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

30/06/2017 – 09:22 0

INTERNATIONAL FREEDOM BATALLION

“Rojava Revolution also makes a global revolution possible”

 

BÖG fighter İmera Fereya Yeşilgöz: “We do not consider the Raqqa Operation as disconnected from the AKP’s fascism. Every blow we deliver here, and every single gang member we kill here, is at heart a blow to the ISIS gangs nested in Turkey and the world.”

The Operation to liberate Raqqa led by the People’s Defense Units (YPG), Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continues. Many different forces embedded within the SDF are taking part in the operation. One of these forces is the International Freedom Battalion, which harbours many revolutionary and socialist organisations. Among those is also the BÖG (United Freedom Forces).

BÖG fighter İmera Fereya Yeşilgöz answered ANF’s questions regarding their mission in Raqqa and The Raqqa Operation as a whole.

Yeşilgöz stated that the Rojava Revolution at the same time enables a world revolution, having led to a revival also among Turkey’s leftist groups. Regarding the Operation to liberate Raqqa Yeşilgöz said: “We do not consider the Raqqa Operation as disconnected from the AKP’s fascism. In fact, every blow we deliver here, and every single gang member we kill here, is at heart a blow to the ISIS gangs nested in Turkey and the entire world”, calling on all oppressed people and workers to join their ranks.

“WE HAVE FIGHTERS FROM CHINA TO DENMARK”

Since when is the International Freedom Battalion taking part in the struggle in Rojava?

The United Freedom Forces (BÖG) has been founded three years ago. In those years it took part in the struggle in many areas like Southern and Northern Kurdistan, as well as in Rojava. As for Rojava, it is part of the International Freedom Battalion.

The International Freedom Battalion itself has been founded two years ago, and since then is participating actively in the operations against ISIS in Rojava.

The International Freedom Battalion describes itself as part of the struggle in Rojava and the Middle East, on the other side it characterizes itself as being internationalist, what has led to some dispute. If it is a part of this struggle, then why calling itself ‘internationalist’?

If we do not deem parts of these lands the very sphere of our own struggle, or let’s say if a cross over from Efrîn will lead to a bomb attack in Antakya or the gangs here are provided with by logistic trucks coming from Turkey, then the struggle we have joined here is also tackling and combating the backward mentality of the country we originate from, and we can not content ourselves with limiting it merely to the concept of internationalism. This is what we can say about our stance at least.

Also among ourselves have we opened the concept of internationalism up for dicsussion. If we do deem parts of these lands the very sphere of our own struggle, or let’s say if a cross over from Efrîn will lead to a bomb attack in Antakya or the gangs here are provided with by logistic trucks coming from Turkey, then the struggle we have joined here is also tackling and combating the backward mentality of the country we originate from, and we can not content ourselves with limiting it merely to the concept of internationalism. This is what we can say about our stance at least.

This concept of internationalist freedom shelters in fact the notion of a global concept. That all revolutionist forces in this world and various organisations come together is truly a partnership of liberation forces, paving the way for the brotherhood of different peoples. The International Freedom Battalion has taken on such a mission. The mere fact that revolutionaries from other countries are joining the battle, evokes sympathy. Additionally, as we live in the Middle East, any progress developing here or revisionism taking hold will leave immediately an impact on Turkey or any other country of the Middle East. Yet this situation can also have influence on America, Spain and Europe. Because the International Freedom Battalion is regarded by the people and countries around the world as a legitimate movement, it faciliates the participation in the struggle a bit more.

The latest example is a Chinese comrade who recently joined us. They are coming from China, Denmark, England and lots of different places. And they all are members of the International Freedom Battalion. We have here also different structures and some independent, anarchist friends. We have friends who are not involved in broader groups. They are in fact very important in terms of being able to preserve their distinct originality and differences.

HOW HAS THE ROJAVA REVOLUTION AFFECTED TURKEY’S LEFT?

You are part of the Rojava Revolution since the very beginning. What mission have you shouldered in this revolution?

As much as the Rojava Revolution is a revolution of the oppressed people, we do not deem it disconnected from our socialist revolution. Because we even consider it a part of our own struggle, we are going into battle with such understanding. We do not regard ourselves to be merely a backup troop, but to be indeed a main military force. Yes, we are fighting within the YPG, however we do not see us only as a unit supporting the YPG but on the contrary directly as a force of the revolution engaged in a strategic consensus, and as such have we positioned ourselves.

Can one say that thanks to the Rojava Revolution Turkey’s revolutionist movement and the Turkey’s left has gained new momentum?

