In an exclusive interview conducted on Wednesday, Ovober 8, 20014, the Premier of local Kurdish Kobane Canton administration Anwar Moslem provides important update about Kobane and ongoing ISIS attacks against the city.
Mutlu Civiroglu https://twitter.com/mutludc
Mr. Moslem, what’s the current situation in Kobane?
ISIS hasn’t withdrawn yet. ISIS is still in the eastern, southeastern and southern [parts of the town. They are a little away from the western section. Clashes continue so far. Fierce ffightings are taking place. They aim for a massacre. There are thousands of civilians here; children, women and elderly. As the resistance is in its 24th day, they want to crush it spitefully with all the civilians as well. The fact is there is heroic resistance here by Kurdish Protection Units (YPG). American and coalition air strikes are very welcome here by our forces and the Canton administration.
Tell me about the civilians inside Kobane. There are reports that all civilians left the city?
Claims that there are no civilians in Kobane are false. Nobody can, nobody dares to get out of their homes as there are fierce clashes and flying bullets everywhere. There are thousands of civilians under the ISIS threat. Some are here in the city; some others are close to the border. Their situation is getting worse and dangerous. Some media say Kobane is empty. It’s not true. There are civilians even in the villages ISIS has overrun. Their situation too is dangerous. I repeat that there are civilians in the town. I can’t give you an exact number, but there are thousands of civilians here. If the media wants we can provide pictures and interviews with civilians. Our main purpose in calling the international community is protecting these civilians, children and women.
American and coalition air strikes have had effective results in the last two days. When jets strike civilians in the city cheer up. They salute American jets. Defense Ministry of the Kobane administration said, in a statement, that our YPG forces and the coalition partners can root out ISIS from the Middle East.
You mentioned airstrikes. How effective are today’s air strikes?
They are effective today as well. But we cannot know how much exactly. As the fighting rages on we can’t determine the effect. We are in touch with our forces who witness air strikes. But they are usually busy in fighting ISIS militants. We don’t want to keep them busy, so we avoid calling them frequently.
The jets carry out a good mission, especially for the well-being of civilians. That’s why the continuation of air strikes in Kobane against ISIS is important. The destruction of ISIS’s tanks, Humvees and other heavy vehicles is of utmost importance. Today they carried out a car bomb attack. That’s why American, British, French and all other coalition partner’s jets should continue targeting ISIS in Kobane Canton. ISIS receives reinforcement from Tal Abyad and Raqqah. The coalition partners should be tracking them better. They must stop them. So that we can finish them off inside Kobane and save the civilians.
Some media reports claim these airstrikes are useless. Are they?
No, they are pretty effective in last two days. As the head of the Canton Administration, I recognize the fact that they are helpful and effective. ISIS militants are using artillery they brought from Mosul, and it is used against the civilians as well. So why should the coalition stop the bombardment? The coalition is saving these civilians and the canton. So be it known by all sides that YPG on the ground with the American and coalition jets overhead can fight ISIS off.
Is YPG capable of expelling ISIS from Kobane?
Yes, as long as their artillery, vehicles and tanks are destroyed, new reinforcements are cut off; we don’t have anti-tank weaponry by the way, our forces can finish them off. YPG has promised to annihilate those thugs.
What about YPG loses and injuries? How many ISIS fighters were killed?
YPG and Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) are the sons and daughters of this people. Most of these fighters are in their twenties. They fight against ISIS looters, thieves whose aim is destruction.
ISIS commits inhuman actions; they behead even our girls. YPG and YPJ are fighting against such a cruel terrorist group.
A young Kurdish woman Arin Mirkan who was a YPJ commander chose to detonate herself among a group of ISIS members. Rather than surrendering to ISIS, she chose sacrificing her life such in such heroic way.
But, we are hopeful that our forces with the help of the coalition partners can fight ISIS till they are annihilated, and we can rebuild peace and stability once more.
What about the reaction of people around the globe to your case? American people are deeply concerned that the Kobane will fall. Similarly people in other corner of the world have similar concerns for you.
The memory of 9/11 is with us. We especially want to reach out to the American people and their government. We know their suffering too. We remember terrorist attacks against civilians in Spain, France and elsewhere. We are aware of what happened innocent journalists and aid workers at terrorists’ hands.
We, as the administration of Kobane Canton, call upon all sides to challenge the threat together as to create security. We believe in support of the American people and people all over the world.
I would like to tank all human rights defenders in becoming a voice for the voiceless Kobane. I am very grateful on behalf of the people of Kobane. I want everyone to know that fall of Kobane would be the fall of humanity. I therefore appeal everyone to stand up for Kobane and stand with us in these very difficult days.
If you want my participation to a show, interview me or get a quote on Kobane and other Kurdish related issues, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kurdish city of Kobane in Northern Syria, also knows as Rojava, is under severe ISIS attacks since September 15.
Kurdish officials say ISIS militants have been waging an unprecedented attack on Kobane from east, south, and west with the American tanks, artilleries, and Humvees they had seized from Iraqi army in Mosul.
