Anyone searching for a sliver of light in the darkness of the Syrian catastrophe has no better place to go than the country’s northeast. There some 2.2 million Kurds have created a quasi state that is astonishingly safe—and strangely unknown abroad. No barrel bombs are dropped by Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes. No ISIS executioners enforce the wearing of the niqab. No Turkish air strikes send civilians running, as Turkish attacks on Kurdish militia bases do across the border in Iraq.
Safety is of course a relative concept. Car bombs and suicide attacks by ISIS assassins regularly take lives in this predominantly Kurdish 250-mile-wide stretch of Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but by the standards of the rest of the country it is quiet.
The 2.2 million Kurds make up a tenth of the Syrian population. During the protests of 2011—the Arab Spring—they, like their Arab counterparts in other Syrian cities, publicly demonstrated for reform in Qamishli, the region’s largest city. But Assad was milder toward them than he was to other protesters elsewhere. He gave citizenship to 300,000 stateless Kurds and in July 2012 even withdrew most of his combat troops from the area on the grounds that they were needed more urgently in the Syrian heartland of Aleppo, Damascus, and the cities in between.
Kurdish militias known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) quickly organized the support of much of the Kurdish adult population under thirty and took control of the region, which they divide into three “cantons” and which they call Rojava (i.e., West, meaning western Kurdistan, from roj, the Kurdish word for sun). The other Kurdish regions are in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.
Over the next three years the YPG trained and built a well-disciplined, though lightly armed, military force and set up an efficient system of local government. It is a measure of the Assads’ repression that, whereas in Turkey bans on the Kurdish language were lifted in 1991, they were kept in place for another two decades in Syria. As a result most adults in Rojava speak better Arabic than Kurdish. Now in charge of their own statelet, Kurdish leaders are reviving the use of the Kurdish language in schools and onTV and radio stations.
The language, Kurmanji, belongs to the Indo-European family and is akin to Farsi but distinct from Arabic or Turkish. Unlike Arabs and Turks but like Iranians, Kurds celebrate the New Year, Newroz, on the first day of spring.
The Kurds are originally a mountain people, who emerged near Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Their most famous warrior, Saladin, who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, was active with his regiments along the Mediterranean in the twelfth century. Many settled in Damascus and Aleppo.
Under the Ottoman Empire Kurdish identity was not threatened, and it was natural that when the empire collapsed at the end of World War I Kurds hoped to create an independent state. In the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 they were promised a state by the British and other Western powers but Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish leader, refused to implement the treaty and the Western powers changed their line. Kurds were marginalized in Turkey. After several failed rebellions in the 1920s thousands fled to Syria. There, under the French mandate, Kurds were privileged over the Arab majority, particularly in getting jobs in the army and police.
After Syria won its independence in 1946 the public projection of a separate Kurdish culture was repressed by the new Arab rulers, even though other minorities—Armenian, Assyrian, and Druze—were recognized. Syrian Kurds were Arabized and influenced by the modernizing ideology of urban Syria. Today they show few signs of their mountain origins or tribal affiliations. Whereas older men in Iraqi Kurdistan often wear sirwal—baggy trousers held up by a cummerbund—the costume is rarely seen in Rojava.
But the dream of having a state of their own has never faded. With around 32 million people worldwide, they are the largest ethnic group without one. Retaining this aspiration is the key factor that has kept Kurds tough and self-reliant through decades of repression in the four countries where they are numerous. After Iraq, where Kurds have enjoyed autonomy in the north since 1991, and Turkey, where the militant PKKhas been fighting for Kurdish autonomy since 1984, the Kurds of Syria saw their first real opportunity for change as late as 2011. At all levels of Syrian Kurdish society there is now a strong desire to reverse the last half-century of assimilationist pressures and revive their cultural heritage, particularly the Kurdish language and literature and the celebration of Newroz with Kurdish music and dancing. Syrian Kurds put greater store on national identity than organized religion. Most Kurdish clerics are Sufis of the Sunni branch of Islam and, in contrast to the Syrian Arab opposition to Assad, none of the dozen Kurdish political parties in Syria is Islamist.
In spite of the huge attention given to Syria’s war by international media, no foreign diplomats or businesspeople and only a handful of reporters have made the trip to Rojava. The first, albeit brief, coverage came in September of last year, from across the Turkish border. That was after ISIS fighters swept north from Raqqa, the headquarters of their newly declared caliphate, and launched a surprise attack on the Kurdish canton of Kobanî. They captured dozens of Kurdish villages, executed scores of people who didn’t have time to escape, and moved toward the large town of Kobanî, which sits on Syria’s border with Turkey.
