The REVOLUTION IN ROJAVA – Documents and Debates PART II (2017)

THOUGHTS ON RACISM AND REVOLUTION

Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

A sign of ideological nativity and privilege is the expectation that the oppressed should engage in massive social change and progress in unrealistically short periods of time. An act of racism from an individual YPG fighter, for instance, is enough to cause the collapse of the entire solidarity movement for the Kurds. The idealization, the romanticization, the orientalist perspective in which the Kurds are viewed is deeply problematic and counter-revolutionary. This ideological purity is devoid of awareness and understanding and first hand experience of the reality of the oppressed and what they have had to do to survive daily in a deeply racist society like the one in Syria. A more sophisticated political analysis is required to understand the Revolution here.

No one is immune from the impacts of racist, ethnic and religious based violence when that is all they have ever known. Racial prejudices exist here from Kurds, to Arabs, to Christians, to Armenians, to Muslims. No one is immune because the very conception of the ‘Syrian’ state has been one based on segregation, violence and domination. One that has attempted to impose one identity, one language, one concept of ideal citizenship. Many groups fell outside the boundaries of this ‘ideal’ resulting in massacres, torture and imprisonments and worse. This has caused an inward looking approach for minorities and groups as a means of self protection and preservation. Yet what is noteworthy in Rojava is that despite and BECAUSE of that long history of oppression the governing model and social system here is one deeply invested in eradicating racism. From the inclusiveness of Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian as the official languages and actively implemented across the education system, to extra seats in the councils to minorities like Armenians to ensure they retain influence, to a free media across different languages,to hundreds of thousands of displaced people being housed and fed, to the active encouragement and support for the establishment of non Kurdish military and security forces such as Sotoro, the Khabour Guards, Nathoreh and the Bethahrian Women’s Protection Units among others in order for the minorities to be able to defend themselves- even against the YPG if one day the Kurds become authoritarian. All education seminars some over 6 months long address specifically and explicitly racism and the importance of ethno-religious co-existence.

There is also an important distinction in having prejudices and actively trying to eliminate them through not only ideological means and re-educating society, but also through establishing inclusive and pro-minority based laws and institutions. This anti-racist ideology is one of the corner stones of the Revolution here. It is this reason that ensures that Arab dominated cities like Manbij, Tel Abyad and Hasake remain stable and peaceful. Initially Tel Abyad, the first of the three above cities to be liberated, experienced constant bombings and attacks internally and with ISIS coming across the border from Turkey. But so much work was conducted across councils and communes to breach the ethnic gaps. Tribal leaders and people of great social standing were invited for talks and ongoing dialogue, people were included in decision making processes and were voted into councils and communes.

When Iraq, for instance, was ‘liberated’ by the Americans in 2003 the first thing people did was pick up weapons to seek blood revenge against their Sunni neighbors for decades of Baathist oppression and terror. This issue did not occur in Rojava. Sectarian fights due to long held unaddressed grievances results in dozens dying weekly in Iraq. Look at Baghdada and Basra and Ramadi in Iraq and compare it to Tel Abyad, Hasake and Manbij in north Syria. The distinction speaks volumes.

A revolution is a process, one that is lengthy and rife with progress and regressions. The kind of social and progressive changes being implemented here takes decades if not centuries- just look at the West and its going whitecentric and racist socio-political, economic and anti-refugee issues- and look what has been achieved here in 5 years.

Organic and enduring social change requires time. It cannot be implemented and unlearned in an unexpectedly short time. Don’t be shocked by individual acts of racism and see it as a result of long historical impacts, but withdraw support if you see no institutional and collective efforts being made to end that racism here. Unlearning racism cannot be forced. It must be people themselves, Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Muslims alike, who come to the conviction that racism is not a viable solution. Everyone has a responsibility to participate and end that racism if they wish to live peacefully here.

-Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

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Hundreds of us will die in Raqqa’: the women fighting Isis

Kimberley Taylor from Blackburn is part of the all-female Kurdish force battling to rout Islamic State. Driving them on is the chance to free women enslaved by the extremists: ‘It starts with fighting Daesh, then the mentality of the male’

by Mark Townsend

OBSERVER  Sunday 30 April 2017 08.30 BST

 

She had heard the stories about how Islamic State fighters could glide like ghosts into Kurdish militia bases during the dead of night, but nothing prepared her for the bedlam when it happened. It was 3.40am on 12 February when Isis attackers scrambled over the perimeter defences of the base north of Raqqa. Kimberley Taylor was convinced it would be overrun. Grabbing her Kalashnikov, she began firing at the shapes. Beyond the corner of the nearest building cowered an enemy fighter. Suddenly he rushed towards her. As their eyes met, he yanked the cord on his suicide belt.

Night-time along the shifting frontline of northern Syria is a fraught affair. Absolute silence, punctured by periods of pandemonium. Isis can strike from anywhere, shadows that melt in and out of the darkness. Taylor’s base was six miles behind the front, among the lush floodplains of the Euphrates. Everyone there knew that the Isis fighters’ latest tactic was tiptoeing into the huts of sleeping Kurdish fighters and blowing themselves up. Taylor, who survived the suicide attack, counted herself lucky.

“Well, kind of. I was completely covered in human remains, which was pretty horrific,” said the 28-year-old in her gentle Lancashire accent. Later, when the sun rose, Taylor admitted to being both disgusted and fascinated by a human exploding, particularly how hair was blown clean from the scalp.

Taylor, born in Blackburn 28 years ago, is a footsoldier for the YPJ – a Northern Kurdish or Kurmanji acronym for the Women’s Protection Units – an all-female force that is part of the offensive to liberate Raqqa. Fighting alongside a coalition of Arab and Assyrian Christian militias, the YPJ is steadily encircling the capital of Isis’s proto-state, supported by US airpower.

Standing among the ruins of a bombed command post 25 miles north of Raqqa, Taylor looks more like a guerrilla fighter from the Spanish civil war than a combatant at the sharp end of the international coalition to eradicate the world’s arguably most feared terrorist organisation. She has no army boots and instead marches to battle in a pair of size five secondhand Chinese-made trainers, bought for £6 in the Kurdish town of Qamishli. She has no body armour or helmet, so wraps an emerald and orange embroidered keffiyeh around her forehead to, she says, help express her femininity. She watches the war through a pair of Specsavers glasses.

Taylor, though, does have military fatigues and a flak jacket that carries four magazines (30 rounds each) and two grenades. She also carries a small bag that contains bandages, a sealable dressing for chest wounds and a tourniquet. Few have a tourniquet and Taylor knows she is fortunate – without one, a wounded soldier could bleed to death in the remote villages where they are fighting. Most crucial is her rifle – made in 1978 in Soviet-era Poland, and which looks like it has been involved in every war since.

Taylor said she was prepared for death. She does not carry any lucky charms, but has the motto “One life” inked in Thai script on her left forearm. Although she had it done in a beach shack on Koh Samui in Thailand 10 years ago, it serves as a reminder that life is fragile, that every day matters.

The pre-op briefings for the Raqqa offensive did not dilute the dangers that lay ahead. Casualties were predicted to be “significant”. Already Taylor had noticed how Isis fighters were retreating from the villages that dot the river valley around Raqqa, withdrawing back to the city for the group’s final showdown. “They’ve been preparing for this for so long. Hundreds and hundreds of us will die in Raqqa, I’m going to lose so many friends.” She paused and exhaled slowly: “What we’ll find inside the city will be unlike anything we’ve seen.”

At first the north-eastern corner of Syria when approached from Iraq seems a peaceful, plentiful land. Fields of wheat stretch to the horizon, towns bustle with hawkers, trading beneath huge portraits of the Turkish-Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the militant PKK, and whose philosophy of direct democracy and feminism has been adopted wholesale by the neighbouring Syrian Kurds.

Soon other faces appear on billboards –the faces of young martyrs, features blanched by the sun, a reminder that this nascent Kurdish region is fighting for its very existence. The Kurds have proved adroit at forging a homeland – albeit fragile – from the chaos of Syria’s war, a conflict in its seventh year that has left the country fractured, destabilised the entire region, left 470,000 dead and forced five million to flee.