In a short interview Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader Salih Moslem appeals to the international community to support people of Kobane before it is too late.
Below is a detailed interview I conducted with the Premier of local Kobane Canton Anwar Moslem about the dire situation in the region:
Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has launched an offensive against Hasakah for few days, and took control of Regiment 121, a major military installation in south of Hasakah province.
Since then Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) took preemptive steps to protect the city from all directions. According to YPG sources in the city there is no ISIS presence in the city, and the suicide attack resulted death of 17 regime forces was immediately interfered by YPG before additional ISIS reinforcement arrive to the city.
As far as regime forces concerned, there is still some military presence in the city center and government building are still controlled by the regime officials. However, majority of regime soldiers are demoralized due to lacking clear motivation to fight. Local sources earlier reported that different sort of regime weapons were seized by YPG in Hasakah in last few days.
In a phone interview, Cochair of the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) Abdulselam Ahmed confirms that vast majority of the city is currently under YPG control. Ahmed, himself a Kurd from Hasakah, says the life in the city is normal and electricity is available in the Kurdish side of the city.
When asked about the timing of IS attacks on Hasakah, Ahmed says IS thought this as the best time to seize Hasakah as they thought YPG was preoccupied with fight in other fronts.
“Because of fierce fight in Kobane as well as Serekaniye and other regions, ISIS thought it is an appropriate time to attack Hasakah. Expecting no resistance from dispirited regime forces, ISIS was expecting an easy seizure of Hasakah. However, YPG took all necessary precautions to prevent ISIS from entering the city.”
Ahmed says it is likely that there are some ISIS supporters are in the city. “After the suicide attack they were expecting more reinforcements from surrounding villages and around Mount Abdulaziz, but thanks to YPG interference this possibility was prevented.”
In regards to YPG casualties in Hasakah, Ahmed says 3 YPG fighters lost their lives while defending the city.
“3 of YPG fighters were martyred by IS mortar attacks in south of the city. We received a news that 2 more YPG fighters martyred today, but we do not have the details yet.”
Ahmed confirms that Christians in the city asked Kurdish protection against ISIS and YPG is taking measures to protect the community.
Hasakah has always been one of the major goals of ISIS as it would allow further expansion of their control in Syria. After the group seized the control of Mosul, it wants to include Hasakah into its territories as well. Considering close ties between Arab tribes in Mosul and Hasakah, ISIS believes the city should be a part of its caliphate.
Besides, Hasakah is an important road junction near the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Main road connecting Aleppo and Damascus are passing through Hasakah. It is also an important agricultural region; wheat, rice, cotton etc.
If Hasakah falls into ISIS, Jazira Canton of Kurds, cities like Qamishli, Derik (Malikiyah), Dirbesiye, Serekaniye (Ras al-ain) and Ramalan oil fields will also go under ISIS control. Such a development will mean a big blow for Kurdish achievements in Syria.
We, the Commission of Humanitarian Relief and Support in the Democratic Autonomous Administration of the Kurdish Cantons (Jazira, Kobane and Efrin), welcome UN Security Council Resolution 2139 to boost humanitarian aid access in Syria.
We hereby commit to facilitate the implementation of the Resolution 2139 and the 2 October 2013 statement by the President of the Security Council (S/PRST/2013/15) including through facilitating the expansion of humanitarian relief operations, in accordance with applicable provisions of international humanitarian law and the UN guiding principles of humanitarian emergency assistance.
The autonomous region of Rojava (Western Kurdistan/North of Syria) is controlled and administered by multi-ethnic regional communities in a transparent, democratic and nonpartisan fashion. The region has been deprived of international humanitarian aid due to the siege imposed by the regime and armed extremists groups. Local communities organized themselves and established their institutions and councils in order to administer their own socio-economic and political affairs and to protect their territory from the repercussions of the ongoing brutal sectarian civil war.
The Rojava region has been relatively safe and has successfully managed to become a safe haven for internally displaced Syrians. The Autonomous Administration has established the Commission of Humanitarian Relief and Support in co-operation with the Kurdish Red Crescent (Heyva Sor a Kurd), a regional humanitarian NGO serving local communities with limited resources.
The Autonomous Administration in the three Kurdish Cantons will take appropriate steps to ensure the safety and security of United Nations personnel, those of its specialized agencies, and all other personnel engaged in humanitarian relief activities, without prejudice to their freedom of movement and access and to assure the delivery of relief to all persons in need. The Administration is also very keen and willing to co-operate with the UN aid representatives and personnel by ensuring the accessibility of border crossings.
We would like to suggest that the Commission of Humanitarian Relief and Support of the Autonomous Administration nominate Mrs. Senam Mohamed as focal point for coordination with the United Nations to facilitate the fair distribution of aid under the direct supervision of the UN representatives and monitored by UN officials.
