A tailor in Afrin, northern Syria, makes flags in the Kurdish national colours.
Earlier this month I made a short trip inside Syria to visit Afrin, a Kurdish town northwest of Aleppo. Since the summer Afrin and other Kurdish majority towns and cities along the Turkish border have been under the control of the PYD, a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the Turkish-Kurdish rebel group.
My visit was closely supervised and planned by PYD minders, but it was nonetheless an interesting insight into how southeastern Turkey/Kurdistan might run under PKK auspices. The PYD had set about building Kurdish national consciousness in Afrin with gusto. They had set up 20 centres that were teaching people to read and write in Kurdish. The old headquarters of the Baath Party were transformed as a martyrs’ memorial centre, with plaques for the 400-odd local Kurds who had died for the dream of nationhood.
The PYD and the PKK have been quite coy about their links, but in Afrin the connections were pretty evident. Pictures of Abdullah Ocalan decorated every government office I visited. In the martyrs’ memorial centre, the majority of the dead had lost their lives not in Syria, but in Turkey, fighting with the PKK. Also, the teachers I met who were giving local people courses in written Kurdish were both Turkish Kurds.
The martyr’s memorial centre at Afrin, a collage of pictures has PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan at its centre.
After decades of harsh repression, people here are obviously happy to fly their own national colours. According to people from Afrin I spoke to later, however, freedom under the PYD isn’t all it seems. One local told me that the rebels had become frustrated that more people were flying the Iraqi-Kurdish flag more than the various PKK flags, and began ordering them to take them down (in the picture above, the northern Iraq flag is the one with the stripes and sun).
They also said the PYD has behaved threateningly towards anyone vocally or actively supporting the uprising against Assad rule. In fact, the PYD so far remains determined to sit on the fence in the Syrian civil war, a stance that is likely to leave it with few friends in the long run. The aim is no doubt to achieve something similar to Iraqi Kurdistan during the second Gulf War, but you only need to look at a map of Syria to see how fragmented the Kurdish territory there is. Afrin, for example, is a Kurdish enclave bounded on two sides by Turkey, and on the other two sides by Arab-populated regions.
Ultimately, the PYD’s national consciousness-building efforts seem a bit feverish and premature in the middle of a civil war. Many people I interviewed believe that at some point fighting will erupt between the PYD and the Free Syrian Army, or else between the PYD and Turkey.
With a customer waiting, Khalil, a 50-year-old tailor, fixes a bright red star on to a green and yellow background. “In the past it was impossible to do this,” he says, as he sews together a flag displaying the national colours of Kurdistan.
In recent weeks, the tailors in Afrin have been busy. The Kurdish-populated town in northwest Syria, a pocket of calm in the brutal civil war, is festooned with these flags. For Syria’s two million Kurds, the country’s most harshly oppressed minority, the uprising has spurred an outpouring of nationalist feeling and dreams of self-rule.
Government forces all but abandoned Afrin and other Kurdish regions early in the summer to divert men to battles in Damascus and Aleppo. A month ago, Kurdish guerrillas drove out the last agents of the regime and assumed complete control of the town.
“This makes people feel they are free,” Khalil says of the flag. “They feel they have dignity and can express their own identity.” Beneath the elation, however, there is tension and the threat of an open conflict among the Kurdish factions and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel grouping fighting the regime of President Assad.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish militia controlling Afrin, is maintaining neutrality in Syria’s civil war, a position that other rebels claim amounts to collaboration with the regime. In addition, the presence of the Kurdish militants and their close ties to Kurdish rebels fighting in Turkey have caused unease in Ankara.
When The Times passed through the rebel checkpoint that marks the boundary of Kurdish-run Afrin, signs of Syria’s 19-month-old uprising vanished. The preceding miles of rebel-held territory had been littered with burnt-out tanks and shattered buildings — evidence of the FSA’s fight for every inch of land that it controls. The FSA has agreed, however, not to enter the Kurdish regions, which remain untouched by the fighting.
“We don’t want them here because the regime will bomb us and we don’t want Kurds to die,” said Mohammad Jernas, of Afrin’s new governing council.
So far, the FSA and its political counterparts have offered little support to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy and cultural recognition. “Why should we fight for them?” said Mr Jernas, referring to the FSA. “We are not ready to send our people to die for nothing.”
In Afrin, accompanied by a PYD minder, The Times was shown a cultural centre and language school set up by the party, as well as a memorial centre for Kurdish guerrillas and activists who have died either in combat in Turkey or in prison in Syria. “We are creating all the institutions of a civil, democratic society,” Mr Jernas said.
Others, however, claim there is a darker side to PYD rule. “If you put up the flag of the revolution, they would arrest you,” said Runi, a leader of Selahattin al-Ayyubi, a mainly Kurdish brigade fighting with the FSA in Aleppo. Speaking in the Turkish city of Antakya, he claimed that members of his brigade had been arrested and tortured by the PYD when returning to see their families in Afrin. Two who defected from the PYD had been killed, he added. “Probably in the future there will be fighting.”
Kawa, a 25-year-old resident contacted by telephone, said that support for the PYD was waning, particularly since they started levying taxes. “There is growing tension in Afrin,” he said. “People are separated between those who support the revolution and those who support the PYD. Many people think they are indirectly supporting the regime.”
Turkey has threatened to strike against the Kurdish militants and has accused the Assad regime of arming them to destabilise Turkey. Last month, after a Syrian mortar strike, the Turkish parliament authorised cross-border raids into Syria.
The Kurds, who number about 30 million throughout the region, have long faced persecution in the four countries where they form minorities: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
“Turkey doesn’t want Kurds to have their rights, in Turkey, or in Syria or anywhere else,” Mr Jernas said. “We are prepared for anything.”
While a tense peace reigns, many are embracing Kurdish cultural markers long suppressed during decades of the Assad family’s Baathist rule. Centres have opened across the district offering previously banned Kurdish reading and writing courses.
“It’s my native language and I want to learn it,” Rima, a housewife aged 31, said. “I don’t feel afraid. I don’t think the regime will be able to control this area again and anyway, I’m not doing anything wrong.”
Beset by enemies, however, many others in Afrin are fearful. “We don’t know what will happen,” a man at a bus station café said. “I don’t think either the regime or the opposition will accept our rights.”