Kurdish muscle flexing

The Syrian civil war has injected new impetus into the Kurdish insurgency.

kurdish muscle 521 (photo credit: Ethel Bonet Perez)
kurdish muscle 521
(photo credit: Ethel Bonet Perez)
At a country villa surrounded by silvery olive groves, speakers, including a 20- year veteran member of the Syrian parliament, lined up this summer to celebrate the life and death of Arif Musa Ghubari.
Ghubari, a 24-year-old Syrian Kurd, went to southeastern Turkey to fight against the government as a guerrilla in the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey, the EU and the US consider a terrorist organization.
He was killed there and his body had just been returned to his native village of Jilbul in northern Syria’s Afrin province.
Rather than an occasion for mourning, the funeral carried a spirit of defiant celebration. Nearly a thousand people thronged under a sea of tricolor green, red and yellow flags used by the PKK and PYD, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the Syrian syndicate of the PKK. The insignias of dozens of local Kurdish popular groups waved in the afternoon sun, and posters of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, currently serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison, loomed over the crowd. Dozens of young men and women, their heads wrapped guerrilla-style in Kurdish tricolor keffiyehs that left only their eyes visible, formed a ring to keep the crowd back from the speakers.
Afrin, a city of 80,000, along with its 360 surrounding villages, is now in the hands of the PYD. Kurdish flags fly high over nearly every building and Kurdish soldiers man the checkpoints.
Afrin’s PYD head “Commander Hassan” – many Kurdish paramilitaries use noms de guerre – lounged against a pillow in the Ghubari family’s sitting room and wondered which side of Syria’s civil conflict would act on behalf of the Kurds. “I lost faith in the Syrian system a long time ago,” Hassan said, “but relations with the FSA [the rebel Free Syrian Army] are not very good either.”
Indeed, a large poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Afrin’s City Hall suggests the region has yet to throw its lot in with the rebels, who remove and deface the onceubiquitous images.
In a country where the PYD was banned and pro-Kurdish demonstrations usually ended in clashes with the Syrian police, this exuberant ethnic self-expression – backed up by military power on the ground – marks a new chapter in the history of Syria’s Kurdish population, and an injection of lifeblood into a separatist armed insurgency in the region.
Kurds number three or four million of Syria’s population of 23 million, but the Assad regime’s Syrian Arab Republic has excluded Kurds as non-Arabs and denied many of them citizenship. As the embattled Assad consolidates troops to bolster support in Damascus and Aleppo, outlying regions of the country have been effectively abandoned to self-rule. The FSA controls most of northwestern Syria, the PYD pockets in the northwest and the bulk of the northeast, homeland of the Syrian Kurds.
This patchwork of factional alliances and hostilities threads through Syria and Turkey, as the chaos of the Syrian civil war spills over its borders.
The geographical area of Greater Kurdistan spans parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
Kurds have never had their own state, but they have a vigorous ethnic identity, and have shown themselves dedicated to fighting Kurdish battles on the soil of whatever nation they occur, with steady streams of fighters and weapons crossing the borders when needed.
The Assad regime fostered hatred and discrimination of the Kurds by the country’s Arab majority. A 1962 census carried out in the Kurdish homeland of northeastern Syria deprived some 200,000 Kurds of their citizenship by “discovering” that these were in fact Iraqi or Turkish Kurds, despite having been born in Syria.
To this day, Syrian Kurds count a resettlement project known as El-Ghamar (1966-1974) as the greatest insult and injury the Assad regime perpetrated on them. This forced population exchange – similar to what Iraq’s Saddam Hussein implemented to seize oil-rich Kirkuk from the Kurds – created a string of Arab towns along the border with Turkey, in effect establishing an Arab buffer zone 275 kilometers long and 10-20 kms wide between the Kurds of southeastern Turkey and those in Syria.
Mohammed Talab Hadel, an Assad regime security official and architect of the plan, wrote in a 1961 book, “The Kurdish issue is like a cancer. We can’t cure, we have to cut… Kurdish people are Muslim, but they are our enemy. Yehudistan [Israel] and Kurdistan are the same thing.” Kurds lost 300,000 hectares of fertile farmland to Arabs the government imported. Abdusamet Mejid Dowd, an agricultural engineer, devoted six years of his life to assembling the documentation of this project. “The regime has done many things to us,” Dowd said. “Some are ambiguous, but this was very clearly a disaster.”
So Syrian Kurds are natural enemies of the Assad regime. But as the tide turns against Assad, internal conflicts have arisen – both between Kurdish and Arab opposition forces, and between Kurds themselves.
While sharing the goal of ousting Assad with Arab opposition members, Kurdish representatives have repeatedly walked out of discussions with the umbrella opposition group the Syrian National Council (SNC) and have established their own Kurdish National Council (KNC) headquartered in Qamishlo.
The points of disagreement strike at the heart of the issue for Kurds. “The main thing is that the constitution has to state that Kurds are part of the population,” said Ismail Hama, leader of the Yekiti (Unity) Party, one of the parties in the KNC. He, along with all other members of the Kurdish Council, also wants the word “Arab” removed from the official name, which would become “The Syrian Republic.” Hama’s Yekiti party is working for full internal autonomy, such as exists in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The FSA and the PYD/PKK had been working in a tenuous non-interference mode – their territories do not overlap and they did not maintain formal relations – until the end of October when over three months of slowly inching frontlines in the besieged city of Aleppo brought them head to head in Ashrafiyeh, one of the city’s predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), clashes broke out when a Kurdish demonstration marched towards an FSA checkpoint between Ashrafiyeh and Sheikh Maqsoud, the other Kurdish neighborhood. SOHR reported that the ensuing violence claimed 30 lives: eight Syrian Kurdish civilians, 19 Arab and three Kurdish fighters. For the moment the situation has settled into an uneasy calm.
