Kurdish Militias Drive Out Jihadists, Bring Stability Back to Parts of Syria

In the chaos of civil war, Syria’s Kurds are managing to do the unthinkable—drive out foreign fighters, avoid provoking Assad and start establishing a pocket of stability.

Qamishli, Syria

It is a rare sight in war-torn Syria—children clutching bags or wearing small backpacks, walking singly or in groups to still-intact schools for a day of classes.

And yet, here in Qamishli and other towns and villages nearby, it is a common scene now that Kurdish militias have cleared the area of jihadists.

In other northern and eastern provinces, warfare between rebels battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian government forces has wreaked such massive destruction on the countryside, there are no schools or teachers available to hold classes. Where jihadists hold sway, parents often don’t want to risk their children venturing out of the house.

By contrast, in much of the Kurdish-dominated northeast of the country, services are functioning, schools are open and locals don’t have to fear being kidnapped by foreign militants. And the Kurds are breathing a collective sigh of relief, thankful to be free of the months-long reign of terror visited on them by Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams (ISIS).

“There was fear. People were kidnapped for ransom and some of them never returned,” says Mikhtar, a 57-year-old porter. “We are safer now.”

There is alarm, though, at a burgeoning bombing campaign by jihadists. The latest attack was on November 11 when a suicide bomber exploded a large device in a truck outside the offices of the Kurdish Red Crescent, killing 11 people, including a nurse and several children. In all, since the summer, there have been 37 car or roadside bombings and two suicide attacks in the area.

Safety is a relative concept. For many Kurds, the attitude is: better a few bombings than jihadists actually occupying towns and inflicting a reign of terror—kidnappings for ransom and beheadings for minor infractions of their rigid Islamic code.

“There was a lot of worry—we used to close the shop very early because we were frightened about safety,’ says Dania, a well-kept middle-aged owner of a women’s clothing boutique in downtown Qamishli, the largest town in the northeast. “There were kidnappings and killings by jihadists and also by ordinary individuals. If someone had a problem with another person they would just kill them because there was no security.”

Another reason to close shop early was that jihadists might have seen what Dania sells—high-end, often figure-hugging fashions, such as a short red dress that holds pride of place in her store window. “They could have killed me, if they had discovered I was selling clothes like this,” she laughs. Dania says even the exchange rate between the Syrian pound and the dollar has stabilized, although prices are still high, double and sometimes more than what they were before the start of Syria’s brutal 33-month civil war. “People are buying again,” she says.

For their liberation from jihadists, many Kurds thank the dominant Syrian Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the largest and best-organized of 17 major Kurdish political factions. The PYD is the only party that has an armed wing and its fighters form the backbone of the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, although many volunteers in the volunteer militias are not party members but support rival Kurdish political factions. Many of the PYD cadres are former members of Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has conducted a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkish authorities.

But while there are trappings of stability, the times are anything but normal. Shops and street vendor carts may be well-stocked with an array of locally grown fruit and vegetables, but anything produced outside Syrian Kurdistan is difficult and expensive to come by because of the closing of the borders with Turkey and Iraq. Both countries fear a refugee flood.

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Jihadists, radical Islamists, and militias affiliated with the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition—which has dubbed the PYD and other Kurdish factions hostile to the revolution—control territory to the west. To the south are more jihadists. And in the Kurds’ midst remain Syrian soldiers, who control about 20 percent of the city, although it is rare to encounter regime troops outside Qamishli.

But within this beleaguered Kurdish pocket, confidence is growing —so, too, is ambition, and Kurds are clinging to the hope that they can weather the storm and avoid the destruction that has been visited on other parts of the ravaged country.

Earlier this month, the PYD announced its intention of holding elections and establishing a semi-autonomous regional government. PYD cadres say a self-governing Syria Kurdistan—they call it Rojeva— ideally would remain part of a post-war Syria, an arrangement modeled on what Iraqi Kurds secured for themselves after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The self-rule declaration, which came in the wake of a string of Kurdish victories over Jihadist and Islamist rebels, angered all the other major players in the Syrian civil war—from the Turks and Gulf Arabs to the jihadists and the SNC, and even Kurdish leaders in neighboring Iraq, who fear that Turkish wrath at seeing the emergence of yet another Kurdish statelet will disrupt their own warming relations with Ankara.

