In northeast Syria, from the border with Iraq to the disputed town of Seri Kaniyah, a de facto Kurdish autonomous region has emerged. The area, known to the Kurds as western Kurdistan, is ruled by the Democratic Union party (PYD). This is the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has been waging a military campaign against Turkey since 1984. The Kurds’ creation and successful defense of this area has largely been ignored in media coverage of Syria, with attention focused farther south and west, on the battle between the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the rebel insurgency.
Syria’s approximately 2 million Kurds constitute around 9 percent of the country’s 23 million inhabitants. Under the Baath party regimes that have ruled Syria since 1963, and the nationalist and military regimes that preceded them, the Kurds were the most repressed and impoverished part of the population, and the use of the Kurdish language and Kurdish names was banned by the authorities. In 1961-62, the regime stripped some 120,000 members of the long-established Kurdish population of their citizenship, claiming that they were recent immigrants from Turkey. Some of these people were registered as foreign, while others were simply not registered at all, and were thus deprived of access to education, basic health care, and use of the public transportation system. Today, about 300,000 Kurds in Syria are either registered as foreign or deprived of any legal status.
The Kurdish area of the northeast was underdeveloped, and characterized by grinding poverty. Even the cost of permission to build a house was beyond the reach of many families. The Kurds have a long and bitter account with the Assads, and the outbreak of revolution and civil war has led to previously unimaginable opportunities.
The emergent Syrian Kurdistan sits on the greater part of Syria’s oil reserves, worth $4 billion annually before the outbreak of the uprising. The region is also known as the breadbasket of Syria for its rich and fertile soil. Kurds, Turks, the Assad regime, and the rebels all have their own ambitions for northeast Syria, where a complex political and military game is being played out.
Last month, I traveled into the Kurdish-controlled area of Syria from flourishing Iraqi Kurdistan. The authorities of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq do not permit journalists to cross the border via the official checkpoint. The KRG evidently has no desire to be held responsible for whatever might befall such travelers in Syria. But there is an additional reason, which requires untangling the knotty alphabet of Kurdish internal politics.
Syrian Kurdistan is controlled by the PYD, which is affiliated with the PKK. Iraqi Kurdistan, meanwhile, is ruled by the Kurdish Democratic party of Massoud Barzani, which has close relations with Turkey, the PKK’s primary enemy. The KDP and PKK represent opposite ends of the spectrum of Kurdish politics. The former is conservative, traditional, and influenced by tribal and clan concerns. The latter is leftist, secular, quasi-Marxist. They share a tendency to authoritarianism. While Barzani has provided considerable amounts of aid to the Syrian Kurdish area, relations between the sides remain tense.
The crossing is manned by the KRG’s Peshmerga soldiers. I entered by night, accompanying a group of fighters of the Popular Protection Units (YPG), a militia established to protect the Kurdish-ruled zone in Syria. Officially, it is the product of an alliance between the PYD and the pro-Barzani Kurdish parties. In practice, however, it is the armed element of the PYD. Setting out through the countryside from the border area, we crossed the Tigris River and hiked to a position above the town of Derik.
The YPG group I accompanied included both male and female fighters. They displayed a high level of professionalism, fitness, and knowledge of the terrain. Both the mixing of the genders (unique in a Syrian context) and the high level of competence were obvious testimony to the fact that they had been trained by the PKK.
After crossing the border, I slept the night in a small village called Wadi Souss. Waking in the morning, I saw a kind of architecture I have never encountered before in the Middle East: houses built out of dried mud and logs, looking like something from medieval Europe. It was testimony both to the deep traditions and to the poverty of this area. From the village, I was driven the following morning into Derik.
The last regime elements were pushed out of Derik in November of last year. The town constitutes one of the bastions of PYD exclusive rule. The movement’s symbols—red stars, pictures of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan—were everywhere. Nonetheless, a PYD official I spoke to at the party’s headquarters in the town denied that the PYD is a branch of the PKK. “The PYD and the PKK are not one party,” said Talal Yunis, a slight, black-haired teacher by profession. We sat on the rooftop of the party’s building, until recently the headquarters of the Political Security branch of Assad’s intelligence. “Here in Syria,” Yunis told me, “there is only the PYD.”
But the PYD official’s claims were not borne out by the evidence. The tight, efficient, and comprehensive PYD-dominated administration in the town was clearly not the work solely of the activists of a small, harried local party in existence since 2003. Ahmed, a bright young PYD supporter I spoke to in Derik, confirmed that both the civil and military setups in the town were established under the guidance of PKK fighters and activists who arrived in the course of the summer. Ahmed, a former student at Damascus University, was strongly behind the PYD, but saw no reason to obscure its links with the PKK.