Further west along the M4 highway, the grasslands surrender to the advancing desert. Signs of conflict appear. Soon you enter territory formerly ruled by Isis and only recently liberated. Destroyed, deserted villages line the road. Checkpoints become more frequent, the faces of the militia operating them increasingly taut. Enormous earth berms and ditches 10ft deep begin to border the desolate desert highway that cuts across this remote swath of northern Syria. These embankments are to halt Isis’s souped-up “bomber cars”.

Resembling something from Mad Max, these vehicles terrify everyone. Laden with explosives and encased within welded metal sheets, rockets bounce off them harmlessly, a Kalashnikov is as useful as a child’s catapult. They can reach 50mph and deliver the same fury as a 500lb bomb from a coalition jet.

Savage conflict has dramatically altered the north Syrian landscape

The checkpoint searches become more forensic, travel documents triple-checked. We learn that a fresh batch of bomber cars has been dispatched north from Raqqa.

We are headed to the frontline of Isis’s de facto capital. It is dug in there, primed for a climactic encounter as its self-proclaimed caliphate implodes after little more than three years. Latest assessments suggest that more than 100,000 civilians remain inside Raqqa, along with 5,000 Isis fighters. Advancing towards them from the north and east are about 3,000 largely Kurdish and Arab fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Another front of up to 2,500 are pushing from the south-west, picking their way through the town of Tabqa towards the city.

Intelligence assessments and spies inside Raqqa confirm prodigious defences. Speaking at an SDF command post 20 miles north of the city, Arab commander Jihan Shix Ahmad said: “Documents show Daesh [Isis] have planted many, many explosives; barrels containing bombs are all over the city.”

Booby-traps are expected in the unlikeliest places: piles of rubbish, parked motorbikes and rigged Pepsi cans. Tripwires are strung behind the doors of innocuous-looking apartments. That Raqqa has been so generously mined does not surprise Taylor. Creeping through the villages alongside the Euphrates, where the land is so lush it reminds her of Lancashire, she has stumbled across numerous bomb factories. Inside, gigantic vats of chemicals, mixing agents and bundles of wires are piled high, the smell so noxious it made her gag. “You can’t breathe; if you stay inside too long you get a massive headache.”

Susan Kobani is one of the most senior commanders of the Raqqa operation. Photograph: Mark Townsend for the Observer

Complicating the offensive are new reports that Isis has herded huge groups of civilians into pens outside the city gates. Susan Kobani, 38, one of the most senior officers overseeing the Raqqa operation, whose command hierarchy is dominated by women, said: “Daesh put civilians in two camps around the city. They are strategically placed so the SDF cannot attack from certain areas.” If the civilians attempt to escape, they are shot.

In Raqqa’s centre, Ahmad reveals that people have been shepherded on to the top three floors of the apartment blocks where Isis has located its headquarters to act as human shields against coalition airstrikes. Informants say that beneath Raqqa is alabyrinthine tunnel network from which fighters can move and instigate counterattacks from behind the frontline. Some tunnels, dug by civilians as punishments, are crammed with explosives.

Officially, no one is allowed to leave Raqqa. From the accounts of those who have reached the nearest refugee camp 25 miles away in the desert, it is quickly evident that the city is in lockdown.

Wearing the regulation black burqa of Isis, and obviously elated, Safiya Rashid told how she ignored a recent Isis directive threatening to behead anyone who attempted to cross the Euphrates. Others, too, had dismissed the warning. Two nights earlier Abdul Omar, 29, pulled himself along a rope someone had surreptitiously tied across the river. “The current was strong, but I was dying staying in the city,” he said.

Isis sentries patrol the riverbanks and shoot anyone in the water. Some people attempt to swim across and are never heard of again. Engineer assistant Abdul Kardalazi, 31, was another who got lucky. “My family hired a small boat from a smuggler, but it was very dark and all their shots missed.”

Ahmed Alogla, 60, from Aleppo, bribed an Isis guard with $200 to turn a blind eye to the dinghy holding his family. “I have nothing, no possessions, but I have my freedom,” he beamed.

Those not prepared to risk the river must take their chances traversing the treacherous land to the north. There, Isis has sown a colossal minefield, and only a handful of smugglers know the narrow corridor that leads to safety.

Ama Noor, 28, a builder from Raqqa, paid $300 for his family to be guided. They left Raqqa at 11pm and arrived at their destination after 10am, waiting until dawn to trek the final stage so they wouldn’t be shot by friendly forces. Mohammed Neheter, 31, arrived at the refugee camp at midday, his smock still filthy after scrambling along the banks of irrigation ditches to avoid Isis snipers. Sitting down with his family, Neheter couldn’t stop hugging his children. “Daesh said, ‘We will kill you if you leave’, but we had no food, no work, sometimes no water.”

The reality of the new economics of survival is that only the poorest are left stranded in Raqqa, unable to afford the smugglers’ demands.

Mohammed Neheter and his family hours after escaping Raqqa. Photograph: Mark Townsend for the ObserverSome risk their lives regardless. Three days previously, a boy was found stumbling north, close to the hamlet of Ghazili. According to Kardalazi, he had left Raqqa with two adults who tried to navigate the minefield at night without a guide. One was killed, while the other lost both legs. The boy tried to drag him but eventually the man persuaded him to go on alone. Since his arrival, the child had become mute and had taken to silently following a refugee family who shared their food. No one knows his name.

Others portray a city barely functioning, the only viable livelihoods being trading food or exchanging US dollars on the black market. One woman, Aanisah, suggested Isis was loosening its grip, becoming less pious ahead of the impending battle. “Before, they were very strict about wearing the niqab, but less now because the fighting is nearer.”

At night, power failures plunge the city into darkness, its streets deserted except for Isis fighters and those contemplating a bid for liberty.

Already it is evident that Raqqa holds terrible secrets. Ahmad revealed that they had obtained documents detailing that large numbers of women were imprisoned as slaves. “They show that hundreds of women are being held inside Raqqa.” So far the YPJ has liberated 137 of them.

For the female warriors like Taylor, the prospect of emancipating such victims is electrifying. Killing Isis was part of the day job, she said, but what really drove her forward was the thought of liberating abused women. Ahmad, almost shouting, added: “We are not fighting to kill, we are fighting for freedom.”

For the YPJ fighters, their ambitions for female emancipation are far greater than eliminating Isis. Ultimately they want to annihilate the patriarchal structure that they say oppresses women, and rebuild an equal society. “It’s an ideological fight against the patriarchal system, it starts with fighting the mentality of Daesh, then the mentality of the male, the patriarchal mindset,” said Kobani.

Taylor had no military experience before joining the YPJ. She had always loathed violence and shudders when recalling fights in British pubs. Born in Darwen, near Blackburn, a market town struggling for identity in the post-industrial economy, Taylor always wanted to make a difference. She wanted to become a professional humanitarian, possibly set up an NGO to help the disenfranchised. In the summer of 2015, she decided to travel to Iraq and witness first-hand the reality of refugee life. The plight of Yazidi women, raped and kept as sex slaves by Isis who had seized their homeland, changed her future. “Mothers were literally trying to give me their babies to take back to Europe. They were totally serious, begging me. I had to do something.”

She entered Syria in March last year, joining the Kurdish militia’s international brigade of about 100 volunteers, largely a motley bunch of leftists, socialists and anarchists from the US and Europe, of whom a dozen or so are British. Some were lured by the dogma of Öcalan, a former communist who now preaches a similar brand of feminist, anarcho-libertarianism to Noam Chomsky. Some just wanted to kill Isis.

Now Taylor finds herself squaring up against an opposing, larger cohort of foreign fighters, schooled in a strain of nihilistic jihadism. Asayish (security) police officials in northern Syria believe 1,500 foreign fighters have retreated inside Raqqa, dozens of whom are British, some of the 850 UK nationals who have travelled to fight in Syria.

As Taylor’s unit advances towards the city, they have met village residents who describe large groups of foreign fighters who cannot speak Arabic and who were heading for Raqqa. “They saw many fighters, they were everywhere. Some had Chinese-looking faces, some spoke English.”

