Special Report: Amid Syria’s violence, Kurds carve out autonomy

English: Newroz in Kurdistan

English: Newroz in Kurdistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


By Erika Solomon

QAMISHLI, Syria Wed Jan 22, 2014 9:40am EST


(Reuters) – In the northeast corner of Syria, a pocket of stability is

emerging amid the country’s civil war. Here the talk is of building, not


Local leaders have launched projects to revive normal life and encourage

people to stay. They are creating a regional administration, producing cheap

fuel, subsidizing seeds for crops and trying to restore electricity to an

area that had lost power for nearly 24 hours a day. And so far they are

fighting off the forces of both President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels who

want to oust him.

The people now in control here are Kurds, an ethnic group that forms the

majority of the population in parts of northern Syria, eastern Turkey,

northern Iraq and western Iran.

“We have no power or water. Food is short,” said Hardin, a 30-year-old

teacher, shivering as cold rain began to fall at the funeral of a Kurdish

fighter. “But before, our minds and spirits were repressed. Now our dreams

are becoming reality. This is the Kurdish moment. Going back to the way we

were is not an option. It would be a betrayal of those who sacrificed their


For years the 30 million Kurds spread across those territories have been the

world’s largest ethnic group without an independent homeland. Only the Kurds

in Iraq, who displaced Iraqi forces in the 1990s when a U.S. and British

no-fly zone was in place against Saddam Hussein, have managed to carve out

an area of real autonomy.

Now some of Syria’s 2.2 million Kurds sense an opportunity to take another

step towards the long-term dream of creating an independent state of


On Tuesday, on the eve of peace talks in Switzerland, Kurds in Syria

declared a provincial government in the area. The move came after

international powers denied their request to send a separate delegation to

the peace talks.

Local leaders insist they have no plans for secession but say they are

preparing a local constitution and aim to hold elections early this year.

This is not independence but “local democratic administration,” they say.

Whatever name it goes by, it is another complicating factor in a war that

threatens to remake the Middle East. Syria has fractured into statelets,

with little evidence of any one group emerging as clear victor.

Both Damascus and neighboring Turkey fear the Kurds’ growing autonomy will

pave the way for secession. Turkey has closed its border with Syria in a bid

to contain such a move. Ankara, which fought a Kurdish insurgency for

decades, has already strengthened a barbed wire fence that snakes along

parts of the border with Syrian Kurdish regions. Plans to build a wall there

sparked large Kurdish protests.

Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus all have a history of suppressing

Kurdish ambitions, often ruthlessly. But with both Syria and Iraq torn by

internal conflicts, and Turkey trying to make peace with its Kurds, Syria’s

Kurds see a chance to stake a claim on territory they say belongs to them.

Locals no longer call this region northeastern Syria, but “Rojava” – Western


In Qamishli, a Syrian town close to the border with Turkey, journalist

Mohammed Sharo talked of an emerging sense of Kurdish community ready to

defy official frontiers. “Kurds in Turkey protested against Turkey’s planned

wall, while we protested on the other side from Syria,” he said. “The way I

feel now is, let them build the wall. That thing they call a border is no

longer really there.”


The northeastern Kurds have long been one of Syria’s poorest and most

oppressed minorities, with few official rights to the fertile land they live

on or the oil reserves it contains. Their language, seen as a threat to the

rule of Assad’s Arab nationalist party, was banned. Thousands of people were

never given official identity papers. Many of the villages here are no more

than a maze of mud huts.

Nearly three years of rebellion and civil war, which have killed more than

100,000 people and displaced 6 million, have inflicted further physical

deprivation on the Kurds – but liberated them psychologically.

