Bilal Hussein/AP
Syrian Kurds who live in Lebanon, hold Kurdish flags during a protest against the Syrian regime marking the one year anniversary of the death of Mashaal Tammo, one of the most vocal and charismatic Kurdish opposition figures.

In Syria's war, long-repressed minority finds new freedom

Keen to secure loyalty, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has granted Syria's Kurds de facto control over predominantly Kurdish areas of the country. But with the freedom, divisions have emerged.

Of the changes triggered by Syria's 19-month-old uprising, few have been as sudden as the seeming empowerment of the country’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority.

In what was once the headquarters of Syria’s ruling Baath Party in the town of Afrin, a Kurdish-populated town of about 60,000 in northwest Syria, the faces of hundreds of dead Kurdish men and women now line the walls. Many of the people whose pictures hang in the memorial center – all natives of the town – died under torture in the prisons of the regime that once occupied this same building.

But now Afrin and several other towns and cities running along Syria’s northern border are under the Kurdish governance of the Democratic Union Party, an armed political movement known by the acronym PYD. The green, red, and yellow colors of the Kurdish national flag festoon streets and buildings throughout town.

Beneath the elation, however, simmers an argument over what role, if any, the Kurds should play in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, whose troops pulled out of the Kurdish regions this summer, leaving the PYD in control. 

Many Kurds doubt that the rebel movement seeking to overthrow President Assad will honor these freedoms.

“Until now, the Syrian National Council [an opposition political body] has not accepted Kurdish people,” says Mohammad Jernas, a member of the six-person council set up by the PYD to govern Afrin. “They haven’t even drafted a constitution that would accept Kurdish people. Why should we fight for them? We are not ready to send our people to die for nothing.”

No war here

Spread across four countries and numbering about 30 million, Kurds have their own language and cultural traditions, and have long faced persecution in the nations where they form minorities: Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.

In Syria, 20 percent of the country’s 2 million Kurds were stripped of citizenship rights in 1962, effectively banning them from owning property or marrying. But in April last year, Assad restored these rights in a bid to win Kurdish support in the early days of the uprising.

Many believe the PYD are now trying to pull off a feat similar to the Kurds of northern Iraq, who now enjoy extensive autonomy. Following the US invasion in 2003, they took control of their region and remained aloof from the sectarian fighting that gripped the rest of the country.

The rewards of the PYD’s neutrality were dramatically evident when the Monitor passed through the last checkpoint controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the main rebel grouping – that marks the start of Kurdish territory.

While the preceding stretch of rebel-held road was littered with burnt-out tanks and shattered buildings, in Afrin there is no sign at all of Syria’s civil war. The FSA has agreed not to enter the Kurdish regions.

“We don’t want them here because the regime will bomb us and we don’t want Kurds to die,” says Mr. Jernas. His organization has several thousand fighters defending Afrin, and is training more, he adds.

Even here, uprising divides

The PYD’s assumption of power was unusually painless, prompting accusations of collusion with the Syrian regime. 

Earlier this summer, the Syrian Army largely abandoned the Kurdish regions as fighting intensified in Damascus and Aleppo, leaving the guerrillas in de facto control. 

Many within Syria’s opposition movement, including rival Kurdish political groupings, accuse the PYD of coordinating the handover of power with the regime – something the PYD denies.

“The PYD is the representative of the regime in Kurdish areas,” says Faris Tammo, a leader of the Future Movement Party, another Kurdish political group, speaking in the Turkish city of Antakya. “These are not free areas.”

The Monitor was accompanied by a PYD minder while in Afrin, and could not speak to people without his presence. However, Afrin residents interviewed both in Turkey and by telephone claimed that the PYD has responded with violence against those actively supporting the uprising.

“If you put up the flag of the revolution, they would arrest you,” says Runi, a 24-year-old commander of Selahattin al-Ayyubi, a mainly Kurdish brigade fighting with the FSA in Aleppo who is originally from Afrin.

Speaking in Antakya, he claims members of his brigade have been arrested and tortured by the PYD when returning to see their families in the town.

He believes the guerrillas are hostile because they feel increasingly insecure in their hold over the population. “They don’t want any Kurds to have military forces apart from them," Runi says.

“There is growing tension in Afrin,” said another resident contacted by telephone, 25-year-old Kawa. “People are separated between those who support the revolution, and those who support the PYD.”

“Probably there will be fighting between the FSA and the PYD,” says Runi. Both interviewees spoke under false names, citing fears of retaliation.

Turkish threats

The FSA rebels are not the only potential enemies. Ankara has also expressed deep alarm at the PYD’s rise, mainly because of the group’s close links to the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK.

The PKK has been fighting a three-decade insurgency in Turkey for greater Kurdish autonomy and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.

"It is out of the question for us to tolerate a structure of the terrorist organization in northern Syria and permit the presence of a threat to Turkey there," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July. 

If northern Syria becomes a launching pad for Kurdish assaults into Turkey, it would give Turkey "cause to intervene militarily in Syria," Mr. Erdogan later warned.

Senior Turkish officials described the PYD takeover as a "provocation" designed by the Assad regime to punish Turkey for its support of Syria’s opposition movement.

While both the PKK and PYD have tried to play down their connections, in Afrin they are hard to miss. Decorating the walls of every new government office visited by the Monitor were photos of the PKK’s imprisoned leader and founder, Abdullah Ocalan. And nowhere were the connections more apparent than in the martyrs' memorial center. Next to each photograph was a text explaining where and when each person had died; the majority were killed fighting in Turkey.

“We are Kurds, so we have a lot of martyrs there,” said Hekmet Hebo, head of what is now the Institute for Martyrs’ Families. Like others whom the Monitor spoke to in Afrin, he doubts that the tense peace holding here will last: “We are protecting our borders and are ready for any scenario.”

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