Usually, the PYD stresses its Syrian identity and downplays its ties to the PKK for two reasons. First, the PKK is designated a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union. The PYD has no such troublesome designation at present. Second, PYD spokesmen are keen to emphasize that the party is not seeking to split Kurdish majority areas off from Syria. Rather, the PYD officially seeks to preserve Kurdish self-rule within the context of what it hopes will, after the fall of Assad, be a federal Syria. Membership in a pan-Kurdish alliance might suggest otherwise.
I had heard from both Kurdish opponents of the party and Arab rebel leaders that the PYD is working in cooperation with the Assad regime. A leading member of the Azadi party, one of the many small Syrian Kurdish parties opposed to the PYD, told me in my hotel in Iraqi Kurdistan that “the PYD is a tool of the regime. There is an agreement that the PYD works on behalf of the government.” Similarly, Hadji al-Bab, a commander of the Islamist Tawhid Brigade whom I interviewed in Aleppo late last year, accused the movement of conspiring with the regime and seeking the dismemberment of the country.
PYD supporters indignantly reject these charges. As proof, they point to the regime’s brutal suppression of their movement prior to the uprising and subsequent civil war. They also note the many instances of combat between their forces and regime troops in recent months. PYD supporters in Derik reminded me that the regime had not left Derik of its own free will back in November, but rather had been driven out by a Kurdish mobilization. PYD chairman Saleh Muslim spoke in January this year of a “de facto truce” between the regime forces and the PYD, in which the latter was focusing on establishing organs of rule in the areas under its control.
The Kurdish areas are ruled by a supreme committee bringing together the PYD with the myriad smaller parties associated with Barzani. This committee was established in an agreement signed in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil last summer. The committee has equal representation for the PYD and the pro-Barzani parties, organized into the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
Officially, the YPG militia forces are under the authority of this supreme committee. However, all acknowledge the dominance of the PYD. Because of its links with the PKK, the PYD possesses a far more powerful armed element than any of the other parties. In a situation of civil war, the ability to project armed strength is the basic currency of politics. The PYD has it. Its opponents don’t. This makes its authority effectively beyond challenge in northeast Syria. It is seeking to keep out both regime and rebel forces and to set the basis for long-term Kurdish self-rule, under its leadership.
A supporter of a rival party claimed that the PYD rules by “force alone.” Another, a young woman, told me of threats by party members to take over houses of affluent refugees. She also spoke of the movement’s efforts to impose by force its own secular and socialist worldview, for example, jailing men suspected of taking second wives in accordance with Islamic traditions. She said that the PYD was giving power to “uneducated” people, in the areas that it controls.
From what I saw in Derik, the PYD does appear to enjoy considerable popular support. It is also well armed, mobilized, and tightly organized. For as long as its rivals remain riven by splits and unable to produce an effective militia of their own, this situation is unlikely to change. If the PYD can continue to preserve the largely peaceful situation in the areas it rules, its standing is unlikely to decline.
Derik offered a good opportunity to observe PYD rule in action. But I didn’t want to stay only in the areas of firm Kurdish control, close to the Iraqi border. I was keen to get to Sere Kaniyah, which was the scene of an ongoing standoff between the YPG fighters and Islamist rebels associated with the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ghuraba al-Sham organizations. Fighting had erupted in the town on November 19, as rebels sought to seize control of it from the Kurds. The YPG defended the area and expelled the Islamists from all but a few neighborhoods of the town.
To get from Kurdish-controlled Derik to Kurdish-controlled Seri Kaniyah required going through the city of Qamishli, the largest Kurdish-majority city in Syria, which remains in the hands of the regime. In accordance with the regime’s policy elsewhere in the country, Assad’s forces have conceded smaller towns and rural areas, while pushing forces into cities, like Qamishli, and holding them.
We were flagged down at the roadblock going into Qamishli, but the bored-looking regime soldiers seemed to be going through the motions, and there was no attempt at questioning us. Spending a few hours in the city was enough to correct a false impression given in reporting of Syria, that the regime presence in this city of nearly 200,000 residents is only token. On the contrary, what I saw was a fully functioning city under regime control, with no visible armed Kurdish presence.
The regime police were deployed in the city center, around a strange white statue of deceased former dictator Hafez al-Assad. Several kilometers west of Qamishli, we hit a YPG checkpoint and we were back in the Kurdish zone. The checkpoints are identifiable from a distance, because the Kurds block the road with mounds of earth, while the regime doesn’t. We drove through the Kurdish-controlled town of Amuda, and then on into Sere Kaniyah.
