Syrian Kurdistan rising

The Kurdish PYD party has established a tightly controlled, defensible administration across northeast Syria, but with oil in the mix they may well have to fight for it

Syrian Kurdistan (photo credit: Jonathan Spyer)
Syrian Kurdistan
(photo credit: Jonathan Spyer)
The town of Dohuk in northern Iraq is an unusual destination of choice for a foreign traveler.
It is a dusty, raucous, border town near the Syrian border, surrounded by mountains and close to the Tigris River. But it was to Dohuk that I made my way, after my contacts from the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Erbil told me that this would be my point of entry into Syrian Kurdistan.
I had entered Iraqi Kurdistan three days previously, with the intention of making my way to Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria.
Iraqi Kurdistan had changed a lot since my previous visit in 2010. Erbil has the look of a boomtown about it now. Huge, shiny new malls are springing up around the city, and the streets are filled with brand new SUVs. The oil industry has come to town.
Attracted by the discovery of deposits around the city, and no less by the stability afforded by the government of Massoud Barzani, some of the biggest names in the oil world are in Erbil now.
I wasn’t there, however, to write about the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG); I was headed for Syria. So as soon as I received the word, I made my way to Dohuk. All of this required a certain amount of careful maneuvering in Iraqi Kurdistan, since the rulers of northeast Syria are on the other side of Kurdish politics from Barzani and the KRG.
The PYD controls northeast Syria. They are the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known as the PKK. The PKK, of course, is locked in a protracted armed struggle against the government of Turkey, partly conducted from the mountains of northern Iraq. The KRG, on the other hand, enjoy cordial relations with the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, with which they do extensive business.
Barzani and the PKK are on the opposite sides of the spectrum in Kurdish politics.
The PKK is leftist, secular, quasi-Marxist.
Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party, meanwhile, is conservative, and linked to traditional clan and tribal hierarchies.
What all this means in practice is that the KRG maintain an uneasy relationship with the PYD rulers of the Syrian Kurdish enclave – and this means that the border is not open, at least not to foreign journalists.
So the only way to get in was with the fighters of the PYD-associated militia, the Popular Protection Units, better known as the YPG. These were the people I was supposed to meet in Dohuk.
Hours after the appointed time, my contact, a middle-aged man, finally showed up, and drove me to a remote spot outside of town where oil tankers were gathered in the darkness. After a few minutes, another van pulled up and I was told to get in it. It was filled with young, silent fighters of the YPG.
Over the following three hours, I trekked with these young militants – male and female – as we made our way across country into Syria. The trip was not dangerous. The only troops deployed on the border were the Pesh Merga forces of Barzani – fellow Kurds who wouldn’t open fire on the YPG.
Still, it was interesting because of the chance it afforded me to observe the YPG close up.
This force is the guarantor of Kurdish northeast Syria. Its fighters have clashed with both the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and with elements of the rebels. The YPG members were cool and professional, as they moved silently across the ground. As we reached the shores of the Tigris river, which marks the division between Iraq and Syria, a rubber dinghy emerged from somewhere and they quickly and efficiently stacked their weapons inside before we all boarded.
This was no improvised militia of the type that I have seen among the Arab rebels.
There is no shooting in the air, no posturing among the YPG. These young people had clearly been trained by an experienced military force.
The PYD prefers to dismiss claims that it is linked to the PKK organization. Instead, it will admit only to sharing similar ideas with the PKK. The reason for this stance isn’t hard to work out. The PKK is an organization designated as terrorist by both the US and the EU. The PYD as of now has no such designation. The PYD also claims to be interested only in autonomy for Syria’s Kurds, rather than a broader nationalist agenda. Affiliation with a pan-Kurdish organization would not help this claim.
The high level of the YPG fighters belies this claim. Conversations that I had in the town of Derik, where I arrived in the early hours of the morning, further confirmed the links to the PKK.
Assad’s army pulled out of Derik in July. Since then, the PYD has established a functioning Kurdish administration in the town. Pictures of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, jailed by the Turks, are everywhere.
Officially, the city is run by the Supreme Kurdish Committee, which brings together the PYD with a number of parties loyal to Barzani’s KRG in Iraq. In practice, the PYD has the guns – so they dominate.
In the context of civil war-torn Syria, possession of weaponry is the basic currency of politics. On this basis, the PYD has established a tightly controlled, defensible administration across Kurdishmajority northeast Syria.
It is a remarkable achievement. For many decades, Syria’s Kurds were among the most oppressed and silenced of the region’s minorities. The Arab nationalist regimes of the Ba’ath Party, which has ruled Syria since 1963, denied the existence of any national minorities in the country. To witness the town of Derik now is to see the end of their silence.
The departure of the regime has led to a sense of euphoria among many Kurds in the town. Ahmed, a former student at Damascus University, points to the headquarters of the PYD in the town. “That used to be the headquarters of the Political Intelligence branch of the Assad regime, and that,” he points to the headquarters of the hastily assembled Kurdish police force, “was a place of terror for us, when it was the regime police base. We were taught not to even look at it as we walked by.”
