By: Robert Asher, Photo by: Andreas Stahl
In Syria’s far East a people oppressed for decades have finally had their first taste of freedom. The Kurds have been marginalized and discriminated against by two Assad regimes, but a window of opportunity for self rule has presented itself, and they are not wasting a second. With the Syrian Army choosing to focus its forces in the major cities in the West of the country, the regime’s presence is now only felt in one of five cities in the Kurdish region. Throughout the revolution in Syria the opposition has failed to provide even the most basic of civil services, but in the city of Dairk, the Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (PYD) has quickly organized itself into a model for local and regional government.
Under the Assad regime Kurdish political parties have been banned. An uprising erupted in 2004 but was quickly suppressed in the Kurdish city of Qamishli. Although brief, the event was a defining moment and gave birth to the PYD, initially an underground movement. It wasn’t until the revolution began some 22 months ago that a full political mobilization could begin.
On July 21st this past summer, after decades of corrupt and insufficient services by the Assad government, the PYD was finally properly organized to make their move. With overwhelming public support backed by the Popular Protection Unit (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish defense force, the regime was forced out of all local government offices and replaced by the PYD. “The Assad regime is fascist and has killed many of our people. It has denied us even our most basic rights to speak our own language and obtain Syrian citizenship unless we convert to Arab culture,” said Talat Unis, the local PYD leader in Dairk. “We believe we can administer ourselves, but the fight has only just begun, and we are not yet completely free. We have many obstacles to overcome,” he continued.
Many members of the PYD began their political careers fighting with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in Turkey, but returned to their homeland in Syria when the revolution began. After waging a decades long battle for autonomy against the Turkish government, these PYD members are eager to reclaim their rights in Syria. “We follow the teachings of Abdullah Öcalan for democracy, women’s rights, and ecology. We used to fight with our Kurdish brothers in the mountains of Turkey, but when the time came for us to reclaim our ancestral homeland in Syria we returned. Now we are the PYD, and we fight only for a future Syria with equal rights for our people”, explained Khalil who now mans a YPG border outpost previously occupied by the Syrian Army.
As the ideological leader of the PKK and now the PYD, Abdullah Öcalan led the Kurdish fight against Turkey until he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. In an attempt to quell their close affiliation, the Turkish government has closed all border crossings to the Kurdish region of Syria, preventing any import of refined fuel and other essential items such as flour for bread. With that trade route closed and access to electricity a dwindling commodity in most parts of Syria, the Kurdish area has been literally left in the dark. International trade sanctions as a result of Assad’s merciless attack on the revolution have left Eastern Syria without a market for their wealth of oil and gas.
Sarekaniya, Formerly Known as Ras al-Ain
The PYD controls the cities of Dairk, Amouda, Darbasiya, and a significant portion of the biggest cities in the region: Qamishli and Sarekaniya (also known as Ras al-Ain). The YPG mans checkpoints along the main highway connecting the cities, but shares this responsibility with an opposing Kurdish political coalition called the National Council (NK) under a fragile alliance known as The High Kurdish Council (HKC). Suspicions linger between the NK and the PYD over the Assad regime’s apparent willingness to hand over control of these cities to the PYD and YPG without putting up much of a fight. The NK suspects a secret deal must have been made, but the PYD flatly denies any such agreement occurred. “On November 21st our brave YPG forces stormed the regime’s intelligence offices in the region and forced them to leave. Most of the Syrian Army stationed in our region were Arabs from Damascus and Homs, and had no desire to fight and die here. Rather than risk mass desertion as seen in the Army in other parts of the country, the Army removed it forces,” Talat Unis explained.
In Sarekaniya the PYD has a new enemy: Islamic Extremist groups fighting under the auspices of the Free Army, and with, they suspect, the assistance of the Turkish government. Despite being a member of NATO and close ally of the United States and Europe, Turkey has openly declared its support for the Free Army (FSA). However, supporting extremist groups such as Jabhat al Nursa is not part of the strategic plan endorsed by the West to topple Assad.