The Revolution of Rojava and the Middle East have taught us here at the same time that a global revolution is indeed possible. The quantitative layers of this revolution have become very much clear with the qualitative upswing of the Rojava Revolution. In this structuring within Turkey’s revolutionary movement that exists for so many years already, people were well aware of the fact that if they still do not find an answer for themselves during this process of actual revolution, fall once again apart and are not able to launch a re-formatting and do not take part in the revolution, it would have meant their demise once and for all. As the Rojava Revolution led to a re-organizing of all the peoples, also the Turkey’s left has found and organized itself anew.

Many organisations that stationed in Rojava with this new formation have treated the struggles of the oppressed peoples, women, youth, children as their very own struggle. We can basically put it this way: We are giving here a struggle for our own freedom. We are in fact a part of this great struggle. Being indifferent to the revolution on these grounds while sustaining a life nurtured by revolutionary concepts, will be nothing else than holding your distance to the revolutionary idea and consciousness itself. We are now in these lands of a factual living revolution, since we are in the clearest manner revolutionaries and soldiers of the revolution.”

THE OPERATION TO LIBERATE RAQQA

You are now taking part in the Operation to liberate Raqqa. Can you give us a short account of this operation’s importance?

After our founding, we partook in many different operations. Our objective is to export the experience we gather here first and foremost to Turkey and also to the rest of the world. Because we indeed managed to spread this revolution. We proceed very attentively and are fighting with the consciousness that we have the capability to add to this new formation taking place here, also unify it with other peoples, other oppressed peoples and other lands to the same degree as we can make it permanent here.

For this reason, we do not view the current Raqqa Operation as distinguished from the AKP fascism. With every blow we deliver to the gangs here, with every gang member we kill, the very substructure of the ISIS gangs in Turkey and the whole world suffer backlashes. The blow they suffer here is a blow delivered to the AKP in Turkey, -the biggest supporter of ISIS- and to the bombings carried out around the world.

To be precise, more than only backing them, the AKP has even founded them, as we are dealing with the exact same fascism. The massacres in Suruç and in Turkey have been perpetrated by ISIS. Also the massacre in Ankara was carried out again by ISIS. ISIS is actually threatening the whole world. And for that reason all the revolutionaries worldwide who head to Rojava are very proud to contribute to what is their own struggle and act according to this understanding. There is no such a thing like saying in the end that ‘Rojava is now completed’ or ‘Raqqa is over, we can now return to our own cause’ . Because there is in fact nothing like our own cause. There is a communist cause, we are communists and therefore it is the task of all communists and ours to struggle at any place where oppression and persecution exists. For that reason the war and struggle here is our war, and we continue our endeavors with this notion.

Since the start of the operation you have taken the lead in the fighting. You have also suffered losses. What kind of impact have you left on the Arabic community?

Since the start of the Operation to liberate Raqqa until now four of our comrades within the International Freedom Battalion have fallen martyrs. Doğan Kurefe, Mehmet Kurnaz, Ulaş Bayraktaroglu, Destan Temmuz and comrade Hasan Ali. The most recent losses were Destan Temmuz and Hasan Ali. We also have two gravely wounded comrades. For us the meaning of this operation is in plain view. We knew perfectly that the Raqqa Operation would be all but easy and that also we would pay with martyrs. Ulaş Bayraktaroglu was the founder and chief commander of the Revolutionary Communar Party (DKP) movement and also the other fallen comrades had leading positions in their fields, as did comrades Hasan Ali and Destan Temmuz, and this fact has strenghtened our struggle even more, while this struggle of ours has proven that leading forces are standing on the frontline at all times during the struggle. They became symbols in this aspect.

If we were in the cities, these losses might have demoralized us. But here an opposite situation is evolving. When receiving the news of their martyrdom, we can only keep them alive by materializing the energy and will of their struggle as much again. This is why the arms of the martyred comrades are still here, now taken up by other comrades. The martyrdom of our comrades can only be a source of strength for us.

We do not say these things out of emotion or agitation. In the face of all these martyrdoms, we want to stand at the frontlines of this war and partake in all operations, because there is also another significant point: our martyrs here have a profound impact on the Arab community. After the success of this operation or these lands get liberated, the names of our martyrs who fell here will be given to the next generation. We know that this people get to know us and our motivation. Some persons come and hand us over their keys, telling us to go and use their houses whenever we need. Some others show their discontent, saying ‘you are staying in our houses and we stay in tents’. One has to understand both these cases.

As we use the people’s homes here, it is important to make sure that they are staying somewhere else. This is not so easy. On the other hand we know that the women are kept like captives -so to speak- in those houses. Their homes are actually their prisons. We are actually fighting to turn these prisons of theirs into a true home. Once the campaign is over, we trust that the Arab community will also understand this struggle because while women can not even set a foot outside their homes and their laughter is banned to be heard by men -in line with the ISIS mentality- there are forces that are prepared to liberate them from such a life. We are sure that the people will one day understand these forces and with this in our minds we go into battle. Our comrades who fall martyrs are neither Kurds nor Arabs, they are all Turks. They sacrifice their lives for other peoples and we do know well that this fact will be recognized in the end.

