Between Assad and Erdogan

The Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria controls a third of Syria, but is not recognised by anyone. Attacks by Turkey, a threatened takeover by the Assad regime, dealing with tens of thousands of IS supporters and international isolation complicate people's daily lives. Kristin Helberg reports for from Qamishli

By Kristin Helberg

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.

Overview of the current balance of power throughout Syria (source: Congressional Research Service; photo: CRS)
Überblick über die heutigen Machtverhältnisse in ganz Syrien (Quelle: Congressional Research Service)

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."

Hoarding on Martyrs' Square in Qamishli showing PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan reading (photo: Kristin Helberg)
Wandplakat am Märtyrerplatz in Qamishli mit der Abbildung des PKK-Gründers Abdullah Öcalan, wie er liest. In Behörden, an Ortseingängen und auf öffentlichen Plätzen finden sich Fotos von PKK-Gründer Öcalan, der in Nordostsyrien als ideologischer Übervater verehrt wird.

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.

Kurdish settlement areas referred to as Rojava (map: Wikipedia)
Karte: Die kurdischen Siedlungsgebiete, die als Rojava bezeichnet werden.

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.

Erdogan's role in northern Syria

This proximity to President Erdogan makes them traitors from the PYD's point of view – after all, Turkey has already attacked northern Syria three times, displacing tens of thousands of Kurds. Suliman Osso is secretary general of the Yekiti Party and a leading member of the Kurdish National Council. The 62-year-old has been campaigning for Kurdish rights for decades, and has been arrested several times – by the Assad regime and by PYD police forces.

In view of the 700 kilometres of shared border, the party veteran campaigns for promoting understanding and tolerance towards Turkey. "It is not in our interest to live in enmity with Turkey," he says. "Although part of Kurdistan is in Turkey and 20 million Kurds live there, we believe that Turkey's Kurdish issue is solely of concern to the Kurds in Turkey and not to the Kurds in Syria. We cannot challenge a country like Turkey militarily."

Suliman Osso is secretary-general of the Yekiti Party and a leading member of the Kurdish National Council (photo: Kristin Helberg)
Suliman Osso, secretary-general of the Yekiti Party, is a leading member of the Kurdish National Council and campaigns for tolerance and understanding towards Turkey

The presence of the PKK gave Turkey the pretext for its interference in north-east Syria, says Osso. "There were photos of Ocalan in every border town: the Turks see that as provocation. We want to build something for the Kurds in Syria and not interfere in the conflict between Turkey and the PKK."

Since 2016, Turkey has conquered three large areas in northern Syria and established protectorates there. In view of the unresolved Kurdish question in his own country, President Erdogan is seeking to prevent Kurdish autonomy in neighbouring Syria at all costs – especially if it is under the influence of the PYD. For Ankara, the PYD and the PKK are the same thing: terrorist organisations that threaten the Turkish state.

Former IS leaders now pursue Erdogan's agenda

Turkey is protecting the conquered areas on the other side of the border with the help of Syrian militiamen. These call themselves the Syrian National Army and consist of extremists who, according to the UN Human Rights Council, loot, torture, rape and confiscate Kurdish property. For years, Turkey has been supporting Syrian Islamist groups – in the past they fought the Assad regime, today they mainly see the enemy as being their Kurdish compatriots. Former IS fighters are also said to have joined the Syrian National Army. This is indicated by statements of imprisoned IS members, confiscated documents and dozens of photos analysed by both the autonomous administration as well as Kurdish and international media. Kurdish representative Omar speaks of a direct link between Turkish security forces and Islamic State.

"All IS leaders who escaped are now with the Syrian National Army, we have proof of that. Erdogan is equipping them and using them for his own agenda. He's been sending them to Libya and Azerbaijan as mercenaries," he says. Both threats – jihadist terror and Turkey – are related and cannot be separated, he emphasised. "Besides, Turkey is fighting us economically by turning off our drinking water at the Allouk pumping station." All the areas formerly ruled by IS – Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa, Deir al-Zor – need Euphrates water for both agriculture and energy production. Therefore, he said, it is a big problem if Turkey withholds the river's water – for farmers and local power generation. "Everything Erdogan does is aimed at destabilising the region, which gives IS the opportunity to regroup," said the Kurdish foreign affairs officer, Abdelkarim Omar.

Tens of thousands of IS fighters and supporters are still sitting in Kurdish prisons and camps today, having to be guarded, cared for, sentenced or re-socialised. Among them are 11,000 women and children from 50 countries, says Omar. The autonomous administration cannot take sole responsibility for them, he says, after all, Islamic State is not a local problem but an international one. Every country should repatriate its own citizens or at least pay for their accommodation, the diplomat demands. So far, individual governments, including Germany, have only hesitantly flown out women and children. The fight against IS earned the Syrian Democratic Forces international respect and the autonomous administration sympathy among the population. Taha Khalil from the Rojava Centre for Strategic Studies lost his daughter in the most serious IS attack in Qamishli. In July 2016, the terrorist organisation blew up an administration building where Khalil's daughter worked. She died with more than 50 other people.

Bus bearing multilingual signs in Qamishli in north-eastern Syria (photo: Kristin Helberg)
Mehrsprachig beschrifteter Bus in Kamischli im Nordostsyrien. (Foto: Kristin Helberg)

Bureaucratic blight akin to 50 years of rule

"The administration protects the region, its people and its property, it prevents the regime or IS from returning, so that's good," Khalil says. But a bureaucracy is now developing, he says, "as if it had been ruling for 50 years and not just seven." There is negligence and corruption, bribery and fraud in the courts. A single document has to be countersigned by 20 bodies, he adds. "We need professionals who know about public administration, who know about economics, real lawyers. After all, we are not dealing with saints, but with people who have lived their whole lives in a dictatorship."

