Noah Bonsey, a senior analyst for Syria at the International Crisis Group, visits the northeast of the country to meet a Syrian Kurdish organization that has made the region relatively secure, yet knows that it still has far to go in its struggle – particularly for long-term US support.
Qamishli, Syria – Abd al-Menaam picks me up as usual from the customs shed on the Syrian bank of the Tigris river. As we drive west toward the town of Qamishli, we pass beneath a hilltop command center bombed by Turkish warplanes some five weeks earlier. Glancing across from the driver’s seat, Abd al-Menaam asks: “Can it really be that the Americans had no idea those strikes were coming?”
The Turkish attack killed twenty members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish military formation controlling much of northern Syria. To Abd al-Menaam and many Syrian Kurds, this is a real shock: despite deepening relations between the YPG and US.forces on the ground, the latter had neither deterred the Turkish strikes nor provided sufficient warning for the YPG to evacuate the buildings targeted.
Beneath his query lies a deeper question I hear countless times during my trips to northern Syria: “Will the US abandon its Kurdish allies?” It’s a question with no definitive answer, and a reminder of a fragility partially obscured by impressive wins against ISIS. The YPG is entering explosive geopolitical territory, surrounded by adversaries and competitors, with no guarantees from its American partners.
On this trip and subsequent visits to Ankara and Washington, part of my job is to explore means of ensuring that the advance of US-backed, Kurdish dominated forces in northern Syria is not simply the prelude to another deadly conflagration of the country’s six-year-old war.
Northern Syria, Western Kurdistan
This is my fifth trip to northern Syria in the last two years, and it begins in familiar fashion with a quick ride in a small metal barge, ferrying me and a couple of aid workers across the muddy Tigris from Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
I lived in Damascus for a couple stints before the war. I made close friends there, learned Arabic, and still speak it more-or-less fluently (with a comical American accent). Yet I’m also conscious of my outsider status, and particularly at entry and exit since crossing borders is a privilege that my contacts here don’t have. Even as I write this, I worry about making the experience of entering a war zone seem exotic, since nobody around me has the option to write about their experience as an excursion. This imposes a responsibility I share with all my Crisis Group colleagues: to faithfully represent and respect the voices that we hear in the parts of the world we cover. My privilege inheres not just in physically crossing borders, but in reaching audiences that my interlocutors cannot.
Two young Syrian Kurdish security types check my bags where we step off onto the Syrian river bank. I throw my bag in Abd al-Menaam’s car, and we make the short drive up to a new customs building where a young employee checks my passport and papers. The formalities and atmosphere have all the trappings of a Middle Eastern border crossing, minus one key thing: the symbols of an internationally recognized state.
There are no flags around the border point and the official inks the territory’s stamp on a loose piece of paper, not my passport. There is an alphabet soup of militias, parties and administrative entities that figure on the north-east Syrian stage, many of them officially tied to the self-styled “Democratic Self-Administration” that administers YPG-held areas. But most of the lines of real authority in the three cantons of their administration’s “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” run through cadres with years of experience in a 40-year-old armed organization with its origins in Turkey and with deep pan-Kurdish ambitions: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
The PKK’s name is rarely used here, however. Most Western countries, including the U.S., list it as a terrorist organisation, thanks to its long and often intense war with the Turkish state. Kurds simply call the territory they now run in northern Syria “Rojava”, which is Kurdish for “the west”, or the western part of the lands populated by the 30 million Kurds split for the past century or more between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and other neighbouring states.
My papers in order, Abd al-Menaam and I are pretty much free to move about as we please. First comes the long, hot drive to the town of Qamishli, through the oil fields and past the big nodding-donkey oil wells that used to provide income to the Damascus government. A few of the great iron beams are still dipping up and down, pumping oil out into a network of makeshift oil-refining outfits that produce a coarse kind of diesel that is steadily ruining truck and other engines all across northern Syria.
The road takes us along the border with Turkey, so close and yet so far. Since three million Syrian refugees poured in over the past five years, the border has been more or less sealed off. I see new apartment buildings past the border watchtowers, and connect to the Turkish signals on my mobile phone, but only the hardiest smugglers risk trying to cut through the wire fences or climb new sections of concrete wall.