Our struggle does not aim for seeking an identity, but we lead this struggle for the oppressed peoples. The freedom of the peoples living here is tantamount to the freedom of our own identity as well. Comrade Destan Temmuz has fought on behalf of the martyred comrades of Suruç, comrade Hasan Ali decided to join after the bombing in Ankara. And we know that also in Raqqa many others will join us as well.

We know that this fight will succeed and that there are other people who will share this belief and will and fight eagerly, too. For that reason we invite all oppressed peoples, workers, women and men alike to come and join our ranks.

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‘Turkey will not be able to occupy Afrin’, says YPG Commander Hemo

afrin
People’s Protection Units (YPG) Commander Sipan Hemo, speaking to Yeni Ozgur Politika, said that the existence of the Turkish state in Rojava-Syria is illegitimate and against the people there.

“In all ways the Turkish state is an occupying force. Nobody can close their eyes to this reality. The fact that its goal is the defeat of the Rojava Revolution does not change that fact.”

Hemo added that all the Rojava and Syrian people were expecting the US to explain the limits of the agreement and cooperation with the Turks.

YPG Commander Sipan Hemo answered questions about the attempted occupation of Afrin and Shehba, which the Turkish state has recently clearly expressed, and its quest for an agreement with Russia to achieve this.

The Turkish state and the gangs within it occupied the Jarablus-Bab-Azaz triangle, but after being blocked in Manbij and kept away from the Raqqa assault, it was not enough to intensify attacks on the lines of Shehba and Afrin. Can you tell us precisely what the Turkey is trying to do?

The Turkish state officially invaded the region from Jarablus to Exterin, from Exterin to Bab, and left the “Euphrates Shield” groups there. These groups were from the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) since the beginning of the Syrian war and they were ‘warriors’ against Syria first. Then they changed direction and began a war against the Rojava Revolution and Kurds. For this reason, they have concentrated on the Azaz and Shehba lines since then. Now they are sending in reinforcements here every day.

The Turkish state’s aims are complex and run deep; They are trying to launch an operation that starts from the Jarablus line to Shehba and Bab, from there an operation on Rojava to join all of it with Idlib. They want to establish an authority in this region that is officially run by the gangs but is actually the Turkish state. So, after strengthening sovereignty here, the Turkish state will continue its aim of liquidating the Rojava Revolution from Afrin line. At the same time, it will try to weigh in on Syria’s future and have a say in its restructuring. In other words, the desire, the target of the Turkish state and the plans accordingly depend on what it is doing now. It does not hide this. [Turkish officials] have clearly expressed the desire to join the region between Jarablus and Manbij to Idlib. Aleppo was also among these plans before, but after they agreed with Russia, Aleppo was left out. Now, there are plans to build a corridor towards Rojava from the Shehba line to Idlib.

We are expecting attacks on both Shehba and Afrin from Azaz and Idlib in order to weaken our powers in the coming period and to create a corridor and control from Jarablus to Idlib. They are sending in reinforcements and stacking munitions to achieve this. From time to time we are being attacked, and are responding instantly. All their attacks were repelled. There is no change in the field dominance until now.

Afrin has been under a kind of siege for a long time, nevertheless it has gone a long way in terms of both organising legitimate defence and society. How prepared is the whole social structure of Afrin; military and political institutions, relations and alliances for such an attack. What can you say about the composition and deployment of your military forces? 

Afrin, as you have mentioned, has long been under siege and experienced different levels of war. It’s been fighting like this almost since 2012. In this long term, our forces have both developed a serious defence and achieved valuable things. That such a power is careful, prepared and well placed for war is already an essential task. The people of Afrin are also very brave and not afraid of making sacrifices. Despite all the hardships, bother, siege and embargo, Afrin has displayed an honourable stance. There is also a determination to show a stance beyond even this. Our belief is that if the Turkish state attempts to invade Afrin today or intensifies its attacks the people of Afrin will stand beside the defence forces and support it. Turkey’s attempt will open the gates of a new era of success, contrary to the anticipation of our enemies. The Rojava Revolution will complete an important phase of the process. I want to emphasise this and nobody should forget it: Afrin will play a major role in both its own defence and the liberation of the Shehba. I will not go into details, but all our forces are ready at the highest level against any possibility.

The Baath regime and its allies have also shown discomfort regarding the offensive of the YPG-led SDF on Raqqa, which is being carried out with the support of the US-led International Coalition, and the slander turned into an attack. There are claims that this common discomfort with the Turks is also shared with Russia and Iran and that the Turkish army has been given tacit support for the occupation. How do you read this, what is the attitude of Russia-Iran-Baath?