Mrs. Mohamed is the Co-chair of People’s Council of Western Kurdistan and her contact details are:
A delegation from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) visited Syria’s Kurdish regions, or Rojava, last week, where the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has declared a Kurdish autonomous government with the help of its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
In an important and detailed interview with Rudaw Fred Abrahams, a special advisor to HRW who was part of the delegation, spoke about whether the autonomous government declared by the PYD is truly inclusive as claimed, if local authorities are observing human rights, the status of women, the PYD’s legal reforms and its relations with the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Abrahams said that the greatest challenge for the PYD is transitioning “from a movement — an opposition group — into a governing body, or into creating authorities, systems and structures that would represent everyone.”
Q: What was the main purpose of your visit to Rojava?
Fred Abrahams: The main purpose was to acquaint ourselves with the situation because it was our first time in the area. We had never been to the Kurdish regions. Certainly, we needed to get up to speed on the conditions during this latest conflict. So this was an opportunity for us to see conditions on the ground and to engage with the local actors who, as you know, are now establishing local governing structures and an administration in Rojava. They are essentially, as you know, the de facto authority on the ground both militarily, meaning the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, and politically Democratic Union Party. The main message we have for them, the overarching message is that when you are the local authority, even de facto authority, then with that comes legal responsibilities.
As you know, there are international standards for human rights that you are obliged to respect. We wanted to, first of all, see how they are doing in that regard, talk to them about those obligations, document the conditions, and discuss with the local authorities ways to improve them.
Q: What did you find?
Fred Abrahams: There are some positives and some negatives. Good thing, first of all, is that the security situation in the far northeast is much, much better than in most parts of Syria. Now, this is not to say that the security situation is very good up there. It is not good. But, it is to say how horrible it is in other parts of Syria, which we know. Compared to other parts of the country, then, the security situation is relatively stable. Of course, there are still car bomb attacks and other violent incidences, and fighting, of course, on the periphery.
In terms of the human rights condition, we noticed a number of areas that are problematic. We talked about them very directly with the authorities. One of the first areas is what I would call political pluralism and respecting free expression and political activity. I think one of the overarching issues is for the PYD and Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM) transitioning from an opposition group — an armed resistance — into a governing structure that is representing all the citizens and all the residents in the area, and that means respecting different views, allowing political activity and allowing all different media. It means freedom of association.
There is, what I would say, still high intolerance for different political activities. There is some improvement of course. First of all, we were only in Jazira (Hasakah province), which is important to know. We could not go, for security reasons, to Kobani (Ain al-Arab) or Afrin. In Jazira we do not have now reports on political prisoners, so that is good. I think that is an improvement. There were some releases after the last agreement in Erbil. But we do have some indications that there may be still some in Afrin. It is very difficult to say — just because you are a political activist with the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (PDKS) or Kurdish Union Party in Syria (Yekiti) or another party does not mean that you are necessarily a political prisoner.
Q: Politicians and local officials in the region claim that when some people are arrested because of criminal activities, they try to use a “political activist” label to prevent prosecution. Did you come across this?
Fred Abrahams: Yes, I think that is right. Look, it is very easy to scream about a political attack and try to score a political point. So, that is why we have to investigate these cases and see — just because you are a member of an opposition party, it does not mean that you can violate the law.
The issue that we have is not if you are an opposition member, but did they respect the process of the law? That is the area that we saw a problem. For example, to be concrete with you, one of the problems we saw is that the local authorities are trying to change their laws. They are applying a combination of Syrian law, some other laws of some countries and what they are calling the social contract — basically the constitutional document they have implemented.
The problem is that there is a huge confusion among legal experts, among lawyers, among judges — and even and especially among prisoners — about what law is being applied. If it is not clear what laws are applied, it could open the door for abuse or arbitrary application of those laws. I think that is a big problem!
One of the things we suggested to them was, look, we know that the Syrian law has a lot of problems. There are many aspects of the Syrian law that violates international human rights standards, especially discrimination against Kurds — that is obvious. So you do not need to take the aspects of the law that are in violation of human rights. But most of the Syrian law, it is fine. I can say maybe 90 percent, 95 percent of it is fine, when you are talking about normal crimes — theft, even murder.
These are standard laws that, I believe, Syrian laws were taken from the French penal code. Now it is not the time to open the door of legal reform. The country is in a war, the political situation is not stable. The court system — they are revamping and changing the judicial system and now on the top of that you want to open a question of new laws! We think it is too soon. You can change laws in the future, but now it is not the time to open this question. Rather than making fast changes, this should be done step-by-step.
Q: How was the reaction of the authorities? Were they open to your suggestions? Fred Abrahams: It was mixed. Let me put it this way: There was some understanding of that, and there was also a strong defense of the project — an ideological defense. I think this approach comes from the tradition of the movement, and that is what I am talking about by shifting from a movement to a governing structure. Those are different characters. Some people would agree with that.
