Past the sand berm marking the border between northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, a small military outpost sits amid the oil derricks that dot the parched landscape of this country at war. A few months ago, the flag of the Syrian regime flew here. Today, it is replaced with a green, yellow and red tricolor banner, flying above a few Kurdish fighters and a pickup truck with a mounted DShK machinegun.
This is Kurdish land now, mostly.
While the eyes of the world and the Assad regime turned to Aleppo this summer as fighting engulfed the city, Kurdish groups moved aggressively to wrest control of parts of their northeastern heartland in Syria’s Hassake province from the government, corralling the regime’s presence to a few towns and checkpoints along the highways.
The endgame here for many is autonomy. Under Syria’s Baath Party, Arabization policies alienated the Kurds by limiting the use of their language, stripping many of citizenship and for the most part refusing to acknowledge that the ethnic group existed. Chronically mistreated, ignored and sitting on top of much of Syria’s oil (which generated some $4 billion in annual exports before the uprising and subsequent war), most feel entitled to a post-conflict deal that at least matches that of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, if not better.
And so they are getting ready: Signs are being changed from Arabic to Kurdish, local governments are being set up, armed forces are being trained. In Derek, which the regime called Al Malikiyah as part of its Arabization policies, there is a certain afterglow of liberation. One evening in late September, scores of youth gathered downtown cleaning the city’s streets, smiles on their faces as previously banned nationalistic Kurdish music blared through truck-mounted loudspeakers.
There is exuberance and hope here, but also danger.
The Kurdish experience in Syria made many distrustful of those outside the community and there is a strong aversion to again submitting to Arab authority. The militias being readied here — most notably the Popular Protection Units or YPG — seem to be preparing themselves as much for a fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces as they are for a possible fight with the rebel Free Syrian Army, should it try to enter their territory.
While Kurdish groups are currently trying to stay on the sidelines of the conflict and are not attacking the remaining Assad forces, continued government occupation of the major oil fields in the Rmeilan area could bring the war to their doorsteps eventually.
There are also sharp internal divisions in Syrian-Kurdish politics. The Democratic Union Party — known by its Kurdish-language acronym PYD — is the most dominant party in Hassake. Despite publicly denying links to the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, offices of the Syrian group often feature portraits of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan and Kurds martyred in battles against Ankara’s authority.
Opponents of the PYD — primarily those Syrian Kurds who identify with Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan — accuse the group of working with the Assad regime, cracking down on dissent and ensuring PYD control of the area through its near monopoly on weapons. The PYD responds to its detractors — some of them not as hostile to the Free Syrian Army as they are — by calling them traitors.
In northeastern Syria, the PYD is currently able to keep dissenters confined to grumbling under their breath. But in Kurdish areas elsewhere in the country closer to the conflict — such as Aleppo’s Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood, the nearby town of Efrin and Kobane in Al Raqqa province — guns are easier to get a hold of and limited battles between Kurdish groups have already occurred.
The PYD’s alleged links to, and ideological inspiration from, the PKK also land the group in a tough spot regarding Turkey. The country’s prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, has threatened to take action in Kurdish areas of Syria if Turkey deems that groups which have risen up there are a threat. Calls for autonomy on some level or another are also likely to be frowned upon by Turkey, a key supporter of Syria’s rebels, as it faces rising Kurdish dissent at home and increased fighting with the PKK in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey this year.
For Kurdish groups in Syria to retain or expand the autonomy they have gained, it will likely entail a good deal of diplomatic brinkmanship and horse-trading — fail that, they will be at war.
Josh Wood is a regular contributor to The International Herald Tribune and Esquire Middle East