Gemshid Othman is the commander of PYD forces in Sarekaniya and explains his theory of the Turkish government’s support for such groups, “On November 7th the Turkish military could be seen removing land mines along the border. At 3am on the 8th the extremists arrived. They began by firing their weapons in to the air to scare the local people, and then they targeted local Christians who sold alcohol ordering them to stop or risk losing their hands in punishment. After a few days of fighting with these groups, we captured their commander’s headquarters and found foreign passports with Turkish stamps and a document describing a meeting held between Turkish officials and the extremist groups outlining a plan to attack our people. We killed 60 of them, and lost only 5 of our men in battles over the past month.”
However other questions and inconsistencies remain. November 8th was also the same day the PYD forced the regime out of Sarekaniya, and later that day a Syrian Air Force MIG attacked a residential neighborhood. It would be easy to assume this was in retaliation for their forced removal from the city, but the regime claimed it was solely an attack on the Free Army, unrelated to their removal from Sarekaniya.
Fighting has continued between the PYD and a multitude of Free Army brigades and extremist groups. Ajub Sjecho, 82, a Kurdish Yizidi, a small non-muslim minority, lost his eldest son in recent fighting. “My son was the heart of our family. He was brave. Erdogan is supporting the extremists and their plan to kill our people. With God’s will we will push them back.” Now Ajub has taken his son’s gun and fights himself. Agreements between the PYD and the FSA/extremists to create a truce are fragile and broken on a consistent basis. Years of distrust between Kurds and Arabs run deep, and peace in Sarekaniya no longer rests on the fall of Assad.
The Kurdistan Factor
At the Domiz refugee camp, located roughly 100km across the Syrian border in Iraqi Kurdistan, over 42,000 Syrian Kurds have come seeking sanctuary. Due to a crippled economy in predominantly Kurdish cities and towns in eastern Syria over past decades, many Kurds relocated to the larger cities of Damascus and Aleppo in search of work. Now, with heavy fighting between the Free Army and the Syrian Army at Assad’s doorstep, the dangers, and resulting food and electricity shortages have forced many to return to the East. With the PYD controlling most of the Northeast, and a Turkish trade blockade imposed due to concerns the PYD is the PKK under a different name, many have found no other option but the Domiz camp. In one tent at the camp neatly arranged with carpets, mattresses along the sides, and an electric heater at the center, Ali Mohammed, 42, formerly a driver in Damascus, was eager to explain his situation. “As fighting intensified, movement on the streets after 4pm each day became increasingly restricted. There was no fuel for my car, no food for my family, and no schools for my children. We traveled for two days to return to the East, when we arrived there was no option for work. To feed my family I’ve come to the camp. The situation here is better than in Syria, here we have everything we need”.
UNHCR provides the bulk of the relief offered at the camp, equipping all with a tent and small concrete enclosure for use as a kitchen and to block against heavy winds, a tank for storing water, access to electricity, and a $31 per month ration card for use at a market operating on fixed prices. All children have access to a school staffed by over 50 teachers, and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) runs two hospitals in the camp providing basic medical services. All serious medical cases are referred to one of the major hospitals in the nearby city of Duhok.
In Kurdistan, regional President Massoud Barzani orchestrates a booming economy with a reported 8% GDP annual growth. His influence and vast wealth can be seen in most sectors of the economy, and he has been a major benefactor at the Domiz camp. Barzani is also the driving force behind the Kurdish National Council (NK) in Syria which is locked in a power struggle with the PYD. With the PYD closely basing their system of government on the socialist teachings of Abdullah Öcalan, and Barzani known to be a staunch capitalist, the PYD has found themselves without their naturally-assumed Kurdish ally. There are rumors and speculation that Assad has been quietly working with his closest allies in Iran and their Shiite counterpart Nuri al-Maliki, the President of Iraq, to pressure Barzani against cooperating with the PYD. Kurdistan is heavily reliant on trade between its powerful neighbors Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, and cannot afford to jeopardize these essential links. Assad is well aware of Turkish and PYD distaste for one another, and may very well see the PYD as a bulwark against any possible Turkish infiltration in the region. This all but boxes in the PYD—they may control most cities and towns in the Northeast, but there are few economic options available.