Taylor admits it will be “weird” if she comes face to face with a Briton on the opposing side. Even weirder if she meets someone she grew up with. “I bet someone from my school is in there,” she said, nodding south along the Euphrates. “What happens if I capture someone from Lancashire? Quite a few people from there have come over. We have to understand why these people are fighting for Daesh.”Taylor is anxious about the civilians stranded inside Raqqa, and what Isis might do to them when it realises the game is up. She remains haunted by another night attack, this time when Isis stormed a YPJ command post last month, three miles from the front. Caught up in the chaotic crossfire was a 12-year-old girl, shot through the pelvis. Her mother carried the child over to Taylor, who began trying to patch her up. “But everything had come out of her body, all of her guts, her innards. The doctor and I were trying to fill the massive gap, stuff it with gauze and bandages, but it was impossible.”

She remembers that every time she looked up, the mother was staring back expectantly, nodding encouragement. But Taylor couldn’t help. The girl turned cold and pale and began throwing up. An ambulance arrived but it was four hours to the nearest hospital. As they left, Taylor recalls the mother still nodding, hoping everything would go back to the way it was.

It was 11am on the hottest day of the year so far and Taylor was in high spirits. Moments earlier she had received notice she was being posted to a new tarbur – platoon – that would spearhead the assault on Raqqa. Later that day she would be driven by minivan to the western front, 12 miles from the city centre. Her chance of becoming one of the first fighters into Raqqa had improved greatly. “Daesh had better be ready,” Taylor grinned, cigarette dangling from her mouth.Overhead came the rumble of coalition jets, pounding Isis positions further down the valley. Morning briefings suggested it had been a busy night: Isis had sent a fleet of bomber cars to positions just south. “They killed six friends,” Taylor said, looking over the SDF’s battle-scarred 93rd Brigade headquarters.

The base occupied the summit of a knoll above the desert crossroads town of Ain Issa and served as a neat microcosm of modern Syria. Once a Syrian regime garrison, jihadis from al-Qaida’s al-Nusra Front overran it in 2013, and a year later came Isis, who themselves were driven out by Kurdish forces 12 months later. Most of its structures had been obliterated by airstrikes. Amid the rubble lay the belongings of dead fighters, odd sandals, a pair of smashed sunglasses, a single Berghaus walking boot. A stretcher lay abandoned between piles of bricks.

Life on the frontline begins at 5am with a breakfast of tinned chicken, a curiously colourless substance with the texture of tripe. Occasionally tins of sardines show up, but there is always an inexplicably generous supply of Dairylea cheese triangles. Cigarettes are another constant. Everyone smokes. Arden, carrying a “Made in London” label, is the frontline brand of choice.

Showers are a luxury. Weeks without washing is normal. Dysentery is common, stomach gripes routine. Toilets are a hole in the desert, loo paper a thing of memory. Taylor remembers exploring a palatial Arab home south of the town of Tal Saman that had been commandeered by Isis fighters but now stood abandoned. Upstairs she found a sit-on toilet – her first in a year – and told her unit she would catch them up.

Much of the war against Isis is spent waiting for Land Cruisers to take them to the next battle. They spend the time singing and dancing. Taylor’s favourite Kurdish song is Freedom Fighter – Servanê Azadiyê – a paean to fallen friends. Her unit once made her sing an English song – she chose Bob Marley’s One Love but could only remember the chorus. Taylor loves life on the frontline, making a difference, being equal. She relishes the thought of killing men who have abused women, and loves that there is no sexism or objectification. “For the first time in my life I feel men respect me for who I am. Back home, men feel they have the right to beep their horn purely because I have a vagina.” She loves the fact that it is women who tell the United States where and when to carry out coalition airstrikes and that overnight commander Kobani had directed 16 airborne bombing raids, vapourising at least one prominent Isis position.

Her achievements made Taylor wish that western feminism was more potent. “There’s an obsession with minor issues like terminology, rather than realising the whole system is patriarchal. Sure, women have personal freedoms, but western society is not free.” She said she felt safer in northern Syria than in Britain.

Shortly before dusk, Jac Holmes, a bearded IT specialist from Bournemouth, appeared at the base. Taylor and Holmes embraced: they hadn’t seen each other for months. The 24-year-old had arrived from Tabqa, the scene of ferocious battles a dozen miles south-west of Raqqa. During his time in Syria, Holmes had been fired at more than 40 times, hospitalised once when a bullet burst through his right arm.

Holmes spoke softly. As a sniper, he said, it was important to stay calm. But even for him, a non-smoker upon his arrival in Syria, a stressful day can now entail consumption of 45 Ardens. “It can get pretty real out there,” he laughed. A union jack patch was fixed on the right shoulder of his militia uniform, his blood type (A-) scrawled on a spare magazine pouch. A toothbrush dangled out of his back pocket. Holmes had been away from England’s south coast for nearly eight months and figured the Raqqa op might keep him busy for many more. During that period he had become increasingly impressed with his adversaries. “They’re very good, extremely motivated, well trained and very experienced,” he said, fiddling with his lucky charm, a set of white prayer beads he found in a home near Qaltah, Raqqa province.As with Taylor, talk of Raqqa brought thoughts of mortality. He had lost more friends than he could count, Kurdish and foreign. “At one point I had a list but … ”One was 20-year-old Ryan Lock, from Chichester, who shot himself before Christmas when cornered by Isis at the onset of the Raqqa offensive. Holmes said he would do the same if surrounded, but “preferred to die fighting”. Taylor didn’t miss a beat: “Of course.”

A group of young YPJ fighters turned up. Among them was Mahabad Kobani, 18, who had requested to be forwarded to the Raqqa front and was waiting to hear back. That she had a chance was itself a minor miracle. One night before Christmas 2014 she was ambushed in an olive grove outside the town of Kobani by Isis fighters and shot seven times. She was pronounced dead, a martyr. “When they found I was alive everybody was totally shocked.” After a year recovering in hospital, she felt desperate to fight again.

“I am not worried about dying, I’ll jump in the way of bullets if my friends are in danger,” she said. Her best friend, Amara Rojhilat, 21, fought in Aleppo defending the Kurdish district of Ashrafiya from jihadis in 2013. Burdened with inferior weaponry, they forced back al-Nusra rebels in savage street-to-street fighting. “Eventually we made them accept peace,” she smiled, and reached for Kobani’s hand. Together they sang Servanê Azadiyê.

Even before the black flag of Isis is removed from Raqqa’s central square, thoughts are turning to what happens next. Politicians for Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Syria, hope a deal with the White House can be struck as a reward for eliminating Isis from its headquarters. One persistent rumour suggests Donald Trump will visit Raqqa to congratulate SDF fighters once liberation is complete. But his military backing has yet to evolve into political collateral and the expanding Kurdish-led enclave, currently about the size of Wales, is generating tension on all borders.

Directly south lies more Isis territory. To the west is the Free Syrian Army, a rabble of Islamist factions, including the al-Nusra Front. North is Turkey, the nemesis of Syrian Kurds, whose president’s increasingly autocratic rule is likely to spell further military action against them. On Tuesday, Turkish airstrikes destroyed Kurdish command centres, killing about two dozen fighters in Syria and Iraq. Finally, to the east lies the Kurdistan regional government of Iraq (KRG), which accuses its Syrian neighbours of presiding over an oppressive regime that has forcefully displaced Arab settlers, razed villages and recruited child soldiers. A year ago the KRG shut the one bridge over the Tigris to Rojava. Entry to the region for the world’s media has been near impossible since. During the eight months preceding the border closure, 260 journalists gained entry. During the last 12 months only the Observer has secured official permission.

