Are for the Kurds

The Kurdish Globe - - COMMENT & ANALYSIS -

long-term Kur­dish self-rule, un­der its lead­er­ship.

A sup­porter of a ri­val party claimed that the PYD rules by “force alone.” An­other, a young woman, told me of threats by party mem­bers to take over houses of af­flu­ent refugees. She also spoke of the move­ment’s ef­forts to im­pose by force its own sec­u­lar and so­cial­ist world­view, for ex­am­ple, jail­ing men sus­pected of tak­ing sec­ond wives in ac­cor­dance with Is­lamic tra­di­tions. She said that the PYD was giv­ing power to “un­e­d­u­cated” peo­ple, in the ar­eas that it con­trols.

From what I saw in Derik, the PYD does ap­pear to en­joy con­sid­er­able pop­u­lar sup­port. It is also well armed, mo­bi­lized, and tightly or­ga­nized. For as long as its ri­vals re­main riven by splits and un­able to pro­duce an ef­fec­tive mili­tia of their own, this sit­u­a­tion is un­likely to change. If the PYD can con­tinue to pre­serve the largely peace­ful sit­u­a­tion in the ar­eas it rules, its stand­ing is un­likely to de­cline.

Derik of­fered a good op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve PYD rule in ac­tion. But I didn’t want to stay only in the ar­eas of firm Kur­dish con­trol, close to the Iraqi bor­der. I was keen to get to Sere Kaniyah, which was the scene of an on­go­ing stand­off be­tween the YPG fight­ers and Is­lamist rebels as­so­ci­ated with the Jab­hat al-Nusra and Ghuraba al-Sham or­ga­ni­za­tions. Fight­ing had erupted in the town on Novem­ber 19, as rebels sought to seize con­trol of it from the Kurds. The YPG de­fended the area and ex­pelled the Is­lamists from all but a few neigh­bor­hoods of the town.

To get from Kur­dish-con­trolled Derik to Kur­dish-con­trolled Seri Kaniyah re­quired go­ing through the city of Qamishli, the largest Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity city in Syria, which re­mains in the hands of the regime. In ac­cor­dance with the regime’s pol­icy else­where in the coun­try, As­sad’s forces have con­ceded smaller towns and ru­ral ar­eas, while push­ing forces into cities, like Qamishli, and hold­ing them.

We were flagged down at the road­block go­ing into Qamishli, but the bored-look­ing regime sol­diers seemed to be go­ing through the mo­tions, and there was no at­tempt at ques­tion­ing us. Spend­ing a few hours in the city was enough to cor­rect a false im­pres­sion given in re­port­ing of Syria, that the regime pres­ence in this city of nearly 200,000 res­i­dents is only to­ken. On the con­trary, what I saw was a fully func­tion­ing city un­der regime con­trol, with no vis­i­ble armed Kur­dish pres­ence.

The regime po­lice were de­ployed in the city cen­ter, around a strange white statue of de­ceased former dic­ta­tor Hafez al-As­sad. Sev­eral kilo­me­ters west of Qamishli, we hit a YPG check­point and we were back in the Kur­dish zone. The check­points are iden­ti­fi­able from a dis­tance, be­cause the Kurds block the road with mounds of earth, while the regime doesn’t. We drove through the Kur­dish-con­trolled town of Amuda, and then on into Sere Kaniyah.

While I was in Sere Kaniyah there was no fight­ing. Ar­eas of the town have suf­fered from the clashes be­tween the YPG and the Sunni rebels, but the dev­as­ta­tion is not on the scale of that suf­fered, for ex­am­ple, in the city of Aleppo. Still, the sit­u­a­tion was tense. Two rounds of heavy fight­ing, in Novem­ber 2012 and late Jan­uary 2013, have taken place here be­tween the Kurds and the Is­lamist rebels. Most of the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion ap­peared to have left the town. The streets were de­serted, with the re­main­ing civil­ians de­pen­dent on out­side aid and rarely leav­ing their homes.