We visited two prisons, and I give them credit for opening the doors for those prisons — I want to acknowledge the cooperation we had to visit those prisons. The conditions of the prisons were basically good. I mean, you know, it is a prison in Syria — it is not a place you want to be. But we did not find an evidence of serious problems. Prisoners said they were treated well. They had enough food, they did not complain about physical violence and so on. But we did notice a problem because we interviewed a number of people who were arrested and released. There is definitely a problem of violence at the time of arrest. This is a tradition of the Syrian system, which relies on forced confessions and this is typical in the region! I understand that a part of the problem is that they do not have a professional police — it is not like they have Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) or forensic laboratory for a professional police investigation over there!
However, it is illegal! Beatings at the time of interrogationis against the social contract (regional constitution); it is even against Syrian law and it is against international standards. But it is happening! We talked about it with them. We said very directly that we think it is happening, and I will tell you that they did not deny it. They said, ‘Look, this is our transition. We have to do better, learn, improve,’ and so on. That is fine. I agree with that. But it is not an excuse. So we are going to press on that — they can do better.
The other issue we looked at is child soldiers. First of all, the regulations of both YPG and Asayish (Kurdish police forces) prohibit the use of children under the age of 18.
Q: Did they not sign the Geneva Convention a few months ago?
Fred Abrahams: No, but what happened was a couple of things. First of all, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey signed a public commitment not to use child soldiers with an organization called Geneva Call about a year ago. YPG is now in conversation with Geneva Call to do the same thing. Now, in addition to that, in December 2013, YPG released an order to all members that they cannot accept any person under the age of 18. All of that is very positive and welcome. But we have documented that the problem is continuing. I believe it is getting better. I believe they have stopped using younger children. For example, you do not see young kids at checkpoints. Before, there were even kids as young as 12 years old seen by others in previous trip to Rojava. But after the order, I do not think it is happening now. I think they have stopped that. But we have definitely documented cases still under the age of 18. We have gotten some 17 and maybe 16.
Q: How are they justifying the use of children under the age of 18?
Fred Abrahams:The way they are justifying is that, ‘These people are volunteers. These kids want to contribute to the cause and they won’t go home.’ It is actually true — we spoke with the mother of one kid. She said that they pulled the kid out, and the kid ran back. Because he is 17 and wants to fight or he wants to be a part of the movement. That is fine, but the idea is that a commander should not have accepted the kid. It is the order that if you are not 18, the kid can do a political, media or humanitarian work. But you are not supposed to be a part of hostilities until the age of 18. So this is still a problem. We think that, frankly, they can do better. It is not that difficult since they are well organized. If they want to stop it, they can stop. We think they should do it.
Q: Did you observe any other problems?
Fred Abrahams:There are two other things we have looked at: One is the attacks by terrorist groups, Islamist groups — there was a car bomb attack on a local official, Abdulkerim Omar. We met with Omar and he was not hurt, but another man was killed. We met with his family — he was a father of five kids and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. So obviously, these are serious human rights violations committed by different Islamist groups or terrorist groups.
The other issue is the borders. I learned that the local government agreed with the Iraqi government to open the Tel Kocer (Yarubiya) border. This is an excellent news! I am not sure how much can get through Yarubiya because of the security situation on the Iraqi side, but it is certainly a positive step. I do not know what impact it would have on humanitarian conditions. As you know Turkey basically kept the borders closed. We found out that Turkey opens the (Senyurt) border with Dirbesiye once a month, and the last time was February 5. Kurds in Turkey collect aid and then just deliver it into Rojava once a month through this gate. But, you know, once a month is completely inadequate!
Q: As Human Rights Watch, have you requested the Turkish government to open the borders more frequently?
Fred Abrahams: Absolutely, we already have. We understand the politics of this, but the problem is that the politics are making people suffer. We believe the borders should be opened for the aid and aid is certainly needed in the region. People are not starving but there is a real shortage of essential foods and essential medicines. For example, baby milk is in short supply. If you have any chronic diseases, diabetes, then you are really in trouble. It is very difficult to get these basic medicines, and it is Turkey to blame for keeping some of these medicines out.
Q: I was in Rojava in October and witnessed the same things that you are describing. So, unfortunately people are going through similar situation?
Fred Abrahams: Yes, no question! There is a very tricky issue of the border at Fishkabor. Frankly, I think that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) can do more to help the flow of the aid coming in. I also know that all of this is a result of the messy politics. It is a real shame that people are not able to get what they urgently require! I noticed that there was a bridge, a pontoon bridge, across the river that is now dismantled and is not functioning. We believe the KRG can do more. They can do more to let aid in. Some is getting in — it is not completely closed — but it is not enough.
Q: Similarly, have you also contacted the KRG to do more about the situation?
Fred Abrahams: Yes, absolutely. We have already said that and I have said it in some interviews. We think that both Turkey and the KRG should put the politics aside and help people in need. Closing the borders is making the situation worse.
Q: What did you observe about the situation of women in general?
