Amid Syria's Atrocities, Kurds Scratch Out a Home

Will the minority group succeed at creating a flourishing, autonomous region after Assad?

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Syrian Kurdish demonstrators hold flags and portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan during a protest in Derik, Hasakah on November 1, 2012. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

In northeast Syria, Kurdish militias have carved out a zone of control independent from both the Assad regime and the Syrian rebels. The power on the ground in this area is the Syrian franchise of the PKK guerrilla organization, a militant nationalist Kurdish movement that has been waging war against Turkey since 1984.

The Syrian Kurds are determined to preserve their fragile autonomy, but rebels, backed by the Turkish government, are equally committed to nullifying it.

One of the side effects of the turmoil in the Middle East over the last decade has been the significant improvement in the strategic position of the Kurds. The Kurds were the main losers of the Middle East states system that emerged following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, when the area of Kurdish population was divided up between four new states - Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

In recent decades, the survival of brutal, repressive military-nationalist regimes in key Arab states prevented change in the Arab world. Among these states were two of the main sites of Kurdish residence - Iraq and Syria.

In the last ten years, two processes have changed this situation. First, the U.S. destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq enabled the emergence of a quasi-sovereign Kurdish entity in northern Iraq. The Kurdish Regional Government is today the most flourishing and stable part of what was once Saddam's domain.

Secondly, the rebellion that broke out in Syria in March 2011 has led to the contraction of the Bashar Assad regime and its departure from most of Kurdish-majority northeast Syria. The result has been the emergence of a second Kurdish de facto self-governing area.

This new area of Kurdish quasi-independence is a far more fragile construct than the well-established KRG in northern Iraq. It is the subject of the unwelcome attention of both remaining regime forces and elements among the Syrian rebels. Its survival has important implications, both for the Kurds themselves and for the future of Syria.

In mid-February, I traveled into the Kurdish controlled part of Syria. I wanted to get a sense of the true relations between this uneasy new enclave, the forces of the rising, mainly Islamist rebels and the declining regime.

I entered from the KRG-controlled part of northern Iraq. The KRG is an example of what the Kurds can achieve when they are permitted to develop independently by neighboring political forces. It offers a kind of reminder of what might come into being in northeast Syria, if political and military conditions permit.

Massoud Barazani's Kurdish entity in north Iraq is not without problems, of course. Critics cite widespread nepotism and corruption in governance. But for all that, the KRG is a success story, its capital Erbil a boom town. I had visited once before, in 2010. Since then, the oil companies have begun to arrive, attracted by the combination of relative political stability and large amounts of crude oil under the ground. New hotels are springing up. Well-heeled young people in shiny new cars are everywhere.

All this is only a distant dream for the Kurds of Syria, of course. Even entering the Kurdish controlled part of Syria requires taking account of political complexities. The KRG is ruled by the Kurdish Democratic Party - a conservative, Western-oriented movement with a burgeoning relationship with Turkey.

Kurdish northeast Syria, however, is dominated by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), the Syrian franchise of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which has been conducting an insurgency against Turkey since 1984.

Relations between the two movements are complex. They are the two main competitors for the leadership of the Kurds. The PYD is secular, leftist, and quasi-Marxist. The KDP is conservative, patriarchal, and linked to traditional clan and tribal structures.

The result is that Iraqi Kurdistan maintains an arms-length relationship with the Syrian Kurdish enclave. This extends to the border area, which remains closed to foreign journalists. Prime Minister Barazani has no special desire to take responsibility for what might happen to such travelers inside Syria, which has become notoriously dangerous territory for media professionals over the last year or so.

So to get to northeast Syria from the KRG area required an illegal border crossing. I went in accompanying a squad of fighters of the YPG (Popular Defense Committees), the armed group established by the PYD and other Kurdish parties that maintain security in the Kurdish enclave.

The YPG fighters were a mixed male and female group. They were fit, serious and knew their business, moving efficiently and silently across the territory like trained infantry soldiers.

We crossed the Tigris river, finally reaching a YPG position close to the dawn. I was taken to a tiny village of houses built out of dried mud and logs, called Wadi Souss. The next day, we drove into the town of Derik with three PYD activists heading there. Of the three activists, only two spoke Arabic. The third, a young woman who had good English, knew no Arabic, but she spoke Kurdish, Turkish and English fluently.

