Syrian Kurds, The Latest Chapter In A Grim 900-Year Saga

The battle for Kobani begins
The battle for Kobani begins
Ayse Hur

ISTANBUL — The Kurds' current battle against the Islamist forces of ISIS in the border city of Kobani is just the latest in a long, hard struggle for the Kurdish people in the regions that encompass modern Syria. An estimated 8% of Syria's 20 million citizens are Kurds; and except for some Yazidi clans, all the Syrian Kurds are Sunni Muslims who speak the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish.

Kurds have made their home in Syria since the 12th century, and additional Kurdish clans relocated to Syria from the Anatolia region of what is now Turkey and Iraq.

The Ba'ath Party came into power in 1963 and made the already difficult life for Kurds worse by narrowing their freedom. Mohammad Hilal, who was then Ba'ath Police Chief for the area around Aleppo, expressed it this way: "The Kurdish issue is only a tumor growing on the body of the Arab nation. The only medicine is cutting them off."

Since 1945, the northern areas of Syria have attracted many uneducated and poor Kurds from neighboring countries, and they were seen as a problem even before Ba'ath came into power. After the number of Kurds there rose to 340,000 in 1962, the Syrian government stepped in: Some 200,000 people who couldn't prove they had been in the country before 1954 lost their citizenship status and were labeled "ajanip" or "maktumin" ("foreigners" or "illegal immigrants"). Among these people were poets, politicians and soldiers.

Hilal proposed dealing with the Kurds in the same way authorities in neighboring Turkey had done: relocating them, confiscating their property, depriving them of opportunities for business and education, denying them the rights of citizenship, banning the Kurdish language.

Syria also created an exchange agreement with Turkey for "wanted" persons, as well as locating Arabic clans among Kurdish populations and forming an "Arab Belt" by removing Kurds and placing Arabic settlers across the Turkish border and declaring martial law.

Ethnic hostility was not the only reason for these precautions: the hills of Qarachok and Remilan housed rich oil reserves.

Today, the population of those still dubbed "foreigners" and "illegal immigrants" is estimated to be between 70,000 to 300,000. They are only able to own property, get an education, travel, find employment, get married or divorced and benefit from public services as the state sees fit. Education in Kurdish or publishing and broadcasting in Kurdish are banned. Kurdish folk songs are not even allowed at a wedding. The names of places in Kurdish have been changed into Arabic since 1970.

Life for the poorest

The "maktumin" is the poorest class in Syria. The Arabs call them "those who eat bread and onion." After the father of current President Bashar al-Assad, Hafiz Assad, came into power via coup in 1970, the "maktumin" volunteered to enlist in the special forces working directly under the president to get on the state's good side, which was understandable. Assad was satisfied with their service and returned the favor by releasing Kurdish political prisoners and building infrastructure services for many Kurdish villages. Their good relations were interrupted by a press statement in 1992, on the 30th anniversary of the country's efforts to limit citizenship rights. Some 260 members of the Kurdish People's Union Party were arrested in four cities.

As the regime grew stricter, the number of supporters for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which had been active in Syria since 1979, increased. There were PKK offices in eight Syrian cities, including Aleppo and Kobani, in 1992. The PKK was easily enlisting the voluntary "maktumin" for their forces. But when Syria deported PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan after nearly going to war with Turkey for harboring him in October 1998, the PKK presence in Syria was shattered, and all its offices shuttered.

When Bashar al-Assad became president after his father's death in 2000, the first thing he did was visit the Kurdish areas. He promised to end to the "ajanip" and "maktumin" practice and give Kurds constitutional rights. But the post-9/11 security politics of the United States had its impact on Assad's Syria, which suffered a harsh embargo. If Assad had hastened the democratization of Syria and kept his promises, everything would be better today. But he did the opposite. So the Kurds organized and founded the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with the same vision of PKK in 2003.

There was a 2004 uprising after a football match in Qamishli, which saw dozens of Kurds shot dead by the Syrian authorities and thousands of others arrested. Syria saw another uprising in 2005 when Kurdish religious leader Sheikh Khaznawi was assassinated. Still, in 2006, leaders of the forthcoming Kurdish clans met with Assad and received the promise that Kurds without identification papers would get them.

Fighting back

The PKK remained active in Syria, and the PYD and its armed wing — the People's Protection Units (YPG) — became stronger after the 2011 Arab Spring. The organization came to an agreement with Assad the same year: The "ajanip" and "maktumin" started to get their citizenship rights in return for a Kurdish buffer zone in Rojava to ease things for him in the widening civil war.

After four key people in the Damascus regime were assassinated in 2012, Assad suspected Turkey of being behind the acts, and as a slap to Ankara handed all settlements in Rojava with more than 30% Kurdish population to PYD (except Qamishli). Finally on July 19, 2012, "autonomous democratic governance" was declared in three cantons: Al-Jazira, Kobani and Efrin. It was a milestone for the Kurdish political movement.

These three cantons are separate from each other because of the Arab villages placed between them as part of last century's Arab Belt project. Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians live there alongside the Kurds. These factors make it harder for the Kurds to preserve their political victories. All the Arabic organizations in the area aim to drive the Kurds outside of Rojava, and Turkey aims to destroy the Kurdish governance.

Indeed, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) current sympathy for ISIS is not so much ideological, as it is rife with historical significance.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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