Fred Abrahams:The most obvious answer to this question is the women fighters in YPG and Asayesh the stated commitment to gender equality in the TEV-DEM project. Frankly, as a concept it is incredibly welcome and very refreshing, which is so different from other countries and other areas in the region. However, I think it is not as deep rooted as it is presented to be. In other words, there is as you know a man and a woman in the head of all institutions. They set a 40 percent quota for women in different institutions. But the leading authorities are still tending to be men. So it is an improvement, but I would not say the equality they claim it to be.
In terms of other women’s rights, I am afraid that we did not have time to investigate questions of, for example, domestic violence or sexual violence. We were only there for five days.
Q: How is the situation of minorities such as Christians?
Fred Abrahams:It is a very good question, and it is also a topic for our next trip. We simply did not have time to visit any of the Syriac communities or others, and we have to do that. Look, I have to tell you one thing: All the authorities in Rojava are making a strong statement by including other groups and other parties. Frankly speaking, I think that is true and that is welcome. But, in my opinion, PYD is clearly the dominant political force. I want to come back to an overarching issue which is the PYD’s ability to transition or to evolve from a movement — an opposition group — into a governing body, or into creating authorities, systems, and structures that would represent everyone. That is going to be a process.
Q: Is there any organization that offers trainings and workshops for the authorities in Rojava for this transitional process? Are the authorities open to such trainings?
Fred Abrahams: I only know of one group that is doing something. It is a legal group called “Kurdish Center for Studies & Legal Consultancy” also known as YASA. It is an organization with Kurdish lawyers based in Europe, and they have gone to provide some legal training. So my understanding is that they, the Kurdish authorities in Rojava, are open to it. I mean, they do want to improve. The question and challenge is going to be whether the PYD and the YPG is going to create an atmosphere of openness, tolerance, and cooperation among parties, and will it allow a space for other political groups and ideas. I think the sustainability of their projects depends on that. That sounds like a political statement, but it is not! I am talking from a human rights perspective that needs cultivating an atmosphere of inclusion and consultation, tolerating different views and different activities.
Q: I heard you were also investigating the Amuda incidents. Is that true?
Fred Abrahams:Yes, that is true. We also visited Amuda, and we are still in the process of examining all the evidence. We do have concerns about possible excessive use of force, but we have to examine the specifics to determine whether there was any force used against the fighters. YPG claimed that one of their fighters died. The counterclaim is that this guy died in the fighting at Hasakah and did not die at all in the protest. We have to examine materials given to us. We have not yet reached our conclusions. But we will look at it and hopefully have something to say on that.
Q: Your trip to region came after the announcement of the local autonomy in the region. What do you want to say about that?
Fred Abrahams:I think PYD is playing a very strong role in the autonomy. I do not think anybody would deny that. In my view, they play more of a role than they think they would admit — that is not as pluralistic as the administration claims. But it is also true that it is not only PYD. And there are other parties as well. So again, I come back to my main point: Will it really become an administration that is for governing and not for ruling — those are two different things. I would say the PYD is the strongest force on the ground — that is quite clear. And their influence is the strongest within the governing structure.
Q: Finally, what about the Assad regime’s presence in Rojava. I know in Qamishli there is a certain regime presence. What was your take on Assad’s power in Kurdish towns?
Fred Abrahams: The Assad forces and the government is basically present in three places in Qamishli: One is in the center so they call it kind of ‘security square,’ you know, the center of town. I think that also includes some Arab neighborhoods. The second is on the Turkish border at the border crossing. The third is at the airport. The airport is important — the UN World Food Program, they airlifted in some humanitarian aid a few weeks ago through this airport. Kurdish authorities told us that they did not see any, any ounce of that — no grain or rice! So, all of the aid was distributed elsewhere. I assume to the government controlled areas, but I do not know for sure. But it definitely did not go to the Kurdish areas! So the regime is there, but as you know, there is an agreement or accommodation so the Asayish forces and the government forces are sometimes passing each other in the street, and they tolerate each other, or there is an agreement, obviously, in an accommodation to allow each other’s presence. But that is a current agreement that they have.
Q: What would be the reason for such an agreement?
Fred Abrahams:To me, it is quite clear that, at this moment, they have no interest in clashing with each other except their common enemy, namely the Islamist forces. So there is a mutual understanding of an agreement to tolerate one another rather than clash. But, how long that would last is unpredictable. I think it would hold so long as their common enemy.
Q: Finally, have you been told about human rights violations and atrocities committed by jihadist militants?
Fred Abrahams: Yes, the first thing is attacks because they are indiscriminate and many times it causes civilian deaths. But then, of course, kidnapping of civilians, which are still occasionally happening — in the past it happened a lot. And finally the maltreatment of fighters who were captured. I saw reports — horrible killings and the beheading of four YPG fighters recently, I think, it was in Afrin. That is an extreme violation of war crime. You know, you have to treat prisoners of war humanely. The last thing I would say is that we did not visit Ras al-Ain or Serekaniye, but I know in that town they complain about looting of a hospital. When the Islamist forces were in the town, they stole all medical equipment from a hospital. That is, of course, a serious violation. It was a civilian hospital and they are still suffering from that, having to buy, import equipment.
