Middle East Correspon
A YPG fighter stands atop a farmhouse near the contested town of Tel Hamis, the yellow YPG flag raised to symbolise the area's liberation from IS. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
"Welcome to Rojava," the border official says as she hands back my passport and offers me a sweet-smelling jonquil plucked from the small vase on her counter. Along with a family of refugees, I have just crossed the border from Iraqi Kurdistan into north-eastern Syria, taking a boat across the fast-flowing Tigris River that forms the frontier between the two countries.
Nishtiman Nishtiman, a 26-year-old YPG fighter, takes a break from a three-day push to liberate eight villages in north-eastern Syria. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
Rojava – the name Kurds have given to the collection of three Kurdish-run enclaves or cantons in Syria – is both a region and an ideal. After decades of repression under the Assad regime, the Kurds of Syria – now around 15 per cent of the population – are establishing elected governments involving all faiths and ethnicities, men and women.
As they fight to push the Islamic State back from their lands, they are also dreaming of opening safe passages between their cantons, now separated by hundreds of kilometres and thousands of militants.
The canton of Jazira, which borders Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, was declared on January 21 last year. The cantons of Kobane and Efrin, both sitting along the Turkey-Syria border, were declared soon after.
Fighters in Tel Tamer, where IS militants had abducted 220 Assyrians a day before. PHOTO Fadi Yeni Turk Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
Just over a year later, Jazira, home to 1.5 million people, is holding municipal elections – amid the carnage of Syria's four-year civil war and the mounting horror of Islamic States's march through Syria and Iraq. As the road winds through the flat, green farmlands south of Jazira's main city of Qamishli, the sound of fighter jets high in the sky cuts through the silence of the countryside. Accompanied by an armed fighter and a local Kurdish representative, our car draws closer to the contested town of Tel Hamis. Sunni Islamist insurgents took this area just under a year ago, torching villages, kidnapping and killing residents and forcing upwards of 12,000 to flee. We are following the advance of the People's Protection Units or YPG – the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – who, less than 24 hours earlier, had liberated a string of villages from IS control.
A makeshift ambulance is parked on the roadside, its paramedics treating two lightly injured men, while bulldozers sit idle after digging trenches next to a tiny collection of graves. A small group of soldiers lie exhausted on their backs in the field.
We arrive in the village of Tel Marouf, which just two days ago was under the control of IS. Almost every shop window along the narrow main street is smashed, fire scorching the walls. The minaret of the town's largest mosque has been blown apart and the nearby graves of the local sheikh's family have also been destroyed.
Banner featuring the image of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
In the quiet of the deserted laneways, where a lone glass of tea sits on a table abandoned by fleeing residents, the only sound is coming from the town hall, now a training centre for YPG, as it pumps out Kurdish anthems through its speakers. The graffiti of IS is scrawled on the walls of mosques, shops and houses, marking territory it held only hours earlier. Backed by airstrikes from the United States-led coalition, YPG forces push from one village to another as they move towards the strategic town of Tell Tamer, about 42 kilometres south of Qamishli. As the road continues through the village of Fares Kabir to a small farmhouse about a kilometre away, we catch up with one of the YPG units responsible for pushing IS out of the area. A clutch of small children run amongst the soldiers, free for the first time in months to play without fear.
Their father, 35-year-old farm manager Ahmad Khalaf, says although the extremists did not stay on the property, they terrorised his family every day: "If we smoked they would hit us, if we worked they stole our money, they made problems for our wives, they would not allow us to be alone with our mother or our sisters, it was a nightmare for us every day."
Some YPG fighters rest against the side of the farmhouse, others share an early lunch of rice and chicken. "When we arrived in the middle of the night they [IS] had already fled" says 26-year-old fighter Nishtiman Nishtiman. "We liberated seven or eight villages on the way – we have been fighting for three days, we are exhausted, we haven't slept . . . but morale is very high since Kobane and since we liberated these villages, it makes us feel that we can keep going, it fuels us," she says with a huge smile. Our target is Tel Hamis, she says, pointing over a small hill in the distance. "Some of our friends died there last year when Daesh [IS] took it and it is important to us that we liberate it, for them and because it is part of Kurdistan – we want to wipe the area clean of IS."
A refugee crosses the Tigris River from Iraqi Kurdistan into north-eastern Syria which is predominantly under Kurdish control. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
Two days later, YPG forces backed by US-led airstrikes took Tel Hamis, cutting off a vital supply line for IS.
As we bounce along the tiny, muddy back roads leading to the town, a truck driven by YPG soldiers lumbers past, its flatbed piled high with the bodies of dead IS fighters. There are estimates that at least 175 of them died in the fight for Tel Hamis, as well as dozens of YPG fighters — including Australian Ashley Johnson.
"For Rojava, we are first looking for autonomy, so every minority who lives here can have a life of dignity, where women can have equal rights and where we are independent," Nishtiman says. "As a woman, I want the world to hear what is happening here, that we are fighting to defend our land, that women are fighting the same as men, that we are here on the ground."
