The War for Free Kurdistan
Can Syria's Kurds take advantage of the civil war to form their own government? Or are they too busy starting their own civil war?
DERIK, Syria — The speaker at a youth rally in this small city tucked into the far northeast of Syria’s Kurdish region has a sinister message for his audience.
"If you want to be free you must first shoot the traitor … after that you must fight the enemy," he bellows over the assembled crowd, some of whom appear no older than five or six years old. The "traitors" he refers to are fellow Kurds.
Deep in the Kurdish heartland of the Al Hasaka region, this city of around 30,000 people sits amid some of the country’s most valuable oil reserves. Nodding pumpjacks dot the plains around the town, but residents complain they’ve been able to reap none of the benefits of the rich resources under the soil, instead toiling in the cotton and wheat fields that stretch out to the rugged Turkish mountains in the north, and the Iraqi border in the south. Traditionally one of the bastions of opposition to Baath Party rule, the Kurds, who make up around 10 percent of the Syrian population, have long been marginalized. But in the streets of Derik, where agricultural workers from the surrounding villages mix with the city’s burgeoning middle classes, there is an air of excitement — though one tinged with trepidation.
As President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are struggling to contain a bloody 19-month uprising, the Kurds in the country’s northeast have largely been left to their own devices. The Assad regime still remains a presence in Derik, and its loyalists can be seen holed up in the intelligence building in the center of the city — but they do not come out or react to the presence of foreign journalists. A freshly painted sign in the main square displays new name, in the formerly banned Kurdish language. "Azadi (Freedom) Square," it reads.
However, as the Kurds seize their opportunity to put in place the building blocks of autonomy — and cultural centers blossom and new courts and local councils open — there are fears that political infighting could shatter the fragile calm.
Hassan Kojar, the speaker at the gathering, is affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the separatist militia which has been fighting an invigorated campaign against Ankara in recent months.
"There are some traitors among the Kurds speaking ill of Ocalan, but speaking ill of Ocalan is speaking ill of all the Kurds," he continues.
A large flag above him bears the face of the PKK’s incarcerated founder, Abdullah Ocalan, whose image can be seen hanging from the walls of most public buildings in Derik, which also goes by its Arabic name al-Malikiyah. PKK graffiti can be seen scrawled the walls near the city’s main square.
Rival Kurdish parties complain that the PYD is holding a tight grip on power, not allowing them to participate in new institutions or hang the red, green, and white flag emblazoned with a yellow sun that is used in Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead, a yellow, red, and green striped flag preferred by the PYD, flies above local buildings.
The internal disputes are threatening to derail efforts to build the foundations of an autonomous region in the northeast of Syria. Local officials refrain from talking of independence, instead stressing they want federalism or autonomy, but what is clear is that they are determined to run things here themselves, racing to put in place the means to protect and govern before the state’s or the opposition’s attention turns to this resource rich region.
However, for neighboring Turkey, the dominance of a party linked to its bitter adversary, is provocation — and a development that could spark further conflagration of the Syrian civil war outside the country’s borders.
At Derik’s newly opened Mala Gel, or People’s House, set up to arbitrates in local disputes, 20 of the 30 council members belong to the PYD, according to one council member. The party also runs the new local police station and town checkpoints, which are manned by armed civilian volunteers.
"They are controlling everything now with weapons," says Mohammed Ismail, a grey-haired, bespectacled politician and leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party. A photograph of him meeting Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, sits in pride of place in his living room. Ismail complains that members of his group have suffered harassment and been detained.
Lacking their own political figurehead, most Syrian Kurds look to either the PKK’s Ocalan in Turkey, or Barzani in Iraq, for leadership. With its links to the PKK, which has in the past found common cause with the Assad regime and now once again has its interests aligned in a mutual hostility toward Turkey, rumors have flown that the PYD has made common cause with the Syrian regime. In the Barzani camp are a slew of more traditional political parties that attract the Kurdish intellectuals and, like the Iraqi Kurdish president, have more favorable relations with Turkey and the United States.
It’s difficult to assess which of the two broad factions has the most support. From a cramped workshop in central Derik, a young artist named Serbest Cacan sells wooden key rings etched with the faces of the two political leaders. He says they are equally popular. "This one nobody buys," he says, pulling out another bearing the face of President Assad.
Why the Assad regime has left the Kurdish region alone remains unclear, but it may be a move to avoid opening up another front in the civil war or a gambit to rile Turkey, which has expressed concern about the dominance of a PKK offshoot in the area. The PKK, deemed a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States, has in the past found a common cause with Assad, with Ocalan previously spending a decade in exile in Syria, a history that has spurred rumors that its Syrian offshoot has cut a deal with the regime. As Turkey becomes Assad’s enemy number one, their interests fall into line once more, whether or not a formal agreement has been struck, a claim the PYD’s leader Saleh Muslim Mohammed vehemently denies.
