As the civil war in Syria grinds on, one of the less noticed developments has been the emergence of a de facto Kurdish autonomous area in the country’s north east. Stretching across a chain of towns and villages from the border with Iraq to the disputed Sere Kaniye/Ras al Ain area, this Kurdish-ruled area is seeking to carve an uneasy position between regime and rebels.
The Kurds are opposed to the Assad regime, which brutally suppressed their aspirations over the last decades. At the same time, they are also deeply suspicion of the ambitions and intentions of Turkish-backed Islamist rebels.
The Kurdish creation of an autonomous zone has not gone un-noticed by the Syrian rebels. One of the key objectives of the largely Sunni rebellion is to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria. They suspect that the Kurds are planning to split off from the country. The result is an emerging ‘civil war within a civil war’. Rebel groups, apparently backed by Turkey, have clashed with Kurdish fighters in the flashpoint town of Sere Kaniyeh/Ras al-Ain. An uneasy ceasefire has now been signed in the town. Few expect that the last word has been said on the matter.
The Kurdish-ruled zone is situated in one of the most fertile areas of Syria, once known as the ‘breadbasket’ of the country. It is also the home of most of Syria’s oil reserves, making it a prize to be fought over between regime and rebels.
In late February, I travelled to this area. There is little good news coming out of Syria these days. But the Syrian Kurds, one of the region’s most oppressed minorities, looked like they were quietly carving out a safe zone for themselves amid the chaos. I wanted to see if that was in fact so, to assess the chances for long term survival of this area, and to ask what this might mean for the future of Syria as a whole.
I entered Syria ‘illegally’, accompanying a squad of Kurdish YPG militia fighters across the Iraqi border. The YPG (Popular Protection Units) are the PKK-trained Kurdish force that constitutes the sole military factor within the Kurdish autonomous zone in north east Syria.
We arrived in the town of Derik (Malkiyeh in Arabic). This town of 26,000 is one of the main centers of the Kurdish autonomous zone. The last regime security forces were expelled in November. I spent the next two days in Derik, observing the process whereby for the first time a functioning Kurdish apparatus of government was being created.
The old headquarters of the Political Security branch of Assad’s intelligence services is now the headquarters of the PYD (Democratic Union Party), the PKK-aligned movement which dominates the Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone. Flanking the building are two other new PYD-sponsored facilities, a center for Kurdish ‘revolutionary youth’ and a womens’ center.
The de facto domination of the PYD is the most immediately notable aspect of Derik.I spoke to one of the leaders of the party in Derik, 35 year old primary school teacher Talat Yunis. “The Kurds are with neither the regime nor the Free Army,” Yunis said, “the Kurds are a third point in the revolution.”
And what was the ultimate goal of this self-organization, I asked. Did his party seek independence, to split off from Syria? “The Kurds want self-government,” he replied, “but in the context of the Syrian nation. Any new government will have to accept self-rule in Kurdish areas – self-government, but within a democratic Syria.”
Yunis made it sound easy. Derik had within it an atmosphere of optimism that made this seem plausible. Under Assad, Kurdish was repressed in all its forms. Kurds were unable to speak their language outside of their homes, to study their culture, to give their children Kurdish names.
Now, in the cultural center in Derik, with the visage of Bashar Assad removed from the entrance, a play in Kurdish was taking place in the main hall. The sound of the tambour (a Kurdish stringed instrument), rang out from an adjoining room, as a group of men practiced Kurdish folk dancing.
But the atmosphere of liberation has a number of shadows over it. Firstly, not everyone welcomes the dominant role of the PYD in the governance of the Kurdish areas. While officially, a Kurdish ‘supreme committee’ bringing together the PYD with other, smaller parties is the governing body, everyone knows that the armed strength and mobilization of the PYD ensures that it is the sole true ruler.
For some local Kurds not affiliated with the PYD, this is a problem. One young woman I spoke to said that the party was repressive of voices other than its own, and had elevated ‘uneducated’ people to positions of power that they were abusing.
A broader problem facing the Kurdish enclave is that both sides in the civil war – the Assad regime and the Sunni Arab rebels – are opposed to its existence.
The Assad regime has largely abandoned northern Syria, and will probably never return. The rebels, on the other hand, are the new power in the north.
Sereh Kaniyeh is the point where the rival ambitions of Sunni rebels and Kurds collide. Twice – in November and mid-January, fighting has broken out in the town as the rebels sought to push their way in.
I travelled to Sere Kaniyeh from Derik, and met with fighters and commanders of the Kurdish YPG organization at a front line position.
The town has an eerie atmosphere. It is nearly deserted of civilian inhabitants. Large areas of it have been visibly devastated by the fighting. Burnt out buildings, debris, walls pock-marked by bullet holes mark the front line area. Remaining civilians stay in their homes, waiting for the food and heating materials provided by Kurdish relief organizations.
The frontline runs through the town. Islamist rebels of the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ghuraba al-Sham groups still hold two neighborhoods – Yusuf al-Azma and Sumud, constituting about 10% of the town.
Jamshid Osman, a YPG commander in Sere Kaniyeh, is convinced that the two rounds of fighting in January and November were part of a coordinated effort to destroy the area of Kurdish self-rule. Osman, in his late 20s and wearing an incongruous Russian-style military cap, has become well known throughout the Kurdish area because of the prominent role he and his men took in the fighting in Sere Kaniyeh.
“The Free Army took money from the Turkish government to fight in Sere Kaniyeh,” he told me, as we spoke at a house near the frontline dividing the sides. “Sere Kaniyeh is the first phase. They want to go on to Derik and Rumeilan and take the petrol and oil there.”
This Kurdish suspicion of a joint Turkish and Islamist plan to snuff out the emerging self-rule area is very widespread. It has some logic to it, and some evidence. The Islamist attackers do seem to have come across the Turkish border, and to have made use of a Turkish hospital to treat their wounded.
Few on the Kurdish side expect the ceasefire in Sere Kaniyeh to hold. As for their ambitions for ‘western Kurdistan’,– as Osman put it, “we’ll fight anyone who wants to make us slaves.”
Osman’s words should be noted, and taken seriously. The YPG have performed effectively and successfully in all their encounters with the Sunni rebels so far. As Syria fragments, ethnic and sectarian loyalties are coming to the fore. This fragmentation and reversion back to pre-existing ethnic and sectarian identities plays to the advantages of the Kurds, who have a more developed and crystallized identity of this kind than other population groups in Syria.
They are also able to draw on Kurdish political formations from outside the country – most importantly, the PKK and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq.
The Syrian civil war may yet last a long time. The Kurdish position in it is clear. As one young student in Derik put it to me ‘we don’t want the regime on our lands – and we dont want the Free Syrian Army either.”
This desire to preserve autonomy and a measure of quiet amid the chaos of civil war in Syria is entirely understandable. Of course, the insanity now gripping Syria may prevent this modest ambition from coming to fruition. But to witness the fighters of the YPG on the frontline in Sere Kaniyeh, and the organizers and activists in the town of Derik is to see a people who have ended their silence. Any attempt to return them to it is bound to be strongly resisted.