Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Syrian 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 peace talks – what hope?

lavrov and kerry

While the outside players frantically shuttle between world capitals trying to convene peace talks in Geneva before the end of January, it seems there are only two things about Syria all can agree on: that a solution must be found to the five-year catastrophic war and that neither ISIS nor the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra can be part of that solution.

But there the unity ends. Calling the fighting inside Syria a ‘civil war’ seems wrong when there are so many outside players – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supporting the Assad government, America, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting the rebel opposition – and those are just the key actors. Certainly many Syrians inside Syria feel it is no longer a war over which they can exert any control. Interventions by outside interested actors, most recently Russia, mean that Syrian territory is being used as a battlefield with scant regard for those who once lived there. Small wonder so many are leaving, giving up on their country, heading for the ‘safe haven’ of Europe. One million refugees made it to Europe in 2015. Unless the war stops, projections for 2016 are that 3 million will come. The urgency for peace talks is real.

All previous attempts have failed, but this time the hope is that the UN Resolution unanimously passed on 18 December 2015 gives the necessary mandate. It sets a timetable for talks to begin in January 2016, form a transitional government within six months, followed by free UN-supervised elections a year later, in which all Syrians, even those abroad in the diaspora will be eligible to vote, something which Assad banned in the 2014 elections where he was re-elected for his third 7-year term. A recent secret poll conducted inside regime areas is said to have shown a maximum of 25% support for Assad, so there is little doubt that his fate in fair elections would be a resounding rejection by his people.

Brinkmanship games are rife as the talks approach. Media and propaganda wars between Russia and the West’s versions of the truth on besieged areas like Madaya are matched on the ground by escalations of Russian air strikes and rebel offensives desperate to gain a few extra centimetres in case a ceasefire is forced upon them. The death toll has risen sharply and thousands more have been displaced from their homes.

The UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has refused to send out invitations to Geneva till the list of attendees on both sides has been agreed by the US and Russia. The Assad regime has named its delegation, headed by Bashar al-Ja’fari, Syria’s UN representative. The rebel opposition has named its team, approved in Riyadh. The chief negotiator is Muhammad Alloush, brother of Zahran Alloush, former head of powerful rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, who was assassinated on Christmas Day in a Russian air strike. George Sabra, a Christian dissident who spent time in Assad’s prisons, has been named as the deputy.

Needless to say, Russia and Assad are not happy with this ‘revolutionary’ opposition and are now trying to pressure the US and other parties into accepting its own list of ‘approved’ opposition as well, so that there would be two opposition delegations. Included in the Russian list would be Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD Syrian Kurds, with whom both the US and Russia have recently been partnering in their fight against ISIS. But the ‘revolutionary’ opposition does not see the Syrian Kurds as part of the solution, since they never fought Assad, but simply took advantage of the power vacuum when Assad’s troops pulled out of the northern Kurdish areas and seized the territory for themselves. The Syrian Kurds argue that they must sit at the negotiating table now that they control such a big chunk of territory in the north with their semi-autonomous region of Rojava.

Assuming some kind of formula can be found to reach agreement on who is invited, the delegations will then hold ‘proximity talks’, not sitting in the same room or even the same building, with Staffan de Mistura and his team shuttling between the delegations trying to find enough common ground to keep talking.

That will be the easy bit. For whatever may be agreed in these peace talks, it will all be worthless unless it is enforced on the ground. No Syrians I know are holding their breath.

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