In Dairk, a small city filled with many elegant houses, life for the Kurdish people continues to move forward in a new and positive direction, despite the hardships. Officials at a government office known as The Peoples House work to correct the wrongs enforced over the past 40 years. As the cities of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo grew, many Arab people who’s land was needed to feed the urban expansion were offered Kurdish land in the East in exchange. Shamsa Haji, an 80 year-old widow, has come to reclaim her husband’s land, rightfully owned over 25 years ago but given to an Arab family by the regime. “This Arab family arrived 25 years ago with illegal documents claiming our land, but I have the original documents which prove my family are the rightful owners”, explains Shamsa. “I’ve come here today because I believe the Peoples House will finally help me. I just want the truth to come out, and I just want to work my land”. Ahmed Raja, the Peoples House local leader, agrees to hear here case, and work to reclaim her land from the Arab family who now occupy it. “We have a special committee for agriculture, and we will study the situation closely and decide on the most appropriate and fair solution,” he vowed.
At the Women’s Council, Chichek Kamishlo works to protect and advance the rights of all women, be they Kurdish, Arab, or Christian. “Almost all of the problems women encounter on a daily basis come from men violating our basic rights, through intimidation and violence,” Kamishlo said. She described the recent case of a married man who met a girl he wanted to have sex with. Since sex outside of marriage is forbidden, the man approached the family and asked for her hand in marriage. Once the marriage was consummated, he told her he would divorce her and she was not welcome in his home. “In our culture a divorced woman has limited chances to marry again, and often life becomes very difficult for her. In this case the woman came to the Women’s House seeking our assistance. We have since instructed the man to pay a monthly allowance for her, and we have also requested the local police arrest him because we believe what he did was as bad as rape”. The Women’s House has since secured a place for the woman to live as well as employment.
In the town center, shops are open for business selling all manner of products. Dalgash Gamal, 28, owns a smart little shop offering soaps, perfumes, and a wide variety of beauty products for women. “We used to get our products from Damascus and Aleppo, but getting them from there to here has become increasingly difficult. The roads are unsafe, and there are many illegal checkpoints that have been stealing my products. Now I get my products from Qamishli, but even there many items are becoming more scarce”, adds Dalgash as the lights go out in his shop, a now routine occurrence. Dairk has been reduced to living with only 3-4 hours of electricity per day.
Down the road at a small park in the center of town, a statue of Hafez Assad lies in rubble, a stark reminder to all of the brutal dictator, and the recent uprising that forced the regime out. Taufiq Khalif, 42, owns a shop overlooking the park, “In 2004 during the Qamishli uprising we smashed the statues face, and government agents came to my shop, they said they knew I knew who had desecrated the statue. But I refused to give them any names, and so I spent 3 months in jail”. On November 12th, the people returned to the park with a bulldozer and ripped the statue from its pedestal.
At the Culture House, Kurdish music is filling the halls after decades of being illegal. Zedan Judi works diligently to prepare his talented young musicians for an upcoming performance to celebrate the end of exams for students. His troupe, known as The Judi Group, has a long and important legacy for the Kurdish people. First formed over 30 years ago, many early members fought and died with the PKK in the mountains of Turkey. The auditorium they now prepare in is lined with photos of The Judi Group martyrs. “My feeling being here, preparing our songs, is like coming out of the darkness and into the light. We used to hide and sing in secret. Our songs have always been about revolution. Before it was a dream, but now it is real!” Zedan proudly explains.
The road ahead for the Kurdish people of Syria is filled with many challenges, but almost all want to be part of a democratic Syria with equal rights for all. Turkish fears of a Kurdish people determined to unite their lands in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey are unfounded in Syria. However, with the war against Assad in many parts of Syria now being led by Islamic Extremist brigades comprised of Jihadists from all over the world, the democratic revolution is quickly morphing into an Islamic revolution. The Kurds are Muslims, but are moderate and progressive. The downfall of Assad could easily be replaced, many Kurds fear, with an even more intolerant government. The Kurds have been fighting for freedom and dignity for centuries, and there is no doubt they will continue the fight until their rights are secured.