While Assad’s forces were distracted with their fight against rebels in

Syria’s west, Kurdish leaders gradually seized territory. “We started near

the Iraqi border – just one tiny little checkpoint,” said Aldar Xelil, a

leading member of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the strongest political

force in Kurdish Syria. “And from checkpoint to checkpoint we went across

the entire region. Now we only have two cities to finish: Qamishli and


A visitor with a single permission slip from the PYD can now travel the 200

or so kilometers (124 miles) from the verdant borderlands with Iraq to the

flat brown plains outside Ras al-Ain, which marks the end of Kurdish

territory. Such freedom of movement is impossible in most of the rest of

Syria, where the government or various rebel factions control different

towns and, in some areas, even different roads.

The resurgent sense of Kurdish identity was evident at the funeral where

participants celebrated even as they mourned, singing songs about

“Kurdistan” and “freedom” that would have been unimaginable before the

uprising against Assad.

Beyond the cemetery, rows of ploughed brown fields were ready for planting.

In the town of Amuda, a lanky man with a droopy moustache was playing his

own small part in the battle for autonomy. Basheer Suleiman patted a

truck-sized generator that he had set up to power a market; its loud groans

competed with honking cars and chatty shoppers as they inspected vegetables

and queued for bread in the muddy central square.

Though Kurdish forces have staunched most of the violence in the northeast,

economic essentials, including electricity, remain in short supply. Suleiman

heads the new Ronak Electric Company – a lofty name for a group that is

cobbling together a power system using smuggled and looted supplies.

“I got some cables from smugglers. We bought some big generators from

factories here that can no longer operate because of the war. I even sent a

delegation of men east to (rebel-held) Deir al-Zor and we bought some

generators from looters who ransacked companies,” Suleiman said.

The main districts of Amuda now have electricity for about 10 hours a day,

split between the morning and evening.


Oil could have helped the Kurds’ ambitions, but production stopped after

armed groups began stealing crude from the pipelines, which head to

government-held refineries in central and coastal Syria. To compensate, the

PYD seized large stockpiles of crude and have refined it to make diesel for

use in farmers’ tractors and heating stoves. The party sells it at only 30

lira (10 cents) per liter – cheaper than Assad’s government can offer.

In addition to the military and political bodies, the PYD has also set up an

oil company – “Sadco” – and a “Council for Economics and Development.” The

two bodies would not allow reporters into the Rumeilan oilfield, but they

did offer an interview with Abdelrahman Hamu, head of the economic council.

Wearing a smart fitted blazer, Hamu ushered his visitors into a black BMW,

shoving aside a Kalashnikov laid against the leather seats, and drove

towards an isolated group of shipping containers, surrounded by a chain-link

fence, that serve as a base for various development projects from making

fertilizer to fuel.

PYD officials say the oilfield will remain untouched until a political deal

is reached on Syria’s fate. The problem, however, is what Kurds will do if

the conflict lasts longer than their crude stockpiles.

If the Kurds did begin to use the Rumeilan oilfield, they would either have

to send oil to Assad’s refineries or launch a costly project to redirect it

through Iraqi Kurdistan. Either would require a deal with forces they are

not currently friendly with. Nevertheless, Hamu is confident that economic

interests will ultimately trump political differences, indicating that he

even hopes for foreign investment.

“We’ll make it easy for any company, whatever its nationality, to invest. If

their economic gain will benefit Syrians here, we will make it easy for them

to do that by speeding up licensing, providing security and a place to

work.” Foreign companies would have a tax-free grace period of a year or

two, he said.


Despite such optimism, many problems remain for the northeast region, both

within Syria and with its neighbors in Turkey and Iraq.

In the main cities of Hassaka and Qamishli, power hangs in an uneasy

balance. Assad’s army and some allied militias still control parts of

Qamishli, including some of the city center, a nearby military base, and the

airport. You can still catch a flight from Damascus to Qamishli.

The rest of the city, which had a population of 200,000 before the conflict

began, is controlled by Kurdish police forces, called “Asayish,” and their


For now, the two sides seem to co-exist. Fighters pass each other like

ghosts. At a square in the heart of the city, Syrian soldiers on trucks

mounted with anti-aircraft guns drove through a crowd of school children

crossing the street, just as a Kurdish patrol drove past on the other side

of the square.

