Challenges posed by the geopolitical jigsaw in Syria’s north-east are putting an unprecedented social experiment on the brink
It’s impossible to get lost. Once in Syria’s north-eastern corner, and after accessing the area from Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey’s presence becomes overwhelming to our right side for the rest of the trip. That set of military watchtowers on the tip where the borders of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq collide may look imposing at the beginning, but one easily forgets them after our sight is completely blocked by a massive concrete wall. It’s a 764 km long barrier along the boundary of two entities, Turkish and Kurdish, that have been at loggerheads for too long. We’re driving across the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), a de facto political entity which may be on the eve of an unprecedented bloodshed. Trump’s announcement last December to pull out his troops from this region led to a threat by Turkey’s president Erdogan to invade the territory, something which still resonates on this side of the border. Those excavators we have spotted along the route were once used to improve the deteriorated infrastructure. Today, digging tunnels is seemingly a much more pressing need.
“I’m ready to live like a mole, but I won’t leave,” blurts the driver of this Korean car. A native of Derik —a mainly Syriac town on the border with Iraq—, 28-year-old Gabriel is the youngest of eight siblings, but also the only one remaining today with his parents in the family house. “Germany, Sweden, England …,” he lists the countries today hosting his dispersed family. He says he even has a sister in China, married to a Kurd who was already doing business there before the war began in 2011. Uncertainty over the immediate future has been a wave sweeping away the local population over the last eight years.
It was in the summer of 2012 when Kurds took over their territory after Assad loosened his grip on the area. Priorities for the regime were much more pressing in western cities like Aleppo or Homs, where the armed Arab opposition was strong. In this corner of Syria, though, the country’s biggest minority opted for what they called “the third way”: neither with the government nor with the opposition. The regime’s almost vanished here, but not quite. Just after crossing the eastern outskirts of Qamişlo (Qamishli) —the Cîzîre region’s capital city—, one suddenly stumbles upon dozens of portraits of the Assad dynasty —father and son— in power for almost five decades. We are in Wusta, in the city’s central district. The Syrian flags in the buildings of Damascus’ administration litter this maze of streets amid a dozen of churches and a myriad of tiny hotels, shops, and cafés, mostly run by members of the Syriac community. Although they make the majority in Wusta, their loyalties are now divided between those who support the regime and those who joined forces with the Kurds since day 1 of the war. The latter close ranks around the Syriac Union Party. It’s a political organization founded in 2005 which still has members in Assad’s prisons since those years when political dissidence of any kind had to be conducted in hiding.
Sanharib Barsoum, the current co-leader of the SUP, receives us from an apartment room where the walls have already made a statement even before the interview starts: there’s an illustration of the old kingdom of Babylon, a poster remembering the genocide of the Syriacs, who were slaughtered alongside the Armenians by the Turks in 1915 and, of course, the more recent portraits of the Syriac fighters fallen in the war against ISIS. Whereas the Islamists are cornered in their last pocket, Barsoum labels the broader picture as “a standby situation”.
“We still do not know what Trump’s plans are, and that is one of the key issues. If Americans stay, Erdogan will think it twice before making any move,” says this 43-year-old veterinarian. An agreement with Assad would wipe out any risk of invasion from Turkey, but Barsoum claims that negotiations with the regime are in a dead end. The conditions posed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria include democratization measures such as the constitutional recognition of the non-Arab minorities of the country as well as the decentralization of Syria. Barsoum says twice that his people do not want to return to the pre-2011 scenario.
“With the Assads we had churches, but that was it. There was neither an official recognition of our language, Suroyo, nor of our culture or anything that could put into question the pan-Arabist program of the Baath Party in power. Today, one of the major steps taken here has been the declaration of an autonomous region in Cîzîre as well as the drafting of a Constitution that recognizes Suroyo as co-official alongside Kurdish an Arabic,” the Syriac leader notes, underlining that his language —a modern variant of Aramaic— is studied at schools for the first time in the history of the country.