This approach is correct and we see it the same way. The progression and successes of the SDF under the leadership of the YPG and support provided by the US-led International Coalition is naturally disturbing the other bloc. This is evident. Of course they are uncomfortable and this discomfort will continue. So it is possible for the Turkish state to lay the groundwork for new attacks and occupation attempts. Our alliances and accomplishments are disturbing the bloc formed around Russia. They are not happy with this.

This crisis will manifest itself more clearly in the forthcoming period.

Our problem or issue is not how these forces view each other or their approach to one another. Our project and actions for the democratisation of Rojava and Syria is open for all to see. We are working towards our own goals and in line with our own agenda. Therefore rather than focus on the agenda or projects of the US, Russia and other forces we focus on our own projects and actions. Because this is what is essential for us: our plans and goals. Our relationship with international powers is based on this. Our framework is Rojava’s freedom and Syria’s democratisation. Naturally, we have the right to expect respect and understanding from powerful states like the USA and Russia.

How much does the US, which is leading the International Coalition, know about Turkey’s maneouvers and what is it planning on doing in the event it is carried out?

The US, which is leading the International Coalition must answer this question openly and clearly. They are the ones who need to explain the boundaries of the relationship with the Turks, the preparations, the agreements and the cooperation, the frame, and the extent it is against us. Therefore, it is the expectation of all the peoples of Rojava and Syria that the respondent of this question answer it satisfactorily.

If we assume that all this is being done to prevent victory in Raqqa, how do you view this victory from Afrin and what will its effects be?

The success in Raqqa and ultimate victory there will not be local. It will begin a new and blessed process for all of Syria. It will play the role of forming the base for the democratisation of Syria. We have been thinking this since the liberation of Manbij. Our struggle against terrorism will continue everywhere. Our goal is not a secret, it is very clear: we are not doing what we are doing because we want to be just a part of Syria, on the contrary, it is to become the main / founding element of the democratisation of Syria.

Due to this stance, we don’t have much to say on scenarios based on covert, dirty cooperation between the international forces and the Turks. Our goals and methods, and the alliance based on these are highly transparent.

During Ramadan the Turkish President repeated that the Kurds would never be allowed recognition and a status. What other evils can be expected, where can your reaction against these evils evolve?

Our goal in this region is very clear and transparent. We do not accept any form of occupation of the Turkish state in this region. They may have acquired some facilities and formed international alliances. I underline that; We do not care for these alliances and do not recognise them. The liberation of the Azaz-Jarablus line will always be our goal and we will continue to struggle for this. From the beginning, the Turkish state took an illegitimate position against Rojava and Syria; their presence is against the peoples. The Turkish state is an occupying force. Nobody can close their eyes to this reality. The fact that its goal is the defeat of the Rojava Revolution does not change this fact.


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A trip to liberated Minbic in Northern Syria: from hell to paradise

About the author

Ercan Ayboga has worked in the town administration of Diyarbakir (Amed) and was co-coordinator of International Relations and heritage sites, including the urban Tigris River project. At the same time is active in the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, based in Turkish-Kurdistan. He is a co-author of Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in the Syrian Kurdistan (Pluto Press, 2016) which has been published also into German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and Greek.

The city of Minbic (Manbij) and its surroundings are among the most contested regions in the Syrian war. Ercan Ayboga interviewed representatives of the new Democratic Administration in Minbic.

A square in the liberated city of Minbic. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.It is getting more and more complicated here. Almost all parties at war are located in close proximity to this region in Northern Syria. Most notably the Turkish army, acting as an occupant, wants to take Minbic – an endeavour which, although announced by Turkish president Erdoğan, has so far failed due to the resistance of the local population, as well as the US and Russia.

The city of Minbic was liberated on August 12, 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, arabic: QSD), thus ending the “Islamic State’s” (ISIS) rule of more than two and half years. Shortly before the liberation offensive started, the Minbic Military Council had been set up on May 31, 2016 by the QSD under the leadership of the Kurdish People’s and Women’s Defense Units (YPG/YPJ). It exercises military control over the Minbic region, located about 100 kilometres southwest of Kobanê, which became known worldwide for its resistance. In autumn 2016, the Military Council handed over the region’s administration to the provisional Minbic Civic Council. Consisting of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Circassians, the Civic Council has renamed itself the Minbic Democratic Civilian Administration Council on March 12, 2017 and expanded in size in order to heighten its democratic legitimation.

