A war of succession

Syria has imploded and different realities are being built on its ruins.

A YPG fighter aims her weapon at Al-Menajir village, in the Kurdish Jazeera enclave during violent clashes between members of the YPG and Syrian Islamic rebel groups (photo credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)
A YPG fighter aims her weapon at Al-Menajir village, in the Kurdish Jazeera enclave during violent clashes between members of the YPG and Syrian Islamic rebel groups
(photo credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)
As I interview Nohalat al-Kobani, the commander in the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria close to the Turkish border, the position comes under attack by Islamic fundamentalists.
“The silence of the world is making the terrorists powerful. But it makes no difference. As you can see, we control the current situation,” Kobani nonchalantly asserts to The Jerusalem Report as small arms fire punctures our conversation.
I leave the tent to follow the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) fighters as they race to their positions. Their response is unfazed, fast and clearly well drilled. They reach their positions and return fire. After a few minutes of desultory shooting back and forth, the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) firing stops and the YPG fighters stand down.
Nohalat Kobani, a big man of considerable girth, is amused by the episode and by my out-of-breath return to the tent to continue the interview. He is less amused by what he regards as the silence of the world regarding what is happening in Kobani and the broader fate of the Syrian Kurds.
Three years in, the Syrian civil war has divided into a series of smaller conflicts in which the regime of Bashar Assad is only one among a long list of participants.
One of the most intense, but least reported of these wars within wars is the fight between the jihadi ISIS group and the Kurdish YPG.
The apex of this conflict is the besieged Kurdish enclave of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) in the north of Syria, close to the border with Turkey.
From what I saw, there is little reason to expect that the Kobani enclave will fall any time soon. It is correct, however, that the world media has left the Syrian Kurdish story largely untold. This derives, I think, from the persistent view that what is taking place in Syria is a civil war between a regime and a rebellion. But this simplistic picture is no longer adequate to describe what is taking place in Syria. In effect, the country has imploded, and different realities are being built on its ruins.
Of these, according to Mahmoud (most of the people interviewed would only give their first names), a Syrian Arab oppositionist based in southern Turkey, “the regime, ISIS and the Kurds are the only serious forces in Syria today.”
In late April, I spent a week inside besieged Kobani. I traveled to the frontline areas close to the towns of Tel Abyad in the east and Jarabulus in the west, and spoke to YPG fighters, Kurdish officials, refugees and ordinary civilians. Later, in the Turkish city of Kielis, I also interviewed two fighters of the ISIS organization.
Kobani is the strategic point at which the very different and rival movements of ISIS and the Kurds collide. The Assad regime in these parts of Syria is little more than a memory. The dictator’s forces withdrew in July 2012. The Kurds and the jihadis are fighting a war of succession.
Since the summer of 2012, the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) and its allies have established three self-governing cantons in northern Syria. The largest, Jazeera, stretches from the border with Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq across to the town of Ras al-Ayn in the west. The smaller Kobani enclave is situated further west. Still further west, the city of Afrin and its environs constitutes a third area of Kurdish rule.
The Kurds hope eventually to unite these areas, which they have named Rojava.This is not simple, however, since there is a considerable Arab population in the adjoining areas. But for the moment, the urgent task facing the Kurdish authorities is mounting an adequate defense against all attempts to reduce or destroy the existing enclaves – whether by Assad’s forces, the Arab rebel militias, or the jihadi groups.
Internally, the Kurdish enclaves are ruled by a council consisting of the PYD and parties aligned with it. There are plans to hold elections in the Kurdish areas. There has been some criticism of the allegedly heavy-handed treatment of rival Kurdish parties by the de facto authorities. But this notwithstanding, the Kurdish areas today constitute the most peaceful and most highfunctioning parts of Syria relinquished by the Assad regime.
The ISIS area of control stretches from deep into the Iraqi provinces of Ninawah and Anbar up through Raqqa province in Syria and to the Turkish border north of Jarabulus and Tel Abyad. Within this area, ISIS has begun to implement its interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law. ISIS was created in Iraq in 2003 and, under the leadership of the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (a highranking Al-Qaeda leader killed by a US targeted strike in 2006), it quickly gained a reputation as the most savage of the extreme Sunni Islamist militias in the country.
IN SYRIA, ISIS has imposed a special tax for Christians in Raqqa city, the provincial capital it rules. It has also begun public executions and amputations for a series of crimes. These have included a number of cases of crucifixion.
The Kurdish Kobani enclave juts into the ISIS area of control dividing Tel Abyad and Jarabulus. This is an irritant for the jihadis, making it difficult for them to reach Jarabulus from al-Bab further south because the road passes through the Kurdish area.
