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.