The significance of Minbic derives not only from its geostrategic location in the Syrian context, but also from the political system which has been established there from August 2016, namely with the Minbic Democratic Civilian Administration Council which holds a very high democratic standard and is supposed to serve as a model for a new democratic Syria. This will be the focus of this interview which was conducted with the key representatives of the Democratic Administration’s legislative, among them the co-chairs Sozdar Xalit (Kurd) und Faruk Maschi (Arab), as well as Emel Bozgeyik (Turkmen), Muhamed Dolmusch (Turkmen), Muhamed Tarik (Circassian) und Abdo Mustafa (Kurd).

What kind of a city was Minbic before the war in Syria?

All: Until 2011, about eighty percent of Minbic’s population of roughly 100,000 were Arabs. However, more than ninety years ago the majority of the population had been Circassian. Shortly before the ongoing war, Kurds made up close to 15 percent, while Circassians and Turkmens together accounted for only about five percent of the overall population in Minbic. Several decades ago a small Armenian community had existed as well, which emigrated to Aleppo though.

Both commerce and agriculture have always been well developed in Minbic. Economically the city was in quite a good shape. The level of education is quite high as compared to the surrounding areas.

Maschi: The region’s 63 Arabic tribes convened regularly for many years and came to terms with the state, but in general did not actively support it. The two biggest tribes sent one deputy respectively to the Syrian parliament.

What was the period between the beginning of the Syrian uprising and war until shortly before ISIS’ rule like in Minbic?

All: The city of Minbic and its surroundings positioned themselves quickly against the Baath regime from spring 2011 onwards. But there were heated discussions on whether resistance should be peaceful or armed.

Members of the Democratic Self Government. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

Dolmusch: This discussion was held among Arabs as well as Turkmens. While the latter organised themselves peacefully initially, a lot of them quickly changed their mind when weapons, money and military training was pressed on by Turkey. Thus the Turkmen society was of two opinions.

Maschi: I, together with my tribe positioned myself against the regime, but rejected armed aggression. But many were in favour of them and the Arabs were of divided opinions. Hardly anyone was on the side of the regime.

All: From 2011, up to 76 oppositional military brigades formed quickly, all convening under the label of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Politically, the Kurds got organised mostly in the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), an alliance of several Kurdish parties including the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which quickly rose to be the major force of Kurds throughout Syria. On the military level, they assembled mostly under the Al-Akrad group, which belonged to the more progressive parts of the FSA and was on friendly terms with the YPG/YPJ.

FSA rule in Minbic from July 2012 at first led to more political freedom but it was a very chaotic period. Most FSA fighters on the one hand could not cope with basic administrative tasks and on the other they began to enrich themselves. Having plundered state institutions, they robbed civilians. After a few months the FSA turned more repressive and started to fight among each other. The population became dissatisfied. It was quite easy for the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian Al-Qaida which was growing in strength, to seize power in spring 2013.

Right at the beginning, Al-Nusra introduced sharia law and exerted greater political pressure. Many people who were accused of criminal acts got their hand chopped off. Theft, too, was part of Al-Nusra fighters methods. While the FSA curtailed TEV-DEM’s political work in the villages, Al-Nusra began to oppress TEV-DEM in the city as well. In short, Al-Nusra’s short rule was far from social justice and freedom and was heading speedily towards dictatorship and chaos. Thus, ISIS with it’s assertion of absolute Islam and a just system encountered no difficulties in grabbing the power in Minbic.

Hotel where ISIS tortured people. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

How can we imagine ISIS’ rule in Minbic, which lasted about three years, to be like in practise?

All: When the regime was ousted in 2012 the population of Minbic rose in number at first. But with ISIS, it shrank to less than half of the original number. Notably almost all Kurds and Circassians left the city because they were seen as potential enemies.

Dolmusch: When ISIS ruled in Minbic, they were not so much after Turkmens, but in particular after Kurds. Because they feared them a lot.

All: In the first months, ISIS conducted themselves quite cautiously in the city. They even offered sweets to children on the streets. But right at the beginning they underlined what is “halal” (permitted) and “haram” (prohibited). The population watched ISIS rule passively at first. But a few months later ISIS showed its true face and started to control political, social, cultural and economic life in a formerly unknown way. Any kind of objection to or infringement of the rules imposed by them were met in the most brutal way. The most extreme form of terror perpetrated by ISIS in Minbic was to lock up people – 545 persons in the course of about 3 years – in cages put up on public places for days, not allowing relatives to come to them, and behead them in public days later, with many people being made to attend by force. This was recorded on video in order to spread even more fear of ISIS.

Bozgeyik and Xalit: Women and also girls were subjected to special laws. They had to wear the strictest type of chador in public and were only allowed to go out on the street when accompanied by a male relative, having to walk 15 metres behind him. In order to receive a punishment it was enough for a part of the woman’s face to be seen outside. It sometimes happened that men lost sight of their wives or sisters and were not able to find them again. Many women simply stayed at home all the time because of this regulation.