"This regime has tortured us and killed us and should be gone," says the rotund moustachioed politician, speaking from his far star hotel room in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. He points to clashes that took place in Kurdish towns and villages on July 19, when YPG forces launched a coordinated attack on Assad troops, as proof that there was no coordination with the Syrian government.
One person in Derik died in the fighting. Nazir Younes Ramadan, a 55-year old man who spent 11 years in regime jails — including the notorious Tadmour prison — says that when he heard the YPG was launching an attack on the eight government soldiers stationed in his village of Dirka Barave, about 12 miles outside Derik, he took his gun and rushed to join them.
"Because it’s near the border everyone has guns. At first we said that we don’t want to fight, just arrest them, but the Army started to shoot," he explains, pulling down the collar of his shirt to show the bullet wound to his collar bone that kept him in a hospital for two months. "We could have killed all of them but we let them go free."
The PYD’s Mohammed also refutes the allegation that his party is preventing other parties participating, making the case that his faction is the only one sufficiently organized to run things. At checkpoints "there should be three of them and three of us, but some of them don’t have people to send and then they say the PYD is not letting them share," he says, adding that civilians just volunteer themselves, and are not paid salaries.
At a dusty shack next to a checkpoint on the edge of Derik, Sadoon Omar, an image conscious 20-year old student, is on his shift at the post."We are just civilian security, we want to protect the city," he says, readjusting the blue keffiyeh around his neck. Though he says he is not a member of the PYD and is not paid by the group, his Kalashnikov was provided by the local asayis ("security") station in Derik, which is run by the PYD.
Omar said he received no training other than briefly being shown how to shoot his gun, and other guards at town checkpoints appeared equally poorly trained and armed. But that doesn’t mean the Kurds can’t hold their own among Syria’s many armed factions: They are also protected by a secretive paramilitary group called the Popular Protection Units, known by its Kurdish initials YPG.
Though the PYD denies that it has any armed wing, the YPG — whose men now man the borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan — is often described as such. "They are all the same," claims Ismail.
The force, which Mohammed says numbers around 1,500 fighters, appears well armed. At the border, the men drive trucks mounted with duska machine guns, their faces obscured by keffiyehs. A recently released video filmed by a PYD-affiliated channel shows hundreds lined up in a clearing in the woods; the film switches to slow motion as the men run past the camera, AK-47s in hand. Fighters vow protect the Kurds and their territory and their new institutions.
Now that the PYD and the YPG have won the upper hand in Syria’s Kurdish regions, they show no sign of letting potential rivals gain a foothold. They have been accused of blocking a force of Syrian Kurdish army defectors trained in camps across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan from returning back to Syria, where Barzani had said he hoped they could be used as a defensive force. The return of the 650 trained fighters allied with Barzani could weaken the PYD’s grip on the Kurdish territories.
"We refused them entry because basically we have a popular militia here, and if anyone wishes to protect the Kurdish areas, they should join us," an unnamed YPG commander told the Kurdish English language newspaper Rudaw. "We cannot accept any other armed forces outside the YPG, if we did, then the Kurdish areas will become a battlefield."
There have been efforts to forge unity between the PYD and other Kurdish factions. In July, Barzani called the quarreling parties to the Iraqi city of Erbil to sign a power sharing agreement. The result was the Kurdish Supreme Council, which attempted to balance power between the PYD and other Kurdish Syrian parties.
On the ground, however, tensions between the groups remains high. In Derik, hundreds of Kurds loyal to the PYD’s rivals take to the streets to call for the regime’s ouster on Wednesday rather than the traditional Friday, when the PYD holds its protest. Unlike on Fridays, at the Wednesday protest there is not an Ocalan poster in sight, and the traditional golden-sunned flag is waved by the crowds who chant in support of Barzani’s peshmerga, rather than the protection units.
With fighting raging across Syria, however, the Kurds’ only hope of securing their interests is to put aside their differences in the face of a shared enemy. Most Kurdish factions are not only suspicious of Assad, but also the Free Syrian Army, which they distrust due its historical ties to Turkey. Daham Ali, a member of Derik’s Mala Gel council, explains that the Kurds want to be a third power in Syria. "First the state, second the Free Syrian Army, and thirdly the Kurds. We are not with the state or the Free Syrian Army."
At the youth rally, however, unanimity is hard to come by. Kojar’s tirade against "traitors" continues, not only covering those in opposition to Ocalan, but also those in contact with the rebels and the regime.
"There are some Kurdish traitors who are in contact with the Free Syrian Army and have asked them to come to this area," he says. "There are some traitors in our movement who have been in contact with the government. The FSA, they aren’t Kurds, and they’d sell out all of Kurdistan for five Syrian pounds. Our sons are here to protect the Kurds. They are from Derik, and Qamishli and Efrin, and they are in their thousands."