The struggle for ‘democratic autonomy’ led by Kurds in Kobane

Carl Drott writes: Despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the Syrian Kurds in the autonomous “Kobani canton” have managed to build a well-functioning civilian administration over the past two years. The Kurdish police force, the Asayish, has kept the streets safe, and a sense of normality has prevailed despite the siege and constant attacks. A constitution drafted last year guarantees gender equality, human rights and secularism, while a sprawling civil society has given rise to organizations for women, youth, language, music and theater. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has largely been calling the shots, but some former rivals have recently joined the administration as well. Hoping to resolve bitter disputes over power sharing, the canton’s “prime minister,” Anwar Muslim, has promised elections for later this year.

These would all seem positive developments. However, one clear reason international players have kept the PYD at arms length is its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, an armed movement striving for Kurdish rights listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. Although the PYD itself claims to have only ideological links with the PKK, the latter’s leadership is undoubtedly influential across the border in Syrian Kurdish enclaves. However, Turkish fears of Kurdish militants coming down from “the mountains” to establish a base in Kobani for cross-border operations into Turkey has precious little to do with reality. Instead, the demonstrated priority for the PYD has been to build a decentralized secular democracy, while the armed forces of YPG have tried to protect the area and its people from outside attacks. Although the political experiment in Kobani is being watched carefully by the Kurdish movement in Turkey, the PYD’s agenda appears to be highly local.

Another reason for the absence of international support is that YPG has been reluctant to take on the remaining Assad regime enclaves in the Jazira region in Syria’s extreme northeast. While local Kurdish politicians claim they simply want to avoid regime retaliation – the regime has dropped deadly “barrel bombs” in attacks on other civilian areas – the de facto ceasefire has raised suspicions of a secret alliance between the Syrian Kurds and the regime. In fact, there have been numerous clashes between YPG and Syrian regime forces in Aleppo, Qamishli and Hasakah. The historical record gives strong support for the PYD’s insistence that it has tried to forge a “third way” in the prolonged Syrian civil war. In its contacts with both FSA and regime forces, the PYD has built truces when and where it’s been able to, and fought when and where it’s had to. Meanwhile, while the stated policy has been to only take over and defend its “own” regions, ethnically mixed areas have presented complications.

From the very start, the project for “democratic autonomy” was met with strong criticism from some rival Kurdish parties, which demanded that the PYD and YPG accept the authority of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which is the main body of the “moderate” Syrian opposition and related to FSA. Turkey and the United States have made similar demands. Why are PYD and YPG then so unwilling to comply? Could they not simply join the “moderate” rebels in exchange for international support against the Islamic State and Assad? A closer look at the “moderates” might explain their reluctance.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the SNC has refused to recognize minority rights for the Kurds and other non-Arab minorities in a future state, which the SNC insists should continue to be called the Syrian Arab Republic. The SNC has also actively supported FSA factions fighting against the YPG on the side of jihadists. As recently as January, the SNC called for a “closing of ranks” against the YPG in Tel Hamis – at a time when the main groups in the area were IS, the al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra and the salafist group Ahrar al-Sham. The fight against the YPG has often taken priority even over the fight against the Syrian regime. Additionally, the SNC has referred to PYD as an “extremist” group that is “anti-revolution.”

Among local Kurds, FSA fighters are often more feared and hated even than the Syrian regime. “Their crimes are uncountable,” a 50-year old car dealer, Juma Chawish, told me. He fled to Kobani last summer after a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign was initiated in Tel Abyad, his hometown, by Jabhat al-Nusra, IS and various rebel groups affiliated with the FSA. Civilian Kurds like Juma were forced out without their belongings, while hundreds of others were taken hostage and threatened with execution. Several were killed or went missing, including Juma’s brother, who was unable to flee because of a recent surgery. Stories like this are rampant throughout northern Syria. [Continue reading…]

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