In July, the Syrian army handed areas in the northeast to the Kurdish, who now run those areas. But whose side are the Kurds really on? And will they now establish their own nation? Aral Kakal spent several days in the “new Kurdistan”.
Many observers have suggested that Syria’s Kurds are turning out to be the biggest winners in that country’s violent revolutionary conflict. After years of discrimination and harsh treatment, some members of this major ethnic group appears to have taken over parts of north east Syria – and without meeting any resistance from Syrian government forces.
The latter seem to have quietly and peacefully ceded the territory, with a majority Kurdish population, to Kurdish military forces.
The situation is by no means simple though.
While those of Kurdish ethnicity are most often united when talking about their dream of a country of their own, in this case there is plenty of dissent within their own ranks.
Those occupying towns in north eastern Syria are associated with the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, a group that has been fighting for independence in Turkey for years, in an ongoing conflict that has seen tens of thousands of both Turkish and Kurdish people die. In fact, the PKK is categorised as a terrorist organisation by some Western nations.
And up until relatively recently, the representatives of the PKK in Syria were not part of Syria’s Kurdish National Council, which represents most of the Kurdish political parties in that country.
However under the guidance of Iraqi Kurdish politician, Massoud Barzani, the two bodies recently negotiated terms they can both live with; for the time being anyway, they are sharing power in this region until elections can be held. And that is despite reports of ongoing power tussles between the two factions in this area.
The other conflict occurring in Syria is that between the Kurdish and the Syrian rebels currently fighting the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad. While al-Assad’s army have basically handed over this territory to the Kurdish, many are accusing the Kurdish here of being Machiavellian, siding with al-Assad to get what they want.
For years the Kurdish minority was discriminated against here and even denied Syrian nationality; and as the situation became more precarious for his regime, al-Assad gave many of those Kurds associated with the PKK passports and made other concessions to get them on side.
The Turkish also come into the equation here.
The Kurdish people are one the largest ethnic groups in the world without an actual homeland and Kurdish living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey share a language, culture and ethnicity. For many, the idea of a nation of their own, Kurdistan, is something to strive for – and in fact, this is one of the biggest conflicts between militant Kurdish fighters who believe in that dream and the governments of the various countries in which they live, such as, for example, Turkey.
The Turkish government has been fighting the separatist Kurdish PKK for years – tens of thousands have died on both sides. Yet the Turkish government is supportive of the Syrian rebels and opposed to al-Assad’s repressive regime. Analysts says that al-Assad knows this and is using the PKK as a thorn in Turkey’s side, to pressure the Turkish.
Currently the closest the Kurdish get to their own country is the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own Kurdish legislation, military and government.And doubtless many Kurds in Syria would like to see something similar happening there – whether the Syrian rebels or al-Assad or Turkey wants this or not.
And whether the PKK has that political will to push for any kind of independence is also a further, complicated question. In the past, the al-Assad regime and the PKK have been closely allied. That was until a Syria-Turkey agreement saw them sidelined. Until the beginning of the revolution, the PKK were still blacklisted by the Syrian government. All this has changed relatively recently and many Syrians now see the PKK as allied with al-Assad again.
One former Arab resident of the Syrian north east says "they were well known as the hand of the government".A correspondent for the New Yorker weekly magazine recently met Kurds in Syria who told him the PKK had forbidden them from joining the Syrian rebels.
All of which seems to leave Syria's north east under Kurdish control but their real allegiances unclear. Meanwhile, to find out what’s really going on day to day, in north eastern Syria, Kurdish journalist and activist Aral Kakal and several of his colleagues went there for several days. This is what he saw.
A Journey Into 'New Kurdistan'
To get across the border, we pretended we were going to Fish Khabour, 85 kilometres north of Dohuk, where we would visit some of the villages on the Iraq-Syria border. That was how we managed to get past the final government checkpoint in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
After walking about ten minutes down a dirt road, we found an armed man waiting for us with a truck. He was 25 years old, overweight and wore a green and black bandana tied around his forehead. He had come from Iraq to Syria to try and help the Syrian Kurds there.
The young man drove us to the first Syrian village on this side of the border. My colleague, Farman Mohammed, works for one of the Kurdish satellite television stations and he happily told me that although we had just crossed an international border we had not needed our passports because we were moving from one part of “Greater Kurdistan” to another. For him, this dream – of a country called Kurdistan – is a long held one.
There are about 60 houses here in this border village of Karbalat and there are also headquarters for Kurdish security in this area. More than 15 young men carrying guns are standing around. The youngest was 18, the oldest 25. Their collared shirts were not tucked in and some were wearing T-shirts, carrying gun magazines in their pockets. And from the way they were carrying their guns, we could tell they had had no, or very little, experience with them, or with warfare.
After speaking to the Kurdish security staff there, we were introduced to Assad Jaoush, 45, who was familiar with the territory and who would guide us through the areas that had been liberated from the current Syrian regime, led by President Bashar al-Assad.
Jaoush wears military clothes and carries a Kalashnikov. As we toured the area he was happy to provide lots of information about what we were seeing. He pointed out that this area, the Jazira area in Syria’s far northeast, is well known because it holds more than half of all of Syria’s oil. Jaoush and his friend reckoned that after counting the oil wells in this region for four days, they thought there were thousands of them here.
