The War for Free Kurdistan

Can Syria's Kurds take advantage of the civil war to form their own government? Or are they too busy starting their own civil war?

DERIK, Syria — The speaker at a youth rally in this small city tucked into the far northeast of Syria's Kurdish region has a sinister message for his audience.

"If you want to be free you must first shoot the traitor ... after that you must fight the enemy," he bellows over the assembled crowd, some of whom appear no older than five or six years old. The "traitors" he refers to are fellow Kurds.

Deep in the Kurdish heartland of the Al Hasaka region, this city of around 30,000 people sits amid some of the country's most valuable oil reserves. Nodding pumpjacks dot the plains around the town, but residents complain they've been able to reap none of the benefits of the rich resources under the soil, instead toiling in the cotton and wheat fields that stretch out to the rugged Turkish mountains in the north, and the Iraqi border in the south. Traditionally one of the bastions of opposition to Baath Party rule, the Kurds, who make up around 10 percent of the Syrian population, have long been marginalized. But in the streets of Derik, where agricultural workers from the surrounding villages mix with the city's burgeoning middle classes, there is an air of excitement -- though one tinged with trepidation. 

As President Bashar al-Assad's forces are struggling to contain a bloody 19-month uprising, the Kurds in the country's northeast have largely been left to their own devices. The Assad regime still remains a presence in Derik, and its loyalists can be seen holed up in the intelligence building in the center of the city -- but they do not come out or react to the presence of foreign journalists. A freshly painted sign in the main square displays new name, in the formerly banned Kurdish language. "Azadi (Freedom) Square," it reads.

However, as the Kurds seize their opportunity to put in place the building blocks of autonomy -- and cultural centers blossom and new courts and local councils open -- there are fears that political infighting could shatter the fragile calm.

Hassan Kojar, the speaker at the gathering, is affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the separatist militia which has been fighting an invigorated campaign against Ankara in recent months.

"There are some traitors among the Kurds speaking ill of Ocalan, but speaking ill of Ocalan is speaking ill of all the Kurds," he continues.

A large flag above him bears the face of the PKK's incarcerated founder, Abdullah Ocalan, whose image can be seen hanging from the walls of most public buildings in Derik, which also goes by its Arabic name al-Malikiyah. PKK graffiti can be seen scrawled the walls near the city's main square.

Rival Kurdish parties complain that the PYD is holding a tight grip on power, not allowing them to participate in new institutions or hang the red, green, and white flag emblazoned with a yellow sun that is used in Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead, a yellow, red, and green striped flag preferred by the PYD, flies above local buildings.

The internal disputes are threatening to derail efforts to build the foundations of an autonomous region in the northeast of Syria. Local officials refrain from talking of independence, instead stressing they want federalism or autonomy, but what is clear is that they are determined to run things here themselves, racing to put in place the means to protect and govern before the state's or the opposition's attention turns to this resource rich region.

However, for neighboring Turkey, the dominance of a party linked to its bitter adversary, is provocation -- and a development that could spark further conflagration of the Syrian civil war outside the country's borders.

At Derik's newly opened Mala Gel, or People's House, set up to arbitrates in local disputes, 20 of the 30 council members belong to the PYD, according to one council member. The party also runs the new local police station and town checkpoints, which are manned by armed civilian volunteers.

"They are controlling everything now with weapons," says Mohammed Ismail, a grey-haired, bespectacled politician and leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party. A photograph of him meeting Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, sits in pride of place in his living room. Ismail complains that members of his group have suffered harassment and been detained.

Lacking their own political figurehead, most Syrian Kurds look to either the PKK's Ocalan in Turkey, or Barzani in Iraq, for leadership. With its links to the PKK, which has in the past found common cause with the Assad regime and now once again has its interests aligned in a mutual hostility toward Turkey, rumors have flown that the PYD has made common cause with the Syrian regime. In the Barzani camp are a slew of more traditional political parties that attract the Kurdish intellectuals and, like the Iraqi Kurdish president, have more favorable relations with Turkey and the United States.

It's difficult to assess which of the two broad factions has the most support. From a cramped workshop in central Derik, a young artist named Serbest Cacan sells wooden key rings etched with the faces of the two political leaders. He says they are equally popular. "This one nobody buys," he says, pulling out another bearing the face of President Assad.

Why the Assad regime has left the Kurdish region alone remains unclear, but it may be a move to avoid opening up another front in the civil war or a gambit to rile Turkey, which has expressed concern about the dominance of a PKK offshoot in the area. The PKK, deemed a terrorist organization by the European Union and United States, has in the past found a common cause with Assad, with Ocalan previously spending a decade in exile in Syria, a history that has spurred rumors that its Syrian offshoot has cut a deal with the regime. As Turkey becomes Assad's enemy number one, their interests fall into line once more, whether or not a formal agreement has been struck, a claim the PYD's leader Saleh Muslim Mohammed vehemently denies.