As a result, ISIS has vowed to destroy the Kurdish authority in the area and to rename Kobani “Ayn al-Islam”. Abu Umar al-Shishani, the very brutal Chechen commander of ISIS forces in northern Syria, is said to have made it a personal ambition to conduct Islamic prayers and drink tea in Kobani following its conquest by the jihadis.
The Kurdish forces of the YPG, however, are keen to prevent the realization of this ambition. So far, they are succeeding.
Getting into Kobani is not easy. The area is besieged on three sides by ISIS. To the north, the Turkish army and police maintain a far larger deployment than in other parts of the long border. The authorities in Ankara are deeply concerned at what they regard as the emergence of PKK-ruled areas adjoining their border.
So the Kobani canton is surrounded on all sides. This reporter managed to enter the area, however, with the aid of an enterprising team of Kurdish smugglers. The trip in was short but slightly strenuous, involving a sprint to the border fence and a swift climb over it, before the Turkish patrols had time to respond.
The smugglers, beforehand, regaled me with stories of a mobile-camera device that detected, tracked and photographed all movement in the border area. This was a device feared and respected by the smugglers. “Turkey bought it,” they told me, “but it’s from Israel.”
I was partly happy, of course, to learn of this evidence of ongoing Turkish-Israeli security cooperation despite the known sentiments of Turkey’s rulers toward Israel.
My civic and patriotic sentiments, however, were slightly tempered by the knowledge that, in this particular instance, the still strong relationship between the Turkish and Israeli defense sectors could lead me to spending some time in an Istanbul jail cell rather than in the Kobani enclave. In the event, the device was apparently deployed elsewhere that night, and we made it intoKobani city safely.
The siege conditions in Kobani were immediately apparent. ISIS has cut the electricity supply so the Kurds run a series of generators, which provide power for part of the day. The jihadis have cut the water supply, too. The Kurds are sinking new wells all across the enclave and manage to maintain a steady supply.
Food must be smuggled in from across the Turkish border. Meat is scarce. Tinned fish, bread, some tomatoes have become the staple diet for many families.
There are shortages of toothpaste and other basic goods. The ability to smuggle in goods to the enclave has become pivotal.
In the frontline areas to the east and west, the fighters of the YPG face daily attacks from ISIS. The positions of the two sides are sometimes as little as 400-500 meters apart. This is a war of snipers by day and mortar attacks by night between two of the most serious and committed forces to have emerged in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war.
The Kurds in Kobani, nevertheless, show no signs of fatigue. Karwan, an adviser to the de facto Kurdish government, was optimistic regarding the Kurdish areas’ ability to defend themselves against both regime and rebels. “We’re ready,”’ he said, as we talked in the makeshift media center established by the Kurds in a school building in Kobani. “We won’t attack anyone, but if anyone attacks us – we can defend ourselves, even under conditions of siege.”
On the issue of the broader strategy of the Syrian Kurds, Karwan, who lost a leg fighting the Turks with the PKK in the 1990s, was more reticent. This, of course, is the central question – Do the Kurds see the cantons as the beginning of Kurdish sovereignty, as a bid for autonomy in some future Syria, or simply as safe havens for the duration of the war? The adviser’s response was typically cautious. “Our cantons will not contradict a new Syria. But if a new regime does not accept our rights and language – then we will defend ourselves. Anyway, the project will continue regardless. It doesn’t depend on the regime.”
The Kurds in Kobani are acutely aware that victory for either side in the civil war would pose a major challenge to the continued existence of Rojava. As one PYD official in Kobani told me, “We take the third line – neither with the regime, nor with the FSA (Free Syrian Army).”
So, if either regime or rebels were victorious, they would surely seek to reunite the country and end the brief Kurdish effort at self-government. This, however, would not take place without Kurdish resistance.
At the present time, such a possibility appears remote. The regime’s recent muchreported victories have served to consolidate its area of control – stretching from the capital in Damascus to the western coastal area. But the regime still seems far from being in any position to begin a campaign of conquest against the largely rebel-held north and east of the country.
ISLAMIST REBELS in the north are themselves currently conducting an offensive into regime-held northern Latakia province. They have made some gains. So the basic lines of the stalemate that has pertained since mid-2012 remain in place.
The Kurds in Kobani, in any case, have more immediate problems to attend to.
The YPG fighters on the frontlines are well organized and their morale appears high.
But the ISIS attacks are ongoing.
In the eastern sector, near Tel Abyad, the war takes place amid a warren of abandoned villages. The Kurdish fighters move carefully through their positions, mindful of the ever present threat of sniper fire.
In the village of Kandalah, six kilometers from Tel Abyad and about 1,000 meters from the nearest ISIS position, the fighters described how ISIS desecrates the bodies of YPG fighters it kills – cutting off hands, cutting off heads.
