani warned Kurds in Syria against being sucked into the "fires of discord," urging them to preserve Kurdish unity as tensions between rival factions threaten to spillover into violence. Syria's Kurds see the war ravaging their country as an unprecedented opportunity to gain the kind of freedoms enjoyed by their ethnic kin in neighbouring Iraq, where they live autonomously

The Kurdish regions of Syria are increasingly isolated from the rest of the war-ravaged country. While the regime keeps shelling strongholds of the mostly Arab rebels, it allowed the Kurds to form a transitional autonomous administration in November 2013. After more than 50 years of Baathist discrimination, the Kurds achieved what was completely inconceivable a year ago: the introduction of their language in state-run universities, announced Dec. 18. In November 2012, the Ministry of Education had ordered the temporary closure of all schools where the Kurdish language had been introduced upon an initiative of the Kurdish parties in the northeastern province of Hasakah.

Kurdish instruction in Syria is still an imperfect practice, limited to universities and using the Arabic alphabet, while Syrian Kurds use Latin letters. It is also widely perceived as a tactical move to win the support of the Kurds and the international community ahead of the Geneva II conference. Nonetheless, this academic reform is a positive indication of the capability of the Kurds to reverse the hostility of the regime toward their cultural and political demands. Kurdish nationalist aspirations have been omnipresent throughout the uprising, and the Kurdish public has largely come to accept an entente with the government for the sake of Kurdish interests.

"It is a positive step, but they decided to adopt the Arabic alphabet, even though in Syria we use the Latin letters. This means they never consulted our people before making this decision. It's simply imposed from above," Yekiti Kurdi Party member Badran Masto told Al-Monitor in a Skype interview from Ras al-Ain.

"The Arabic alphabet is not capable of ‘absorbing’ the Kurdish phonetics, as already proven by Badarkhan's works. The regime claims to collaborate with the Kurdish Institute of Paris — how is this possible if all of their works are in Latin letters?" asked Piroz Perik, a freelance journalist from Ras al-Ain now based in Turkey, in a Skype interview. Ali Jaladat Badarkhan was an editor who standardized the Kurdish language using the Latin alphabet in the 1930s. Badarkhan's Kurdish is read in Syria and Turkey, but a Perso-Arabic alphabet is currently used by Kurds in Iraq and Iran. "The regime insists on turning the Kurdish language into an expression of the Arab culture," continued Perik.

Even though the Syrian state television Al-Ikhbariya announced a Kurdish curriculum would be adopted in "universities, schools and institutes," the commission in charge of the project has discussed it exclusively in universities, as is clear from interviews with the academic figures on the network.

"They just opened a Kurdish Department in the Faculty of Languages [of Damascus], as is the case for all the other languages," Abdul-Karim Omar, member of the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM), a pro-Democratic Union Party (PYD) group, told Al-Monitor in a Skype interview from Qamishli. This would qualify Kurdish as a foreign language taught in universities, rather than the second official language of the country.

Others personally witnessed scanty institutional commitment to the introduction of Kurdish. 

"I met the head of the High Institute for Languages in the University of Damascus while I was looking for a job as a qualified teacher of Kurdish. There, I realized they hired Kurds without any teaching diploma and their wage is particularly low — $100 per month — which is the salary of an MA student starting to teach at university," complained Arabic and Kurdish teacher Joan J.S.A. Ferso in a Skype interview from Amuda.

Most Kurds remain skeptical toward the genuineness of this governmental reform, as they consider it an attempt to boost Kurdish support and portray the regime as a caretaker of Syrian minorities ahead of Geneva II.

Internet cafe owner Tawfiq al-Husseini told Al-Monitor from Qamishli in a written interview, "The regime is attempting in vain to build a popular base among Kurds and send abroad the message that it is the defender of minorities," journalist Piroz Perik told Al-Monitor. "While the naturalization of the ajanib [the so-called 'foreigners,' the Kurds who were stripped of their Syrian citizenship by a census conducted in 1962] in April 2011 aimed to win over the Kurdish public at the beginning of the revolution, the introduction of the Kurdish language serves the purpose of bolstering the position of certain Kurdish parties."

Nevertheless, even the Kurdish parties that are considered close to the regime, such as the PYD, officially reject the motivation for this decision. TEV-DEM's Abdul-Karim Omar said, "We are in the run-up to Geneva II, so that opening room for the Kurdish language is a media maneuver, an attempt to clean the face of this bloody regime in front of the international community."

When asked about how the latest Kurdish achievements with the regime were possible, most Kurdish political actors deny the existence of any sort of agreement, but ordinary people show no hesitation in accepting controversial alliances in order to preserve Kurdish interests.

"The regime didn't give us anything. We have just exploited its weakness, but we are still part of the opposition and we fight against the government in Shaykh Maqsud [a neighborhood in Aleppo]," said Omar.

The most pragmatic Kurds legitimize the "truce" with the regime by prioritizing Kurdish interests and the blood spared by this decision.

"The Syrian Kurds saved their regions from a bloodbath, but they remained loyal to the revolution by not taking part in the crimes committed by the regime. In politics, you can give a hand to your enemy for the sake of serving your own people,” Ala Hussein, from Amuda, told Al-Monitor in a written interview.

"I view what has been presently offered or overlooked by the regime as something fruitful in the long term. It is a historical opportunity for Kurdish interests,” said another Syrian Kurd in a written interview. 

The return of such nationalist aspirations suits the PYD's manifesto, which promotes Kurdish empowerment and local autonomy. The latter aspect also attempts to appeal to the other ethnicities populating the northeast of Syria. "Ours is not a nationalist project. It is rather similar to the [opposition-led] local administrations set up all over Syria,” Omar said.

"It's the expression of all Syrian communities,” affirmed Perik.

In the current dire economic situation, the PYD's political vision has gained more support than a costly overthrow of the regime.

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