This was the first evidence I would find of the very marked presence of PKK activists in Syrian Kurdistan. There would be many other indications in the days that followed. Syrian Kurdistan today is a tightly organized, staunchly defended space. The guiding hand behind this is the PKK.

The PYD likes to say that it has no formal or organizational ties to the PKK, for fairly obvious reasons. The PKK is an organization designated as terrorist by the U.S. and the EU. Also, the PYD officially is in favor of Kurdish self-rule within Syria. Links to a pan-Kurdish group would be likely to raise the suspicions of Arab rebels who are already deeply suspicious of developments in the Kurdish area.

So the PYD's denials of alliance with the PKK are understandable, but not plausible.

After Derik, I took the road westwards. I was heading for Sere Kaniyeh/Ras al Ain, on the edge of the Kurdish controlled area. This is the point where the ambitions of Kurds and Syrian Arab rebels collide.

Twice, in November and mid-January, fighting has erupted in Sere Kaniyeh between Islamist rebels seeking to take control of the town and YPG militants determined to preserve the Kurdish ascendancy there. The YPG has succeeded, limiting the men of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ghuraba al-Sham to two remaining neighborhoods.

Sere Kaniyeh was like a ghost town on the day we entered. Most of the civilians have left to avoid the fighting. Those that have stayed tend not to leave their homes.

I visited a frontline position of the YPG and spoke to some of the fighters there. One of the organization's best known commanders, Jamshid Osman, spoke to me in a house lit only by white torches, with his fighters around him. "We'll fight anyone who tries to make us slaves," Osman said, maintaining that Turkey was financing the jihadis that came to Sere Kaniyeh.

Turkey, he added, sees two things in northeast Syria: oil and Kurdish freedom. (The area is home to the greater part of Syria's modest oil reserves.) Ankara wants to possess the first, and to destroy the second.

There are still regime roadblocks on the road back from Sere Kaniyeh to Qamishly. Assad's men control a border crossing into Turkey just outside the city. Though this was my third trip into Syria, I had never seen the regime's men up close before, so going through their positions interested me.

I caught a glimpse of the regime soldiers from the corner of my eye as they wearily and indifferently waved us through. They didn't look much like imperial storm troopers. Actually, they looked like Free Syrian Army men. The same patterned camouflage. The same AK-47s. The same fatigues. The only difference was the livid red regime flag flying above them.

Luckily, after a few days in Syria, I acquire a nondescript, unshaven, slightly threadbare local appearance perfectly suited for the roadblocks of the Syrian Arab Army.

Afterward, I visited the oil town of Rumeilan, a noisy, dusty place surrounded by inactive oil wells close to Derik, near the border with Iraq.

Everywhere there was poverty, memories of oppression, and fierce hope. A farmer in the village of Tel Khanzir recalled his family being registered by the regime as foreigners in 1964 to reduce any claims to autonomy or rights they might make. A student from Damascus University remembered when the PYD offices in Derik were home to Assad's political intelligence branch.

There are concerns among Syrian Kurds who are not members of the PYD that what is being created in northeast Syria may not be all that different from the Syrian regime. One man I spoke to in Erbil, a leading member of the Azadi party, which is a rival to the PYD, said, "they are worse than the regime. They are suppressing other Kurdish forces."

Another Syrian Kurd, a young woman in Derik, said that the PYD was empowering the wrong people, and that newly empowered, uneducated Kurds from poor backgrounds were using their new positions to abuse Kurds who had a more secure economic status.

The justice of the Kurdish cause does not mean that liberal democracy is about to be born in northeast Syria (any more so than in any other part of this blighted country and region).

But as with northern Iraq, if Syria is to split, the Kurdish part of it stands a fair chance of emerging as the most stable, peaceful part of the country.

The most one can perhaps legitimately hope for is that the PYD ascendancy in northeast Syria will secure a way for Syria's Kurds and the other minorities that live among them to avoid the worst atrocities of the civil war in Syria, for as long as it lasts by securing their area of control, and continuing to deny entrance to regime and rebels alike.