"This regime has tortured us and killed us and should be gone," says the rotund moustachioed politician, speaking from his far star hotel room in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. He points to clashes that took place in Kurdish towns and villages on July 19, when YPG forces launched a coordinated attack on Assad troops, as proof that there was no coordination with the Syrian government.

One person in Derik died in the fighting. Nazir Younes Ramadan, a 55-year old man who spent 11 years in regime jails -- including the notorious Tadmour prison -- says that when he heard the YPG was launching an attack on the eight government soldiers stationed in his village of Dirka Barave, about 12 miles outside Derik, he took his gun and rushed to join them.

"Because it's near the border everyone has guns. At first we said that we don't want to fight, just arrest them, but the Army started to shoot," he explains, pulling down the collar of his shirt to show the bullet wound to his collar bone that kept him in a hospital for two months. "We could have killed all of them but we let them go free."

The PYD's Mohammed also refutes the allegation that his party is preventing other parties participating, making the case that his faction is the only one sufficiently organized to run things. At checkpoints "there should be three of them and three of us, but some of them don't have people to send and then they say the PYD is not letting them share," he says, adding that civilians just volunteer themselves, and are not paid salaries.

At a dusty shack next to a checkpoint on the edge of Derik, Sadoon Omar, an image conscious 20-year old student, is on his shift at the post."We are just civilian security, we want to protect the city," he says, readjusting the blue keffiyeh around his neck. Though he says he is not a member of the PYD and is not paid by the group, his Kalashnikov was provided by the local asayis ("security") station in Derik, which is run by the PYD.

Omar said he received no training other than briefly being shown how to shoot his gun, and other guards at town checkpoints appeared equally poorly trained and armed. But that doesn't mean the Kurds can't hold their own among Syria's many armed factions: They are also protected by a secretive paramilitary group called the Popular Protection Units, known by its Kurdish initials YPG.

Though the PYD denies that it has any armed wing, the YPG -- whose men now man the borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan -- is often described as such. "They are all the same," claims Ismail.  

The force, which Mohammed says numbers around 1,500 fighters, appears well armed. At the border, the men drive trucks mounted with duska machine guns, their faces obscured by keffiyehs. A recently released video filmed by a PYD-affiliated channel shows hundreds lined up in a clearing in the woods; the film switches to slow motion as the men run past the camera, AK-47s in hand. Fighters vow protect the Kurds and their territory and their new institutions.

Now that the PYD and the YPG have won the upper hand in Syria's Kurdish regions, they show no sign of letting potential rivals gain a foothold. They have been accused of blocking a force of Syrian Kurdish army defectors trained in camps across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan from returning back to Syria, where Barzani had said he hoped they could be used as a defensive force. The return of the 650 trained fighters allied with Barzani could weaken the PYD's grip on the Kurdish territories.

"We refused them entry because basically we have a popular militia here, and if anyone wishes to protect the Kurdish areas, they should join us," an unnamed YPG commander told the Kurdish English language newspaper Rudaw. "We cannot accept any other armed forces outside the YPG, if we did, then the Kurdish areas will become a battlefield."

There have been efforts to forge unity between the PYD and other Kurdish factions. In July, Barzani called the quarreling parties to the Iraqi city of Erbil to sign a power sharing agreement. The result was the Kurdish Supreme Council, which attempted to balance power between the PYD and other Kurdish Syrian parties.

On the ground, however, tensions between the groups remains high. In Derik, hundreds of Kurds loyal to the PYD's rivals take to the streets to call for the regime's ouster on Wednesday rather than the traditional Friday, when the PYD holds its protest. Unlike on Fridays, at the Wednesday protest there is not an Ocalan poster in sight, and the traditional golden-sunned flag is waved by the crowds who chant in support of Barzani's peshmerga, rather than the protection units.

With fighting raging across Syria, however, the Kurds' only hope of securing their interests is to put aside their differences in the face of a shared enemy. Most Kurdish factions are not only suspicious of Assad, but also the Free Syrian Army, which they distrust due its historical ties to Turkey. Daham Ali, a member of Derik's Mala Gel council, explains that the Kurds want to be a third power in Syria. "First the state, second the Free Syrian Army, and thirdly the Kurds. We are not with the state or the Free Syrian Army."

At the youth rally, however, unanimity is hard to come by. Kojar's tirade against "traitors" continues, not only covering those in opposition to Ocalan, but also those in contact with the rebels and the regime.