Two YPG fighters teach new conscripts to Rojava's new army how to dismantle and reassemble a heavy machine gun known as a dushka. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
In almost every home or office we enter – political or military – the photograph of 22-year-old Arin Mirkan smiles down from the wall. A battalion commander for the YPJ – the Women's Defence Units – Mirkan detonated explosives as she ran into a group of IS fighters, killing, according to a statement from the YPG, "dozens of ISIS mercenaries" — and herself. It is this commitment to a Kurdish homeland that political leaders hope will drive voter turnout for the March 13 municipal elections – the first since the cantons of Rojava were declared. "I just wish the West would recognise that we are not only the best military resistance against [IS], but we are also closer to the Western kind of democracy than they realise," said one Kurdish activist from Qamishli who asked not to be named.
Drawing on the ideology of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who has been in prison on terrorism charges in Turkey since 1999, Rojava's political philosophy centres on local committees that draw everyday citizens into decision-making roles on issues such as education, health and infrastructure.
Ocalan's image is displayed prominently throughout the Jazira canton — on banners hanging from bridges, on stickers on car windscreens, his nickname "Apo" scrawled on the walls of newly liberated towns and villages. There are criticisms from opposition activists, both within Syria and from Kurds in Turkey, that the PKK is attempting to turn Rojava into a one-party state, but political leaders deny this, pointing to the six political parties running in the upcoming election. "Our project in Rojava," says Hadya Yousef, the female co-governor of Jazira canton, "is reaching an historic point."
New conscripts to Rojava's army play volleyball during a break from training at an abandoned Syrian military base near Ramalan. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
So far there are 513 people registered as election candidates — 296 men and 217 women — for 329 seats in 13 municipalities, the co-chair of the election committee, Azzedine Ahmed Farhan, tells Fairfax Media. "It has not been easy to prepare for this election when we are surrounded by fighting but we must do it," he says from his office in Dabasiyah, just an hour's drive from the cluster of Assyrian villages IS militants had attacked earlier that day, killing many and kidnapping 220.
"We are new to democracy, so each election will be a learning process for us — we want to create a democracy and we have enemies all around us who want to destroy it."
Largely left alone by an Assad regime struggling to hold its heartlands in the west of the country since fighting broke out in 2011, the PKK and PYD saw an opportunity and began organising their cantons. Since then, Syrian government forces have mostly withdrawn from Rojava – in Jazira canton they control the airport, the banks and the post office but otherwise, it is the Kurds running day-to-day life.
A young YPG fighter sits in a car in the village of Tel Marouf, the face of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan on the windscreen. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
The cantons have "no political relationship with the Syrian regime", Hadya Yousef says.
What of an independent Kurdish homeland in Syria? "Our project is clear, we have always talked about self-governing autonomy and in doing so we are staying in front of the Syrian regime and [IS]. When the rebuilding of a democratic Syria begins, our self-governing model will play a big role."
But the ideals are, for now, a long way from the harsh reality that whatever Kurds choose to call the territory under their control, it is still part of Syria, says a teacher who did not want his name published for fear of reprisals.
Three young YPG fighters prepare to leap from their lookout near the village of Tel Marouf, freed from the Islamic State two days before. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
There is just two hours of government-provided electricity per day — the rest is fuelled by generators that local communities band together to buy — and the economy has been crippled by years of war. He earns $US150 per month from a full-time teaching job in which his smallest class contains 45 students. More than 250,000 Syrian Kurds have fled across the border into the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, there are around 100,000 in Turkey and even more have settled permanently in Europe, he says. "From the early morning the suffering begins, from the moment we go to the bakery to get bread for our families — there is no prosperity, people are depressed.
The school system, for example, is a mess, the curriculum is still dominated by slogans and materials that are supportive of Assad," he says. "It will take the total dismantling of the Assad regime and a complete overthrow of the old mentality of everyone involved in the system."
After decades of military-led oppression from Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, there is now deep concern in Syrian Kurdistan that the cantons have introduced conscription for 18 to 30-year-olds in order to form an official army, separate from the volunteer YPG. "So many of us were forced into military service in the Assad regime that it is impossible to support a similar requirement being introduced here," the teacher says.
Young women guard the Asayish (Kurdish intelligence agency) headquarters in Tel Tamer, where Islamic State militants had earlier attacked a string of Assyrian villages along the Khabur River, kidnapping at least 220. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
In a disused Syrian army base in Remalan, Hamid Derik is overseeing the training of 400-500 young men for this new force, which he expects to grow to 5000-6000 soldiers. A political activist and YPG fighter, Derik says that along with military training, the conscripts receive lessons in "ideology, democracy and equality". What happens after the training is a little unclear: some fighters will go into the YPG forces, some will move into other forces such as the police. Others will just return to their villages, armed, trained and ready to repel an IS onslaught.