The anxiety that US commitment to the campaign against Isis may ultimately prove illusory extends to those on its frontline. Footage showing convoys of US armoured vehicles entering Rojava to help liberate Raqqa mystify Taylor. “But it’s all for them, they don’t give it to us. They are announcing support, but come on! Give us some proper weapons!” Speaking in the town of Tal Tamr, Kurdish commander Azad Garyae, 29, in charge of logistics for a brigade of 2,500 men that has lost 500 fighting the Syrian regime, al-Nusra and Isis, also pleaded for more equipment. “If we are to match Daesh, we need heavy weaponry, anti-tank missiles, otherwise many more will die.”More immediately, security concerns dominate daily life in Rojava. Tightening the noose on Raqqa has caused its own security conundrum. Isis suicide bombers are starting to move north masquerading as refugees, says the YPJ. Men clad in burqas have been intercepted, confirms Ahmad.

At a rapidly growing refugee camp outside the former Isis stronghold of Mabrouka, local police chief Haj Hassan Abed Khalil, 55, confirmed Isis was on the march. “We have intelligence from Raqqa that many people related to Daesh are moving towards here.”

Spies inside the city, he said, were forwarding tip-offs that trucks laden with explosives had left and were heading north. Details of the manufacturer and colour of one truck had been radioed ahead. Checkpoint soldiers were ordered to shoot the driver if it failed to stop 15 yards from them.

Large crowds of refugees were particularly suspicious, added Abed Khalil. Isis members, beards shaved and black garb discarded, forced groups to migrate, allowing them to blend in more effectively.

On 17 April the mood inside the refugee camp at Mabrouka was brittle: a group of men became agitated and we were advised to leave. An hour later a senior intelligence officer from the Asayish police in the nearby town of Sari Kani flagged down our car and said: “There are many, many Daesh inside Mabrouka and we are carrying out investigations to stop them leaving. But we must also help with the humanitarian issue. What can we do?” The previous day a suicide bomber had targeted refugees outside Aleppo, killing at least 100.

The fear of infiltration frazzled nerves. At the start of our journey, my driver had drawn attention to a loaded pistol in the passenger door panel in case of an Isis ambush. During the days that followed, Kurdish intelligence repeatedly warned that Isis was attempting to disseminate suicide bombers throughout the region. Checkpoint security became increasingly meticulous. Commander Rosel Amanus, 25, who has lost 40 friends in the war, explained why. “I was at a checkpoint near Shadadi and a man approached in a car. I was worried, so I shouted, ‘Go back. Now!’ The driver didn’t move. He didn’t look up. Then I knew.” Amanus began running, seconds later the car exploded. Taylor has seen a car bomb flatten buildings two-thirds of a mile away.She knows such destructiveness means she might not make it home. It was her 28th birthday on Friday, another day on the frontline eating tinned chicken and thinking of the things she misses: family, Tetley tea in a proper mug, Maltesers, the pub, cheddar cheese and Game of Thrones.

“If I return to Europe I’ll be bored sick straight away,” she said. “Here I am fighting for a revolution, for freedom, equality. I can die and know that I’ve lived.”

Forces in the battle for Raqqa

Syrian Democratic Forces A coalition of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian Christian militia together spearheading the offensive to liberate Raqqa.

YPJ

The Kurdish militia that forms the lead component in the SDF. Thousands of its soldiers are currently involved in the Raqqa operation.

Islamic State

The extremist militants of Isis have held Raqqa since 2014 and have proclaimed it as the de facto capital of their besieged caliphate.

International coalition

Led by the United States, whose warplanes have repeatedly bombed the city. A cohort of 400 US marines is also deployed roughly 15 miles north of the city.

US special forces

Have been involved in Raqqa province for several months, carrying out separate operations to conventional forces.

Topics

 

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Structure of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)

by Shawrash Khane

From ‘Kurdish Question’

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In a vast geographic area of north and northeast Syria wave the banners of the SDF, those forces composed of various sectarian and ethnic military groups.  All of these different structures pose a unique state within the Syrian conflict, because they are composed of different religious, national, and sectarian military groups of Kurdish Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Chechens included within the SDF umbrella, all of which united with the objective of combating the ISIS terrorist organization in Syria.

The harmony and capability of the SDF in the fight against ISIS on the ground have imposed the SDF as a firm number in the military and political equation in Syria, and despite the complexities of this equation with regard to political interests, the international coalition forces, which are led by the United States, have provided continuous air support to the SDF against this terrorist organization.  And the coalition’s support has not been limited to air strikes, but also included sending military reinforcements into Syrian territory in order to support these troops throughout their deployed areas, a step which angered – politically and militarily – the other armed Syrian opposition groups and certain regional countries.

Composition of the SDF

The SDF are composed of a group of military combat brigades and factions that include all segments of Syrian society where the SDF are deployed.  These factions include:

First:  People’s Protection Units (YPG):  These are large military units composed mostly of Kurdish fighters along with many other Syrian components (i.e. – Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Chechens).

Second:  Women’s Protection Units:  Female Kurdish fighters as well as female Arabs.

Third:  al-Sanadid (Courageous) Forces:  Arab military forces most of which belong to the Shammar tribe, which is led by Sheikh Hamidi Dahham al-Hadi al-Jurba, ruler (var: governor) of the al-Jazirah sector in the democratic administratively-autonomous regions of Syria.

Fourth:  Jaysh al-Thuwwar (Army of Revolutionaries):  The fighters in this military faction belong to the areas of Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hamah, A’zaz, and al-Bab.  Most of these forces are Arabs.

Fifth:  Al-Jazirah Brigades Assembly:  Composed of a group of military factions that belong to the Arab tribes, such as the Shammar, al-Sharabiyah, al-Jabur, and al-Bakkarah (var: al-Baggarah) tribes, along with a percentage of Chechen Syrian fighters descendant from the Syrian city of Ra’s al-‘Ayn.

Sixth:  Al-Furat Brigades Assembly:  Arab fighters that belong to the tribes of the Tal Abyad area and Raqqah countryside.  These tribes include the al-Badu, al-‘Assaf, al-‘Afadilah, and al-Waldah tribes.

Seventh:  Shams al-Shamal (Northern Sun) Battalions:  These battalions operated with the Free Army before separating from them.  They are composed mostly of Arab fighters and they currently represent the primary element of the Manbij Military Council.

Eighth:  Thuwwar Manbij (Manbij Revolutionaries):  Composed of Arab fighters formerly with the Free Army.  They currently operate under the leadership of the Manbij Military Council.

Jund al-Haramayn:  Arab fighters from the city of Manbij.

Tahrir al-Furat (Euphrates Liberation) Brigade:  Most of the fighters are Arabs from Manbij City and the surrounding countryside.

Shuhada’ al-Furat (Euphrates Martyrs) Battalion of Jarablus:  Most of the fighters are Arabs from the city of Jarablus.

Ahrar (Freedom Fighters of) Jarablus:  These groups are comprised of Kurds and Arabs from the city of Jarablus.

Ahrar al-Bab:  Arab fighters from al-Bab City.

Ahrar ‘Arimah:  Arab fighters who announced that they joined the al-Bab Military Council.

Shuhada’ Qabasin (Qabasin Martyrs) Battalions:  Most of their fighters are from the northern countryside of Aleppo.  They joined the al-Bab Military Council.

Jabhat Thuwwar al-Raqqah (Raqqah Revolutionaries Front):  Arab fighters who belong to the city of al-Raqqah.

Dayr al-Zur Military Council:  Most of their fighters are Arab tribesmen from Dayr al-Zur.

Al-Bab Military Council:  A mixture of Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen fighters from the city and countryside of al-Bab.

Jarablus Military Council:  Mixture of Arab and Kurdish fighters from the city and countryside of Jarablus.

SDF Counter-Terrorism Military Activity

Since their establishment on 10 October 2015 the SDF have participated in numerous military campaigns against the ISIS terrorist organization, according to the following timeframe:

Liberation of al-Hul and the southern countryside of al-Hasakah Province.

Liberation of the strategic Tishrin Dam.

“Wrath of al-Khabur” campaign during which the city of al-Shadadi was liberated.

“Avenging the children, Alan and Judi” campaign.

Liberation of the strategic city of Manbij.

“Euphrates Wrath” campaign to liberate the countryside of al-Raqqah (ongoing).

As of the date of this study the total area controlled by the SDF, which includes the Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo, is estimated to be 34.800 square kilometers, which equals 18.79 percent of the total territory of Syria.

As of the date of this study, the total area liberated from ISIS by the SDF since their inception is estimated to be 15.400 square kilometers.  These areas include large cities such as Manbij, Tal Abyad, al-Hul, dozens of sub-districts and towns, and hundreds of villages and farms.

Regarding the length of the battlefront, as of the date of this study the SDF are engaged against ISIS along 450 kilometers of front lines.

The SDF control vast areas of north and northeast Syria, and day by day they are turning into the largest military group in Syria – with regard to personnel and the capabilities that distinguish their fighters.  Most of the SDF’s military factions received military training provided by the People’s Protection Units, which are known for their military tactics and capabilities, and the bravery of their fighters.  These units have proven their ability to achieve victory, be that against a regular army such as the Syrian Army, or in guerilla warfare against the Nusrah Front and ISIS.

By tracking the deployment of the SDF throughout vast geographic areas of Syria, one will observe an increase in the number of personnel in their ranks, particularly with an influx of Arab tribesmen in the countryside of al-Raqqah, Manbij, Dayr al-Zur, and Jarablus.

This increase in the number of fighters is due to multiple factors from which the SDF have benefited, the most important of which are as follows:

One of those significant factors is the structure of the SDF and their reliance on the military councils in each region or city.  These military councils are formed by their own people and they fight under a special flag representing the city or region.  This is a strong motivation for the residents of these areas and cities to join the SDF.  The Manbij Military Council, which was formed on 2 April 2016, is an example of these military councils.

There are also public relations offices that report directly to the SDF’s command council in the cities and towns liberated by the SDF.  The public relations personnel mingle with local residents and listen to their opinions and complaints.  They also hold SDF personnel accountable for any violations committed against the local residents.  The public relations offices are usually staffed by tribal Sheikhs or prominent figures in the areas.

I add to that the operational and field comparison as revealed by the local residents in areas where SDF are deployed.  Most of the cities liberated by the SDF, such as al-Hul, Manbij, and al-Shadadi, were occupied by other armed groups, beginning with the Free Army and the Nusrah Front, and ending with ISIS.  These groups gave the local residents a taste of all types of oppression and bondage, which is quite the opposite under SDF control.

Part of the SDF’s strategy includes turning the cities over to local civilian councils after each city is liberated from ISIS.  The local councils, in turn, form autonomous administrations comprised of residents of their own cities.  The SDF turned the city of Manbij over to the Manbij civilian council currently running the city.  The Manbij civilian council announced a democratic civilian administration for Manbij and the surrounding countryside on 20 February 2017.  In addition to that, the support provided by the US-led international coalition to the SDF provides an additional incentive for local residents to join the SDF.

The SDF rely on ideological training for their fighters before they participate in military action.  Academies exist throughout the areas of al-Hasakah, Manbij, and the al-Raqqah countryside, and the ideological lessons focus on denouncing extremism and espousing the concept of “brotherhood of the peoples,” which is based on justice, tolerance, and equality.

The leadership role of women in the SDF

The Women’s Protection Units are a primary component of the SDF.  Most of the women are Kurdish, but there is also a mixture of Arab, Syriac, and Assyrian women.  The foundations upon which these female units were established are based on denouncing the mentality of extremism and emphasizing the right of women to live freely and honorably, and to defend themselves against the masculine mentality hostile to women’s freedom.  The Kurdish women have proven very capable in their awareness and strength in confronting the terrorist organizations, and they provided an example to be followed throughout the world.  With the establishment and expansion of the SDF in majority-Arab areas such as al-Shadadi and the countryside of al-Raqqah, it was natural that the women’s pioneering experiment would also expand within the Arab regions.  This was evidenced by the increase in the number of Arab women within the ranks of the SDF.  Female fighter and official spokeswoman for the “Euphrates Wrath” campaign to liberate al-Raqqah, Jihan Shaykh Ahmad, provided the following statement for our study:

“The composition of the SDF’s Women’s Protection Units is not limited to Kurdish women alone, but also includes other female components, particularly Arab women.  They join our units with extreme enthusiasm and at numbers that continue to grow as the SDF advance toward al-Raqqah.  Our SDF military campaigns are accompanied by large awareness campaigns among the local residents, especially among the Arab women who have been suppressed by obsolete customs and traditions that oppose women’s freedom, as well as the suffering endured by Arab women at the hands of extremist organizations.  We have special women’s awareness academies that explain women’s rights, equality between man and woman, and the right of women to organize and defend themselves.  One of the main reasons Arab women join the SDF is the oppression, assault, and rape suffered by Yazidi women, which encouraged a great amount of free will in the Arab woman.  The Arab tribes are very supportive of these ideas.”

The ethnic composition of the SDF is related in all aspects to the liberation operations carried out by these forces. This important point completely refutes the lies propagated by factions or regional countries hostile to the SDF, which claim that the SDF are majority-Kurdish forces aspiring to occupy Arab regions or change their demographics.  In this context Brigadier General Husam al-‘Awak, Chief of Public Relations in the SDF’s Command Council, provided the following statement for our study:  “The SDF were founded on 10 October 2015.  Their primary structure relied on a coalition of all components found within the Syrian al-Jazirah region – Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Turkmen, and Assyrians.  The Kurdish component comprised the largest percentage of the SDF due to the fact that the areas liberated from the ISIS terrorist organization are majority-Kurdish areas, particularly the areas of Kobani.  However, with the advance of the SDF, and with support from the US-led international coalition, the forces were able to liberate a large number of Arab areas, which led to a large number of Arabs joining the ranks of the SDF.  The political cover (the Syria Democratic Council) for these forces was formed and they presented their political, social, and humanitarian ideas within the vision of a future in which all of the components participate in an inclusive social contract of the theory of a democratic nation, brotherhood of the people, and coexistence to achieve freedom and democracy for the people of the region, without ethnic, sectarian, or tribal discrimination.  After the council was formed and the people learned about the vision for the future, prominent figures and Arab tribal Sheikhs of the areas went to the headquarters of the Syria Democratic Council and they asked to have their sons and daughters join the council just as they were doing with the SDF by participating in the fight to eliminate ISIS.  Training camps were opened and anyone with military experience worked as a trainer, and anyone with no military experience was trained by Kurdish and Arab trainers.  Arab tribes based in ISIS-controlled areas were contacted, and during this communication secret cells were formed to provide the SDF with information and to work covertly with them.  We in the SDF Command Council believe that the size of the Arab component, specifically the sons of the Arab tribes, will reach 50 percent of the SDF within the next two months.  And from here everyone must know that our forces have become a primary pillar and center of the Syrian National Army, and that high-profile support to these forces will provide the time and blood to eliminate terrorism and build an excellent relationship with all nations, based on achieving shared interests for the peoples of the region.”

In a statement made on 8 December 2016, Colonel John Dorian, the official spokesman for the US-led international coalition, confirmed that approximately 13,000 of the 45,000 SDF fighters make up the Arab component.

Based on the above information, it may be said that the cohesive organizational structure of the SDF, the competence of their fighters on the ground, the democratic concepts espoused within the organization, and their denouncement of hate and revenge when they turned liberated areas over to the civilian councils, have made the SDF a leading force when measured against all of the other armed groups fighting in Syria, most of which are dominated by Islamic or chauvinistic extremism.  All of this has made the SDF a target for many of the foreign and domestic parties opposed to, or supportive of the Syrian regime, particularly the political and military groups and countries linked to Turkey and Iran, which fear any democratic model based on historical community diversity and the right of the people to decide their own fate; a model with complex internal community issues that refuses to resolve them through suppression of its people.  The Kurdish cause is one of the biggest suppressed causes historically subjected to all types of ethnic and political cleansing in Iran and Turkey, especially since the Kurdish fighters are among the most established and effective groups within the SDF.

Turkey and the SDF

Turkey does not hide its hostility toward the SDF.  On the contrary, it openly declares its hostility as it engages in the Syrian crisis.  Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict Turkey has stymied the Kurdish military and political developments in Syria (Rojava, Kurdistan), because if the Kurds in Syria get their national rights, then the more than 25,000,000 Kurds in Turkey will be stirred up.  From early on in the Syrian revolution Turkey has taken preemptive steps by supporting Syrian Arab armed groups for the purpose of engaging in battles against the Kurdish forces.  This is clearly evidenced by Turkey’s support for the Ahrar al-Sham and Nusrah Front groups in the battles of Ra’s al-‘Ayn on the Syria-Turkey border.  That support was obvious when photos of those groups crossing the Syria-Turkey border were posted on social media.  It was no secret to anyone.  After failing to control the city of Ra’s al-‘Ayn (Sarikani), Turkish intelligence resorted to gathering young men from Dayr al-Zur, al-Raqqah, and al-Hasakah, into refugee camps in Turkey, and they worked on winning over the tribes and prominent Arab figures from the aforementioned areas, with the goal of forming parallel military forces hostile to the Kurds in Rojava.  These parallel forces would be a future alternative to international coalition forces in possible upcoming battles against ISIS in cities such as al-Raqqah and Dayr al-Zur.  This coincided with the decreased influence of ISIS and increased influence of the People’s Protection Units.

The announcement made by the SDF regarding its efforts in the countryside of al-Hasakah and al-Raqqah, to form armed brigades comprised of tribesmen from al-Hasakah and the countryside of al-Raqqah, delivered a decisive blow to Turkey’s plan to utilize the tribesmen in those areas, especially after the United States of America, Turkey’s NATO ally and leader of the international coalition, supported the project.

It goes without saying that the progress made on the SDF’s project, and support for this project from the international coalition, will reduce Turkey’s chances of realizing their aspirations in SDF-controlled areas, and will gradually weaken Turkey’s hopes for gaining field control – through the use of subordinate groups – over areas in the countryside of al-Hasakah, Dayr al-Zur, and al-Raqqah.  All of that pushed Turkey to make a decision to intervene directly in Jarablus to stop the advance of the Kurds toward ‘Afrin, especially after these forces liberated the city of Manbij.  This is in addition to Turkey’s ongoing undeclared war against those forces, as Turkey continues to fight the SDF and seeks to eliminate the SDF through a number of methods:

Turkey does not recognize the SDF, nor do they recognize the name “Syria Democratic Forces,” in their official correspondence or their media.  They link the SDF to the People’s Protection Units which, in turn (according to Turkey), are a product of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party which, according to NATO and the EU, is designated as a terrorist organization.  This subject may be the primary subject of Turkish diplomacy, linking the SDF to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and demanding that the international coalition, particularly the United States of America, cut off the support and thwart the SDF project.

Turkey intentionally misconstrues the SDF project, labeling the SDF as separatist forces aiming to displace Arabs and change the demographics in areas where they are deployed.  Turkey also relies on the Syrian opposition, which is loyal to Turkey, to portray the SDF as forces loyal to the Assad regime within the Syrian society, which would cut the SDF out of any negotiations in which the armed factions participate to determine the future of Syria, or any ceasefire negotiations.

Turkey may resort to a policy of breaking up the brigades and armed factions under the umbrella of the SDF, by planting agents and exploiting financial motivations to persuade SDF members to defect.

Turkey also resorted to assassination operations targeting prominent SDF leadership.  The SDF accused Turkish agents of assassinating the commander of the Jarablus Military Council, ‘Abd-al-Sattar al-Jadir, on 22 August 2016.

In addition, there is the possibility of an assault on Manbij City by factions supported by Turkey (Euphrates Shield factions), to create sufficient space for any future safe areas.

Position of Iran and the Syrian Regime regarding the SDF

It is not hidden from anyone following the Syrian matter the extent of Iranian power and influence over the decisions made on the strategy in Syria, specifically with relation to the Kurds in Syria. Iran’s situation is the same as in Turkey. The Iranians are afraid of the Kurdish expectations and their impact on the internal situation in Iran.  Kurdish nationals represent one of the largest groups in Iran.  Their expectations and hopes will increase and it will impact Iran (eastern Kurdistan).

With the Kurds’ role in Syria growing and their community efforts to form political and military organizations by announcing autonomous administration in the areas of Rojava, Iran realized the danger of the situation and immediately made a decision to limit the Kurdish growth in Syria by starting to create tribal Arab militias, especially in al-Hasakah Province (al-Jazirah).

However, Shia Iran will have difficulties organizing the Arabs tribes, which are Sunni. These tribes have connections to tribes in Iraq that have complained of poor treatment at the hands of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).

For Iran to establish these militias in Syria, specifically in areas under the influence of Kurdish forces, and to overcome the sectarian obstacles, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard began plucking the strings of Arab nationalism by forming these militias as an option to overcome the classic obstacles that they have (i.e, religious / Shia). In fact, in 2013 Iran began to form these militias by relying on the Syrian Security Service and Lebanese Hizballah officers. Iran took advantage of the presence of the Syrian regime in certain security quadrants of al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli, to be used as a foundation to form these militias.

Iran provided these groups and the military factions with resources, Hizballah members trained them, and Syrian Intelligence (National Defense and the commando militia) monitored them. The groups then faced strong opposition from Kurdish forces until the situation escalated to confrontation and street fighting in al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli. The “Kurdish units” crushed them until there was nothing was left but a semblance of a presence in the security quadrants.

After the liberation of Tal Hamis and Tal Barak by the People’s Protection Units, the issues began to flow in a direction contrary to that which Tehran and their tools wanted. The young Arab men from the tribes in those areas began to join the People’s Protection Units and the recruitment increased with the announcement of the establishment of the SDF. That pushed Iran to coordinate with the Syrian regime, with support from Hizballah officers, to engage in new efforts by gathering tribal leaders and Arab tribal figures, and using the phrase “liberation of the Arab Rif” (Arab countryside) to refer to areas of the al-Hasakah countryside. These calls did not receive widespread Arab tribal support, for a number of reasons, primarily due to the fact that the Kurdish units worked well with locals, and because most Arab Sheikhs in the area were opposed to this project.  This pushed the Syrian regime services to impose the draft on young men and employees of government institutions. Even this initiative was rejected by democratically autonomous security services, specifically the internal security service (Asayish), leading to some skirmishes with the Syrian regime in al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli.

Despite the complete failure of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in establishing these militias in the countryside of al-Hasakah, they are still doing everything they can to establish a Sunni tribal military force in agreement with the Syrian Regime, which is expected to seek to enforce its authority on the Kurdish areas once the internal fronts in Syria have calmed down.  For the past two years, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard worked on forming militias comprised of young men from Dayr al-Zur Province with direct assistance from the Syrian regime. The purpose of these militias is to liberate Dayr al-Zur and Tadmur (Palmyra) with cooperation from the Iraqi PMF, which announced on more than one occasion its willingness to enter Syrian territory. On 16 November 2016 the Secretary General of the Iraqi Badr Organization, Mr. Hadi al-‘Amiri, said on that the Iraqi PMF had received a request from the Syrian president to enter Syrian territory after liberating Mosul from ISIS.

On the other hand, the formation of the SDF, and its advance deep into Arab tribal areas in the countryside of al-Hasakah, al-Raqqah, and Dayr al-Zur, along with wide-scale acceptance of these forces from the tribal members, posed a direct threat to the Iranian project.  The area into which the SDF is advancing, and militarily and organizationally controlling, is land where, presumably, the Iraqi PMF and the militias formed by Iran in the countryside of al-Raqqah and Dayr al-Zur will meet.  We refer here to areas on the Iraq-Syria border.  This will mean that the Iranian scheme as we outlined above will fail.

The SDF recently announced the formation of the Dayr al-Zur Military Council, which falls under the umbrella of the SDF.  On 17 February 2017, this new military council liberated the first villages in Dayr al-Zur Province beginning at the administrative borders of al-Hasakah Province.  This military council gained thousands of young tribesmen from Dayr al-Zur in record time due to the good reputation of the SDF among the local residents.  This is due to the fact that the local military councils in each province are led by their own people and they fight under their own flag, with support from the US-led international coalition.  These are all incentives for the local (Sunni) community in Dayr al-Zur Province to join the ranks of the SDF and reject the Iran-backed Shia militias.  In this manner, the SDF will be located on the ground at the land bridge which Iran wants to build between Iraq and Syria through Dayr al-Zur, Tadmur (Palmyra), and the Homs regions bordering Lebanon, where Lebanese Hizballah is located.

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Muslim: ‘No written agreements, just kept promises’ between US, Russia and Kurds

PYD Co-leader Salih Muslim

In an interview with ANF news agency, Democratic Union Party (PYD) Co-leader Salih Muslim said that a victory in Raqqa was important for the safety of Rojava as the war would be pushed away from the borders of the autonomous region and the people of Raqqa will be free from the Islamic State (IS).

“Our democratic federal system will encompass an even greater area and the people of Raqqa are welcome to become a part of it, if they wish to do so,” the co-leader said, adding that about 75% of the forces participating in the Raqqa operation were composed of people from the area.

The Syrian-Kurdish politician did not believe that the Islamic State would end after the capture of Raqqa but that they would spread out in small groups into the countryside. He also said that other groups, such as some of those backed by Turkey, have the same mentality. “So it does not end with Mosul and Raqqa but the struggle will take on a new form,” Muslim said.

Muslim also said Turkey posed the greatest threat to the region and as Turkey’s government is becoming all the more lonely it is also becoming more aggressive.

“Turkey is an occupying force in Shahba”, the region under control by the Euphrates Shield Operation. Turkey came there under the pretext to fight Daesh [IS] but they are not there anymore, nor is the Syrian regime. This makes Turkey an invader. Syrians should rule Syria, not Turkey. Turkey’s role in Syria is not met with any support on the international arena so there is a good chance that Russia and the US will oppose their presence and eventually ask them to leave.”

Muslim added that Turkey and its allies were constantly shelling the Kurdish-majority north-eastern city of Afrin. “The Cilvegoz border gate close to Afrin is the place where they cross from. The Etme camp where al-Nusra is being trained is located nearby. Many different groups are in the area and sometimes they fight amongst each other. The Russians want to fight these groups and are in Afrin for this reason. We want to clear the area of these groups too, so we agree on this point.”

Salih Muslim said there were no written agreements with neither the US nor with Russia but that all parts had kept promises so far.

“Moscow has mediated between us and the regime. Our issue is not the remaining or removal of the regime, our issue is democracy. If we will have democracy and a federal system, there won’t be any regime anyway,” Muslim said. “We aim for a democratic federal Syria. We don’t want Syria to be divided and neither do they [the other powers we work with]. We want to remain a part of Syria and on this point we are in agreement with the international powers.”

The co-leader said that the mentality of the regime had not changed. “It is still the same as that of Turkey and Iran,” he said. “They don’t accept the Kurds so it’s impossible to live under a regime with such a mentality.”

In and around Manbij there are regime troops and Russian troops as well as the Manbij Military Council that is working with the US, Muslim explained. “No one is interfering with the other so it seems as if they understand each other.”

Regarding the US, he stressed the importance of NATO saying that the Kurds are aware that the US might terminate their relations with them due to interests with Turkey.

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Open letter from British YPG fighters on London attacks

An Open Letter from British Fighters Against the Islamic State

We are some of an increasing number of British nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq as volunteers with local forces against the Islamic State.

We wish first and foremost to express our sorrow and anger at the recent terrorist attack in Westminster, London, and to convey our sincerest and most heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We know only too well what is to lose friends, to treat those horrendously wounded, to pull the dead and dying from the rubble.

We also wish to express sympathy and solidarity with the many ordinary Muslims going to work and school today feeling that they are under special scrutiny, and fearful of what this might mean for them. We share their fear, and we urge anyone who might be tempted to take against ordinary Muslim people to think again. If you associate them with the Islamic State, you are giving such groups exactly what they want: a greater and more violent gap between the Muslim world and ours.

The familiar sounds of hate and bigotry are sounding again – on social media, and in the more guarded mainstream press – where the intent is nonetheless clear. Hate crimes will spike again. There are calls to demolish mosques. The fact that local Muslims raised thousands for victim support, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, is easily drowned out by the bandwagon. The EDL have called a snap demonstration, eager to make hay from the suffering of innocent people.

For all the sound and fury, we don’t remember seeing anyone from Britain First, EDL, UKIP, or their like, by our side in battle. Which is a good thing, because we wouldn’t have tolerated them.

Our ranks are made up of Kurds, Arabs, Yezidis, Brits, Yanks, Canadians, Aussies, Asians, Europeans – Muslims, Christians, Alevis, atheists – too many faiths and races to list. A multi-ethnic, multi-faith entity, standing united against hate and extremism. The majority are, in fact, Muslims, and not only are we proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them – the truth is, we can’t do this without them.

The only way to defeat the Islamic State, and groups like it, is with ordinary, moderate Muslims on side. The only way to defeat hate and extremism is to not give in to it.

Don’t stand with Britain First, the EDL, UKIP or those who talk and think like them. Stand with us.

Signed,

British fighters of the YPG

Joe Akerman

Aiden Aslin

Mark Ayres

Botan England

Michael Enright

Macer Gifford

John Harding

Jac Holmes

Steve Kerr

Jim Matthews

Tom Mawdsley

Ozkan Ozdil

Shaun Pinner

Joe Robinson

Josh Walker

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Here is an interesting an vivid account by a free-lance Russian journalist which highlights some of the problems in Rojava as well as presenting a vivid account of life there.

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This is a translation of a Russian article by Alexander Rybin, published on Rabkor.ru on 26th March, 2015

Days of Uprising

Day 1

The canton Jazira [Cizîrê‎ / Cezîre] of the autonomous enclave Rojava is located in the north-eastern corner of Syria. It borders Turkey to the north and Iraqi Kurdistan to the east. In the south-west there is the frontline with the area controlled by the Islamic califate [ISIS]. In February 2015, large-scale fighting began on the southern front. It is still going on now.

To enter Jazira from Iraqi Kurdistan, it is necessary to obtain a permit from the government of Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG). This is a tiring, viscous procedure. As a journalist, the KRG embassy in Moscow helped me. All promises made by the Kurds in Moscow who are connected to Rojava and the official representation of Rojava in Sulaymaniya turned out to be mere words. I arrive on the border from where I phone the Muscovite representatives of Iraqi Kurdistan. I have to wait three hours, but I am still not let through.

The border crossing takes you across the great Mesopotamian river Tigris. The passengers squeeze themselves into a flimsy metal barge and are brought to the other shore. On the other side, there are two modest buildings under construction. Around them there are building materials, rubbish and dust. No stamps or visas are put into your passport on arrival in the canton Jazira. They give you a piece of paper with some fields filled in about who you are and when you arrived.
I take a minibus and go to Qamishlo [Qamishli / Al-Qamishli], the biggest city of the canton. There are dozens of oil pumps along the road. Hilly fields covered with fresh, green grass with oil pumps sticking out like crooked nails. When you look a second time you realise very few of them are moving. Only a small number are functioning.

There is roadblock along the road with the Asayish, militants that fulfil the role of police. They take a look at the passengers, but don’t even check documents, then they wave us through.

Qamishlo. I turn to the Union of Free Journalists (“Rakhandina Azad“). All newly arrived foreign journalists come here. The chair of the organisation, Masud Muhammad, proposes to be my host.
I have time to look at the city itself only briefly. My first impression is that it looks poor and unkempt. A lot of closed shops, potholed roads and piles of rubbish. The flags of the People’s Defense Units – the female YPJ and the male YPG forces – stand out like bright dots here and there: yellow triangles with red stars.

Masud’s house has an inner courtyard in the shape of a square. The atmosphere is like that in a press centre. There are local journalists as well as foreign ones. Laptops, iPhones and all sorts of other devices are switched on. They discuss how much it costs to hire a car to take you to the frontline and how close the YPJ and YPG allow you to get to the actual fighting. “I need to get to the actual line where the Islamic State and the Kurds meet. I want to film an attack, some actual fighting”, says one Spanish journalist. His backpack with the body armour and helmet lie on a wall. French journalists want to talk with foreign volunteers who fight on the side of the YPG. The local press photographers are young. They show us the bodies of the ISIS fighters that were killed today in the area around the town Tell Tamer [Tal Tamir / Girê Xurma]. Turkeys and chicken are clucking and cackling in the courtyard of the neighbour’s house. The sun rolls behind the horizon – an emerald ribbon spreads across the sky.

