Syr­ian Kur­dis­tan: The Kurds

The Kurdish Globe - - COMMENT & ANALYSIS -

In north­east Syria, from the bor­der with Iraq to the dis­puted town of Seri Kaniyah, a de facto Kur­dish au­tonomous re­gion has emerged. The area, known to the Kurds as west­ern Kur­dis­tan, is ruled by the Demo­cratic Union party (PYD). This is the Syr­ian fran­chise of the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ party (PKK), which has been wag­ing a mil­i­tary cam­paign against Turkey since 1984. The Kurds’ cre­ation and suc­cess­ful de­fense of this area has largely been ig­nored in me­dia cov­er­age of Syria, with at­ten­tion fo­cused far­ther south and west, on the bat­tle be­tween the forces of Syr­ian pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad and the rebel in­sur­gency.

Syria’s ap­prox­i­mately 2 mil­lion Kurds con­sti­tute around 9 per­cent of the coun­try’s 23 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. Un­der the Baath party regimes that have ruled Syria since 1963, and the na­tion­al­ist and mil­i­tary regimes that pre­ceded them, the Kurds were the most re­pressed and im­pov­er­ished part of the pop­u­la­tion, and the use of the Kur­dish lan­guage and Kur­dish names was banned by the au­thor­i­ties. In 1961-62, the regime stripped some 120,000 mem­bers of the long-es­tab­lished Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion of their cit­i­zen­ship, claim­ing that they were re­cent im­mi­grants from Turkey. Some of th­ese peo­ple were reg­is­tered as for­eign, while oth­ers were sim­ply not reg­is­tered at all, and were thus de­prived of ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, ba­sic health care, and use of the pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem. To­day, about 300,000 Kurds in Syria are ei­ther reg­is­tered as for­eign or de­prived of any le­gal sta­tus.

The Kur­dish area of the north­east was un­der­de­vel­oped, and char­ac­ter­ized by grind­ing poverty. Even the cost of per­mis­sion to build a house was be­yond the reach of many fam­i­lies. The Kurds have a long and bit­ter ac­count with the As­sads, and the out­break of rev­o­lu­tion and civil war has led to pre­vi­ously unimag­in­able op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The emer­gent Syr­ian Kur­dis­tan sits on the greater part of Syria’s oil re­serves, worth $4 bil­lion an­nu­ally be­fore the out­break of the upris­ing. The re­gion is also known as the bread­bas­ket of Syria for its rich and fer­tile soil. Kurds, Turks, the As­sad regime, and the rebels all have their own am­bi­tions for north­east Syria, where a com­plex po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary game is be­ing played out.

Last month, I trav­eled into the Kur­dish-con­trolled area of Syria from flour­ish­ing Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. The au­thor­i­ties of the Kur­dish Re­gional Government in north­ern Iraq do not per­mit jour­nal­ists to cross the bor­der via the of­fi­cial check­point. The KRG ev­i­dently has no de­sire to be held re­spon­si­ble for what­ever might be­fall such trav­el­ers in Syria. But there is an ad­di­tional rea­son, which re­quires un­tan­gling the knotty al­pha­bet of Kur­dish in­ter­nal pol­i­tics.

Syr­ian Kur­dis­tan is con­trolled by the PYD, which is af­fil­i­ated with the PKK. Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, mean­while, is ruled by the Kur­dish Demo­cratic party of Mas­soud Barzani, which has close re­la­tions with Turkey, the PKK’s pri­mary en­emy. The KDP and PKK rep­re­sent op­po­site ends of the spec­trum of Kur­dish pol­i­tics. The former is con­ser­va­tive, tra­di­tional, and in­flu­enced by tribal and clan con­cerns. The lat­ter is left­ist, sec­u­lar, quasi-Marx­ist. They share a ten­dency to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. While Barzani has pro­vided con­sid­er­able amounts of aid to the Syr­ian Kur­dish area, re­la­tions be­tween the sides re­main tense.

The cross­ing is manned by the KRG’s Pesh­merga sol­diers. I en­tered by night, ac­com­pa­ny­ing a group of fight­ers of the Pop­u­lar Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG), a mili­tia es­tab­lished to pro­tect the Kur­dish-ruled zone in Syria. Of­fi­cially, it is the prod­uct of an al­liance be­tween the PYD and the pro-Barzani Kur­dish par­ties. In prac­tice, how­ever, it is the armed el­e­ment of the PYD. Set­ting out through the coun­try­side from the bor­der area, we crossed the Ti­gris River and hiked to a po­si­tion above the town of Derik.

The YPG group I ac­com­pa­nied in­cluded both male and fe­male fight­ers. They dis­played a high level of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, fit­ness, and knowl­edge of the ter­rain. Both the mix­ing of the gen­ders (unique in a Syr­ian con­text) and the high level of com­pe­tence were ob­vi­ous tes­ti­mony to the fact that they had been trained by the PKK.

Af­ter cross­ing the bor­der, I slept the night in a small vil­lage called Wadi Souss. Wak­ing in the morn­ing, I saw a kind of ar­chi­tec­ture I have never en­coun­tered be­fore in the Mid­dle East: houses built out of dried mud and logs, look­ing like some­thing from me­dieval Europe. It was tes­ti­mony both to the deep tra­di­tions and to the poverty of this area. From the vil­lage, I was driven the fol­low­ing morn­ing into Derik.

The last regime el­e­ments were pushed out of Derik in Novem­ber of last year. The town con­sti­tutes one of the bas­tions of PYD ex­clu­sive rule. The move­ment’s sym­bols—red stars, pic­tures of jailed PKK leader Ab­dul­lah Öcalan—were ev­ery­where. None­the­less, a PYD of­fi­cial I spoke to at the par- ty’s head­quar­ters in the town de­nied that the PYD is a branch of the PKK. “The PYD and the PKK are not one party,” said Talal Yu­nis, a slight, black-haired teacher by pro­fes­sion. We sat on the rooftop of the party’s build­ing, un­til re­cently the head­quar­ters of the Po­lit­i­cal Se­cu­rity branch of As­sad’s in­tel­li­gence. “Here in Syria,” Yu­nis told me, “there is only the PYD.”

But the PYD of­fi­cial’s claims were not borne out by the ev­i­dence. The tight, ef­fi­cient, and com­pre­hen­sive PYD-dom­i­nated ad­min­is­tra­tion in the town was clearly not the work solely of the ac­tivists of a small, har­ried lo­cal party in ex­is­tence since 2003. Ahmed, a bright young PYD sup­porter I spoke to in Derik, con­firmed that both the civil and mil­i­tary set­ups in the town were es­tab­lished un­der the guid­ance of PKK fight­ers and ac­tivists who ar­rived in the course of the sum­mer. Ahmed, a former stu­dent at Da­m­as­cus Univer­sity, was strongly be­hind the PYD, but saw no rea­son to ob­scure its links with the PKK.

Usu­ally, the PYD stresses its Syr­ian iden­tity and down­plays its ties to the PKK for two rea­sons. First, the PKK is des­ig­nated a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion by both the United States and the

Me­me­brrs of the Kur­dish Youth Move­ment (TCK) of Syr­ian Kur­dis­tan raise pro-Kur­dish ban­ners and chant slo­gans dur­ing a demon­stra­tion in the Syr­ian Kur­dish city of Qamishli.

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