We also pass through another village, Wank, which was one of the first towns around here to be Arabized. This was a policy that former Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, had in common with neighbouring dictator Saddam Hussein. Both leaders tried to weaken the substantial Kurdish communities here by pushing Arabs from other parts of their countries in and moving Kurds out.
Jaoush told us that the heads of the Arabized villages had come to the Kurds in the village of Datba, where he’s from, two days ago and asked to stay in the area. The Arabs said that if they were able to stay they would even return the property that had been confiscated from the Kurds by the al-Assad government.
“The comrades of Datba decided to allow them to stay,” Jaoush explains. “Because if we expelled them now then, given the current situation in the rest of Syria, they’d probably be killed.”
After this we travelled another 32 kilometres until we came to the first checkpoint manned by the actual Syrian army. This was at the small Syrian city of Derik, which was also known as Malikiya.
Earlier on Jaoush had told us that the Syrian army still keeps some bases in this area but that their presence is really only a formality: the Kurds are in control here.
Jaoush spoke to one of the soldiers there and we were allowed to pass. The soldiers were young and they looked weary and frightened. “They cannot really make a move or interfere without our approval,” Jaoush explained.
Since taking control of the Afrin, Kobani, Sari Kani and Derik areas in Syria’s northeast, the Kurdish have set up their own independent administration. Jaoush confirmed that this administration was associated with Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader who was one of the founding members of Kurdish separatist party, PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, and who is currently serving a life sentence in Turkey for his association with the PKK. Here in Syria the PKK-associated movement has two wings, with the political side known as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the military wing named the Popular Protection Units (or YPG).
We were able to tour around Derik easily enough and were able to meet several local leaders. The mayor of the Derik district, Subhi Ali Elias, told us that he had been elected to the position by PYD’s People’s Council. “This organisation [the People’s Council] is the highest authority here,” Elias told us. “It also has institutions for youth issues, women’s affairs, the arts and for teaching the Kurdish language. It also supervises municipal activities.” Up until recently, no Kurdish language schools existed here, they were forbidden by the Syrian government.
Another local, Havel Ahmad, told us he was a member of the local market council. The market place in Derik stays open late – and there are still a lot of pictures of the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad hanging on the walls and power poles.
[Editor’s note: Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network explained recently that this was because the central Syrian government is still paying the salaries of civil servants and the Kurdish administrators were not ready to, and indeed could not afford to, remove all signs of al-Assad in the city.]
“Our market council was elected by the shop keepers here to administer the market,” Ahmad explained. “its main task presently is to prevent artificial inflation and stop merchants from manipulating prices.” His market council was supervised by the more senior PYD council and there was also another council that acted as a legal court, Ahmad added.
We were also able to meet the Kurdish local responsible for Derik’s internal security, that is, the de-facto police force here. The ground floor of Derik’s security headquarters has two cells and there was a prisoner in each one.
“We have officers in all areas of Derik and we have control over the security here,” the de-facto police chief confirmed. “In some cases we’ve had to arrest troublemakers. But we resolve these problems using traditional [tribal] means, where we let the accuser and the alleged perpetrator meet one another and negotiate what would be suitable reparation. And we’re the arbitrators. We’ve had some 20 or 30 cases that needed to be resolved, as well as five instances of theft and we’ve been able to resolve them all,” he told us proudly.
There is also another security force present here though and it seems more formidable. This is the YPG, which is supposed to come under the control of the Kurdish National Council in Syria [a political body that comprises all of the different Kurdish political parties in Syria]. The YPG is more like an army; its members wear black uniforms and khaki jackets and they completely cover their faces with scarves, leaving only their eyes visible.
The YPG is commanded by a 30-year-old woman here. “All of the military in Derik is ours,” she told NIQASH, while keeping her face similarly covered. “In Derik we have 300 soldiers and if there’s any kind of emergency we can easily increase that number. We train our forces properly and every member is on duty for between five and 10 hours a day.”
Interestingly there was one place that we didn’t visit. This was the Baath political party’s premises in Derik. We stopped the car out front but we didn’t get out. Jaoush told us there was absolutely no point in doing so as the building – still decorated with al-Assad’s picture and flying the Baath party colours – had been abandoned recently. This seemed to be true: the door to the building simply stood ajar. “They left the building a week ago and took everything with them,” Jaoush said.
However there was still some noticeable Syrian presence in the headquarters of Syrian security: we saw men on the roof and also guards at the doors.
There are no hotels or guesthouses and during our stay in Derik, we were accommodated in a house that was just 150 metres away from the security headquarters. We managed to visit several locals’ homes too and often we would see pictures of Abdullah Ocalan hanging on the walls.
Every Friday there are anti-regime protests on the streets of Derik, organized by young Kurdish people who use loudspeakers to gather a crowd. Women stand on the left side and men on the right and then after the protests are finished, families simply return home again.
And in general, it seemed to us that most people were just going about their daily business, going to work, coming home, having dinner – nothing seemed unusual about their lives here.
Market council member Ahmad likes it this way. He told us that he believes that the Kurdish shouldn’t give up these territories again, that they shouldn’t let the al-Assad government back in here and that Syria’s Arabs should also be persuaded that al-Assad no longer controls the country’s northeast.
It makes sense to him and no doubt, to many others here too. “The Kurds don’t want to start a war with the regime and the regime doesn’t want to open up a new front,” Ahmad concludes.