Assad; who do you think you are?
The Syrian national ID card includes its holder’s ancestral name and “place of origin,” i.e., the neighborhood and city most closely associated with his or her family name. Before the uprising, the ID card caused the kind of minor travel-related annoyances we’re accustomed to in the West. But in the past 20 months, the ID card has become a potent tool for profiling and weeding out suspected members of the opposition. If you get stopped at a checkpoint, being from a rebel city or neighborhood can mean the difference between life and death. And while an individual’s religion isn’t blatantly listed on the ID, most officials can make a pretty good guess about a citizen’s sect based on the information.
Syria has a long history of using citizenship restrictions to decide who’s in and who’s out. In 1962, the state arbitrarily revoked the citizenship of 120,000 Kurds. These Kurds and their descendants were all considered ajanib (stateless) until last May. Ajanib are not permitted to marry, own cars, rent houses, or possess national IDs. Below the ajanib are the maktoumeen (hidden)—those who live in stateless limbo, unable to leave Syria legally but also forbidden from getting a job.
After oppressing the separatist Kurds for decades, three weeks after the uprising Assad issued an amnesty, giving them full citizenship. This conspicuously timed move was a cynical political bid to keep the armed Kurds from allying with the opposition. It worked; the Kurds have become a third position of sorts, quietly laying the foundations for their own autonomous Kurdish revolution in the North while the FSA and the regime slaughter each other.
Even if you’re not against the regime, your ID can be used to punish you if you don’t take good care of it. This fall, the regime released 267 people from prison who had been found with broken ID cards. In recent months, a firebrand Syrian sheikh has been calling for Syrians to break their ID cards to protest the regime. One man told Agence France-Presse that he had been on his way home when security forces stopped him and found his ID card broken. Another unlucky soul told AFP, “They beat me and forced me to confess that I was following the sheikh’s instructions, which I didn’t know existed.” When these Syrians were released, their heads were shaved, and they bore signs of torture. The lesson is to take good care of your driver’s license, especially if you live under a paranoid-schizophrenic wartime regime.