While I was in Sere Kaniyah there was no fighting. Areas of the town have suffered from the clashes between the YPG and the Sunni rebels, but the devastation is not on the scale of that suffered, for example, in the city of Aleppo. Still, the situation was tense. Two rounds of heavy fighting, in November 2012 and late January 2013, have taken place here between the Kurds and the Islamist rebels. Most of the civilian population appeared to have left the town. The streets were deserted, with the remaining civilians dependent on outside aid and rarely leaving their homes.
The rebel groups who attacked the town remain in possession of the neighborhoods of Yusuf al-Azma and al-Sumud, around 10 percent of the total area of the town. These are now sealed off by a tense frontline in which the Islamist and Kurdish fighters face one another. I visited a frontline position of the YPG in the town, and spoke to the commander of the position and some of his fighters.
The commander, Jamshid Osman, is a highly respected figure in the YPG as a result of his role in the Sere Kaniyah fighting. About 30 years old, stocky, and wearing an incongruous Russian-style military cap when I met him, Osman spoke to me in a room darkened by a power cut, with a group of his fighters around him.
Sere Kaniyah has become a kind of watchword for the Kurds. It is where, they believe, the interests of Sunni rebels and the government of Turkey coincided. As Osman put it, “The Free Army took money from the Turkish government. Sere Kaniyah 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.” Moreover, said Osman, “The Kurds are self-governing in Sere Kaniyah. That’s not good for the Turks, so they wanted to put an end to it.”
Osman described the battles of November and January, in which the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ghuraba 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 in the fighting 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 Ceylanpinar. That the rebel forces were operating from across the Turkish border is borne out by eyewitness reports. Turkey is undoubtedly watching with concern the emergence of a second Kurdish autonomous zone, alongside Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq. It is likely that in the long term, the Turkish government and the increasingly powerful Islamist rebels in northern Syria will share a common interest in blotting out the emergent semi-sovereignty of the Kurdish majority area. But whether the recent fighting was part of a detailed plan for an invasion by Turkish-backed Syrian Islamists is impossible to know.
A truce between the YPG and the Free Syrian Army came into effect February 17, but few expect it to last. The Kurds are well aware that their area of self-government offers a tempting prospect to surrounding forces. 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.”
The YPG officer’s view of Turkish and rebel motivations notwithstanding, Syria was never an oil-rich state, even at the height of production before 2011. The revenues accruing from the oil fields in the Rumeilan area never came anywhere near those of the Iraqi oilfields or the Gulf. Still, in poverty-stricken, ruined Syria, possession of these areas would represent a considerable prize.
Rumeilan is a dusty, teeming town, surrounded by wells that looked inactive. 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. An engineer from the oil plant at Rumeilan told me later that production was virtually at a standstill. 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 Tartus are damaged. The foreign companies, the British Gulfsands and the Chinese, had long since left. The oil that was extracted went to the Homs filter only, and was used for domestic consumption.
“This charity that the land gives us, the oil,” said 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 Tartus, the Alawi people,” he said, referring to the sect to which the Assad regime belongs.
The YPG/PYD have political and security control in Rumeilan, but the oil industry is still in the hands of the regime. As one local official, Farzanan Munzer, explained, “We have no money to give to the people working in the plants, to change the ownership from the Baath to the Kurds. Also, the only filters are in Tartus and Homs, and without filtering, it’s useless.”
The officials I spoke with, associated with PYD-linked groups, spoke of their hopes for the area. Munzer, who told me he’d served four years in a regime jail for writing an article against the Assads, had evidently learned patience. He noted that “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 Syrian 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 it’s not now.”
His responses seemed indicative of the 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 accommodations reached with the rebels in Sere Kaniyah and the regime in Rumeilan, is that this very poor, historically oppressed population is looking mainly for self-protection and a measure of self-rule, and, if possible, hopes to sit out the terrible civil war raging elsewhere.
The YPG is running a defensive campaign, not an insurgency, in Kurdish northeast Syria. This campaign goes hand in hand with the PYD’s successful efforts to build social and administrative structures in the areas of its control. The dominance of the PYD and YPG rests ultimately on the guns of the latter. There is no evidence of a comprehensive agreement between the Assad regime and the PYD/YPG. The Kurds will tolerate the presence of both regime and rebels on a pragmatic basis, where necessary, in their areas. Their preference, which they are working towards, is that neither be present.
The opposition of both the government of Turkey and the Sunni Arab insurgents to Kurdish self-rule in these areas is clear. The Assad regime surely opposes this too. But the Assad regime is not coming back in force to northern Syria any time soon, and probably ever. If and when Damascus falls, and the new, ascendant Sunnis take power in one form or another, the defenders of the Kurdish zone in northeast Syria will likely have to fight again to defend what they have gained.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, and the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.