Some women had to continue working in the vegetable fields around the city due to the difficult economic situation, a job greatly obstructed by the chador, especially during summer. Certain products such as tomatoes, tinned food or other things especially favoured by women, were banned. In order to enforce restrictions more efficiently, even a women’s militia was formed. Arrested women were tortured – shortly after liberation traces of blood were seen in the women’s jail – and in many cases stoned to death in three public places. We are particularly pleased that a tree has grown in exactly one of these places.

Women going to attend a demonstration. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

All: Under ISIS the economic situation in Minbic grew even more difficult and life exceptionally expensive. They sold bread and one litre of Diesel for 350 Syrian lira respectively (the price of which was only about 40-50 lira in YPG-/YPJ-/QSD-controlled area at that time) [equivalent to roughly 1,50 and 0,20 EUR]. Often, long queues formed at the distribution points, although petroleum and crop were available in sufficient quantity in ISIS territory. Sugar was very expensive, too, although it was produced in close-by Maskanah. Horrendous taxes were randomly exacted from shop owners and merchants. ISIS financed their war this way. The foodstuffs available were rationed, with ISIS fighters withholding the best parts for themselves, justifying this with their alleged status as “God’s warriors”. Most people survived on money which came from relatives living outside. The poorest, who asked for financial support, generally were told to join ISIS as fighters.

All schools in Minbic were closed by ISIS, our children could only attend Islamic schools. When ISIS had enlarged their capacity of own schools after some time they started to force all children into these schools. There they were subjected to ideological brainwashing and pressure to join ISIS from a young age.

There were so many more crazy bans as for example, eating in parks. Using a mobile phone was prohibited in general. If someone was caught for the first time, they had to pay a high fine. In case of repetition jail and torture loomed.

Not everything which ISIS did can be linked to Islam. They instrumentalised it for their regime of terror.

According to your account ISIS was not supported by the population. But were there not many people who actively supported them?

This was the case only for a small part of the population, most of those who remained adjusted themselves. We have to keep in mind that more than half of the population fled from Minbic when ISIS ruled. But sadly so we have to say: Some families positively sold their daughters to ISIS, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons. If you were close to ISIS and acted as an agent you were for example allowed to work in one of the many small Diesel refineries. Some became agents, we were scared not only on the street but also in our staircase. The majority of the population positioned themselves more and more explicitly against ISIS from 2015. All in all three demonstrations against ISIS’ methods took place in Minbic, once even shops were closed. But all attempts were suppressed in the most brutal ways. Minbic is one of the few cities controlled by ISIS where demonstrations against their methods took place at all.

Support for ISIS was bigger among the armed groups than the civilians. Unfortunately, an important part of the former FSA joined ISIS militarily from 2014.

Shortly before the liberation operation started on May 31, the Minbic Civic and Military Council were proclaimed. How did this come to be?

Xalit: The liberation of the Tishrin dam on the Euphrates through the QSD in December 2015 slowly raised hopes that ISIS could lose its sovereignty over the Minbic region. ISIS slowly lost its confidence and rightly so. Because in the beginning of 2016, people and groups who had fled Minbic convened with YPG/YPJ/QSD and representatives of the three Rojava cantons and the newly founded Syrian Democratic Council to prepare the liberation of Minbic. The former TEV-DEM activists from Minbic were the motor of this enterprise. Since we both had fled from Minbic before, we contributed a lot from the start. First, the Minbic Military Council was founded in the beginning of 2016, and then the Minbic Civic Council on April 5, 2016. The representation of all parts of society was so important to us that we reserved the seats for Circassians in the 43 members strong Civic Council. Because almost all of them had been forced to leave Minbic. The Civic Council used all the languages spoken in minbic right from the start, the banners were in four languages. The Military Council had women as members from the start, we made this a point. However, they were hardly present in the media at the time of the liberation operation.

Maschi: It was possible to proclaim both so swiftly because of the terror perpetrated by ISIS which was of utmost brutality and the hate against it on the one hand, and the active support of both structures by the QSD and the Syrian Democratic Council on the other. I myself have had a good relationship with the Kurds in Minbic and close-by Kobanê for a long time. I have always valued having actual deeper relations with them as an important goal, only then can we prevent other forces from playing us off against each other. I also convinced many people in my Al-Buberne-Clan, which is one of the biggest clans in the Minbic region, of that. The Minbic Civic Council and the Military Council which possesses an autonomous structure within the QSD, and the civil council have collaborated closely right from the start, the task sharing was quite good. This became apparent during the liberation operation which lasted about three months. The Military Council grew quickly during this operation and reached several thousand members when Minbic was liberated.