The rebel groups who at­tacked the town re­main in pos­ses­sion of the neigh­bor­hoods of Yusuf alAzma and al-Su­mud, around 10 per­cent of the to­tal area of the town. Th­ese are now sealed off by a tense front­line in which the Is­lamist and Kur­dish fight­ers face one an­other. I vis­ited a front­line po­si­tion of the YPG in the town, and spoke to the com­man­der of the po­si­tion and some of his fight­ers.

The com­man­der, Jamshid Os­man, is a highly re­spected fig­ure in the YPG as a re­sult of his role in the Sere Kaniyah fight­ing. About 30 years old, stocky, and wear­ing an in­con­gru­ous Rus­sian-style mil­i­tary cap when I met him, Os­man spoke to me in a room dark­ened by a power cut, with a group of his fight­ers around him.

Sere Kaniyah has be­come a kind of watch­word for the Kurds. It is where, they be­lieve, the in­ter­ests of Sunni rebels and the government of Turkey co­in­cided. As Os­man put it, “The Free Army took money from the Turk­ish government. Sere Kaniyah was the first phase. Their in­ten­tion was to go on all the way to Derik and the oil town of Rumeilan, and take the petrol there.” More­over, said Os­man, “The Kurds are self-gov­ern­ing in Sere Kaniyah. That’s not good for the Turks, so they wanted to put an end to it.”

Os­man de­scribed the bat­tles of Novem­ber and Jan­uary, in which the fight­ers of Jab­hat al-Nusra, Ghuraba al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and other groups de­ployed tanks against the Kur­dish fight­ers. “When they first came in, the Turks opened the bor­der gate, to bring in sup­plies and take out wounded. Am­bu­lances car­ry­ing weapons also came in from the Turk­ish side.”

This claim of Turk­ish involvement in the fight­ing is com­monly heard from the Kur­dish side. The Kurds fur­ther claim that in­jured Is­lamist fight­ers were treated at a hospi­tal in the Turk­ish bor­der town of Cey­lan­pinar. That the rebel forces were op­er­at­ing from across the Turk­ish bor­der is borne out by eye­wit­ness re­ports. Turkey is un­doubt­edly watch­ing with con­cern the emer­gence of a sec­ond Kur­dish au­tonomous zone, along­side Kur­dish-ruled north­ern Iraq. It is likely that in the long term, the Turk­ish government and the in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful Is­lamist rebels in north­ern Syria will share a com­mon in­ter­est in blot­ting out the emer­gent semi-sovereignty of the Kur­dish ma­jor­ity area. But whether the re­cent fight­ing was part of a de­tailed plan for an in­va­sion by Turk­ish-backed Syr­ian Is­lamists is im­pos­si­ble to know.

A truce be­tween the YPG and the Free Syr­ian Army came into ef­fect Fe­bru­ary 17, but few ex­pect it to last. The Kurds are well aware that their area of self-government of­fers a tempt­ing prospect to sur­round­ing forces. As Jamshid Os­man told me, “Turkey, As­sad, Iraq, all want this area, where we’re gov­ern­ing our­selves, be­cause it’s full of oil. But we’ll fight any­one who wants to make us slaves.”

The YPG of­fi­cer’s view of Turk­ish and rebel motivations not­with­stand­ing, Syria was never an oil-rich state, even at the height of pro­duc­tion be­fore 2011. The rev­enues ac­cru­ing from the oil fields in the Rumeilan area never came any­where near those of the Iraqi oil­fields or the Gulf. Still, in poverty-stricken, ru­ined Syria, pos­ses­sion of th­ese ar­eas would rep­re­sent a con­sid­er­able prize.