The Kurdish YPG forces resisted as best they could with the help of seasoned guerrillas from the PKK. After desperate pleas for help from the YPG as well as from Washington’s allies in the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, the US started bombing ISIS positions on the approaches to Kobanî. Several dozen Kurdish fighters from Iraq—called peshmerga—also joined the fighting. In spite of the US air strikes the ISIS advance continued and by October its militants were inside the town of Kobanî as they poured reinforcements from Raqqa into the battle.
This was the first sustained engagement between US airpower and ISIS, and reporters from across the world who were camped just inside Turkey filmed ISIS artillery strikes and the much larger plumes of smoke caused by US bombs and missiles. With most of Kobanî’s civilian population fleeing into Turkey, cameras also broadcast the first pictures of vast streams of Kurdish Syrian refugees escaping northward, a harbinger of the broader flight of refugees was to come a year later. Meanwhile, Turkish tanks and armored personnel carriers patrolled the Kobanî border within a few hundred yards of the battle and did nothing to help.
Gradually, the Kurdish fighters prevailed and in January of this year ISIS withdrew, though it took another three months to drive them out of the villages south of Kobanî. As many as a thousand ISIS fighters were thought to have died. The YPG had shown it was the most successful group of fighters with whom the US could ally in Syria and open cooperation now exists. There was a second crucial lesson: using airpower makes little sense without an infantry force, preferably of local people, to follow up on the bombing.
In July of this year the YPG, again with the aid of US airpower, drove ISIS out of Tal Abyad, another town on the border with Turkey. This meant ISIS had lost two of the three crossing points from Turkey through which it could bring foreign volunteers, finance, and weaponry to strengthen the jihad.
Idriss Nassan, the Kurdish spokesperson of the Kobanî canton, told me that the YPGnow plans to liberate the last ISIS border-crossing point into Turkey at the town of Jarabulus. The YPG are dug in on the east bank of the Euphrates and it will be difficult to move forward. But success would be a strategic blow to ISIS, severely limiting its power. It would also upset Turkey, which fears a further strengthening of the statelet that the Kurds have set up along more than half of the Syrian–Turkish border. If the Kurds were to take control of the area from Jarabulus to Azaz, they could link the cantons of Jazira and Kobanî with Rojava’s third canton, the enclave of Afrin, which is largely populated by Kurds, creating a Kurdish zone along almost the entire length of Syria’s northern border. Since the Turks are now taking a hard line toward the KurdishPKK within their own borders, they are anxious to prevent a strong new Kurdish entity emerging in Syria.
The Turks have said they want a no-fly zone, policed by Turkish and US warplanes, to be established in the very area from Jarabulus to Azaz that the Kurds want to take fromISIS and other jihadis. Turkish officials in Ankara claim that the no-fly scheme would block the Syrian air force and create a haven for Syrian civilians escaping Assad’s attacks. The Kurds see the scheme as a device to permit the Turks to bomb any YPGfighters who enter the area.
The US seems to have seen through Turkey’s ruse and refuses to support the no-fly zone idea. Much now depends on whether the US will back a YPG advance to Jarabulus with air strikes. Asked if the US has given the YPG a green light, Nassan, speaking for the Kobanî canton, was upbeat. “Sipan Hamo, the YPG commander, has said we’re going to liberate Jarabulus and, when he says this, he’s coordinated with the US because we’re part of its international coalition,” he said.
In mid-October, US aircraft dropped ammunition and weapons for the Kurds and their allies from local Arab and Turkmen tribes. It was a significant escalation of US military aid, and a few days later Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoǧlu announced that Turkey had struck the YPG twice. He was not specific but the attacks appeared to be from machine guns firing across the border. There were no reports of casualties, and the attacks seemed designed as a political message. Davutoǧlu said Turkey had told Russia and the US that YPG forces would not be permitted to proceed beyond the Euphrates. In an apparent rebuke to the Turkish prime minister, John Kerry told a Washington audience on October 28: “We’re…enhancing our air campaign in order to help drive Da’esh [ISIS], which once dominated the Syria–Turkey border, out of the last seventy-mile stretch that it controls.” Two days later, Obama announced he was ordering up to fifty US special forces into Rojava to help the YPG and allied local militias to fightISIS.
Nassan’s office is in the western sector of Kobanî, in one of the few public buildings that remain intact. Elsewhere the streets are lined with ruins, looking like pancakes of concrete, crushed by US bombs and missiles. Civilian casualties were minimal since most people had fled as soon as ISIS appeared.
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