One of the partly destroyed neighborhoods in Minbic. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

What did you do as Civic Council, when the Minbic Military Council had started the liberation operation?

Xalit and Maschi: Before and during the liberation operation we made great efforts to get in touch with people in Minbic and refugees from Minbic in various places and win them over for the liberation. The acceptance of the Civic Council grew fast through this, which was of importance for the time after liberation – we were confident of the success of the operation. We had formed groups which, starting from June 2016, immediately visited the liberated villages and informed about our goals and intentions. The vast majority received us with joy and relief. Apart from that we, together with volunteers, tended to the many hundreds wounded in the course of the hard fights in Minbic. But most of all we led discussions on how the administration of the city and surrounding regions of Minbic should work. Every step during and shortly after the liberation was important to gain the support of the broad population. In fact we were all in all quite successful, and were given charge of leading Minbic for the transitional period without being questioned. From then on the population turned to us.

Can you give us examples and impressions of how the population received the liberation? What was especially important for you?

All: You can compare the liberation from ISIS by the Minbic Military Council and the Syrian Democratic Forces to the passage from hell to paradise! Accordingly, spirits were particularly euphoric during the first weeks. ISIS brutality had been so immense that many could rejoice only then when they could meet the Military Council and Democratic Forces fighters in person and not in combat position in front of their houses. Then came cries of joy. This great joy could be seen especially on women’s faces. Many danced on the streets in the first days. It was important for us that no attempt at lynching took place. Tens of thousands returned to their houses within a few weeks, among them many thousands from Turkey. A lot of people approached us offering their help, or rather wanted to carry out tasks in reconstruction. The population had seen that we bring freedom and equality and do not want to exclude anyone or take advantage of differences in favour of a small circle. The population senses exactly this. Minbic has never lived through so much freedom in its history. The joy is still huge, everyone can see this for themselves walking through the streets of Minbic. People’s faces are full of positive energy.

Which were the first steps you undertook in Minbic? How has life developed in more than half a year?

All: During the liberation process several dozens of buildings were destroyed completely, and hundreds of them partly. This is very little compared to many other Syrian cities which were fought over. One of the first steps was to clear the debris very quickly. Right from the start we made efforts to establish people’s councils with broad participation from the population in every city district and every place outside of the city. In some places we quickly managed to build a democratic structure with women’s participation. We are confident that we will manage to do the same everywhere within a short period of time.

A second wave of happiness went through the region when schools reopened one month after liberation. They had been closed for three years. We had successfully called on all former teachers for that. The only change we have made to education so far is the abolition of the subject on state and history which used to be taught on the basis of Baath ideology. Kurds and Turkmens started to teach their children in their mother tongue additionally a few weeks after the opening.

Tarik: As of now we are not able to offer our children Circassian language, which is also due to the fact that we do not speak our language very often. But with the new school term we will start. This is a huge challenge for us, because Circassian hasn’t been taught neither in Syria nor in Turkey. It is an incredibly wonderful feeling that everybody can go to school in their own language.

All: When the situation in Minbic became more stable in autumn and we as Minbic Civil Council had organised ourselves better, administration was officially transferred to us by the Military Council. From then on, all important decisions regarding Minbic region were made by our council of 43 members. One of the first decisions was to ask the Military Council to build the security structure, called Asayîş.

Economy was freed from the many restrictions imposed on it in the last years. This was important insofar as the merchants of Minbic were thus able to bring necessary goods from other regions. But this does not suffice by far and the traded goods are expensive in parts. But staple foods and other elementary goods and aids for the needy are coming from the cantons Kobanê and Cizîrê. Now bread – the large bread factory was restored immediately – and Diesel in Minbic cost the same as in Kobanê and Cizîrê, and water supply is working again. Electricity is delivered from Tishrin barrage almost all day long free of cost. Mobile company Syriatel was allowed to repair the telecommunication masts, and so people could talk to their relatives in other parts of the country again.

The reconstructed bread factory. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

Some accused of spying for ISIS were given an open and democratic trial. But only after a people’s court, transparent to the Civic Council and the public, had been established.

But the liberation of Minbic has also led to people from regions where ISIS and other antidemocratic forces or regimes are in control coming to us as refugees. They say: “We have heard that there is freedom here, life is better and no one is persecuted. That is why we are here”. Of course we take them up but it’s a huge technical and financial burden in our current condition to provide for additional tens of thousands of people. After Al-Bab was taken by the Turkish army and the regions south of Minbic by the Syrian army, further tens of thousands have come. Now at least there is a little international support.

Recently, the Minbic Civic Council has restructured and renamed itself the Minbic Democratic Civilian Administration Council. Why, and what is different now?

