‘Hundreds’ of minority residents in northeast Syria oppose census amidst fears of Kurdish authoritarianism, according to human rights monitor

Hundreds of Christian families refused to participate in a recent population census conducted by the Kurdish-led Self-Administration in Syria’s northeast, according to a local human rights monitor.

The families opposed the census, which comes ahead of federal elections in the Self-Administration-governed territories, because they are against the federal system proposed in March, says Somar Warda, a spokesman for the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights (AMHR).

A majority of residents in Jazirah canton, Warda says, consider the federalist project to be an “individual, isolated project proposed by a single party” that lacks the consensus of every constituent.

“The census has created extreme displeasure, fear and uncertainty among every sector of society in Al-Hasakah—Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Muslims and Christians,” said Warda, whose group monitors violations against Christians in Syria, such as attacks against priests and looting of churches, to Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani and Hassan Idris.

The population count, which comes in preparation for federal elections, is the first tangible sign that the federal system, opposed by many Jazirah residents, will in fact be implemented.

 Photo courtesy of the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights

In March, representatives in Kurdish-held territory held a constituent assembly and voted for a federal system with “intent to establish a decentralized, federal Syria,” Syria Direct reported that month.

Led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a left-wing Kurdish party with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Turkey, the federalist initiative “encapsulates all social components and guarantees that a future Syria will be for all Syrians,” according to the assembly’s statement, released after the vote.

Opponents of the federal system, including the AMHR, fear that it will lead to a Kurdish-dominated state in a diverse ethno-religious region, Syria Direct reported in March.

Q: How would you describe residents’ reactions to the census?

This census has created extreme displeasure, fear and uncertainty among every sector of society in Al-Hasakah—Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Muslims and Christians.

[Ed.: The Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs trace their roots back to ancient Mesopotamia, which includes parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. The predominately Christian groups speak Syriac, which is a modern dialect of Aramaic, according to a 2013 Syriac Studies article.]

These groups have been against the Self-Administration project from the beginning.

The Self-Administration seized authority by force.

For this reason, the Jazirah community is against any ruling issued by this illegitimate administration.

Q: The Self-Administration announced that the census is in preparation for upcoming elections for a new federal system that it announced in March. What is the Assyrian Monitor’s stance on this federal system?

The Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights believes any political project that reaches the consensus of every Syrian constituent must be realized, because it reflects the aspirations of every constituent in the area, from Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs to Kurds and Arabs.

[Ed.: In March, 200 representatives of Kurdish-controlled territories voted to form a federal system in northern Syria. The vote united the three Kurdish Self-Administration-controlled cantons of Jazirah, Afrin and Kobani under a single “Federal Democratic System of Rojava – Northern Syria,” Syria Direct reported.]

But this Self-Administration federalism isn’t just opposed by Christians. The majority of the people in Jazirah oppose it because it is an individual, isolated project proposed by a single Kurdish party that relies on force to achieve its goals. There are small groups of Christians and Arabs within the project, but they only represent their own interests and parties.

This federal project is not just a political project carried out by a party, it’s much more dangerous. In our opinion, it could ignite the fuse of sectarian and ethnic conflict in the area.

Q: Who refused to participate in the census?

Hundreds of Christian families in Qamishli refused to participate in the census.

[Ed.: The Rojava Center for Strategic Studies also reported that 166 families refused to be counted in an October 24 statement.]

Unfortunately, the Self-Administration’s weapons and funders—not love or understanding for people—is driving them to conduct this illegitimate project. As you know, in Syria today, the voice of a weapon is more powerful than the voice of intellect.

Q: In September, the Rojava Center for Strategic Studies, which conducted the census, told Syria Direct that they will “document everyone who is in Rojava and categorize them based on the nature of their residence: refugee, displaced and so on.” At the same time, the Self-Administration stipulates that displaced people need a sponsor to stay in Kurdish-controlled territory. Isn’t this a violation of their rights?

Unfortunately, the Self-Administration implements racist policies towards displaced people, especially Syrians displaced as a result of this drawn-out war, which is contrary to the traditions and customs of this region.

[Ed.: The Self-Administration stipulates that displaced people living in Jazirah need a sponsor to stay, the Executive Council of Jazirah canton reported in September.]

The fate of displaced Syrians who are living under this illegitimate administration is unknown.

Q:  In an October 21 statement, AMHR said that the census is contributing to demographic change. How do you see the Self-Administration’s policies contributing to demographic change?

The Self-Administration has different tools for enacting demographic change.

First, they have confiscated the land and property of departed residents under the pretext of administrating their property. By taking their land, the Self-Administration is cutting off hope for them to return. I’m talking about a significant number of people.

The Self-Administration is also forcibly conscripting young men and making them fight for causes that are not their own. As a result, many young men have fled Jazirah out of fear that they will be forced to fight in vain.

[Ed.: Military service is mandatory for male residents of the Self-Administration. In May, Syria Direct spoke with Kurdish men who considered leaving Al-Hasakah to avoid military service.]

Also, the Administration is changing names of streets, villages, towns and cities to Kurdish names. They are tinkering with educational curriculums in a way that suits their policies.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Hasaan Idrees

Hassan was studying agricultural engineering in his home city of al-Qusayr when the war began. He has worked with Syrian NGOs in Amman, Jordan.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.