Estimates of the number of Kurds in Syria vary widely, but they are believed to compose about 9 percent of the population. Although some Kurdish tribal groups have lived in the country for generations, many arrived from Turkey between 1924 and 1938, when Mustapha Kemal attempted to force his reform programs on the Kurds there.
The Kurds are a fiercely independent tribal people who speak their own language, Kirmanji. Living mainly in the broad, mountainous region of northwestern Iran, eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq, they are a cohesive people with intricate intertribal ties and a deep pride in their own history and traditions. Most Kurds are farmers; some are city dwellers; and others are nomads who drive their flocks far into the mountains in the summer and graze them on the lowlands in the winter.
Roughly 35 to 40 percent of the Kurds live in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains north of Aleppo. An equal number live in the Jazirah; about 10 percent in the vicinity of Jarabulus northeast of Aleppo; and from 10 to 15 percent in the Hayy al Akrad (Quarter of the Kurds) on the outskirts of Damascus.
Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims; a very small number are Christians and Alawis. In addition, the Syrian Yazidis, who speak Kirmanji, are sometimes considered Kurds. Numbering about 12,000, the Yazidis inhabit the Jabal Siman, west of Aleppo; the Jabal al Akrad, north of Aleppo; and a few villages south of Amuda and Jabal Abd al Aziz in the Jazirah. Most of the Yazidis work the land for Muslim landowners.
Syria's Kurds are almost entirely settled, but they retain much of their tribal organization. Although some groups in the Jazirah are seminomadic, most are village dwellers who cultivate wheat, barley, cotton, and rice. Urban Kurds engage in a number of occupations, but not generally in commerce. Many are manual laborers; some are employed as supervisors and foremen, a kind of work that has come to be considered their specialty. There are some Kurds in the civil service and the army, and a few have attained high rank. Most of the small wealthy group of Kurds derive their income from urban real estate.
Kurds who have left the more isolated villages and entered Arab society have generally adopted the dress and customs of the community in which they live. In the Jazirah, for example, many have adopted beduin dress, live in tents, and are generally indistinguishable from the beduin, except in speech. Most Kurds speak both Kirmanji and Arabic, although others, particularly those in Damascus, may speak only Arabic. Kurds who have entered the country in the present generation usually retain much of the language, dress, and customs of their native highlands.
For most Kurds, whether long established in Syria or recently arrived, tribal loyalty is stronger than national loyalty to either the Syrian state or to a Kurdish nation. They are traditionally distrustful of any government, particularly that in Damascus. However, relatively peaceful residence in Syria and gradual assimilation have mitigated their distrust of Syrian authorities.
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