Such is the co-existence of the forces that opponents of the PYD say it is

either aligned with or being duped by Assad’s regime.

“Government ministers still come on visits here. State employees still get

their salaries, the phones still work, the healthcare system is in place,”

said Mohammed Ismail, a member of the rival Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).

“Where is this local autonomy they speak of?”

The PYD’s ambitious slate of social projects is looked on with suspicion by

its opponents, who say it has been handed power by Assad in an attempt to

weaken the opposition. What look like steps toward autonomy, they argue, are

undermining the Syrian uprising and are actually a charade that will be

revealed if Assad defeats his enemies, at which point Kurdish gains will be


Aldar Xelil shrugs with exasperation at the accusations of an

under-the-table deal with the government. “Let the regime hold on to a base

here or there, let it keep its administrative offices — they exist now in

name only. At least they keep paying the salaries to state employees. People

can continue to live. So yes, we are playing politics,” he said.

There are divisions, too, between the Syrian Kurds and those over the border

in Iraq. The two groups speak different dialects. Though 250,000 Kurds from

Syria have moved to live in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is clear rivalry between

the PYD in Syria and Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Iraqi Kurds.

The dominant fighting force in Kurdish Syria is the People’s Defence Unit

(YPG), which is tied to the PYD political party. Both have an ideology

inspired by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey, and posters of a

potbellied and mustachioed Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, are now

common in northeastern Syria.

The YPG has stopped rival groups from entering the Kurdish enclave. Syrian

Kurds suspect Barzani, the leader of the Iraqi Kurds, of wanting to extend

his control into their territory. Publicly, Barzani has said only that he

wants to keep the Kurds united.

Syrian Kurds also fear interference from Turkey, which has no desire to see

its Kurdish population forge links with an autonomous region in Syria. Both

the PYD and PKK have accused Turkey of sending Islamists to Syria to fight

them – a claim Ankara denies.


Damascus, too, sees a challenge in the growing Kurdish autonomy. The chances

of recreating a unified Syria with one central government seem slim, even if

a peace settlement can be reached. Kurdish nationalism adds to the challenge

of reuniting a country now embroiled in the far broader power struggle

between Sunni Muslims – who make up many of the rebels – and the Shia

Muslims of Iran, who back Assad’s Alawite sect.

Quite apart from the Kurdish ambitions, the war is creating mini statelets,

some run by the Sunni Muslim rebels, others by Assad’s Alawite minority. As

Syria breaks apart, ethnic groups and sects elsewhere may increasingly

question existing borders. In particular, Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq may argue

that they have more in common with their brethren in Syria than the rest of

the population of Iraq.

Given the array of competing interests, some local politicians believe a

federal system might emerge in Syria. PYD leader Aldar Xelil said: “I can’t

imagine that an Alawite or a Sunni will be able to agree to share a single

administration. There has been too much killing. The whole psychological

state of these communities has changed.

“Perhaps we will have to resort to separating Alawites and Sunnis and Kurds


He foresees a federalized system, rather than Syria’s Kurds carving out an

entirely new land for themselves.

“A division from Syria itself, it won’t happen. A federalized system

though – that is possible.”

Nevertheless, some ordinary Kurds still hope to realize a single, united

Kurdish identity. Turkish youths continue to smuggle themselves in to join

the fight in Syria; others from Turkey and Iran are trying to help Syria’s

Kurds revive their culture.

Iranian Kurdish activists and Turkish Kurdish writers are becoming a source

of inspiration in Syria’s Kurdish regions. As Khoshman Qado, a journalist

and local poet in Qamishli, put it: “We have an opportunity to develop our

ideas on social issues, religion, politics. This could become a kind of

renaissance for Kurds.”

(With reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil, Iraq; Edited by Richard Woods and

Simon Robinson)


Read more:

IMRA – Independent Media Review and Analysis

Website: www.imra.org.il

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