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.
If Assad survives the rebellion, some here worry, they once again will face arrest for activities that now are tolerated, such as conducting classes in the Kurdish language. “The tight control of the regime has been broken,” said Farouk Ismail, the director of the Subartu Kurdish cultural center. “But at any moment, they might raid and arrest us, even now.”
An anti-government activist in Malakia, a city near the Syrian border with Iraq that’s fully under the control of the United Democratic Party, said the plight of people dedicated to Assad’s downfall was "worse than when the regime was in control."
"Then we could do things secretly, but PYD is part of us – they know everything,” he said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity to ensure his safety. "The same people who worked for the regime now work for PYD.”
If Assad falls, many here expect United Democratic Party dominance to collapse, too. That could set off any number of scenarios, including combat between Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army, the largely Sunni Arab militia that’s besieged the Assad government in much of the rest of country, whose official name is the Syrian Arab Republic.
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“The political situation in the Kurdish area is extremely complex. Even we don’t understand it entirely,” said Siraj Haqsi, a leader of Sawa, a Kurdish youth movement that supports the rebellion against Assad. “But I am not optimistic: The future of Syria is very dark.”
The Kurdish National Council, a consortium of Kurdish political parties that formed last October when Assad loosened restrictions, is carrying on talks with the anti-Assad Syrian National Council, the Turkey-based group that the United States has recognized as a leading umbrella for the opposition.
But the Kurdish parties complain that the Syrian National Council has failed to make promises guaranteeing Kurdish rights, even though its recently elected president is a Kurd. Ismail Hamy, the president of the Kurdish National Council, made it clear that his consortium will remain separate from the Syrian National Council.
"We might sign an agreement with the SNC,” he said, but any such accord would be limited in scope. "We will not join them . . . but we will create a committee for discussing the Kurdish issue.”
Hanging over it all is the question of what an autonomous Kurdish zone would mean to the larger Kurdish dream of uniting the Kurdish areas of four countries – Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran – into a confederation. The most immediate concern is whether Kurdish Syria will become a base for the Kurdistan Workers Party’s rebel forces in southern Turkey. Nearly a fifth of Turkey’s population is Kurdish.
Many view Assad’s turnover of Syria’s Kurdish region to the United Democratic Party – which freed up government soldiers to fight in Aleppo and other cities – also to have been a slap at Turkey, which has provided a haven and weapons to Assad’s opponents.
A member of the Future Movement, a Kurdish party that’s allied with the Syrian National Council, called it "a good move" for Assad. He asked not to be identified because he was detained recently at a United Democratic Party checkpoint in Ammouda. “They are just waiting for a reason to arrest me,” he said.
The United Democratic Party denies any direct ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, but the display in the streets of pictures of dead Kurdistan Workers Party fighters and posters of founder Ocalan suggests otherwise.
Al Dar Khalil, the leader of the United Democratic Party’s militia, said the Assad government’s easing of restrictions on Kurds was understandable, and he thinks it was intended to garner good will when the civil war ends.
"It’s not because they love Kurds, but they don’t want us to be their enemy now. They’re planning for tomorrow,” he said. “Maybe they are thinking to make a border around Latakia and Tartous," he added, mentioning two regions on the Mediterranean coast that are dominated by Alawites, the Muslim sect to which Assad belongs. "They are planning to split Syria into three parts, and they don’t want us to be their enemy.”
As for the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, Khalil was categorical: “There is no PKK in Syria – just PYD, which is a Syrian party.”
But Kurds in Qamishli said it was common knowledge that some Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party leaders had come to Syria in recent months.
The Kurdistan Workers Party used northern Syria as a base for years until Assad’s father expelled it, forcing most of its members to Iraq’s rugged northern Qandil Mountains on that country’s border with Iran.
Ammouda, however, sits on Syria’s border with Turkey, as does Qamishli, so close that on a recent day United Democratic Party fighters in a former Syrian government police station could watch Turkish soldiers patrolling the other side without binoculars. The Qandil Mountains, by comparison, are about 30 miles south of the Turkish border.
Turkey has said that as many as 2,000 Kurdistan Workers Party fighters have infiltrated northern Syria in the past weeks, a claim the United Democratic Party leadership denies. But at an unofficial border crossing between Syria and Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish-controlled region, the Kurdistan Workers Party flag was the only banner flying, and Syrian Kurds crossing into Iraq identified the men in charge of the crossing point as Turkish Kurds.
Rumors here suggest that transit is easy between northern Syria and the Kurdistan Workers Party-controlled Qandil Mountains. Anti-Assad Syrian activists claim that the United Democratic Party detained a local anti-government activist in Qamishli last month and took the activist to the Qandil Mountains for questioning.