We talk until late at night. I explain to Masud that I am interested in the machinations of the political and civil organisations here, and that I would like to understand the structure of the governing system on its different levels. I would also like to see how ordinary people live their lives in cities and villages, and I wish to do this on my own steam. Masud says, “No, we cannot allow this, you would put yourself in danger. We will help you with everything.” He tells me the story of a young journalist from Sweden who was taken into custody by members of the Syrian secret service. The Syrian armed forces are present in some parts of Qamishlo. The local Kurd Agit, who is a Russian speaker, told me that it was the Swede’s own fault. He photographed Syrian soldiers and provoked his arrest.

The noise of a low-flying war plane thunders through the sky. A discussion starts about whose plane this is – a plane of the official Syrian army or of the coalition headed by the United States, which bombs the positions of the Islamic califate.

Day 2

Two cities fulfil the functions of capital of the area – Qamishlo and Amûdê [Amuda / Amouda]. The administrative institutions of the Jazira Canton lie in Amudê. I head there early in the morning – more precisely, I am sent there: they put me in a car together with someone from the Union of Free Journalists to accompany me.

On the way my companion explains that today I will be able to get an interview with at least the vice chair of the Executive Council of Jazira. It’s 28 kilometres from Qamishlo to Amudê. The population of Qamishlo is more than 200,000. In Amudê there are only 30,000 inhabitants.

We arrive. Now, the employees of the media-centre here assist me at the Executive Council of Rojava. They speak English tolerably well. It becomes clear that Amudê is functioning temporarily as the administrative centre of Rojava, while the specialised building in Qamishlo is still under construction. Here, the Executive and Judicial Councils are located in a building that looks like a gigantic Rubik’s cube. The banner on the facade and the armed guards at the entrance advertise the special status of this building. In the building under construction on the other side of the street, the offices of some of the committees of the Executive Council are located, as well as the media centre. I see naked walls and sacks with cement on the roof, other building materials and stray rubbish. There is nothing about the structure of the building that would indicate it houses government facilities. On the inside, the room which the employees of the media centre occupy is tiny, the little space they have is cluttered with tables that are drawn close to each other, an empty cupboard on one side and a single, small window. There is an atmosphere akin to an interrogation chamber.

I ask about the details of the political system in Rojava in general and in Jazira in particular. All my “assistants” are younger than 30. Today is the first work day in the media centre for all of them. They don’t understand the local governing system in detail themselves. They discuss things between each other as they try to answer all my questions. A woman called Berivan, who speaks English better than the rest, concludes, “You had better ask the vice chair of the Executive Council of the canton, he can tell you in detail.”

That very vice chair is Dr. Hussein Azam. There are two vice chairs, a man and a woman. There is only one president of the council, who is Kurdish. The vice presidents are Hussein Azam, who is Arab, and a woman who is an Assyrian Christian. In the Judicial Council there are two presidents, a man and a woman; a Kurd and an Assyrian. The functions of the Executive Council of Jazira are administrative. The functions of the Judicial Council should be clear from its name.

There are a lot of young people inside the building of the councils; the employees wear whatever they found in their closets in the morning. The representatives of the older generation are dressed like typical Russian functionaries, boring jackets and trousers of pale colours. The offices are also very similar to provincial Russian bureaucracy: simple chairs and tables, cupboards with binders of documents. Let me remark though, that there are no portraits of leaders, not of Abdullah Öcalan or anyone else, which is the main difference with Russian functionaries and their servility to higher ranks. The signs in the building are in three languages: Kurdish; Arabic and Syriac, the three main languages of the canton.

We talk with Hussein Azam. He is over 50 and an intellectual with a technical education. He explains that they are now in a transitional period in Rojava. The system that was in action during the past two years is only temporary. Next Friday, four days later, there will be elections for the local councils, both in the cities and in the countryside. In one month there will be the elections of the councils at canton level. In two months there will be elections for the parliament of the whole enclave (the parliament does not have a name yet; once formed, the deputies will decide on it themselves). The parliament will consist of 101 delegates, with 40 places for women, 40 for men, and another 21 for whoever gets the most votes, regardless of gender. There must be at least ten Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians, respectively. “Every population group must be represented in the parliament,” says Hussein Azam. Kurds, Assyrians and Arabs are the main self-defined ethnic groups in Rojava. A curious detail is that there cannot be less than 40 female deputies. There can, however, be less than 40 men. Candidates can be members of political parties or not. Just as with the council elections, affinities with political parties or absence thereof count for nothing.

In the evening I go for a walk through the city with Saami, one of my helpers and translators. Amudê is a small city. The buildings are low and there are a lot of old houses. There is a lot less rubbish here than in Qamishlo. On the outskirts of the town there are traditional Kurdish adobe houses with flat roofs. Children run through the streets, old men are sitting businesslike on chairs in front of their houses. At the town entrance coming from Qamishlo, a monument to the “Free Woman” was put up only one day ago in the place where a statue of Hafiz al-Assad (the former president of Syria, father of the current president Bashar al-Assad) had been brought down. The woman has an imposing posture, similar to the American Statue of Liberty; her right hand raised to hold a torch.

A pavilion has been set up in the centre of the small town. Men and women sit on plastic chairs inside and just outside of it. They chatter languidly. It’s a meeting of the candidates for the local council. They gather here in the evenings, so that anyone interested can come and ask them whatever they like, be it about their programme or their personal ideas: electioneering, Rojava style. The council members will be elected for four years. There will be four polling stations in Amudê, which will be located in schools. It’s not clear yet in which ones. The inhabitants of the city will only know where they’ll need to go one or two days before voting.

The 22 people who receive most votes (half men, half women) will make up the city council.
The members of these councils will not participate in either the Executive or the Judicial Councils, but will cooperate with the population of Amudê ,and if the need arises will appeal to the Executive and Judicial Councils at canton level.

It’s night. There are no problems with electricity in Amudê, it’s lit like a Christmas tree. Generators roar around the clock. A litre of fuel (home-made, there are no refineries in the canton) costs 60 Syrian liras [SYP]. The exchange rate with dollars here is 240 liras a dollar. Only 20% of all oil pumps are working, but this is more than enough to meet the needs of the local population. However, the locals complain that the hand-refined fuel causes the generators to break down frequently.

Day 3

I now understand how the local councils work at on municipality level and in the villages. Following the example of the council in Amudê there will be a council of 22 people, but the council will not hold any executive power here. Its members will elect two chairs, a man and a woman. On the municipal level there will not be a governing administration (if using local terminology “executive administrations”), this role will be fulfilled at canton level by the executive and law-making councils. The current memberships of these councils were composed through agreements reached between the various ethnic and religious communities living in Jazira. In about two months (maybe earlier, maybe later, the exact dates have not been determined yet), elections for the General Council of Jazira Canton will be held. In essence, a similar system has already been created and already functions. It’s important to note that this is a “similar” system and not exactly what is aimed for, and its elements so far are seen as temporary. The elections shall fix and stabilise the multi-layered system of councils in Jazira. The same type of elections will also be organised in the Kobanê and Afrîn cantons.

In the near future, elections will be held. “When was the last time elections happened on the territory of Jazira?”, I ask Elizabeth Gaurie, who is Assyrian and the vice chair of the Executive Council of the canton. “More than four years ago. They were elections for the Syrian parliament,” she answers, “But last summer, when Rojava was still under the control of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, presidential elections were held in Qamishlo and in Hasakeh [Al-Hasakah / Hesîçe]. That time, 89% of voters allegedly voted for Bashar al-Assad. Of course it was a lie. Bashar al-Assad’s regime caused a lot of grief for the locals. I don’t know who in Qamishlo even participated in those elections.”

The Syrian government and its army are exclusively named as “the regime“ here. Either just “the regime” or “the regime of Bashar”, or “the Syrian regime”.