Editor’s note: Mutlu Civiroglu is a Washington, DC based-journalist and Kurdish affairs analyst focusing on Syria and Turkey. You can follow him @mutludc. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The United States has been searching for an ally in Syria since the uprising began in March 2011. But while the exiled opposition coalitions have been dogged by infighting and a lack of real influence inside Syria, and the armed opposition within the country is rife with extremists, Washington has been ignoring a natural and potentially valuable ally: the Kurds.
Kurds administer the most stable, peaceful corner of Syria, and have been open in trying to secure better relations with the West. Yet despite this, there is little to speak of in terms of ties. It is time for Washington to accept that if it wants to eventually see a peaceful, pluralistic Syria, then the Kurds are its best partners moving forward.
Unlike the main opposition coalition, Syrian Kurdish groups are united. Indeed, the two major Kurdish umbrella groups, the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) and the Syrian Kurdish National Council (SKNC), recently announced they had reached agreement on several key issues, including unified Kurdish participation at the Geneva II Conference.
Unfortunately, Washington does not seem interested in Kurdish participation. According to some SKNC leaders, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford pressured Kurds to be part of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) rather than pushing for Kurdish participation in Geneva. “We don’t understand why Ford has such a negative attitude towards Kurdish parties,” SKNC official Ahmed Suleiman reportedly told Voice of America.
But this approach has little chance of success, especially as the SNC has shown little desire to recognize Kurdish demands. In fact, the SNC went as far as to denounce the Kurds’ recent declaration of autonomy: “Its declaration of self-rule amounts to a separatist act shattering any relationship with the Syrian people who are battling to achieve a free, united and independent state, liberated from tyranny and sovereign over all its territory,” the group said.
This failure to recognize Kurdish demands is at the root of much of the Kurdish suspicion of the Arab opposition. True, rather than take on a military equipped with sophisticated weapons and advanced air strike capabilities, Kurds have been trying to protect their homes and build self-government from the bottom up. But just because Kurds don’t want to fight the al-Assad regime on somebody else’s behalf doesn’t mean they are regime collaborators.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that Washington ally Turkey strongly rejects any status for Kurds, and has looked to prevent Kurdish participation in Geneva. These diverging interests between Washington and Ankara surely underscore that it is time for the international community to develop a Kurdish policy of its own.
The reality is that the armed Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) deserves recognition for fighting extremist groups. The YPG claims to have killed almost 3,000 fighters from fundamentalist groups such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, efforts that have also included notable roles for female fighters.
Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdistan is the safest and most stable corner of Syria, and has been a safe haven for those fleeing violence. The Kurdish focus on defending territory from both government brutality and extremist attacks, rather than taking a front and center role in the conflict, has meant that Arab, Assyrian and Chechen neighbors have been able to live relatively peacefully together in Kurdistan.
Against this backdrop, Kurds last month announced an interim administration to fill the vacuum that followed the regime’s 2012 withdrawal from Kurdistan. The administration aims to provide social, economic, educational and health services even as the people of Syrian Kurdistan live under tough conditions imposed by al Qaeda affiliates. There is, for example, a shortage of basics including bread, milk, baby food and medical equipment. A lack of electricity and fuel is making life difficult for locals during the winter, and providing assistance would be a good step for Western capitals to take if they want to boost ties with a population that could provide valuable support for their goals.
The U.S. and its allies would find it in their own interests to stop ignoring the Kurds and instead welcome their participation in Geneva – a conference that ignores Syria’s largest ethnic minority, after all, will not produce any viable solutions.
Kurds across the world have demonstrated their solidarity with Syrian Kurdistan. It is time that Washington joined them.
Yesterday, Syrian Kurds said they would form an autonomous provincial government in Rojava, the Kurdish-language term for one of three majority-Kurdish regions in northeast Syria. The self-proclaimed government is complete with its own president andministers.
The move comes two months after the country’s Kurds declared self-rule. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said elections for the new municipal council would be held this spring.
The announcement comes as Kurds are left without representation at this week’s Montreux peace talks, a U.N.-backed gathering of Syrian opposition groups, government representatives and international powers.
“Kurds have been struggling for decades. Hundreds of activists were tortured by the regime,” says Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based journalist and Kurdish affairs analyst focusing on Syria and Turkey. “Ignoring the Kurds has a symbolic meaning that the future of Syria will not be any different for Kurds.”
We asked Civiroglu, Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Middle East Analyst for the Jamestown Foundation specializing in Kurdish politics and Dilshad Othman, a Syrian specialist in information security and a U.S State Department Internet Freedom fellow to weigh in on the consequences of Kurds being left out of this week’s negotiations.
Syria Deeply: What do Syrian Kurds want from the Geneva peace talks?