"There are some Kurdish traitors who are in contact with the Free Syrian Army and have asked them to come to this area," he says. "There are some traitors in our movement who have been in contact with the government. The FSA, they aren't Kurds, and they'd sell out all of Kurdistan for five Syrian pounds. Our sons are here to protect the Kurds. They are from Derik, and Qamishli and Efrin, and they are in their thousands."



The Battle for Britain

Will David Cameron be the prime minister who lost the United Kingdom as we know it?

LONDON — "Stands Scotland where it did?" This is the question, asked by Macduff in Shakespeare's Macbeth that now concentrates minds in Edinburgh and London alike. The battle for Scotland is also a battle for Britain in which the stakes could scarcely be higher. In two years' time, Scots will vote in a referendum to decide the future course of their country. The future of Great Britain (established in 1707 by the union between Scotland and England, each previously independent countries and awkward, frequently warring neighbors) is at stake. The choice is stark: reconfirming the country's commitment to the United Kingdom or setting out on a new course as Europe's newest independent country.

For Alex Salmond, the 57-year old leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), these are giddy times, pregnant with promise and possibility. This is the moment -- the chance for which he has been campaigning his entire political life. It has been a long journey to reach this day.

Last week, Salmond, the leader of Scotland's devolved government, welcomed British Prime Minister David Cameron to Edinburgh, where, after months of public squabbling and quiet backstage negotiation, the pair signed an agreement setting the terms and conditions for Scotland's referendum. The plebiscite will be held in 2014 and will -- though the precise wording of the question has yet to be determined -- ask a simple query: Should Scotland be an independent country?

The details of the negotiations mattered somewhat less than the optics and the mood music of the occasion. Here was Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom, meeting Salmond on almost equal terms. As the pair signed and exchanged documents in the manner of two powers agreeing to a treaty, a first-time visitor to Scotland could have been forgiven for thinking Cameron was already visiting a foreign country -- not just the northern part of his own country.

In that sense, Scotland is already, if you will, a semidetached part of the United Kingdom. This despite the fact that the devolved Scottish Parliament was only established in 1999 and, in many respects, Salmond enjoys fewer powers than those available to the governor of any U.S. state. (Scotland has responsibility for health care and education for instance, but only limited powers to raise revenues. Instead, it relies on a block grant set by London that Scottish ministers may then spend at their discretion.)

Speaking at the SNP's annual conference on Oct. 20, Salmond, who has led the party for nearly two decades, declared that "Scotland is not in a mood to take no for an answer" and that "Westminster [i.e., London] has had its chance, and Westminster has fallen short." Again, the impression was of a party and a nation on the move, marching to the sound of its own drum. Or pipes, rather.

"Within the limits of devolution," Salmond said, "there is only so much we can achieve." Contrasting his social democratic government with the austerity-driven Conservative-led coalition at Westminster, Salmond portrayed independence as a means by which Scotland could be protected from a London government that is, he claims, out of touch with or inherently hostile to Scottish interests or preferences. London rule was, he said, a "nonsense." (London, it might be noted, has tried to buy off the nationalists: The Tories and Labour Party have etched promises to look at the question of devolving more powers to Edinburgh should Scots vote to preserve the union.)

Yet one of the striking aspects of this battle for the future of Britain -- indeed for Britain's survival as a nation-state as we have known it -- is how it lacks many of the features that ordinarily spark or define great nationalist awakenings. There is no grievous injustice that must be corrected, no sense in which Scotland is a victim persecuted by a hostile, foreign overlord. Scotland is not a colony. Nor do Scots, many of whom are comfortable with their dual identities (Scottish and British) consider it such. Indeed, Scottish nationalism is about as peaceful, respectable, mild-mannered a cause as it is possible to imagine. Notably, it is not a cause for which anyone is prepared to die or kill. This is commendable, of course, and much to be welcomed. It is also unusual.

Scottish nationalists dislike talk of "divorce," but in a real sense, that's what is at stake. The marriage between England and Scotland has sometimes been an unequal one in which the smaller partner has struggled to make her voice heard, but she has, at all times, kept the prerogative of leaving the relationship. But until recently (that is, until the SNP became something more than a noisy pressure group) that prerogative was always considered a more notional proposition than a practical possibility. The union offered security and opportunity, and the question of independence rarely arose. Times change, however -- and for many Scots, Britain no longer offers the opportunities it once did.

So, in a sense, even asking the question formally counts as a victory for Salmond and the nationalists. How did it come to this? Salmond's ascent owes something to his own political skills as well as to his patience, but it is also predicated upon historical forces that have loosened the ties that bind the Scots and English together and that have contributed to a nationalist awakening in Scotland.

