Yaşar Yakış
Sep 27 2019

Turkey announces northern Syria belongs to Arabs

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent comments on northern Syria may have far-reaching consequences. Before his departure for New York to participate in the UN General Assembly this week, he said: “We have to clear the region (northern Syria) from the terrorist organisations and return it to its original owners. And the original owners are mainly Arabs –up to 85 to 90 percent.”

The percentage mentioned by Erdoğan may cause controversy, because it may raise the question of who are the remaining 10 percent of the region’s population. Are they Turkmens or Kurds, or other minorities? A CIA report of 2019 claims that the percentage of Kurds in Syria is around 10 percent. 

But there are also Turkmens in the region and their percentage is believed to be around 10 percent as well. So, if the Arabs constitute 90 percent of the region’s population, are the remaining 10 percent Kurds or Turkmens? 

In addition to them, there are also other religious, sectarian or ethnic minorities in the region, such as Christians (Armenians, Assyrians, Greek Orthodox and Maronites) and Yezidis.

Erdoğan’s statement raises two questions. One is that, in his Sept. 24 address to the UN General Assembly, he proposed building houses on a belt of 20 to 30 km deep inside Syria, east of the River Euphrates, to accommodate Syrian refugees who will return from Turkey or elsewhere. This proposal raises the question of determining on whose land these houses are going to be built. If the Syrian population registry and land registry prove that the Kurds constitute the majority in the region, it will be difficult to justify the construction of houses for non-Kurdish refugees in this area. 

The other question that Erdoğan’s statement raises is that Turkey re-emphasises its commitment to return the area to its original owners. The verification of the original owners requires sensitive scrutiny. Turkey cannot justify to the international community (and less so to the United States) refusing to return the land to Kurds if they turn out to be the majority of the population in a given area. 
To make it more complicated, there is also the sensitive issue of Syrian authorities stripping the Kurds of their citizenship in 1962, then re-admitting them to citizenship in 2011. In 1962, 20 percent of Syria’s Kurdish population were stripped of citizenship on the grounds that they had been fraudulently registered in 1945 when they illegally migrated from the neighbouring countries, mainly from Turkey. This is why there are, at present, innumerable Kurdish divided families between Turkey and Syria. 

The Syrian government asked Kurds to hand over their identity card so that they could be renewed. Some handed them over, but did not receive anything in return. This category of Kurds was registered as foreigners. Others refused to hand over their cards. They were nonetheless stripped of citizenship and listed as unregistered, which is a status even lower than foreigners. 

Kurds in both of these categories were refused the right to work in the public sector, could not travel abroad, they could not buy or sell real estate and their marriages and divorces could not be registered. Sometimes parents had citizenship, but not their children. The state sometimes gave real estate belonging to people stripped of citizenship to Arab settlers.

In April 2011, weeks after the first demonstrations that sparked the civil war, Syrian President Bashar Assad decided to correct this injustice and give citizenship to many Kurds to gain their support or buy their allegiance. The exact number of those who were readmitted to citizenship is not known, but it is estimated to be between 120,000 and 130,000. Since they were not allowed to own real estate for decades, will the houses they lived in and fields they farmed be considered theirs? And what will happen to those who were not re-admitted to the citizenship?

This raises another opportunity – or requirement - for cooperation between the Turkish and Syrian governments, because without Syrian cooperation it is almost impossible to determine who were the original owners of large parts of northern Syria.