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The Kurds Are for the Kurds

Syria’s other combatants

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By JONATHAN SPYER
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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.

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