Rumeilan is a dusty, teem­ing town, sur­rounded by wells that looked in­ac­tive. There was a sale of oil at rock-bot­tom prices to res­i­dents go­ing on in the town cen­ter as we drove in. Men took their al­lo­ca­tion of two cans full of oil for their fam­i­lies, for heat­ing and cook­ing pur­poses. An en­gi­neer from the oil plant at Rumeilan told me later that pro­duc­tion was vir­tu­ally at a stand­still. From 166,000 bar­rels of oil a day in early 2011, they were now down to about 5,000-6,000. The pipe­lines to Homs and Tar­tus are dam­aged. The for­eign com­pa­nies, the Bri­tish Gulf­sands and the Chi­nese, had long since left. The oil that was ex­tracted went to the Homs fil­ter only, and was used for domestic con­sump­tion.

“This char­ity that the land gives us, the oil,” said one Kurd I spoke to in the town, “never gave our peo­ple any­thing other than foul smells, can­cer, and other dis­eases. The ben­e­fits were al­ways for the oth­ers, who shipped it to Tar­tus, the Alawi peo­ple,” he said, re­fer­ring to the sect to which the As­sad regime be­longs.

The YPG/PYD have po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity con­trol in Rumeilan, but the oil in­dus­try is still in the hands of the regime. As one lo­cal of­fi­cial, Farzanan Mun­zer, ex­plained, “We have no money to give to the peo­ple work­ing in the plants, to change the own­er­ship from the Baath to the Kurds. Also, the only fil­ters are in Tar­tus and Homs, and with­out fil­ter­ing, it’s use­less.”

The of­fi­cials I spoke with, as­so­ci­ated with PYD-linked groups, spoke of their hopes for the area. Mun­zer, who told me he’d served four years in a regime jail for writ­ing an ar­ti­cle against the As­sads, had ev­i­dently learned pa­tience. He noted that “in the fu­ture, we’d like to build a pipe­line to Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. But right now, we don’t have the pos­si­bil­ity. And if we didn’t send the oil, the regime would stand against us, and the Free Syr­ian Army would stand against us, and war would come to our ar­eas. So there’ll come a day when we take con­trol of it, but it’s not now.”

His re­sponses seemed in­dica­tive of the mod­est di­men­sions of the cur­rent Kur­dish project in north­east Syria. Many on both the regime and rebel sides be­lieve that the Kurds are op­er­at­ing ac­cord­ing to some de­tailed blue­print for sep­a­ra­tion. The truth, as sug­gested by the ac­com­mo­da­tions reached with the rebels in Sere Kaniyah and the regime in Rumeilan, is that this very poor, his­tor­i­cally op­pressed pop­u­la­tion is look­ing mainly for self-pro­tec­tion and a mea­sure of self-rule, and, if pos­si­ble, hopes to sit out the ter­ri­ble civil war rag­ing else­where.

The YPG is run­ning a de­fen­sive cam­paign, not an in­sur­gency, in Kur­dish north­east Syria. This cam­paign goes hand in hand with the PYD’s suc­cess­ful ef­forts to build so­cial and ad­min­is­tra­tive struc­tures in the ar­eas of its con­trol. The dom­i­nance of the PYD and YPG rests ul­ti­mately on the guns of the lat­ter. There is no ev­i­dence of a com­pre­hen­sive agree­ment be­tween the As­sad regime and the PYD/YPG. The Kurds will tol­er­ate the pres­ence of both regime and rebels on a prag­matic ba­sis, where nec­es­sary, in their ar­eas. Their pref­er­ence, which they are work­ing to­wards, is that nei­ther be present.

The op­po­si­tion of both the government of Turkey and the Sunni Arab in­sur­gents to Kur­dish sel­f­rule in th­ese ar­eas is clear. The As­sad regime surely op­poses this too. But the As­sad regime is not coming back in force to north­ern Syria any time soon, and prob­a­bly ever. If and when Da­m­as­cus falls, and the new, as­cen­dant Sun­nis take power in one form or an­other, the de­fend­ers of the Kur­dish zone in north­east Syria will likely have to fight again to de­fend what they have gained.

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