To take but one example of this: In 1974, the year I was born, 31 percent of Scots told one pollster they were "best described" as British; by 2001, that figure had fallen to 16 percent. Yet there is this irony too: The thirst for greater Scottish control of domestic affairs comes in an era when Scotland is actually more like England than at any time since the Acts of Union was signed in 1707. Indeed, insisting upon greater political distinctiveness is part of a reaction against a diminished sense of cultural distinctiveness.

For centuries, the Church of Scotland was the most significant force in Scottish life. It helped build a Scotland that was manifestly different from England. No traveler crossing the border could fail to be aware he was entering a different nation. The long postwar decline of Presbyterian Scotland robbed the country of an essential part of its identity. Scotland became more like England.

All this was accompanied by the rise of a mass media that was unavoidably dominated by English voices. The BBC may have been built by Lord Reith (a Scot), but it was unsurprisingly dominated by English voices that, sometimes understandably though often infuriatingly, tended to view English and British as interchangeable labels.

Britain became smaller: We listened to the same songs, watched the same television shows, increasingly shopped at the same stores on the same interchangeable high streets. Mass consumerism and mass culture foster orthodoxy and cultural homogeneity. No wonder we Scots began to insist upon our differences precisely because those differences are smaller than they were when they were obvious, unquestioned, and thus unquestionable.

This alone might have been enough to create the conditions for a nationalist revival. Other factors have played a part too. If the Empire was, as Victorian Prime Minister Lord Rosebery described it, "a larger patriotism" offering Scots worldwide opportunities, then the eventual retreat from Empire must, inevitably, diminish this patriotism and remove one of the central pillars of British identity.

Similarly, the fading memory of the two world wars demolished another column propping up the shared British 20th century. Empire, war, and commerce built and sustained Britain. The Empire no longer exists, war is all but inconceivable, and commerce no longer depends on or is even greatly enhanced by "Britishness."

All this may be true, but so is something else: The SNP's rise to power depended, at least in part, upon its making a peace with Britishness. Indeed, the party pays a furtive tribute to the enduring power of the British idea by reassuring Scots that, even after independence, most of the remaining institutions that help define modern British life will remain in place.

But behind it all there's something a bit more tangible -- the discovery of oil in the North Sea and Britain's entry into the European Union. These twin events in the 1970s helped create the conditions for a nationalist revival. The oil boom was a lottery-winning ticket that, as 90 percent of Britain's oil and natural gas reserves lie within Scottish waters, offered security against the idea that an independent Scotland would be too poor, too hopeless to thrive.

The European Union (as it became) offered security too. Europe -- or, rather, the idea of Europe -- became a kind of safety net ensuring that Scotland would not be alone or out in the cold in her independent future. If this meant compromising the independence of an independent Scotland, then the benefits of this kind of insurance outweighed the costs.

That was then, however. Joining the euro no longer holds the appeal it once did. If, as nationalists argue, the Bank of England has put the interests of the City of London before those of the Scottish economy, it stands to reason that Scottish influence within the eurozone would be even less than is the case within the sterling zone at present. A country of 5 million people cannot carry a big stick.

The currency question, however, is the kind of detail that makes Scots question independence. At present, the SNP says an independent Scotland would retain the sterling. That means independence -- in fiscal terms -- will be heavily qualified by the Bank of England. But joining the EU -- whether automatically or after a negotiated qualifying period -- also entails applying to the eurozone when "conditions are right." Again, this is not, at present, an attractive notion for us Scots.

That said, the eurozone may well have collapsed by the time Scotland votes in 2014. Nevertheless, questions about the currency and European integration highlight the extent to which true independence is heavily compromised in an interdependent world. Perhaps that's why Salmond is fond of saying, "Independence is a process, not an event."

Polls suggest that Salmond, though he enjoys a reputation as a masterful political tactician, faces an uphill task. Support for independence has only occasionally breached the 50 percent barrier and has generally languished between 30 to 35 percent in recent polls. That offers some comfort to unionists who suspect Salmond's ambition has overreached itself. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that the idea of an SNP government in Edinburgh being able to hold an independence referendum would have been considered laughable even 20 years ago.

Moreover, Salmond is trusting that the unpopularity of Cameron's government will help shepherd Scots into the independence camp. Only independence, he says, can protect left-leaning Scotland from an out-of-touch, out-of-sympathy Tory government in London. Indeed, a Sunday Times poll published Oct. 20 reported that independence enjoyed a 12-point lead when voters were asked how they would vote in the event of the Conservatives winning a majority at the next Westminster election.

That of course, is a hypothetical matter and so of only limited value. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that the race is not run yet and its outcome far from a foregone conclusion. The stakes are high: For Salmond, it's vindication and the achievement of a lifelong dream. For Cameron, it's the ignominy of being the prime minister who "lost" Scotland and presided over the breakup of Britain.