President Donald Trump this week moved closer to an all-out assault on Raqqa, the self-styled capital of the so-called Islamic State, when he approved the delivery of heavy arms to a Kurdish-led militia operating in northern Syria. NATO ally Turkey vehemently opposes the move because of the militia’s affiliation with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatists who are at war with Turkey.
Another big issue for Ankara is who will take over in Raqqa, a city that had until recently a population of 200,000, after ISIS is ousted.
Last August, when U.S. air support enabled the Kurds to capture the Arab town of Manbij, the PKK took charge. International reporters have been unable to chronicle what’s happened in Manbij, but citizen journalist Muhammad Noor recounts how the PKK, which the U.S. and Turkey view as a terrorist organization, introduced a regime of ethnic discrimination, then opened the way for the Assad regime to return to Manbij and take up key positions of power.
This letter is part of a project that draws on citizen journalists to depict daily life in war zones where much of the world press cannot travel due to threats from the warring parties. The author is writing under a pseudonym for his own protection. The project, based at Stony Brook University’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, is funded by the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation. The Daily Beast’s Istanbul-based contributor Roy Gutman edited the following text:
MANBIJ, Syria—When Islamic State extremists captured Manbij three years ago, they forced the population to pray at mosque, ordered women to wear full chador and they beheaded their opponents in public.
But if you attended their religious courses and agreed to their rules you could get a job and earn enough to sustain your family.
That world turned upside down last August, when a Kurdish-led ground force with U.S. air support ousted ISIS from Manbij. Arabs were among the fighters in the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, but it was Kurds from outside Syria who suddenly became our new masters.
Local Kurds, who comprise 10 per cent of the population of 100,000, became the privileged class. They now dominate local commerce and they get special treatment from the police. Religious observance shifted 180 degrees. Traditional practice such as covering women is forbidden—not by decree but in practice. Anyone who objects can be arrested and tortured. I know from personal experience.
Since August, all the key positions in the SDF and in the Manbij administration were taken over by Kurds from outside Syria—from the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK. We called them Qandilians, those trained in Qandil, Iraq, the PKK’s mountain stronghold.
You knew them from the cars they drive, festooned with posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK, who’s now sitting in a Turkish jail near Istanbul. They didn’t use their real names; they operated behind the scenes.
Make no mistake. We were very happy to be rid of ISIS. But the new order became so oppressive that some Arabs spoke openly about the “good old days of ISIS.” They saw the new Kurdish masters as destroying the social fabric, spoiling centuries of good relations between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens.
It was a nightmarish eight months, and it’s not fully behind us. In February, when Turkey threatened to seize Manbij, the U.S. acted to block it. Today, the U.S. Army maintains forces north of Manbij, and they regularly visit the town. Russia has based military personnel west of Manbij, located between Kurdish and Turkish forces, and they also pay regular visits.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said they were turning over control of Manbij to the Syrian regime, and Syria then claimed control over the city. That’s not the case. Syria’s “border guards” force consists of Arabs from the SDF who take orders from the Kurdish leadership in Manbij.
But the regime has been present since the summer. After Kurds arrived, the regime took over the schools and paid the salaries of civil servants. And it made extensive use of the PKK security apparatus for its own political aims.
There are no Syrian flags in the streets, only those of the Manbij military council, a front for the PKK. But the Baath Party is back. Anyone wanting to become a school administrator must be a member. Schoolchildren carry identity cards bearing the image of Bashar al Assad. And “Corrective Movement” day, commemorating the coup that brought the Assad family to power in 1970, is also back. It was celebrated as a national holiday Nov. 16—a day off from school and work.
Those are outward signs of regime influence. Security is in the hands of Kurdish intelligence and police units, but so many of their actions directly benefit the regime that they must be taking direction from Damascus.
If I could describe Manbij in a phrase, I’d call it the city of dreams. The dream of the Kurds is to dominate the city and establish an independent state along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. The Assad regime dreams of bringing the entire country back under its control. And it’s the dream of the Syrian rebels, who controlled Manbij from July 2012 until ISIS took over in January 2014, to liberate the town once again. All the dreams are directed at one market, and that is the United States, which alone decides what dream will come true.
For the residents, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens alike, the dream is for the city to be free of ISIS, the PKK and the Assad dictatorship.
Under ISIS, power was exercised in the name of religion; under the PKK it’s exercised in the name of ethnicity. Where you stand in the hierarchy of power depends on how close you are to the ruling Kurds.