As Syria’s Kurds look to a future beyond the repression of the Assad regime, they have a choice between the Iraqi model of political federation and internal autonomy, and the Turkish model of armed insurrection against a hostile state. How the Arab rebels and the Kurdish population understand each other and work together is one side of the story, but there are likewise disagreements between Kurds themselves, especially between the military wing (PYD) and the more politically inclined KNC.
The lack of common ground was so great as to require Masoud Barzani, head of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, to usher into being a power-sharing agreement between them in July. Known as the Hewler (Erbil) Agreement, it stipulates that every Kurdish-held post (such as checkpoints and government or military installations) must be staffed by representatives of both organizations.
While it is also holding for the moment, officials in Qamishlo, especially the politicians, lack faith in the PYD. Many believe they have cut a deal with the regime, and the fact that a large Syrian regime security building is still in the middle of the city despite nominal Kurdish control speaks to some truth in the suspicion. (In September, a suicide car bomb detonated by the building claimed four lives, according to state media, or eight, according to the SOHR; an FSA group claimed responsibility for the attack.) Mohammed Ismail, head of the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party, Barzani’s party) in Qamishlo, related that “the PYD says some things that make you wonder if they are for or against the regime” and attributed their growing strength and influence to Assad’s newly discovered willingness to work with the Kurds. “There is just one hand helping them – the Syrian regime,” Ismail said.
Neighboring Turkey, the country with the most at stake, is watching intently as Syria’s Kurds begin to assert themselves.
The conflict, which claimed Ghubari’s life, has taken some 40,000 others. Turkey’s Kurds make up more of the population than Syria’s do: depending on who does the counting, they are somewhere between 12 and 20 million in a national population of 80 million. They are also far more radicalized than Syria’s: the PKK and the Turkish government have faced off for decades in the harsh mountains of southeastern Turkey, and the PKK periodically brings the violence closer to home with car bombs in Ankara and Istanbul. Turkey views the Kurdish guerrilla groups as terrorists, while Kurds see the Turkish government practicing a historical policy of repression, subjugation and state-sponsored violence – even teaching the Kurdish language was outlawed until recently.
The PKK conflict in Turkey has stepped up radically in the last 15 months. According to a September 2012 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), this period marks the highest levels of violence in the last 13 years – more than 700 have died in the fighting. When Assad pulled most of his army out of eastern Syria, the PYD was able to move into Syria from its traditional base alongside the PKK in Qandil, Iraqi Kurdistan; ICG estimates that about 1,000 PKK fighters moved into Syria as well, making it a safe haven and staging ground for increased attacks inside Turkey.
There has always been a strong connection between the PKK and the more militant Syrian Kurds – many, like Arif Musa Ghubari, have gone to Turkey to train and fight alongside the PKK – but it is becoming stronger now that the regime’s army is no longer there to check the increasing power of a long-oppressed ethnic minority. While PYD officials deny they seek a separate Kurdish state, the Turkish government fears that a PYD/PKK presence so close to its borders will foster the violent separatist agenda.
Turkey has supported the rebels against the Syrian regime from the beginning, housing both the SNC and the nominal head of the FSA. By withdrawing his army from Kurdish areas, Assad may have intended to rebuke Ankara for supporting those who rebelled against his regime by allowing Syrian Kurds greater autonomy.
The Turkish-Syrian border has always been porous, but since the Syrian regime abandoned nearly all the northern border posts, the Turkish Gendarmerie border security has not been able to stem the tide of smugglers ferrying people and goods back and forth. Turkey’s ability to handle refugees, officially capped at 100,000, is at breaking point, and new camps have had to be erected in the no-man’s-land at the Bab-al-Salaama border crossing.
In early October, when a stray Syrian shell killed four Turkish civilians in the border town of Akçakale, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan briefly took an aggressive stance, returning fire and stepping up border patrol and positioning tanks along the border. On October 9, he announced that the Turkish government would prepare for “all eventualities” and NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen guaranteed European military assistance if Turkey’s border squabbles with Syria should escalate.
But since then, warned off by the US, Erdoğan has tempered his actions. In the now 21-month course of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian regime has poked Turkey with a sharp stick on multiple occasions.
In April, the Syrian army shot across the border into a refugee camp; in June, they shot down two Turkish warplanes; and, most recently, they fired a mortar into Akçakale. Turkish media reveal the Turks’ preoccupation: Most Turkish news articles about the Syrian war revolve around the role of the Kurds, and how Turkey can find a solution vis-à-vis the conflict, without having to solve their own “Kurdish problem.”
In Afrin, Commander Hassan agreed.
“Turkey doesn’t want to see the Kurdish problem solved in Syria,” he said. “They don’t want Syrian Kurds to have rights and power, because that would make a problem for them.” Hassan said his party’s goal was not a separate state for Syrian Kurds, just the protection of Kurdish rights.
But Hassan’s voice rose as he discussed Ghubari’s death, saying “all Kurdish people who have the opportunity to sacrifice [their lives] for their case will do it... Kurds will defend themselves against any power and defend Kurdish rights, against Turkey, the Baath party, Iran, anyone!”