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Archive for the tag “PYD Kurds”

Syria’s Afrin, a perennial battleground


PYD checkpoint in Afrin, the northernmost corner of Aleppo Governorate, August 2012 (public domain)

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.


Women fighters of the Kurdish YPJ, the female equivalent of the YPG, the armed wing of the PYD, the best organised of the 40+ Kurdish political parties in northern Syria, holding a picture of their ideological leader, Abdullah Ocalan, photo from 2014.

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.


Walking down from the citadel at Cyrrhus, on the Syrian/Turkish border in July 2010 [DD]

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.


The unexcavated Roman hilltop theatre of Cyrrhus, dominating the surrounding olive orchards, July 2010 [DD]

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.


The tomb of Uriah the Hittite, at the foot of Cyrrhus, known locally as Al-Nabi Houri, today a Muslim shrine, mosque and modern cemetery, July 2010 [DD]

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.


Map compiled in 1935 by troops of the French Mandate which controlled Syria from 1920-45, showing the religious and ethnic minorities as recorded at that time. Note that Lebanon was then also under the French Mandate and therefore all one region, as was Alexandretta in the northwest, given to Turkey the following year in 1936 and thereafter known as Hatay. The original map is held in the French Institute (IFPO) in Damascus

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.

Syria control map source IHS Conflict Monitor

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:



Syria’s War reaches the most dangerous point so far


Syria's intractable war feb 2016

No one seriously believes the ‘postponed’ peace talks at Geneva 3 will take place on 25 February 2016 as scheduled by the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan De Mistura. Like his two predecessors, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, both of whom resigned in despair, De Mistura is trying to lead a peace process backed only by the impotence of the UN and its increasingly violated and empty resolutions. While Ban Ki Moon and others express outrage about ‘unacceptable’ behaviour, the realities on the ground are making political and diplomatic posturing irrelevant.

Russia’s unprecedented air bombardment began on 1st February, as the talks in Geneva were trying to splutter into life. With no warning hundreds of bombs were rained down on rebel-held territory north of Aleppo, displacing thousands of families from their homes. Two days later De Mistura suspended the peace talks, exactly what Russia wanted. Intensifying their momentum, the Russian airstrikes within days went on to ‘liberate’ the Shia pro-regime villages of Nubul and Al-Zahra and push north towards the Turkish border at Kilis.

Chief losers in this ongoing battle are what remains of the armed opposition north of Aleppo, the 70,000 displaced families now stuck either in the town of A’zaz or in the no man’s land between the Turkish and Syrian border at Bab Al-Salama. 500 people have lost their lives since the Russian airstrikes began 10 days ago.

azaz refugees feb 2016

Chief winners are the Russians, the Iranian Republican Guard and Hezbollah fighters battling on the ground alongside what remains of the Syrian Assad army, now so depleted by deaths, defections and draft-dodging that it is but a shadow of its former strength.

But the biggest winners of all are the Syrian Kurds, the PYD whose efficient fighters were perfectly placed in northern Syria to take advantage of the Russian bombardment. As the areas were depopulated they moved in to increase the territory of their semi-autonomous region of Rojava. They have made huge progress since 2014, as the maps below show, and now control close to 20% of Syria, consolidating their hold on their three cantons. Their dream is to link up the western canton of Afrin with the two eastern cantons of Kobani and Jazira, currently separated by a tract of lawless land between A’zaz and Jarabulus controlled partly by ISIS, partly by Turkmen and Arab rebels.

map of rojava cantons Map of Aleppo and territory to north map of rojava within syria map of Syria Institute of war 25 Jan 2016

But all this is a nightmare for Turkey, not only because President Erdogan regards the Syrian PYD Kurds as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish militant PKK group, but also because the US under the Obama administration has in recent days even sent a delegation under Brett McGurk, the US’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, to visit Rojava, and has pronounced them not terrorists but allies in the fight against ISIS.

Erdogan is furious, accusing his supposed ally America of self-interest and betrayal. Even worse, Russia is arming and training the PYD Kurds, so both Russia and the US are together supporting Kurdish aspirations.

Will he be able to contain his rage and not send in Turkish troops to challenge Russia, Iran, Assad and the Kurds? Is he prepared to lose control of his whole southern border to a new Kurdish entity? Will Saudi Arabia (and the UAE and Bahrain) make good on its offer to send 150,000 ground troops onto that same patch of disputed land?

The thousands of displaced refugees now building up on the Syrian side of the border may give him that chance, to enter Syria on a humanitarian ticket and create the safe zone he has wanted to set up since summer 2011 but which was never supported by NATO and the international community. Up to 400,000 additional refugees could flee from Aleppo itself and add to the thousands at the border if the city, once Syria’s biggest, is encircled and put under siege.

Turkey’s position today is stronger than at any previous time in this five-year war, because of its powerful role in controlling the flow of migrants into an overwhelmed and vulnerable Europe. Erdogan’s AK party won a convincing election last November. But Turkey’s position is also more dangerous than ever before. Setting up a safe zone four and a half years ago would have been child’s play compared to now, when so many external actors are involved. ISIS did not even exist then. But the threat of ISIS pales into insignificance compared to the danger of Turkey and Russia sparking a confrontation in exactly the territory around Dabiq, where ISIS propaganda tells us the stage is set for Armageddon.

Syria’s war, after five years of unexpected twists and turns, is now way out of control, with a dynamic all of its own. No single state or actor, or group of states can dictate its course, not even Russia. Putin may consider himself invincible but even he cannot control what happens next inside Syria. As each day brings new escalations and dangers the spectre of World War III no longer seems like a far-fetched threat. How much worse can it get?

putin and obama

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