Wladimir van Wilgenburg: The main Kurdish parties want some kind of recognition of a Kurdish status in Syria. They want to have recognition for a form of self-rule over their own areas, such as autonomy, federalism or democratic autonomy. This is quite similar to what the Kurds in Iraq have. But the West wants the Syrian Kurds to be part of the Syrian opposition, or excluded from Geneva II. As a result, the Kurdish National Council, one of the main Kurdish power blocs, joined the Syrian Coalition due to Western pressure.
Now the PYD fears that their demands are not recognized and that it could turn out to be a second Lausanne that led to the creation of Turkey and the division of the Kurdish areas in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, without granting them any form of Kurdish autonomy or independence, as promised by the earlier treaty of Sevres.
Mutlu Civiroglu: Two major Kurdish umbrella groups, the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) and the Syrian Kurdish National Council (SKNC), recently announced they had reached agreement on several key issues, including unified Kurdish participation at the Geneva II Conference. This joint delegation wasn’t recognized at Geneva. Kurdish activists now feel that their demands are ignored, and their voices are silenced.
Kurds want to participate in Geneva II as Kurds, the biggest ethnic minority in the country and one of the groups that has been fighting the regime’s repression for decades. Hundreds of activists were tortured by the regime. Ignoring the Kurds has a symbolic meaning, which is that the future of Syria will not be any different for Kurds.
Dishad Othman: Most Kurds want the right to independent political decisions. They want to play a strong part in any decision-making process.
Kurds are trying to bring their case to any table, even Geneva II. Kurds were also targeted in military attacks. Of course they want a role in the decision-making process. They want to know how they will be represented in the “new Syria.”
SD: Why are Kurdish interests being negated at the talks?
WW: It’s not seen as an important issue, and the U.S. thinks that the Kurds should negotiate Kurdish rights with the Syrian opposition, rather than imposing unilateral decisions on the ground and declaring autonomy.
Moreover, the United States wants to exclude PYD from the negotiations since the U.S. is closely allied to Turkey, which opposes PYD, and also since it considers PYD to be close to the Syrian regime and the United States also claims that it wants to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria. In Iraq, the United States prefers Baghdad over the Kurds, and in Syria, the U.S. also prefers the Syrian state over the Kurds (in this case, the Syrian opposition, or Assad).
The Kurds feel excluded and suggest that neither the Syrian opposition nor the Syrian government recognize any form of Kurdish autonomy, although Assad is flirting with the Kurds by allowing them the rights of education and giving them back Syrian citizenship. The Kurds want to have an independent delegation to push for Kurdish rights, instead of just discussing the future of Assad and a new government.
SD: What will be the consequences if Kurdish interests are ignored at the negotiating table?
WW: I doubt that the Geneva conference will lead to any solution since the main armed groups are not involved in the discussions, such as the Kurdish YPG militia, the Islamic front that is the biggest armed opposition group on the ground, or the FSA. Off course, al-Qaida-affiliated/inspired groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are not invited, but they are also a significant power on the ground, and need to be dealt with somehow.
The Kurds want to have a say at the table, so if they do not have their own delegation, then Kurdish rights will most likely not be discussed, and the Kurdish “democratic autonomy” that was declared by PYD would not be recognized by the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition or the international community. Earlier, the Russians were willing to have the Supreme Kurdish Council to participate in Geneva II, but the Americans blocked it.
DO: The announcement of a autonomous administration in the northern part of Syria ahead of the Geneva talks is a direct reaction to Kurds not being invited to Geneva. They are sending a clear message that they are going to try and manage the area of northern Syria by themselves.
Kurds are waiting for a guarantee that their rights will be recognized on a political level. They are afraid of the new ideology and identity of the Syrian opposition. They are scared of the complexity of the battleground.
There is a lot to talk about at Geneva, especially in terms of the economy. It used to be one of the strongest, but is now one of the poorest. There is a genuine fear that if the Kurds are not at the table, they will lose their rights and will be going on a path away from a united Syria.
MC: The core organizers of Geneva II rushed the conference and wanted to show the diplomatic community that international efforts were under way, but unfortunately many groups are not represented at Geneva and by the Syrian National Coalition.
There will be one or two people at Geneva on behalf of the Syrian National Kurdish Council, but just like the Syrian National Council, they lack power on the ground among Kurds. Many colleagues I talk to said that this conference is born to be dead. This is a sad reality after three years.
Kurds are one of the largest minorities in Syria, and have a large presence in the Middle East. If there isn’t a solution to the Kurdish question, there won’t be stability in Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In Syria, Kurds have been the most organized militarily, socially, politically and economically. If you exclude the regime’s military power, the Kurds have the strongest army.
SD: If Kurds aren’t included in the decision-making process, how will they implement any agreements on the ground?
MC: I spoke to PYD’s leader and a member of SKNYC, and they both said they didn’t have a say in who represented them at Geneva, and that as a result they would not recognize the decisions made at Geneva. This is the risk that Geneva conference bears.