Pre-war censuses in Syria placed the number of Christians at around 10 percent of a total population of 23 million. But what had been a safe haven for Eastern Christians fleeing neighbouring countries —especially Iraq— turned into a lethal trap for non-Muslim minorities after 2011. It was in 2012 when the Syriacs began to organize their own armed forces. The first one was Sutoro (“security” in the Syriac language) —a police unit that would eventually fracture between those loyal to Assad (called Sootoro) and those siding with the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). A next move would be the creation of the Syriac Military Council in 2013 as the military wing of the SUP. In 2015 they joined the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US-backed inter-ethnic coalition fighting ISIS in the north-east.
Despite the two rival administrations in Qamişlo, coexistence is apparently normal in Wusta. In the busy bazaar area, merchants and customers are more concerned about the fluctuating value of the Syrian pound. Kurds walk around nonchalantly, sporting their characteristic tricolour kufiya —yellow, green and red— knotted around their necks. There are also Arabs topped with red turbans, Syriacs boasting their Christian tattoos and regime soldiers in camouflage. “Things will settle once there’s a deal between Damascus and the Kurds,” blurts the owner of a chemist’s with a portrait of Bashar al Assad behind the counter. Everybody nods.
“A culture of building”
The statue of Assad’s father in the western entrance of Wusta, just a few metres away of the big mural of his son on the façade of the post office building, marks the boundary of Damascus’ presence in Qamişlo. Further down the long avenue, there is no trace whatsoever of the Syrian flag, and both the Kurdish martyrology and the portraits of Abdullah Öcalan —the Kurdistan Workers’ Party co-founder and imprisoned leader— replace the Assads in posters of all sizes. A billboard recently set up on a roundabout demands a “no-fly zone over our territory”; turning left, it takes a few minutes on foot to the campus that Rojava University has in the capital.
There is a lecture hall, workshops, labs and, of course, a cafeteria where the students loiter by stretching their 30 minutes break. It could well be yet another university in the Middle East were it not for the images of the most illustrious Kurds in classes and corridors. There are also olive branches hanging from the blackboards in remembrance of a painful anniversary: January 20 marked one year since the beginning of the attack by the Turkish army and its allied Islamist factions against the Kurdish enclave of Efrîn (Afrin). That this is no ordinary faculty had already been made clear by the armed men and women in uniform at the main entrance. Everything makes sense when we are told that the University of Rojava opened its doors in October 2016, among the rubble of a war that continues unabated. It lacks official recognition by Damascus, but that’s hardly a surprise for anyone.
“The classes are in Kurdish, that’s the main difference, but we still have to use the material in Arabic until we can translate it,” explains Manan Jafar, another Kurd among those 150,000 displaced from Efrîn. Today he combines administrative and teaching duties in the Kurdish Language and Literature. Apparently, language is far from being the only change:
“We have removed the Baathist ideology subject and replaced it by the ‘Democratic Culture’ one. Moreover, we also had to incorporate the non-Arab peoples in the History books,” Jafar says, between sips of a cup of soluble coffee. The academician had not been born yet when, in 1967, textbooks in Syria began to omit any mention of the presence of the Kurds in the country. Ten years later, their trace would also be erased on the maps: Serêkaniyê became Ras al Ayn; Kobanî was changed to Ayn al Arab; Derik to Malikiyah, etc. Since 2012, school materials have progressively been translated up to tenth grade (17), but many of the 900 students at this campus have learned how to write in their own language at university.
Other than Kurdish Philology, the campus also offers the specialties of Agricultural Engineering and Fine Arts. Depending on the department, posters of climate maps, the photosynthesis cycle, as well as famous quotes by the Russian classics line up on the walls, all of them in the Kurdish language for the first time in a Syrian university. Jafar walks us upstairs to meet Rohan Mistefa. She is the co-director of the university, a position she holds since she was elected last year by the University Council. Like the rest of the 200 Afrinis —teachers and students altogether—, Mistefa gets emotional when she thinks of what she left behind:
“We had 700 students enrolled in our campus until the attack of the Turks. Many people would ask why on Earth we bothered to open schools and universities in the middle of a war. I always told them that ours is a culture of building, and not that of destroying of our neighbours and their allies,” she says from her office, just before the third power cut of the day.
