Syrian Kurds inch toward autonomy

With Kurdish militias trying to tighten their grip on northern Syria, the country could be fragmenting into three distinct areas, and that could pose a problem for neighboring Turkey, which has battled Kurdish militants for decades

By Jonathon Burch  /  Reuters, CEYLANPINAR, Turkey

Tue, Aug 06, 2013 - Page 9

Looking back over the border at the Syrian hometown he fled, Adil is circumspect when he sees a Kurdish flag hoisted over its low-rise, breezeblock buildings.

The 33-year-old Kurd has seen victors come and go and it is far too soon to celebrate.

“First there was [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad and there was oppression, then came the rebel Free Syrian Army and it was little better, and now the Kurds have taken control,” he said.

“We’re undecided on what they will be like. We’ll have to wait and see, but whoever is in control is not important as long as there is security and justice. That’s all we want,” he said.

Kurdish militias have sought to consolidate their grip in northern Syria after exploiting the chaos of the country’s civil war over the past year by seizing control of districts as al-Assad’s forces focused elsewhere.

FIGHTING FOR CONTROL

Their emerging self-rule is starting to echo the autonomy of Kurds in neighboring north Iraq, and highlights Syria’s slow fragmentation into a Kurdish northeast, mainly government-held areas around Damascus, Homs and the Mediterranean, and a rebel swathe leading from Aleppo along the Euphrates Valley to Iraq.

Ras al-Ain, a border town abutting Ceylanpinar in Turkey and an ethnic mix of Arabs, Kurds and others, has been a focus of the struggle for months, with Kurdish militias fighting for control against Arab rebel fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked hardline Sunni Islamist al-Nusra Front.

Two weeks ago, fighters allied to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the strongest local Kurdish group with its well-armed and effective militias, captured the town from Nusra fighters.

Days later, the PYD’s leader Saleh Muslim announced it would set up an independent council to run Kurdish areas of Syria until the war ends.

The Kurdish Supreme Committee, a newly formed umbrella group for Kurdish parties in Syria, including the PYD, has flown its flag over the town, but its hold is fragile.

Nusra fighters have regrouped in Tel Halaf, a settlement 4km to the west, from where they have been shelling and firing in an attempt to recoup their losses, although the Kurds appear to be holding their ground.

The clashes have reduced to the odd burst of gunfire, but days of heavy exchanges last month sent stray shells and bullets crashing onto the Turkish side. Three Turkish citizens were killed, including a 15-year-old boy by a bullet to the head.

The Turkish military, which has been returning fire into Syria when stray bullets or mortars land inside Turkey, said it had fired several shots across the frontier at Ceylanpinar on Thursday night last week after a bullet from Syria hit the town.

Daily clashes have continued between Kurds and Islamists across Syria’s north and in the early hours of Friday last week, PYD fighters killed 12 Islamist militants in the northeastern province of Hassake which borders Turkey and Iraq, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

HISTORY OF REPRESSION

Divided between Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish people are often described as the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. Syria’s Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority, suffered government repression for decades.

Under al-Assad and his father before him, they were forbidden from learning their own language, frequently evicted from their land and even denied full Syrian citizenship. Their region is home to a chunk of Syria’s estimated 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, but Kurds enjoyed little benefit.

For now, Kurdish and Arab refugees who have fled Ras al-Ain mainly speak of their longing to return to homes in peace, regardless of who is in charge.

Khadija, a 29-year-old Arab, who fled the town with her family twice in the past eight months, said seven of her male relatives were executed by Arab rebel fighters because they had wanted to escape recruitment.

“We want a state to be formed by whoever. Who it is doesn’t matter. Security is our only concern. Let us just be able to go to our homes — Arabs, Kurds or whoever,” she said.

TURKEY’S CONCERNS

Across the border, powerful neighbor Turkey is treading a careful line.

Kurdish assertiveness has posed a quandary for Ankara as it tries to make peace on its own soil with militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel group that has fought for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.

Turkey fears a power grab by Kurdish militias in Syria may embolden the PKK militants, but it is also uneasy about swathes of territory along its border falling to the al-Nusra Front.

In a rare statement last month, the Turkish military said it had fired on PYD fighters, describing them as “separatist terrorists,” after bullets from Ras al-Ain hit inside Turkey. Previous statements had not specified targets of return fire.

However, there are also signs Turkey is willing to work with the PYD and other Kurdish groups if it can be sure they will remain resolutely opposed to al-Assad, vow not to seek autonomy through violence or before Syria’s wider conflict is resolved, and that they pose no threat to Turkey’s own security.

“We have no problem with their aspirations... What we do not want from any group is that they use this situation opportunistically to impose their will by force,” a senior Turkish government official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

OLIVE BRANCH

The message was delivered directly to Saleh Muslim last week, when Turkey invited him to Istanbul for talks with its intelligence agency after the capture of Ras al-Ain brought what the government official described as a new sense of urgency.

“We understood him and he understood us,” the official said.

“He came out satisfied that our position towards Kurds is clear and he also clarified his position ... that they are by no means after autonomy to be established now,” the official said.

The Turkish government has been discussing reopening border crossings to Kurdish areas in Syria to help the flow of humanitarian aid, including one at Ceylanpinar closed amid uncertainty over who controlled the other side.

“Turkey has really come to a point where it realizes what needs to be done. At the least it has seen that treating the Kurds like an enemy and supporting groups like [al-]Nusra is not good for Turkey,” said Ismail Arslan, Ceylanpinar’s mayor from Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.

For Adil and his five children, the day when the Kurdish area of Syria is safe — in any hands — seems far away.

“I’m not hopeful,” he said. “Syria will not be fixed even in 10 years. I could be here that long. I will not go back until this war is over.”

Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall