The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Islamic State, that most malignant expression of the Sunni Islamist trend, was the natural enemy of this emergent Kurdish autonomy.

The news emerging from northern Syria remains confused. There are now fighters from five separate armies maneuvering in the area between the Euphrates River and the Syrian-Turkish and Syrian-Iraqi borders. These are the invading Turkish-Sunni Islamist force, the defending Kurdish-led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the escaping Western (mainly US, also British and French) special forces soldiers whose mission has been declared at an end, and the incoming troops and hardware of Bashar Assad’s SAA (Syrian Arab Army) and of his Russian allies.

Where all this will end is not clear. But one thing that seems apparent is that, with the return of Syrian regime forces east of the Euphrates, the emergent Kurdish autonomy in this area is finished.

Kurdish friends I speak to tell me that this is only a military alliance for joint defense against the Turks. The politics, they say, will be decided later. And I think ( although I don’t tell them) that if two SAA divisions cross the river, with the Russian Air Force above them and Russian support behind them, then the political matter is also settled. Moscow may pressure its client to grant some improved level of representation, but the regime is reconstituting its authority.

This brings to an end one of the more remarkable episodes in the recent history of the Levant – namely, the autonomous, self-governing authority known to the Kurds and then to the world as Rojava, which means “the sunset land” and denotes western Kurdistan. I happened to witness the emergence and growth to power of this entity. It deserves a retrospective, if not yet quite a eulogy. I want to attempt that here.

THE KURDISH power emerged in eastern Syria in the summer of 2012. It was not born in revolt against the Assad regime. Neither was it conceived in collaboration with that regime, contrary to some of the claims made by supporters of the Sunni Arab rebellion.

Assad was desperately short of loyal manpower that summer. He needed to draw in his lines of defense to keep his regime viable. The Kurdish authority emerged in the vacuum that followed the dictator’s unilateral exit from Syria’s northeast in June-July 2012.

The Kurds had to fight for their lives from the beginning. An early attempt by the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra to wipe them out was successfully resisted. As one of the first journalists to visit the autonomous area, I witnessed the nascent YPG (People’s Protection Units) in action in the town they called Sere Kaniye. It’s back in the headlines again now, under its Arabic name – Ras al Ain.

We came across the Tigris River by night in a rubber dinghy. At that stage, the Kurds hadn’t yet taken control of the Semalka border crossing. It was immediately obvious to me that this was a type of force very different from the chaotic, ammunition-spraying “rebels” that I had seen in Idlib and Aleppo. The YPG didn’t even have uniforms at that stage. They looked a motley crowd in their T-shirts and jeans and sneakers. But they were disciplined, well trained in tactical movement, sparing and precise in their firing. I was impressed.

Their emergent societal arrangements were impressive, too. Not perfect, by any means, but it was plain in the months that followed that something very different from – and very much better than – the nascent Sunni Islamist regime in the rebel areas, or the existing Ba’ath fascist-inspired model in the regime parts, was being born.

That it was being established by one of the region’s most sorely oppressed and hitherto silent minorities – the Syrian Kurds – made it all the more notable.

Islamic State, that most malignant expression of the Sunni Islamist trend, was the natural enemy of this emergent Kurdish autonomy. It would be hard to think of two projects better suited for enmity, or for war to the finish.

And war to the finish there was. Islamic State sought to destroy Rojava in mid-2014. The jihadi forces swallowed up village after village as they headed up toward the town of Kobani that summer.

I remember a fraught meeting in those days with Kurdish leaders in London. They described to me how the last civilians had been evacuated across the border to Turkey. Just a few hundred YPG fighters were in there now, amid the dust and the ruins. They were waiting for the jihadists to close the trap to the north; then they would fight them to the death for every inch of ruined Kobani.

But ISIS never took Kobani. The new partnership with US air power, the artillery of Masoud Barzani’s Peshmerga, and the grit, courage and self-sacrifice of the YPG stopped them. The same élan, will and cheerful courage that I’d witnessed in Sere Kaniye in 2013 now combined with the might of the world’s premier air force.

It took another four years of fighting and 11,000 dead from the ranks of the YPG and its allies (now rebranded the Syrian Democratic Forces – SDF), but it was this combination of forces that destroyed the ISIS caliphate, and with it one of the most evil and malignant political projects of recent years.

The cost was very high. I worked a lot in the SDF areas during the campaign. I can remember the faces and the names of many friends and acquaintances killed in those years. It was a low-tech war on the ground, militia against militia, with precious few of the technical advantages that characterize much infantry warfare in the early 21st century. This was man against man (and, of course, woman – on the SDF side). No night vision equipment. Scrabbling and hunting in the dark through ruined villages.

There was little medical equipment to go round. People bled out from wounds that in a Western army would have been quickly attended. The many foreign volunteers, too, died in high numbers, with no special privileges.

Amid all this, the Kurdish fighters maintained an odd sort of fatalism, very far from the modern Western attitude toward death. If you were there, it was reasoned, you were ready to die and willing for it. So no need for excess emotion. They used to bury the dead fighters five or six at a time; with terse speeches and songs on the parched plains of the Jazira, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, as they pushed Islamic State south. To its end.

WHEN IT was over, and the jihadists’ caliphate destroyed, there was a quieter period. The nightmares were still there, of course, and no one really knew where things were heading. The most common predictions I remember in talks with friends were that the Americans would probably leave at some point, given the apparently limited and ambiguous nature of their commitment. If that happened, there would be a need for a rapid deal with the regime, to prevent a Turkish/Sunni Islamist rampage, and renewed catastrophe.

That is now what appears to have happened. The result is that after six years, the tanks of the Syrian Arab Army are rolling back into Qamishli, Raqqa, Tabqa, Tal Tamr, Kobani, Manbij, al-Malikiya and the other towns east of the Euphrates. This is taking place not because the SDF has been militarily defeated. Rather, as needs to be stated plainly, it has been betrayed – by its allies.

All that effort, the institutions built, the forces gathered, the sacrifices, the many sacrifices made, the people – the many innocents, saved – on Sinjar Mountain and elsewhere.

I remember the refugees at the Newroz camp in August 2014. Yezidi children, women and men, in their thousands, saved from slaughter or slavery. They were dazed, thirsty, hungry and traumatized. But they were alive and safe because of the efforts of the young men and women of the YPG.

I remember a young female officer in the town of Derik during that time asking me if I was Jewish. I told her I was. This was one of the few places in the Middle East outside of Israel where you didn’t have to worry about answering that question honestly.

“Where’s the conscience of humanity?” she asked me, as though my membership in another people who had experienced attempted genocide might give me some insight into this matter. “Insofar as humanity has a conscience,” I remember replying, “it currently finds expression in this place in the form of you and your friends.” And so it was.

The sanity and order that, for a little while, amid butchery and madness, were able to stand and prevail now seem fated to disappear.

“The last six years,” one of my old friends in Kobani told me the night the agreement with the regime was announced, “were in vain.” I can’t say his name. Where Assad’s army goes, the dictator’s security structures rapidly follow.

One hopes that freedom, once called, will come again. For now, the Kurds of Syria will need to tread carefully and keep their heads down. It is a sad, tawdry and unworthy end.

Published in The Jerusalem Post 18.10.2019

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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