"The force is meant to support the independent nation of Rojava, maybe after some time they will protect the borders, but for now we are just building it all up," Derik says. Where does his army of conscripts get their weapons? "The black market," he grins.
Like many Kurdish military leaders, from Iraq to Syria, he is frustrated by the lack of assistance provided to the forces fighting IS on the ground. Air strikes are not enough, they say.
Map of Kurdistan hand-painted on a wall in the main city of Qamishli, in Rojava, north-eastern Syria. Photo: Fadi Yeni Turk
Back in Qamishli, the school teacher says the election is a step in the right direction. And importantly, the repression of Kurdish language, culture and history has ended, prompting a blossoming of art, music and culture throughout Rojava, he says.
"We held a Kurdish kitchen recently, where about 20 kinds of Kurdish food was served: under Assad regime control a car would have arrived, an investigation would have been held, someone would have been jailed."
It will take at least a generation to build a brighter future for his children, he says. "When the regime collapses in Syria, Kurds will be there to find a way out, to work with America, to deal with the West."
To get an understanding of the political philosophy behind the Kurdish enclaves of Syria, it helps to visit TevDem, the Movement for a Democratic Society. Chenna Saleh, TevDem's head of diplomacy, says: "We believe that politics is one of the duties of a society, it is not just the duty of a government."
TevDem have set up a series of locally-based committees, each co-chaired by a man and a woman and with representatives of all groups in Rojava: Kurds, Arabs and Christians.
"People are very glad to take on these roles and be part of their city's life," Saleh says. "We now want to bring that model into the home, into normal life, where in families men still have a lot of power and authority."
But in a region where tribal politics, religion and culture still play a powerful role, there are significant challenges to realising these ideals. "We are having difficulties in getting women out of the house, in working out how to develop their specialisations and get them into work," admits one local human rights worker who asked not to be named.
"Society here is very masculine and very feudal . . . sure there are many women joining the YPG and others who are playing a big role in the political struggle, but there still needs to be a change in the classic family structure if we are ever going to see this expand."
Circumstances may force this change faster than expected, she warns: with so many men dying in the fight against IS, a significant number of households in Rojava are headed by women: "They have become the sole economic support for the family, so we need to help them find work to do this."
In Turkey, which considers the PKK a terrorist group – as does Australia, the United States and much of the European Union – there are fears that the YPG in Syria has more expansionist plans in mind. Across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has operated as an autonomous region since a no-fly zone was created there after the first Gulf War in 1991, it seems YPG forces may have outstayed their welcome.
As IS advanced on the vulnerable Yazidi and Christian minorities in the Mount Sinjar region of Iraqi Kurdistan in August last year, Iraqi Kurdish forces were unable to hold back the assault, retreating and leaving thousands trapped and at risk of death. The YPG crossed the border, creating an escape route for tens of thousands of desperate Yazidis and Christians trapped on the mountain. By entering Iraq, they appeared to be directly challenging their more prosperous Kurdish neighbours.
One diplomat Fairfax Media spoke to in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government, indicated there was a "degree of shame" about what was seen by some to be the failure of Iraqi Kurds to protect civilians. "There is no doubt that Barzani [Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG and leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party] does deal with Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG, but he in essence holds his nose when he does," the diplomat said.
Talk of establishing a Sinjar canton in the mountain ranges that straddle Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan was also ruffling feathers, he said, warning "expansionist ideas at this point are not helpful".
Hiwa Osman, a political analyst in Erbil who served as an adviser to former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, a long-time rival of Barzani in Iraq's Kurdish community, says IS has created a new reality in the region.
"[IS] is an external problem that should have united the Kurds to defend themselves," Osman says. "The soldiers on the ground seem to be united but the political leadership has yet to be mature enough to similarly join forces. Our number one priority is not to get massacred.
"We talk about Kurdistan being the ultimate place in the Middle East that has all the values that the West loves," he adds. "But at the same time the president is Mr Barzani, the prime minister is Mr Barzani, the head of intelligence is Mr Barzani, the head of counterintelligence forces is Mr Barzani – we have seven or eight Mr Barzanis in leadership positions. Nepotism is at its peak, corruption is still at its peak."
So instead of worrying about Syrian Kurdistan expanding, Iraqi Kurdistan should be supporting the upcoming elections, Osman says: "It will no doubt have many problems, but it will be an important message to the world that we fight with one hand and we build with the other.
"A new map is imposing itself on all of us. In the past it was Sykes-Picot [a 1916 agreement between Britain and France over the region's borders], today it is the people's map and demography is deciding the borders."
The failed Arab revolutions of Syria, Egypt and Libya show that people are looking for something else, he says. "The Kurds mark a new trend of liberalism, of tolerance and of fighting for these values. Women are fighting for these values, men are fighting – they are struggling for these ideals together."
Long fight for a Kurdish nation