“It was not the right time,” sniffs Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Masoud Barzani.

Like many self-rule foes, Hussein dismisses plans for a regional government as a PYD bid to establish a political monopoly. “It is dangerous to have a one-party system in Syrian Kurdistan, many other parties have been marginalized or ignored,” he says.

PYD critics point to the heavy-handed suppression of a pro-FSA protest in early summer in the town of Amuda in which seven civilians were killed.

There are serious divisions in Syrian Kurdish politics—the fault lines more often than not determined by whether a faction is aligned with the PKK or sees Iraq’s Barzani as the transnational standard-bearer of the Kurds. But at ground level in Qamishli, and other towns and villages in the Kurds’ pocket of control, it is a challenge to find criticism of the plan to hold elections for a regional government.

And there is a strong sense of common Kurdish purpose when it comes to practical governance, establishing law and order and crafting local governments that run parallel to the Syrian state apparatus that remains.

To improve the quality of life, factional disputes are being cast aside.

In much the same way that there are still Syrian government forces present in parts of Qamishli, there are still government functionaries. But in the same way that the Kurds try to ignore the presence of Syrian soldiers, they are ignoring as much as they can the Syrian state apparatus when it comes to their everyday lives and basic needs and services. They go instead to their own new local Kurdish authorities that have been created from the ground up by volunteers and activists drawn from different political factions and from no factions at all.

In marked contrast to rebel-held areas in northern Syria, the Kurdish pocket is not only functioning consistently when it comes to schools but also when it comes to basic needs and services. And that is due as much to broad local activism as it is to the influence of the PYD, according to Moaze Abdel Kareem, a 32-year-old pharmacist who heads the new Kurdish-controlled Qamishli city council.

“When the situation started to collapse in the city because of the revolution there was nobody to clean the streets, the trash piled up causing health and hygiene problems and people started to volunteer to do something about it,” says Kareem, who was elected co-president of the Qamishli council by volunteers and activists at a conference in early summer.

Volunteer committees started forming a year ago, focusing at first on trash collection and other basic services. Local volunteerism snowballed and the conference that elected Kareem also established 32 committees to supervise a variety of services and needs—including public health, sewage, water supplies, security, and women’s issues.

Other towns have adopted the Qamishli approach, once jihadists have been expelled by the YPG—ground-up activism establishing local governance. “There are some things you still have to go to state functionaries for like applying for a passport,” says Kareem. “But mostly you come to us.” Funding of the new local councils comes from voluntary donations and service-fees.

The establishment of parallel local governance has a longer-term purpose too: the Kurds quite simply hope the Syrian state apparatus will wither away by public neglect. Kareem and his fellow co-president, a vivacious 30-year-old woman, Sama Bekadash, say it is a non-confrontational way of trying to make the Syrian army and government irrelevant and using the civil war as opportunity to achieve that.

Assad withdrew his forces from much of Syria’s Kurdistan early in the civil war to focus on the uprising elsewhere. The lack of open conflict with Assad’s remaining forces has prompted the charge that the Kurds are in league with the Syrian government.

Kareem says those who make that charge just don’t understand the Kurds’ strategy.

“The Kurdish people, from the start, they supported the revolution and they believed in the same dream of the Arab Spring, of having a free democratic society,” he says. “We have had a lot of people imprisoned and tortured by Assad over the years. We started to think we might be able to achieve our aims through peaceful means, as much as we can. We are not only avoiding a fight with the Syrian army but also would prefer not to fight the Free Syrian Army. But we will defend our geography.”

They may well have to—and not just from the jihadists. The biggest fear of YPG commanders is that if Assad continues to make military advances against the rebellion and succeeds in capturing the half of the city of Aleppo held by the rebels, then he may be tempted to move on them.