For almost 60 years, the Arab nationalism of the Baath Party has been poisoning the Syrian people, the analyst said. No Kurdish nationalism can help against this, but only genuine pluralism. This is exactly what PÊL, Jomart's civil society organisation, is working to achieve. It organises dialogue forums with up to 200 participants, where mainly young people enter into conversation with various representatives of society.

Religious dignitaries sit down with artists and intellectuals, tribal leaders with politicians and heads of administration. The point is to address problems openly and to respect other opinions, Jomart explains. "We try to bring representatives of opposing or hostile organisations around the same table at events and workshops. Drinking a cup of tea together can already be considered a success. And the autonomous administration is actively encouraging this exchange."

Education system: Kurdish or Syrian schools?

Nevertheless, the administration would prefer not discuss some sensitive issues in public because it fears opposition, says Jomart. The education system, for example, is one of the most pressing problems in north-eastern Syria. The autonomous administration has taken over almost all of the Syrian regime's schools and is teaching Kurdish children there in their mother tongue for the first time.

However, the degrees from these schools are not recognised anywhere. As a result, many Kurdish families continue to send their children to the few, completely overcrowded schools that are under the control of the ministry of education in Damascus. There they learn in Arabic and get a degree with which they can study anywhere in Syria or even go abroad.

Martyrs' Square in the centre of Qamishli with a monument to the members of the Kurdish People's Defence Units (YPG) who died in the fight against IS (photo: Kristin Helberg)
Martyrs' Square in the centre of Qamishli with a monument to the members of the Kurdish People's Defence Units (YPG) who died in the fight against Islamic State

The administration, however, is seeking to establish Kurdish as the language of education; it has invested considerably in further training for its teachers and has opened institutes and universities. When PÊL invited people to an open dialogue about the education system, the authorities initially refused permission, Jomart says. PÊL needs permission for every activity, yet sometimes the activity does not suit the autonomous administration, he says.

"They have this typical image of civil society organisations – they think we are against them and want to harm them," he says. "We paid them a few visits and managed to convince them in the end. The event went so well that the minister of education was very pleased afterwards and said we should organise more meetings like this."

Compared to the early years, the autonomous administration has become more open to criticism, says the activist. In the past, the offices of other parties were closed or attacked, their political representatives threatened and arrested. Today, the administration is keen to improve its image, Jomart explains, which is why it is giving more space to the media, the Kurdish National Council and civil society. About 200 non-governmental organisations are registered in north-east Syria. Should the Assad regime return at some point, most of their representatives would have to flee, says Jomart.

No compromises from Assad

There have been several attempts to reach an agreement with the rulers in Damascus. But Assad has no reason to seek compromises. Russia and Iran secure his rule, the UN provides his population with humanitarian aid, while his Arab neighbours have begun once again to treat him as a head of state – all war crimes notwithstanding. The Syrian regime therefore wants nothing to do with federalism and autonomy, says Taha Khalil of the Rojava Centre for Strategic Studies. "Talks are taking place between the regime and the administration, but only at an intelligence level. To date, Assad has only considered the Kurdish question from a military and security standpoint. For him it is not a political issue. That is the regime's mentality."

The autonomous administration cannot be recognised under international law without an agreement within Syria, agrees foreign affairs envoy Abdelkarim Omar. In practice, many states co-operate with the administration, as the diplomat is keen to point out, but the region urgently needs more investment in infrastructure and the oil industry.

What oil Syria has is in the northeast – it is the main source of income for the autonomous administration. However, in the absence of modern refineries, the crude oil is processed into diesel and petrol by primitive means, resulting in massive air and soil pollution. The international anti-IS coalition has already promised new refineries, says Omar, and the signs from the USA are positive.

The foreign affairs envoy is convinced that, as well as fighting IS, the new U.S. administration is looking to promote development and progress in north-eastern Syria. "They are now working directly with the autonomous administration. Europe has also opened up – meetings are now taking place everywhere at either a ministerial or Syrian envoy level." But there is one important caveat, he reveals: "Everywhere except in Germany. No-one from the autonomous administration has been officially received by the German Foreign Office. Yet everyone repeats that there can be no stability in Syria without the autonomous administration and without the Kurds being included in political negotiations and the constitutional process. It cannot be that the Turkish veto prevents this."

The authorities in Qamishli are therefore pinning their hopes on Germany's new federal government. Out of deference to the Turkish president, Germany has so far only been involved in the Arab former IS regions, not in the Kurdish areas near the border. In addition, government funding is handled exclusively through local partner organisations such as PÊL and not in direct contact with the autonomous administration.

That is something the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock could change, say observers. She could adopt a more confident stance towards Ankara and lift some of the restrictions on German development funds for north-eastern Syria.

Kristin Helberg

© 2022


You may also like:

Syria and the Arab world: Assad's return to the fold

Kristin Helberg on the Syria conflict: Boundless cynicism

Solving the conflicts in the Middle East: Tracing the fault lines

Iraqi Kurdistan in political and economic crisis: Barzani′s sinking ship

Erdogan and the Kurdish conflict: A battle for votes

Kurdish referendum for political relevance: Papering over the cracks in Iraq