AMMAN: Seven years into the Syrian civil war, the country’s Kurdish-majority regions enjoy a level of autonomy unthinkable before 2011. Kurdish culture and language, suppressed by Syrian state authorities for decades, are in a renaissance as Syria’s Kurds govern themselves along the country’s northern border with Turkey.
Kurdish fighters are on the frontlines with the United States-backed forces fighting the Islamic State, capturing wide swathes of Syrian territory from the militant organization in recent years. Today, primarily Kurdish forces control an expanse of territory that includes almost the entirety of the country’s northern border with Turkey, major oil fields in the Arab-majority eastern desert and villages 20km from the Syrian-Iraqi border in the country’s southeast.
At the same time, Syria’s Kurds face mounting challenges both domestic and foreign. The battle against the Islamic State is not yet over, and the threat of terrorist attacks in Kurdish territory lingers. Turkey, long opposed to an independent Kurdish presence along its border, has sent its military into northern Syria in part to hem in Kurdish forces there, whom Ankara views as terrorists.
Over the course of the next month, Syria Direct, in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, is working with a team of six Syrian journalists on the ground in Syria’s Kurdish-majority northern territories to both inform readers and teach aspiring young journalists to produce objective, well-rounded coverage of the war’s impact on their own communities.
Here, we bring you a primer to get you up to speed on the major players and developments in Syrian Kurdistan, or Rojava.
Q: What is Rojava? Who controls and governs Syria’s Kurdish territories?
Rojava—or western Kurdistan—refers to the historically Kurdish-majority areas of northern Syria.
During the ongoing civil war, Syrian government forces withdrew from several Kurdish regions in northern Syria in early 2012. As a result, existing local Kurdish parties— including the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—moved to fill the ensuing power vacuum.
Qamishli in October after the capture of Raqqa city from the Islamic State. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP.
Today, the territories commonly known as Rojava are part of the semi-autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria governed by the Self-Administration, an executive governing body composed of a number of local political parties.
The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) is made up of three cantons, running from west to east along Syria’s northern border with Turkey: Afrin, Kobani and Jazirah.
The PYD is a leading voice in the Self-Administration. The PYD’s armed wing, the YPG/J, makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the official army of the federation.
Q: What is the PYD’s ideology? Who is Abdullah Ocalan?
The PYD follows Democratic Confederalism, a political ideology developed by Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, the ideological leader of the PYD who has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999.
In 1978, Ocalan founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a Kurdish separatist group that would go on to lead a bloody, decades-long armed insurgency in the country.
Syrian Kurds formed the PYD in 2003, and the organization has had ties to the PKK since its founding. Both groups take their ideological cues from Ocalan.
Ocalan originally pushed for the creation of an independent Kurdish state, but his political ideology began to shift during his ongoing imprisonment in Turkey. An avid reader of far left and anarchist literature, he exposed himself to the works of Western social theorists such as American anarchist and libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. Building on the ideas found in that work, in 2011 Ocalan released Democratic Confederalism, a political manifesto that not only rebukes the idea of an independent Kurdish state, but nation states themselves.
“The foundation of a state does not increase the freedom of a people,” writes Ocalan in Democratic Confederalism. “Nation-states have become serious obstacles for any social development.”
Ocalan envisions a Kurdistan undivided by borders and governed by a web of local assemblies called communes. Communes then fit into a multi-layered system of councils and districts whose main function is to coordinate between the communes, not to govern. A single commune’s size can vary between an entire village to hundreds of families within a larger city.
It is this system of decentralized governance that the Self-Administration—of which the PYD is the largest and most powerful component—says it is implementing in the northern Syrian territories it governs.
However, the PYD—and its armed wing, the YPG/J—wields a great deal of power in the de facto autonomous territories controlled by the Self-Administration, and has been accused of only allowing party loyalists to participate in local governance.
As a result, some residents—particularly in predominantly Arab territories, including many areas captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the Islamic State—question how representative that local governance is in practice.
Q: What is the relationship between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan?
Bordering Rojava to the east, Iraqi Kurdistan is an oil-rich, autonomous region of Iraq administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from its capital, Erbil.
Though both Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan share a border and are parts of Greater Kurdistan, sharp linguistic, political and historical differences divide the two regions.
Rain falls in the northeastern Syrian city of Amouda on Nov 1. Photo courtesy of ARTA FM.
The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) currently controls the government in Erbil, headed by the Barzani family. Current President Nechirvan Barzani took power last week after his uncle, Massoud Barzani, resigned from office. The Barzani name is almost synonymous with the KDP and the fight for Kurdish independence in Iraq. Mustafa Barzani—Massoud Barzani’s late father—was a revered Kurdish nationalist leader.
The KDP and PYD are ideologically and politically opposed. While the PYD historically espoused Marxist-Leninist ideals until embracing Ocalan’s Democratic Confederalism, the KRG is staunchly nationalist and relatively pro-west. In Syria, supporters of pro-KDP political parties accuse the PYD of political repression, and vice versa in Iraq.
Even so, events during the ongoing war in Syria have fostered limited cooperation between the two blocs and their military wings. After IS forces advanced to the Kurdish-majority city of Kobani along the Syrian-Turkish border in 2014, the KRG dispatched Iraqi Peshmerga fighters—crossing from Iraq to Syria via Turkey—to help turn the tide against IS.
Another key point of difference between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan is each area’s orientation towards Turkey. Ankara is a bitter opponent of the PYD and PKK, but in recent years developed robust diplomatic and economic ties with the KRG.
