When Afrin University opened in 2015 it was like a dream come true for some Kurdish students. At last they were free of Assad-regime oppression, masters of their own future. By 2017 the university boasted 22 professors and 250 students, with plans to expand to 10,000. From the start it drew controversy, from local Kurds as well as Arabs, for its Kurdish language instruction and a course called ‘The Nation’s Democracy’, championing the radical ideology of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – Turkey’s nemesis.
Most of Afrin’s Kurds had studied in Aleppo 50km to the south, before the war morphed that 40-minute drive into a tortuous 20-hour back-route fraught with checkpoints. So when Assad’s soldiers quietly withdrew from northern Kurdish areas in summer 2012, the well-organised Kurds of the PYD – the PKK in Syrian clothing – quickly took charge, setting up their own education system, administration and army. Kurdish soldiers are tough, used historically by the Ottomans and the French, and today by the Americans to help fight ISIS in Syria.Afrin and its environs are beautiful, a rich prize worth fighting for. The region is known as Kurd-Dagh, the ‘Mountain of the Kurds’, where 360 thriving Kurdish villages make it the most densely Kurdish populated part of Syria. One million of Syria’s 2.5 million Kurds live here. The Afrin River runs north-south through heavily treed hills, the lush valleys and fertile red soil renowned for their excellent fruit and nut produce, especially olives, the best in Syria. No snakes or scorpions are said to inhabit this soil. Water flows in abundance. The Midanki Falls were tamed in 2004 by a dam so the old road now vanishes abracadabra-like into a long thin lake. At weekends locals picnic and barbecue round its shores. Arabic is hardly spoken north of Midanki and older men still dress traditionally in baggy black trousers.
Neighbouring A’zaz is also home to many Turcoman and Arab communities. Almost everyone, Kurds included, is Sunni Muslim. Kurdish identity is based not on religion, but on ethnicity and cultural heritage.Overlooking the Afrin River, within sight of the Turkish border, sprawl the vast Roman ruins of Cyrrhus, a suitable vantage point from which to digest the epic struggles of this region and to ponder the dilemmas unfolding here today. Cyrrhus once served as a military base for the Romans conducting campaigns against the Armenian Empire to the north. By the 4th century it had become an important centre for Christianity with its own bishop, but was abandoned in the 12th century after losing its strategic role. Nearby stands the landmark which gives the site its local name, Al-Nabi Houri, the pyramid-roofed tomb of Uriah the Hittite, sent to his death in battle by Israelite King David so that he could marry the lovely Bathsheba, his widow. Today the tomb is a Muslim shrine and mosque, tended by a Kurdish household whose patriarch lost his leg, not in battle, but in a minefield as he crossed the Turkish border to visit relatives.
Such complexities are reflected in a 1935 map of Syria compiled by troops of the French Mandate. It shows the religious and ethnic communities of Syria just before the French gifted the Sanjak of Alexandretta to Turkey as a bribe to keep it neutral in World War Two. The Turks renamed it Hatay, its population then estimated at 50% Arab, 40% Turkish and 10% Armenian.
Syrian maps still mark the Hatay border as ‘temporary.’ Throughout the volatile seven-year Syrian war, conflicting parties routinely produce maps with differing claims of territorial control. Afrin, abutting Hatay to the west and rebel-held Idlib to the south, is the latest victim, as Turkey once again forces ‘terrorist Kurds’ out. The last time was in 1998, when Syria was sheltering Öcalan and the PKK.
Today the real fight may yet be among the Syrian Kurds themselves, for not all support Öcalan, despite the omnipresence of his photo. Thousands have fled PYD rule in order to escape large scale conscription and the use of child soldiers. Many complain the PYD are mercenaries and criminals. Stories of human rights abuses abound, like bulldozing Arab villagers’ homes on the pretext of clearing out ISIS extremists, stories denied by the PYD. Private schools teaching in Arabic are forced to close. Meanwhile, the Syrian state continues to issue all civil documents, such as birth, marriage and death certificates, in an attempt to maintain influence.
With so many competing interests, the fight for Afrin will be ugly. Kurdish dreams of ‘democratic federalism’ and Turkish dreams of safe zones free of ‘terrorists’ may lead inexorably to Syria’s de facto partition. Whatever the future holds for Afrin, one side’s dream is likely to be the other’s nightmare.
A version of this piece appeared on the BBC website on 24 January 2018: