A journey into the heart of the Kurdish struggle.
Since the beginning of the uprising, unarmed Kurdish militiamen have been manning checkpoints like this one in Derik, northeastern Syria.
Syria’s three million Kurds are the country’s largest minority and have been part of the uprising since it first erupted. Their rebellion, however, is in a separate struggle.
The Kurds have been fighting for basic rights under oppressive regimes ever since the Ottoman Empire fell after the First World War, leading to the region where the bulk of Kurds live being divided between what is today northwestern Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran.
In Syria, when the Ba’ath party came to power in 1963, they banned the Kurdish language and flag and stripped hundreds of thousands of Kurds of their citizenship, passports and official documents, leaving them unable to work, study, marry or travel. Many were deported from the northeast which, coincidentally, contains a significant percentage of the country’s oil supplies, while Arab settlements were established in Kurdish areas. Villages were renamed with Arab names. Unsurprisingly, in 2011 the Kurds jumped at the opportunity to show Assad the middle finger.
Having reported on the Kurdish predicament for years, when I heard the Syrian Kurds had managed to gain control of parts of northeastern Syria, I could hardly wait to see it with my own eyes.
Four years ago, I had no trouble crossing the Turkish-Syrian border on a regular Syrian visa. The crossing resembles a Middle Eastern version of Checkpoint Charlie: trenches, minefields and barbed wire separate Kurdish families between the Turkish city of Nusaybin and Qamishli in Syria. Last August, however, the border was closed in the midst of Syria’s raging civil war.
“When are you coming?” my contact Salih Muslim asked over the phone from where he was standing, some 200 metres away from me on the other side of the fenced border. After keeping a low profile for many years, in 2010 Salih became the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant party among Syrian Kurds.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to take a detour through northern Iraq to get to you,” I answered. To my surprise, I noticed Kurdish flags, officially banned by the Assad government, waving in the wind from the tops of buildings over the border. Five days later, after arranging the trip in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, I was finally on my way. While waiting for a smuggler to help me get across the minefield on the Iraqi Kurdistan-Syria border, I ran into Jewan, a 26-year-old Syrian Kurd in exile who was on his way back to see his family for the first time since he was arrested, three years ago, for having written in Kurdish for a bilingual Arab-Kurdish university paper. He was subsequently tortured for 27 days. To have him released, his family had to pay £1,250. He then escaped to Lebanon, via Turkey, before reaching Erbil, where he currently lives.
Armed civilians who claimed to belong to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) controlled the border on the Syrian side. We had tea and biscuits with them while we waited for Rafik, Jewan’s brother, to pick us up. The road was quiet, apart from the regular creak of the pumps in the surrounding oil fields where fire columns lit the road as we passed.
“Many of these rich oil lands were ours, but the Assads handed them over to Arab families from the south of the country," Jewan said.
We arrived late at night at Girkê Legê. Kurdish music was blasting from shops and cafes, and a Kurdish political party’s headquarters was being inaugurated by a group of men greeting each other according to local custom: one kiss on one cheek, followed by three on the other. While Aleppo was being reduced to rubble by Assad’s troops and the rebel Free Syrian Army’s bazookas, the atmosphere in Girkê Legê was festive.
The Kurds had gained control over the region with surprising ease. There had only been minor clashes with Assad’s troops resulting in few casualties. This raised suspicion. Several Kurdish political leaders who until only recently had been in hiding told me about an alleged truce and secret pact between Bashar al- Assad and Salih Muslim. There was also speculation that this temporary, peaceful power shift was due to Assad pulling out his troops to redeploy them in Damascus and Aleppo, where insurgency runs high, or that letting the Kurds rule their own area near the Turkish border was one of Damascus’s responses to Turkey’s support of the FSA. “There has been no agreement with Assad of any kind,” Salih told me on a scorching hot day in Qamishli. “We have no contact at all with Assad but we do speak to the FSA in local areas like Kobane, Qamishli and Afrin—all of them mostly Kurdish towns—in order to coordinate ourselves to avoid fighting each other.”
The Kurds were not only manning their own checkpoints in the streets and roads, they had also set up makeshift social centres to help solve family disputes, ease divorces and host ill-treated women. The Kurdish Spring had even reached the classrooms, where volunteer teachers taught those eager to read and write in Kurdish, their long-banned native language.
Talking politics had also been taboo for Kurds, and political parties were starting to surface after years of clandestine activities. It was obvious that the debate on whether Syrian Kurdistan should be an autonomous region within Syria was a burning issue. Qereman Mehri, a spokesman for the Yekiti Party, told me, “We want an autonomous region with clearly defined borders.” Over a yellowish map, he had drawn an oblong area along the Turkish-Syrian border that almost reached the Mediterranean.
Other parties called for rights but considered the autonomous region project to be unrealistic. Ismail Ali Sheref, a local leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (PDKS) was one of them. “We can’t import the Iraqi Kurdish model to Syria’s Kurdish North because geography is simply not on our side—we have no mountains to protect us from Arabs and Turks.” Despite their differences, both Yekiti and the PDKS were among the 16 political parties that set up the Kurdish Supreme Committee last July, which most Syrian Kurds are now a part of. The foundation of this committee was a big step towards ending the turmoil between the different parties and clans.
It’s also worth noting that Syria’s northeast, and especially Qamishli, is an area with a large number of Christians. Many Christians choose to tattoo themselves with crucifixes and Assyrian symbols to differentiate themselves from their Muslim neighbours. The local tattoo business must be in its darkest hours, however, because it’s not a good idea to get a crucifix tattoo on your arm amid disturbing rumours of beheadings of Christians at checkpoints in the northwest of the country. Some Christians told me they weren’t happy about the Kurds controlling the area but they all agreed that it would be far worse for them if the region ever fell into the hands of the FSA.
After decades in the shadows, Syrian Kurdish political parties have started to surface. A man dressed in traditional Kurdish attire rallies a crowd during a meeting of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria in Darna, northeastern Syria.
Until last year, Syria was a favoured destination for Christians fleeing sectarian violence in neighbouring Iraq. Today, both long-time residents and newcomers are hoping to escape. “I liked Bashar al-Assad because he granted us security. If the Kurds are able to do so, then I have no objection for their rule. I just want to live,” said a Christian who owned a hotel with a swimming pool.
For the time being, the Christians in the northeast seem to depend on the Kurds for security, but the outlook for the Kurds appears to be a no-win situation. Should Assad crush the opposition and remain in power and decide to stop punishing rebellious Kurds (which is unlikely) and allow an autonomous Kurdish region, many fear Turkey would embark on a military campaign similar to when they razed villages inhabited by shepherds in the Iraqi Kurdish mountains.
Salih told me that Turkey already funnels FSA fighters in the area to play havoc with and destabilise the region, adding, “Unfortunately, the FSA is not just a single body. There are extremists among them, and even militias that get direct orders from Turkey.” If the Syrian Kurds manage to get democratic rights, it would be a big step for all the Kurds. “The Syrian Kurds’ fate that they were living an unprecedented historic moment.
The Kurds of Syria may have suffered under the Assads’ boots for nearly 50 years, but they are increasingly worried about the role Salafist groups are playing inside the Free Syrian Army. No matter what the outcome of the war, Salih insists Syrian Kurds are only looking for democratic self-determination within Syria’s borders, without drawing any new ones. For the time being, what has been dubbed the Arab Spring seems to be exactly that: a movement by and for Arabs. Syria’s Kurds are acutely aware of this and only time will tell if they’ll be able to keep Assad,the FSA and Turkey at a distance.
For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin", our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria", a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural and religious complexities.