Between 2003 and 2012, Turkey invested heavily in Iraqi Kurdistan’s infrastructure and become a major recipient of the region’s oil exports. Trade between the KRG and Turkey totalled $7 billion per year in 2013, the Carnegie Middle East Center reported in 2015.
But today, relations between Ankara and Erbil have cooled. In September, the KRG under the leadership of then-President Massoud Barzani held a referendum calling for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. The referendum passed, but led to a massive backlash. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the referendum “treachery” and threatened to shut down an oil pipeline between the KRG and Turkey. Baghdad closed the airspace above Iraqi Kurdistan to international flights and seized large swathes of disputed territory from the KRG.
Q: Where does Turkey fit into all of this?
Ankara sees an independent Kurdish presence on its southern border with Syria as a grave threat.
For decades, the Turkish government has been embroiled in an internal conflict with the PKK that has left thousands of people—including civilians—dead on both sides. The PKK’s activities under Abdullah Ocalan’s leadership led the United States and European Union to designate it a terrorist organization.
Turkey regards the PYD and its armed wing, the YPG/J, as Syrian affiliates of the PKK and vehemently opposes their growing sphere of influence in Syria. Ongoing US military support for the SDF and Kurdish militants fighting IS in Syria has beleaguered US-Turkish relations in recent months.
In a speech in Sanliurfa this past June, Erdogan stated that Turkey will not allow the establishment of a state in northern Syria. “The PYD and the YPG are terror groups,” Erdogan said. “Unfortunately they [the US-led anti-IS coalition] insisted on working with them.”
“In case of even the slightest threat against our country, we will do what’s necessary without consulting anyone,” added Erdogan.
Last year, Ankara did just that. In August 2016, Turkey launched an operation called Euphrates Shield just south of its border with northern Syria. Euphrates Shield had two objectives: to push back IS fighters away from the border and limit the advance of Kurdish forces in the same area. Over the following months, Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels with Turkish air, artillery and ground support captured a number of IS strongholds in northern Syria’s Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
Euphrates Shield officially concluded in late March, but left Turkish-backed rebels with control of a nearly 100km stretch of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, effectively splitting the Self-Administration-run territories of Afrin canton in northwestern Syria with the rest of the Kurdish-held territories further east.
On October 8, Turkish forces once again entered Syria in Idlib province as part of a Russia-, Iran- and Turkey-backed agreement to establish a “de-escalation zone” in northwest Syria. The agreement, fastened by the three nations amid ongoing peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, sets the groundwork for Turkey to establish checkpoints and observation posts in Idlib province.
A YPJ fighter in Kobani in September 2017. Photo courtesy of SDF.
Turkey’s goals in its latest operation appear to be twofold: to bring hardline Islamist rebels in Idlib under control and to limit Kurdish influence in the isolated, Kurdish-administered Afrin canton.
Q: What is Afrin canton, and how does it relate to Turkey’s involvement in Idlib province?
Afrin, located in a northwestern corner of Aleppo province, is the most isolated and vulnerable part of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. It is separated from the rest of the de facto autonomous, Kurdish-majority areas to the east by a strip of territory held by Turkish-backed rebels.
For months, the YPG in Afrin has sporadically clashed with Ankara-supported rebels on the edges of the Kurdish canton. At the same time, Turkish shelling has frequently targeted YPG positions and villages.
During Turkey’s most recent incursion into Syria since early October, Ankara’s military occupied key positions that overlook Afrin from the south.
“We want everyone to know this. We cannot compromise,” Erdogan said in an address to Turkish parliament in late October. “We may suddenly show up one night and hit [it].”
Q: What is Rojava’s relationship with the Assad government?
Under the rule of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez al-Assad since the mid-1900s, Kurdish citizens of Syria were subjected to significant state suppression. The Kurdish language was not recognized or taught in schools and symbols of Kurdish identity and nationalism were banned. As part of an Arabization process, the names of scores of villages and towns were changed from Kurdish to Arabic: Kobani became Ayn al-Arab, Derik became al-Malikiyah, and so on.
Under Hafez al-Assad’s 1973 “Arab Belt” initiative, hundreds of square kilometers of agricultural land belonging to Kurdish families in al-Hasakah province were confiscated and given to Arab citizens brought from other parts of the country.
When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, thousands of Syrian Kurds took to the streets in protest against the rule of Bashar al-Assad as demonstrations swept through most major cities in Syria.
As unrest continued, the regime made a number of concessions to Syrian Kurds, including granting citizenship to thousands of Kurds who were made stateless by the government in the 1960s.
In 2012, Syrian government forces withdrew from several Kurdish-majority territories in northern Syria to fight rebels elsewhere in the country, and YPG/J fighters took control.
Although clashes have sporadically erupted between regime forces and Kurdish fighters in the past, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and the regime are not in direct conflict with one another. Both groups possess mutual interests—such as defeating IS, for example—and their fighters exist in close proximity to one another. The Syrian government maintains two military bases and several neighborhoods of Qamishli and al-Hasakah, two major Kurdish-majority towns in northwestern Syria.
Both the regime and Kurdish officials have stated that a federal system granting partial or full autonomy to Rojava might be possible. Last year, Hediye Yusuf, co-chair for the executive committee of Rojava, told Russian state news that such a system is an “ideal form of governance” for Syria.
In September, Syrian state media quoted the country’s foreign minister as saying that future Kurdish autonomy was “negotiable.”