I interviewed other activists close to the PYD, some from Derik, some from outside, and heard similarly optimistic accounts.
Among the people I spoke with were a director of a women’s center, members of a cultural project, and one of the leaders of the PYD in the town. Talal Yunis, the PYD official, describes the Syrian Kurds as a “third point” in the revolution, allied “with neither the regime nor the free army.”
Clearly, the core issue behind the apparent popularity of the PYD was its determination, until now successful, to keep the Syrian civil war out of the Kurdish areas. For as long as it could do this, its position seemed secure.
Yet the PYD is not universally popular.
One young woman took me aside to tell me a very different account of events.
She asserted that the PYD is engaged in repressing opposition to its rule, and said that simple people elevated to positions of authority by the party were abusing their power. As an example, she said that the party had threatened to take possession of people’s houses if they chose to leave Syrian Kurdistan for refuge abroad.
Similarly, an official of a Kurdish party rival to the PYD claimed that the party is “worse than the regime” in its approach to those who do not share its views. The official also claimed that the PYD collaborated with the regime, and for this reason had been able to establish its rule in Kurdish majority areas. Of course, supporters of rival parties are likely to make accusations. Still, the PYD is a franchise of the PKK, and the PKK definitely has an authoritarian streak (as does Barzani’s party, in a different way).
Certainly, the emergence of a liberal democracy in the blighted Kurdish region of Syria is as unlikely as is its emergence anywhere else in the country. But the PYD does seem to have provided the residents of the Kurdish areas with a measure of security and a measure of cultural self-expression, both of which had been long denied them.
I didn’t want to see only Derik. Rather, my intention was to travel further into the Kurdish area In particular, I hoped to reach the town of Ras al-ain/Sere Kaniyeh. This was the point where the ambitions of Arab rebels and Kurdish separatists collided.
Getting to Sere Kaniyeh from Derik, however, presented a logistical problem that in itself was an indication of the strangeness of the situation facing the Kurds in Syria.
Unlike the rebel-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, the Kurdish enclave is not entirely free from the presence of the regime. Rather, while Assad pulled out of most of the northeast last summer, his forces remain in the two largest Kurdishmajority cities – Qamishly and Hassakeh.
To get to Sere Kaniyeh from Derik requires going through Qamishly. There’s no other way of doing it. I was in Syria without any official permit, of course, so I would need to be lucky at the regime army roadblocks going in and out of the city.
At first, the Kurdish plainclothes police in Derik were against my going, saying that they couldn’t guarantee my safety. When I persisted, they shrugged their shoulders and agreed. There was a tense moment when the army stopped us at a checkpoint going into the city, but after peering into the car, they waved us on. We reached Sere Kaniyeh without further incident.
The town was nearly deserted, and showed signs of the recent fighting – destroyed and burnt houses, bullet holes along the walls. The jihadists of Jabhat al- Nusra and Ghuraba al-Sham, backed by tanks captured from Assad’s army, had attacked the town twice – in November, and then again in January. They were still in possession of around 10 percent of the town – the neighborhoods of al-Sumud and Yusuf al-Azma.
We visited one of the frontline positions of the YPG in the town. The position was a couple of blocks away from the line held by the jihadists. The commander, Jamshid Osman, is a highly respected figure in the YPG, who made a name for himself in the Sere Kaniyeh fighting. About 30 years old, stocky, and wearing a Russianstyle military cap when I met him, Osman speaks to me in a room darkened by a power cut, with a group of his fighters around him.
Sere Kaniyeh has become a kind of watchword for the Kurds of the northeast.
It is the place where, they consider, the interests of Sunni rebels and the government of Turkey coincided – in launching an attack intended as the first phase in destroying the Kurdish autonomous zone. As Jamshid Osman puts it, “The Free Army took money from the Turkish government. Sere Kaniyeh was the first phase. Their intention was to go on all the way to Derik and the oil town of Rumeilan, and take the petrol there.”
And another reason: “The Kurds are selfgoverning in Sere Kaniyeh – that’s not good for the Turks, so they wanted to put an end to it.”
Osman describes the battles of November and January, in which the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ghurabaa al Sham, Liwa al- Tawhid and other groups deployed tanks against the Kurdish fighters. “When they first came in, the Turks opened the border gate, to bring in supplies and take out wounded. Ambulances carrying weapons also came in from the Turkish side.”
This claim of Turkish involvement, of the fighting in Sere Kaniyeh forming part of a larger picture, is commonly heard from the Kurdish side. The Kurds further claim that injured Islamist fighters were treated at a hospital in the Turkish border town of Ceylinpinar. That the rebel forces were operating from across the Turkish border is borne out by media and eyewitness reports. Turkey is undoubtedly watching with concern the emergence of a second strong Kurdish autonomous zone (alongside Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq).
