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

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”.