Under ISIS, government buildings, public facilities and infrastructure were protected because ISIS viewed itself to be the legitimate authority. Manbij is in a major grain-growing region, and ISIS not only operated the flourmills but improved them.
Under the Democratic Union Party or PYD (the political arm of the PKK), the situation is completely different. After the battle of Manbij, 18 silos of flour was transported from the mills of Manbij to Kobani, the Kurdish controlled city north of here on the Turkish border. Electricity generators and other equipment was dismantled and removed. The PYD accused some factory owners of being pro ISIS and dismantled and stole their factories and emptied their warehouses.
It’s not just their thefts and abuses that grated on us, but also their method of governance. Any Arab who takes part in government soon realizes their main role is to legitimize the Kurds who came from outside Syria.
Take the two main governing bodies. Manbij has a city council, headed by Faruk Al Mashi, and a military council headed by Shervan Darwish, a Kurd from Manbij. But neither has the power to make decisions. Faruk had fled Manbij along with 500 families when ISIS took over in 2014, and spent two years in Turkey; others fled to rebel or even regime-held areas rather than submit. At least two thirds of those families returned after the Kurdish take-over. But they’ve come to realize that Arabs are involved in the governing system only to legitimize the Kurds who came from outside.
Earlier this year, the local council granted permission to Arab volunteers to open an office of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, a semi-governmental relief organization, when a PKK commander from Qandil named Khalil intervened in person—and in uniform. Summoning the volunteers to the council, he told them they could open only an office of the Kurdish Red Crescent. If they persisted with their plan, he warned: “I will pee on all the members of the local council.” Sometimes, the Assad regime was able to curb these excesses. Just before the start of the school year, the branch office of the Ministry of Education in agreement with local Kurds decided to allow private schools to operate. But the Kurdish representative, after consulting Qandil, ruled that they were illegal and sent the Asayish military police to the office to carry out the order. But when regime authorities opened the schools in mid-September it ruled that private schools to operate. The face of the PKK that we encounter daily is the Asayish. They run the checkpoints and they command the units that fight crime and terrorism. About 30 per cent are Arabs, mostly people who’d otherwise be jobless. The Asayish traffic police, about half Kurds, half Arabs, are responsible not just for traffic but also for enforcing taxes on vehicles. They have the authority to seize cars from anyone who can’t prove he’s paid. But there’s a double standard: I’ve seen Kurdish drivers again and again being allowed to go even if they haven’t paid.
This applies also to law and order. I know of murders, rapes and robberies of Arabs that go unsolved and aren’t even investigated. And there’s been a brutal suppression of religious freedom.
The real governing force is the Intelligence, which until the arrival of the Americans was headed by a Qandil veteran named Comrade Dalíl. He was the most powerful man in Manbij, and his top aides were also from Qandil.
The Kurds are in a state of war, and the aim of the Intelligence is to provide support for the capture of any land now occupied by ISIS or by anti-government rebel forces, whether supported by the CIA or by Turkey.
To assist in this task, Intelligence members recruited unemployed residents, including some who’ve committed criminal acts, to work with the Democratic Union Party or PYD, the civilian arm of the PKK. The intelligence gathering process consists in large part of questioning residents with friends or relatives in areas controlled by ISIS or by Syrian rebel forces.
The Intelligence, and that’s how they’re known, also have a special branch called the “combating terrorism task force,” which carries out the orders and stages raids against anyone who can be accused of a connection to ISIS.
But some of the people thrown in jail for an ISIS connection had nothing to do with ISIS. Anyone who’s a known regime opponent is also subject to arrest; so is anyone who refuses to work with them or with the regime. If they suspect a member of a family to be pro-ISIS, they will order the entire family to leave the city. They even recruit locals for regime intelligence.
Collaboration peaked in mid-December, when the Intelligence began a campaign targeting anyone who had a relative or any contact at all with rebel forces. Dressed in black and wearing masks, they went through the town arrested more than 70 people, many of whom had brothers fighting with the Free Syrian Army north of Aleppo.
The arrival of the American military has brought some improvement. They don’t interact with civilians, with one exception, Sheikh Ibrahim al Binnawi, a Free Syrian Army commander who has the respect of the Arab population. His American ties give him political clout, and he also has 700 armed fighters to back him up. He’s interceded more than once to stop the PKK from abusing Arab civilians.
But there’s more good news. Shortly after the Americans arrived, the worst of the Qandilians, including Dalíl, the head of intelligence, were transferred to the battle for Raqqa.
We do not miss them, for we suffered their wrath in silence.
But when the Americans finish their battles against ISIS in Raqqa, we don’t know who there will be to protect us.