Kurdish autonomy in northeast SyriaBetween Assad and Erdogan
Sabaa Bahrat Square in Qamishli. In the middle, a statue of Syria's ex-president Hafiz al-Assad, at the edge, photos of son Bashar mark the checkpoint leading to a neighbourhood controlled by the Syrian regime. Yellow taxis surge towards the city centre. About 200 metres further on, at the next roundabout – Martyrs' Square – there is a monument to the fallen fighters of the Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG. And on a wall poster you can see PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan reading in a book. Welcome to Syria's north-east.
Jomart works for the non-governmental organisation PÊL – Civil Waves. He prefers not give his real name, not for political, but for personal reasons. He lives in Qamishli, the most Kurdish city in Syria, right on the border with Turkey. The autonomous administration of North and East Syria, long-hand for Kurdish self-rule, holds sway here. "The Kurdish areas are the quietest in Syria because the local population and the autonomous administration consciously maintain this calm," says Jomart.
The presence of the Syrian regime plays into the Kurdish authorities' hands, he adds. Were the Assad regime not present in Qamishli, the airport, for example, would not function. "After all, nobody co-operates with the autonomous administration; it is not officially recognised by anyone." The autonomous administration realised early on that this form of regime presence would be beneficial. It is a view shared by the local population. "Everyone leaves each other alone – we keep our distance, so that we don't experience the same thing as happened in Homs, Aleppo and elsewhere," he says.
Kurds are among the few winners
In some ways, the Kurds are among the few to have benefitted from the Syrian conflict. In 2011, when much of Syria was overrun with protests, Bashar al-Assad's regime withdrew from the northeast to quell the uprising in the rest of the country. Damascus abandoned the region to the Kurdish PYD, the Democratic Union Party, which is closely linked ideologically to the Kurdish Workers' Party PKK.
With the help of its People's Protection Units, the PYD initially took control of the Kurdish settlement areas in the north, in the area known as Rojava. Through the fight against IS, the so-called Islamic State, the autonomous region grew in size. In 2015, the Syrian Democratic Forces were founded with American support, a military alliance in which Arab battalions fought alongside the Kurdish People's Protection Units. The areas from which IS was driven out fell to the autonomous administration – including predominantly Arab cities such as Raqqa, Tabqa and Manbij. Since 2018, it has controlled the entire northeast of Syria, a third of the country's territory, under the title of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Because of its links with the PKK, it remains internationally isolated – after all, the PKK is considered a terrorist organisation not only in Turkey, but also in the USA and Europe.
"There is much propaganda that this is a Kurdish project aimed at sowing division in Syria, with the aim of splitting up the country. The same line is spread by the Assad regime, Turkey, the opposition in Istanbul, the National Coalition and the Muslim Brotherhood," says Abdelkarim Omar, representative of the autonomous administration to the outside world – foreign minister in all but official title. He is tired of the PKK debate. To him it is a view that skews the truth.
"This project is a Syrian project. We have always distanced ourselves from such sectarian conflict," says Omar. "We support the will of the people and are committed to good relations between the different population groups. We want to build a new, democratic and decentralised Syria."
Involving all ethnic groups, religions and denominations
Building tolerance and understanding between different ethnicities, religions and denominations is important in north-eastern Syria. Not only Arabs and Kurds live there, but also Assyrians and Chaldeans, Armenians, Circassians, Chechens and Yazidis. The "democratic federalism" referred to by the PYD foresees the equal participation of all in grassroots democratic self-administration. PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan developed the idea while in Turkish custody – indeed, since 2005, he has no longer been promoting a Kurdish nation-state, but a federation of autonomous regions. This would allow the Kurds to strive for self-determination without challenging existing state borders.
North-eastern Syria is the field test. Taha Khalil is cautiously optimistic. The 58-year-old writer lived in Switzerland for eight years and is now one of the directors of the Rojava Centre for Strategic Studies – a think tank dealing with social and political issues in the region.
"Management positions in the administration are always double-staffed with a woman and a man. There are Arabs, Assyrians and other ethnic groups in the administration – in positions of responsibility," says Khalil. "The Syrian Democratic Forces are 70 percent Arabs and Assyrians, but everyone says they are Kurdish forces." There is massive propaganda and a nasty media campaign issuing from Turkey and the Kurdish National Council against the administration, from many Kurds who are not politically behind the administration.
Taha Khalil's accusations are directed against members of the Kurdish National Council. More than a dozen Kurdish parties have been represented in the alliance since 2011. Most of them are rather insignificant, but as an association, the Kurdish National Council forms a significant counterweight to the ruling PYD. The main point of contention between the two sides is the role of Turkey. The Kurdish National Council joined the Syrian opposition in Istanbul and is thus under the influence of the Turkish government.