All: On March 12, 2017, Minbic Civic Council has not only renamed itself as the Minbic Democratic Civilian Administration Council, but also a number of restructuring measures in the entire administration have taken place after months of discussions. In the Civic Council, legislative and executive had been one structure, now they are separated. The number of representatives taking political decisions in the legislative of the Democratic Administration has been raised from 43 to 134. 71 of them are Arabs, 43 Kurds, 10 Turkmens, 8 Circassians, in addition to one Armenian and one Chechen. 15 persons form the executive of the Democratic Administration. All in all, 13 committees were founded – defense, women, society matters, economy, finances, health, culture, education, communal administration, martyrs, services, diplomacy, and youth&sport.

Xalit: The greatest challenge was to win enough women among the non-Kurds for this function in accordance with the gender quota of 40% as agreed. This was due to the fact that among them, so far very few women had been active in the public-political sphere and the question of women’s rights had hardly been posed in a serious manner. For several weeks we struggled for a sufficient number of women to be represented in the legislative. Only because 50% of the Kurds in the legislative of the Minbic Democratic Administration were women, was it possible to observe the quota.

All: In the face of the war, the displacements and massacres in Syria, and the exploitation of religion or ethnicity, it is important that all ethnic groups of Minbic are sufficiently represented; from the religious point of view all are Sunni. We also have made efforts to successfully let different professions be represented. Youth, students, intellectuals and artists are also among the 134 delegates.

How can we even understand the developments in Minbic in the Syrian political perspective? How, according to you, should this new system be assessed?

All: These new structures in Minbic were developed on the basis of the idea of the Democratic Nation. According to it, the nation state is rejected and instead all individuals and groups should be enabled to find their place in it. No identity should rule over the other. In practice this means for instance that all languages can be spoken and the free expression of the different cultures are equal to each other. Women’s liberation is a central element and pervades all political and social structures; thus we are gradually introducing the co-chair-system of one man and one woman and a gender quota everywhere. Furthermore, life is supposed to be organised ecologically and communally: Private economic gain must not stand over the interests of society and a broad solidarity among each other is important. This concept has been implemented successfully in the three cantons Afrîn, Kobanê and Cizîrê since 2012, but the difference is that here lives a majority of non-Kurds. And this is exactly what is special about Minbic.

Square where ISIS executed 545 people. Today children can play here. Picture by Ercan Ayboga.

Bozgeyik: All that which we are hearing from the Kurds in recent time sounds so very new and exciting to us. The greatest thing is that we are building something new together and in good cooperation. Even more decisive than theory is practice, because this is what the broad population is looking at. Hopefully we will manage to build a model for the whole of Syria in Minbic. In the face of the enormous suffering this is very important. We are aware of the historic and responsible task we are carrying out. That is why we work a lot, discuss and continuously educate ourselves in academies which we have established.

What does Abdullah Öcalan represent in this context, as the one who provided the ideas behind the concept of Democratic Nation? Which role does he play in Minbic?

Tarik: Abdullah Öcalan has voiced essential thoughts which place the coexistence of cultures at the centre. The peoples are coming closer at heart. Today Öcalan is not only a political leader of the Kurds, he has earned himself a very special role for Circassians and all others in our region. We can also see this in the fact that women are becoming active in society.

What do you think of the role of the Turkish government in the war in Syria? For weeks now the Turkish army has been attacking villages in western Minbic.

All: We maintain a good relationship with the population of Turkey. Many of us have lived in Turkey as refugees and a small number of people from Minbic are still there as refugees. Nonetheless, the Turkish government has wronged us for years by supporting ISIS. ISIS is the common enemy of all people and we should focus on them. The attacks of armed groups supported by the Turkish army against villages which were liberated from ISIS taking place now are unacceptable. We invite the Turkish government to come to Minbic and witness themselves what we are establishing here. All parts of society partake, we have established social peace and consensus.

There are repeated reports on the YPG/YPJ respectively QSD allegedly conducting ethnic cleansing of non-Kurds, especially Arabs, in Northern Syria. Has something like this taken place in Minbic?

Maschi: I can answer this very clearly: no. Everyone out there on the streets of Minbic will confirm this, too. If something like that had happened neither me nor the majority of Arabs would have established the new political structures together with the Kurds and the others. In general, the liberated villages were examined for mines for several days, then all inhabitants were allowed to return. This applies to Kurdish villages, too. Whoever alleges something like this does not know the reality or has something bad in mind. Rather, the opposite is the case, in spite of decades of oppression the Kurds have not answered with nationalism and have truly promoted kinship among Syria’s peoples. This is especially evident in Minbic. Last month a demonstration for Abdullah Öcalan took place, in which we and many thousands took part in. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Circassians were marching together.

 

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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”.