By excluding Kurds from Geneva, the international community is sending the message that Kurdistan is different from Syria, and that there isn’t a pluralistic Syria. This bolsters the feeling that Kurds are not a part of Syria’s future, and only further pushes them in a separate direction from Syria.
SD: How unified are the Kurdish political parties, and how does this translate on the ground?
MC: There is a consensus among Kurds that they have been highly successful in fighting extremist groups. The armed Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) has been actively fighting radical groups like al-Nusra and ISIS. These efforts have largely been ignored by the international community.
It’s correct that you can’t see YPG as the military power that represents everyone, but there is an increasing consensus in the region that YPG is the defender of the Rojava region, and a general respect for their achievements in fighting extremism and keeping the region intact.
DO: Politically, Kurds are managing the area of northern Syria by themselves. Kurds don’t have a militia, except the PYD – the largest Kurdish militia, which isn’t in good shape with the Syrian opposition. There are a lot of small groups in the FSA. There are Kurds, but they don’t follow the Kurdish political routes – they get their funds from the Syrian opposition. Most Kurds are in Kobani and Afrin, controlled by PYD.
The Syrian Kurds have failed to get support from the United States and Russia to have an independent delegation for the upcoming Geneva II Syrian peace conference, slated to begin on January 22. They now fear that the Kurdish issue will be ignored in the conference, despite the fact that Kurds control a significant part of northern Syria, including many oil-producing areas.
At first it was unclear if the Syrian Kurdish political organizations could solve their differences, which have been exacerbated by tension between Kurdish groups in Iraq and Turkey. Competition between Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the main Kurdish party in Turkey, over the leadership of the Kurds, were at the core of the differences between Kurdish parties in Syria.
Regional Kurdish Disputes
The PKK backs the powerful Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and it’s armed wing, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), that control significant parts of the Kurdish areas in Syria. Its main rival, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which brings together several Kurdish parties, is backed by Barzani.
Since 2011, the PYD has become the largest Kurdish party in Syria, as a result of its military power through the YPG. The KNC, on the other hand, has been increasingly marginalized as a result of its corresponding lack of military influence. Its leadership is now based outside of Syria and it has affiliated itself with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Syria’s main exile leadership, which is endorsed by several Western and Arab nations, as well as by the PKK’s and PYD’s main enemy, Turkey.
As I have previously written at Al Monitor, the KDP and PKK managed to solve some of their differences in December 2013, and they agreed that the Syrian Kurds should have a united voice in Geneva II as part of an independent Kurdish delegation. However, the National Coalition and several influential foreign nations have opposed the idea of a separate Kurdish delegation. In the end, it appears that only the Kurdish National Council (KNC) will go to Geneva II, as part of the National Coalition’s delegation—assuming the conference is held and the National Coalition attends—while the PYD is left out entirely.
PYD’s Plan for Kurdish Transitional Rule
The PYD argues that if the Kurds do not have an independent delegation at the Geneva II talks, there will be no recognition of special status for the Kurds in Syria. There is historical precedent for such fears, considering how the Kurdish national tragedy began in the 1920s. The PYD-leader Saleh Muslim Mohammed has warned of a repetition of the 1923 treaty of Lausanne that created a Turkish state and ignored the option of Kurdish independence that had been promised in the earlier treaty of Sèvres in 1920.
Ultimately, the PYD seeks international recognition for its plan to form a transitional Kurdish government in northern Syria, similar to the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. The West has so far opposed this idea, and it has been harshly criticized by the National Coalition. But for the PYD and many Syrian Kurds, it is of crucial importance. Having their own delegation at the talks would have allowed the PYD to raise this demand and bargain for its approval in the proceedings.
Turning the PYD Against Geneva
“There is frustration towards Washington, Moscow, and the UN,” says the Washington-based Kurdish affairs specialist Mutlu Civiroglu, who argues that Syrian Kurds now feel left out of the Geneva II process. “To provide the Kurdish point of view, Kurds should be there and they should be allowed to speak and raise their own demands. The Kurds have stopped radicals, protected their own areas, and protected ethnic minorities. Not allowing Kurds to come [in a separate Kurdish delegation], means that they want Kurds to live the same life as they did during Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule before the revolution.”
At the end of the day, the YPG is the clearly dominant military power in Syrian Kurdistan and the Geneva conference will not change the reality on the ground. Even the KNC realizes that the Kurdish issue will most likely not be discussed during Geneva II, and the PYD and its affiliates are turning hostile to the entire process.
On January 16, a pan-Kurdish body controlled by the PKK said that since the Geneva II meeting is “ostracizing” Syrian Kurds, its outcome “will not be recognized by the Kurds.” This hardening of the PKK’s position didn’t take long to filter down to its affiliates in Syria. Earlier on Monday, a PYD-affiliated organization threatened the KNC by saying that if it goes to Geneva without trying to secure “well-deserved Kurdish rights,” this “will be considered high treason against the Kurdish people and against all of Syria.”
It seems that after its demand for a separate Kurdish delegation was refused, the PYD has now decided to reject the Geneva II meeting entirely.