AMMOUDA, Syria -- The only place in the predominantly Kurdish city of Ammouda that’s still flying the Syrian flag is the police station, but people here say it means little.
“There are only two police officers, and they stay inside and keep the door closed,” said Abdel Ila Awja, a resident.
Gone from this city near the border with Turkey are the statues of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, and of his father, Hafez, who ruled before him.
Fighters from the United Democratic Party, a Kurdish militia, man a former Syrian military checkpoint at the entrance to the city.
Pictures of Kurds who were killed while fighting for Kurdish independence in Iraq and Turkey hang from the streetlights. There are also posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of another Kurdish militia, the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has carried on a 30-year guerrilla war against the Turkish government. Ocalan has been in a Turkish prison since 1998.
Syria’s Kurdish areas are an example of the law of unintended consequences in this country, where violence has reigned elsewhere for the past 17 months. Living in comparative peace, Syrian Kurds, for the first time in their history, are enjoying a level of autonomy and self-governance that they could have only dreamed of two years ago.
Examples could be found throughout the Kurdish-dominated cities of northern Syria during a weeklong sojourn by a journalist.
In Qamishli, the largest predominantly Kurdish city in Syria, children in the streets on a recent warm night waved the flag of Kurdish independence without fear. Mohamed Ismail, the leader of one of the region’s largest political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party, spoke freely to a reporter just across the street from a police station.
Last week, Subartu, a Kurdish cultural organization, screened a short documentary about Mohamed Sheikhu, a popular Syrian Kurdish singer.
“I worked secretly for 10 years,” said Shiro Hinday, the filmmaker. “If we had tried to do this eight months ago, we’d all have been arrested.”
But the newfound sense of liberation also has unsettling ramifications in a region where ethnic rivalries between Kurds and Arabs and Kurds and Turks have claimed thousands of lives over the decades.
Turkey, which has been backing the anti-Assad rebels elsewhere in Syria, has voiced alarm that Assad’s government appears to have turned the northeast corner of its country over to the United Democratic Party, which the Turks – and not a few others – believe is closely tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party, a group that’s killed thousands of Turkish police and soldiers in a guerrilla conflict that shows no signs of ending soon. On Sunday, Turkey announced the end of a three-week offensive against the Kurdistan Workers Party in southern Turkey that it claimed killed 115 of the group’s fighters. The man the Turks say led the Kurdistan Workers Party during that offensive, Bahoz Erdal, is now in Kurdish Syria, Kurds here say.
The United Democratic Party’s ascendancy hasn’t meant an end to rivalries among the Kurds themselves. Many here consider the group simply an extension of the Assad government. They believe that concessions Assad made to Kurdish demands over the past year, as violence picked up elsewhere in the country, were intended to keep the Kurds neutral in the conflict. Rival Kurdish groups say Assad provided many of the weapons now carried by members of the United Democratic Party, which is referred to by its Kurdish-language acronym, PYD.