Whether the recent fighting was part of a detailed plan for the invasion by Turkishbacked Syrian Islamists of the Kurdish autonomous area is of course harder to verify. But undoubtedly in the longer term, the Turkish government and the increasingly powerful Islamist rebels in northern Syria have a common interest in blotting out the emergent semi-sovereignty of the Kurdish majority area. An official truce has since come into being, signed on February 17 by the YPG and the Free Syrian Army. Few expect it to last. The Kurds are well aware that their area of self-government offers a tempting prospect to surrounding forces.
The Ass ad regime is withdrawing from the north, point by point. There are rumors that regime forces will pull out of Qamishly in the near future. But as the regime recedes, the rebels are getting closer.
Their forces have now taken Tel Hamis, 20 miles south of Qamishly. The rebels have grudgingly conceded, for the moment, to Kurdish control of the small towns in the rural northeast. They may well wish to draw the line some way before Qamishly, a mixed city with a population of 200,000.
They will certainly not be willing to accede to permanent Kurdish control of Syria’s oil resources. Turkey will back them in their ambitions.
Still, they won’t find Syrian Kurdistan an easy prize to gain. As Jamshid Osman told me, “Turkey, Assad, Iraq, all want this area, where we’re governing ourselves, because it’s full of oil. But we’ll fight anyone who wants to make us slaves.”
From Sere Kaniyeh, I traveled to the dusty oil town of Rumeilan. Syrian Kurdistan is not oil rich in comparison with Iraq, but it is the center of Syria’s known oil reserves.
These were worth $4 billion annually before the outbreak of the civil war.
A key question that has emerged regarding the oil-producing area of Rumeilan is who currently controls the oil facilities there.
Differing accounts have emerged, with some claiming that the Kurds are now in charge of oil production, and others arguing that the regime retains possession. There was a sale of oil at rock-bottom prices to residents going on in the town center as we drove in – men took their allocation of two cans full of oil for their families, for heating and cooking purposes.
“This charity that the land gives us – the oil,” says one Kurd I spoke to in the town, “never gave our people anything other than foul smells, cancer and other diseases. The benefits were always for the others, who shipped it to Tartous – the Alawi people.”
I interviewed a senior engineer working in the oil industry in Rumeilan, and spoke to three local Kurdish officials. The picture that emerged was unambiguous.
The Kurds – that is, the YPG/PYD – have political and security control of Rumeilan.
But the oil industry is still in the hands of the regime. As one of the officials, Farzanan Munzer, explained, “We have no money to give to the people working in the plants, to change the ownership from the Ba’ath to the Kurds. Also, the only refineries are in Tartous and Homs, and without filtering, it’s useless.”
An engineer from the oil plant at Rumeilan told me later that production was virtually at a standstill anyway. From 166,000 barrels of oil a day in early 2011, they were now down to about 5,000-6,000.
The pipelines to Homs and Tartous are damaged. The foreign companies – the British Gulfsands and the Chinese – have long since departed. The oil that was extracted went to the Homs filter only, and was used for domestic consumption alone.
The officials associated with PYD-linked groups spoke of their hopes for the area; Munzer notes, “In the future, we’d like to build a pipeline to Iraqi Kurdistan. But right now, we don’t have the possibility.
And if we didn’t send the oil, the regime would stand against us, and the free army would stand against us, and war would come to our areas. So there’ll come a day when we take control of it, but its not now.”
Munzer, who tells me he’d served four years in a regime jail for writing an article against the Assads, had evidently learned patience.
These responses seemed to me indicative of the true, modest dimensions of the current Kurdish project in northeast Syria. Many on both the regime and rebel sides believe that the Kurds are operating according to some detailed blueprint for separation. The truth, as suggested by the compromises reached with the rebels in Sere Kaniyeh and the regime in Rumeilan, is that this very poor, historically oppressed population is looking mainly for selfprotection, a measure of self-rule and, insofar as possible, hopes to sit out the terrible civil war raging elsewhere.
It’s not at all clear that they will succeed in this ambition.
I left Syrian Kurdistan the way I entered it – in the company of fighters of the YPG, across the Tigris River and onto the highway, where we were met by a car. And I took with me the distinct impression that after a very long time of enforced silence, things are improving markedly for the Syrian Kurds. As in Iraq, the stark brutality of the dictatorship and the apparent indifference of the world made their situation seem hopeless for many years – but no longer.
In Iraq, a flourishing Kurdish de facto sovereignty has been established. In Syria, too, an enclave able to defend and govern itself has come into being. The Syrian civil war does not look close to conclusion.
But the mainly Islamist Arab rebels have already made clear in word and deed that they will not accept any Kurdish thoughts of secession. The Kurds, meanwhile, deny any such thoughts, while maintaining strong connections to their compatriots in Iraq and Turkey. In the words of Jamshid Osman, the YPG commander in Sere Kaniyeh, they will resist any attempt to make them slaves.
It is highly unlikely that the Assad regime will ever return to rule northern Syria.
But the Kurds have few friends among the Sunni rebels fighting Assad. It may well be that their own war is still ahead.