Kurds Caught Between Islamists and the PKK in Syria

As part of our collaboration with Syria Deeply we are cross-posting a series of articles that capture civilian voices caught in the crossfire, along with perspectives on the conflict from writers around the world.

Azaz, Syria: The Turkey-based Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), and its Syrian political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have stumbled into a precarious situation. They are now  administering a string of towns and cities along the Turkish border after the Syrian army handed the PKK control of the territory last summer.

What should have been a dream come true for Kurds—who have long been discriminated against in Baathist Syria and aspired to have an independent state—quickly devolved into an even more oppressive replica of their lives in Assad’s Syria.

Bewar Mustafa, second left, Shawqi Othman, second right, and other Saladin Brigade members. Credit: Mohammed Sergie

“We can’t open our mouths,” said Walato, a pro-democracy activist from Jinderes, a Kurdish town north of Aleppo. “We have less freedom under the PKK than we had under the Assad regime.”

For activists like Walato who live in PKK-controlled towns, coexisting with the new rulers means operating with even more secrecy than under the Assad regime. Kurdish towns like Afrin, Amouda and Kobani came out in large protests early in the Syria revolution, but these displays of defiance and solidarity with the rest of the country have become rare.

“The PKK even erased the word ‘Yasqut’ [meaning in Down with Assad] from the walls,” Walato said. “Activists are often harassed for nonpolitical efforts like organizing humanitarian aid.”

(For more on the Kurds in Syria click here for a recent study by the International Crisis Group and herehere for two reports from the Henry Jackson Society).

Commanders of the Saladin Brigade, which fights in Aleppo, weren’t surprised when the PKK ended up controlling Kurdish towns. The PKK was the only group with the arms and organization able to fill the vacuum. But there was a reason it was so organized. Colonel Shawqi Othman, who heads the Saladin Brigade, said the PKK was supported by Hafez al Assad, in order to fracture Syria’s Kurds and to pressure Turkey by bolstering a secessionist current within Kurdish politics.

There is also a sectarian reason why the Assad regime backs the PKK, according to Othman. Most of the PKK’s leadership hails from a rarified minority: Alawite Kurds. Abdullah Ocalan, one of the PKK’s founders who was based in Syria and is now in a Turkish prison, is an Alawite, Othman said. Kurds make up more than 10% of Syria’s 23 million citizens, and the vast majority of them adhere to a moderate version of Sunni Islam.

Although PKK officials deny ties to the Assad regime, its top spokesman was cagey when asked where their weapons come from, according to a Washington-based researcher who covers the group closely and met with its leadership recently. Syria Deeply wasn’t able to interview PKK officials on the ground inside Syria.

Though Kurdish activists and rebels say they are stifled and threatened by the PKK, they have decided not to confront the group in order to avoid an internecine conflict among the Kurds.

Tensions remain high among armed factions, however. Captain Bewar Mustafa, the first Kurdish officer to defect from the Assad regime, and a founder of the Saladin Brigade that fights in Aleppo, says he’s on the PKK’s hit list, as are some of his comrades.

Othman says his group will try to avert bloodshed with its ethnic brethren and are willing to wait for the local Kurdish population to turn against the PKK. It might not be too long now. Walato says that  the excesses of the PKK, such as enacting taxes or tying prisoners to poles in town squares for days at a time, are denting the group’s popularity. Still, the threat from extremist Islamists has forced Kurds to be cautious of withdrawing support for their most powerful militia.

“If the choice is between Jabhat al-Nusra or the PKK, I will always choose the PKK,” said Mohammed Suleiman, an activist who works closely with the Saladin Brigade and who calls the PKK mercenaries and criminals.

Kurds have a reason to be worried. Deadly clashes between rebels and PKK fighters erupted in Ras Al Ain last week.  Islamists brigades used a tank to the shell the city (video below), which borders Turkey in Syria’s northeast and has been under nominal PKK control for months. Kurdish and Arab opposition leaders urged an end to the violence and Abdulbaset Sieda, a Kurd and former president of the Syrian National Council, said that fighting in Ras Al Ain is futile because it won’t settle the war against the Assad regime.

This isn’t to say Kurds don’t have some admiration for the Islamists. Indeed, the Saladin Brigade has fought with some groups. Sharvan Ibesh, a doctor who operates surgery centers in Aleppo and near the Turkish border, credited Jabhat al-Nusra with maintaining momentum and repelling regime counterattacks in Aleppo.

“The Islamist brigades are carrying the heavy load in the fight,” he said.

(Corrections: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the string of towns in Syria are controlled by the U.S. and the PKK., and also stated that Ocalan was Syrian. He is Turkish. The mistakes are corrected in this version).

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