Peace in Syria
Back in the cafeteria, Massud Mohamed, a Computer Sciences teacher, admits he is surprised by the fact that a Western journalist shows any interest in their university. “Everyone comes here to get the ISIS story and more recently, to interview their prisoners. Western fighters used to be very popular among the foreign media too,” notes this man who spent several years volunteering at Qamişlo’s Foreign Media Office. The feeling of disappointment towards the Western media is palpable among locals, and even strangers. A 25-year-old nurse “from ‘Scandinavia’ ends up admitting he is a Finn when he realizes that we are not looking for yet another flashy story of a Westerner in Syria. “There is a revolution going on here; it’s an unprecedented political project in the Middle East, but it still amazes me that so few people want to write about it,” says this volunteer who doesn’t want us to disclose the location of the hospital where he has spent the last four months.
It’s true there’s been a lot of talk about the immense toll the Kurds have paid in their struggle against ISIS. However, efforts made at virtually every level of their vibrant civil society barely receive a few lines. During the 2017 final assault on Raqqa it was easy to run into batches of journalists in Kobanî on their way to the front line. Some had even been there when the city was destroyed during the brutal siege, but few would bother to tell afterwards how the Kurds were rebuilding it with almost no help from the outside. Despite promises from foreign institutions and organizations, the houses in Kobanî are being rebuilt by their former owners and with their own money, or funds sent by the huge Kurdish diaspora. At the headquarters of Berxwedan, a local NGO, a representative tells us it costs on average US$20,000 per home to build “something similar to what one had before.” Laundry still hanging among the rubble is an eloquent sign that not everyone can afford it. Many are now living in the ruins of their former homes, and some even have to cope with a tent in the refugee camp outside the city, sharing sand and rocks with families from Raqqa or Deir ez-Zor. It’s people like Idris, a local Kurd who still works at the cleaning service in Kobanî. He dreams of refurbishing a room, “just one room.” He’s got four children but he says they’d manage.
A lot has yet to be done until Kobanî gets back to normal but locals say that one can spot changes daily. Other than the already iconic winged statue of a female fighter, hospitals and schools have also been built. In Talal street, one can choose between several barbers and tea houses while enjoying ten hours of electricity per day. It’s even possible to walk across the newly paved bazaar without getting your feet in the mud. As said, it is all been the work of the Kurds themselves. The house of Salih Muslim —the most visible face among the Syrian Kurds— was also partially destroyed during the siege, but his family managed to accommodate themselves in the wing that remained untouched by the shelling. After leading the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from 2010 to 2017, Muslim now spends most of his time in Qamişlo, where he serves as the PYD spokesperson as well as head of its International Relations Department. His office is at a stone’s throw of the neighbouring Kurdish city of Nisêbîn (Nusaybin), this one on the Turkish side. One quarter of its inhabitants’ homes were destroyed in 2016 during the battle between an urban guerrilla linked to the PKK and the Turkish army. We can actually spot one of the districts which was levelled to the ground.
Old wounds will need time to heal. When it comes to the more recent ones, Muslim wants to clarify a few issues first: “An American withdrawal is not that important because we can defend ourselves by our own means. An air defence system is all we need to avoid episodes like the one in Efrîn,” stresses the Kurdish leader, just before he admits that an eventual agreement with Assad might take longer than expected: “We haven’t received any answer from him yet because Damascus has to agree every step with Russia and Iran.” Muslim recalls that a delegation visited Moscow with a road map “which received good feedback from the Russians.“ According to the Kurdish leader, chances to achieve stability in the country are scarce:
“Neither the so-called ‘Syrian opposition’ nor the regime have a plan for the country but we do, and we truly think that’s the only way to achieve peace in Syria.”
*By Karlos Zurutuza
Karlos Zurutuza is a roving correspondent covering conflict along parallel 33, from Western Sahara to Eastern Baluchistan.
under license Creative Commons BY-NC-ND
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During a Kurdish literature lesson at Rojava University in Qamişlo.
Photo: By, Karlos Zurutuza