In the no man’s land between the positions, the decaying corpses of ISIS fighters could be seen. The jihadis, I was told, sent an armored vehicle to pick up the corpse of an amir (commander) who had been killed. The dead from lower ranks were apparently of less concern. The attacks, in any case, had lessened in the last days. ISIS had made wild charges at the Kurdish positions when the siege first began in March. But their heavy losses led to this tactic soon being abandoned.
In the western sector, near Jarabulus, the war takes place amid still populated villages. Something of a de facto transfer of populations has taken place with many Arabs heading for ISIS-controlled areas and Kurds coming eastwards into the Kobani canton.
“Now we have this land, we can develop it,” Mustafa, a former teacher of Arabic literature and now an official of the new Kurdish authority, tells me. “Like when Israel took hold of the Negev.”
Stray comments of this kind were common in my conversations with the Kurdish officials and fighters who were aware of my nationality. The Kurds are often accused by their Arab neighbors of sympathy for Israel. In my experience, the accusation is largely justified. Karwan, too, compared the Kurdish project in northern Syria to Israel, saying, “You have achieved what we want.”
The ethnic separation between the canton and the surrounding area is not hermetic.
In Kobani, I met young Arab activists and YPG fighters who were working alongside the Kurds. These were secular young people, who see the enclave as defending the possibility of secular life in northern Syria.
Correspondingly, there are also Kurds among the ISIS ranks. Sur Khwi, a female Kurdish fighter and the commander of the fighters in Abduqli village in the western sector told me that “many ISIS fighters are themselves Kurdish. Many come from Halabja, in south Kurdistan.”
Halabja is in the area of northern Iraq ruled by the Kurdish Regional Government of Massoud Barzani. Extreme Islamism is less prevalent among Kurds than among their Arab neighbors, but the Kurdish population also includes many devout Sunni Muslims, so there are also those who have thrown in their lot with the jihadis of ISIS.
After a week in Kobani, I had what I needed and was ready to leave. My departure was delayed a night because of the presence of the mysterious Israeli camera device in the area from where we were due to cross. I made it through on the second attempt.
Safely back in Turkey, I set about, through contacts, trying to find some ISIS fighters who were willing to talk to me. After a couple of false starts, I was told a fighter from the organization would meet me inKielis, a town near the border that is a center for Syrian Arab refugees.
In the event, two ISIS members turn up at the apartment. Abu Mohammed and Abu Nur, they call themselves. Both are Syrians.
Abu Nur, around 30 and bearded, had been a fighter with the non-Islamist Northern Storm Brigade when the uprising began. He had joined ISIS, he says, because it “imposed Shari’a and acted against criminals and robbers, and also because they have no contact with any foreign government.”
Asked about the YPG-ISIS fighting, the two men are adamant. “The YPG want to create a Kurdish state,” Abu Mohammed tells The Report. “This is completely unacceptable for ISIS.”
And what are they themselves fighting for? “The Caliphate. It is something old and new, from the time of Mohammed. The Europeans created false borders. We want to break those borders.”
They are dismissive when I try to bring up the issue of the jizya tax on non-Muslims, and the executions and the amputations.
They are trying to implement Shari’a, they say. Of course, some mistakes have been made. Anyway, the amputations and so on have only happened in some areas, not all, they add.
These are rank-and-file fighters of ISIS, not ideologues, though they told me they had received permission from their amir to talk to me. They wouldn’t talk about where they had served.
There are no great surprises there. But these men are Syrians, not foreign volunteers.
Neither had they been Islamists prior to the war’s beginning. Their motives for joining ISIS were, among other things, a reminder of the failure of the rebel forces to gel and unite under a non-corrupt leadership. Now, they are serving one of the most murderous organizations currently in existence in the Levant, an area where the competition is fairly stiff for that title.
The fighting between ISIS and the YPG is testimony to the extent that the Syrian state barely exists, three years into the civil war.
Instead, the territory of the former Syria has divided into a number of realities.
The pro-Iran, Alawi enclave of the regime is still the single most powerful of these areas. But ISIS’s large and contiguous Islamic proto-state stretching from western Iraq to northern Syria is also a powerful entity. The Kurds, too, against the odds, have carved out and are defending their space.
The Kurdish areas, it should be reiterated, are the most peaceful and well-governed parts of Syria today. As of now, the Kobani canton is still under siege. ISIS continues to follow its preferred methods of war. A few days ago, a Twitter image emerged of the body of a dead YPG fighter, hung from a truck, being driven through a town in ISIScontrolled Raqqa Province.
The implications of the ongoing collapse of Syria are not yet fully clear. What may be said with certainty is that the wars and the resultant suffering in Syria are far from over. 