All Quiet in Qamishli
It’s rare that I hear sounds of war, though, even in areas recently captured from ISIS. The truth is that in general these areas feel remarkably safe – at least to a foreign visitor. Of course feelings are more raw in newly liberated places, where old ISIS graffiti still adorns some walls and trust between residents and their new rulers remains thin. And there have been occasional bombings in Qamishli and in other YPG-held areas. But those have become fewer and further between, at least in the last year.
It’s early afternoon when we reach Qamishli. I link up with my friend and colleague Yazer Uthman, and we head to the city’s open-air market to buy food for iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. These long June days are very hot, but Yazer notes that the “Ramadan atmosphere” is stronger than in recent years – more of the city’s residents seem to be fasting, perhaps due in part to the prevailing sense that security has improved.
But while stability may be increasing in much of YPG-held territory, the margin for political competition is not. My Crisis Group colleagues and I generally make a point of meeting with opposition figures during our visits, many of whom are aligned with the PKK’s Iraqi Kurdish rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Upon arrival in Qamishli, however, I learn that most of the figures I’ve met on previous trips have either been arrested, or departed the country fearing detention. The YPG’s Democratic Self-Administration justifies these measures by citing the opposition’s refusal to register with it as political parties; for their part, the YPG’s Kurdish opponents reject registration because they do not recognise the Self-Administration’s authority nor wish to legitimise the YPG’s unilateral military and political dominance. These parties maintain some popular support within the Kurdish community, but have no means of countering the YPG’s current ascendancy. Indeed, some YPG officials I meet complain that arrests of opposition figures are counterproductive, saying they target individuals who pose no tangible threat, while fueling local and international criticism of authoritarian tactics.
The YPG is not alone, of course. It has an arrangement with the Damascus regime that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are allowed a symbolic presence in a few blocks in the centre of town. I can walk on foot or drive through areas that are technically under regime control, looking up at posters of Assad and passing by regime military personnel. More meaningful are a few places that the Assad regime controls firmly, like Qamishli airport, where I don’t go. Planes still fly to and from Damascus and it’s widely understood there are Russian and Iranian elements there. At the same time, several small bases in YPG areas host the few hundred American military personnel currently based in the north, who are also hard for me to approach. For now, the balance of daily power in civilian areas is firmly tilted in favor of the YPG, not the regime. Occasional arrests or even clashes punctuate an ongoing back and forth between these two competitors. They have to deal with each other, but don’t necessarily like each other.
As iftar time nears, Yazer briefs me on recent local developments. We discuss potential meetings and trips for the days ahead. When the sun sets, we gather with his family for an animated meal.
One central subject of conversation is who’s still here and who’s gone. People feel that huge chunks of their communities and many of their neighbours have left because of the general instability created by the war, the economic hardship that has followed, and conscription. The regime now wants all males up to the age of 42; men do have a concern that if they stray too deep into the pockets it controls they could end up detained, and ultimately sent to some far-flung front. More importantly, there’s a second conscription run by the YPG for males between eighteen and 30 years old, which has expanded the ranks of YPG and subordinate forces, but also pushed many youth out toward Turkey and Europe. On the other hand, there are a lot of new inhabitants who have arrived from parts of the country that are less stable.
On my second day, Yazer and I begin with a visit to Ahmed Suleiman, a friend and leading member of a small political party that has sought to chart a middle course between the YPG and its rivals. We discuss a recent Russian attempt to jump-start talks among Damascus, the YPG, and other Kurdish parties – thus far to no avail. Our chat touches on one of the Syrian war’s central questions: the extent to which Moscow might be willing and able to pressure the Assad regime toward meaningful political concessions. For now at least, that extent appears minimal.
That evening we drive a half-hour west to the town of Amuda, for a meeting with two senior local officials. One is the head of foreign relations, and the other a kind of power behind the scenes. It’s hard to be concise about names and titles due to the variety of political facades and acronyms used by PKK affiliates and spin-offs in the region. The civilian authority is the Democratic Self-Administration, the YPG is the armed force and the political wing is called the PYD, the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrator Democratic Union Party. The two men have requested the meeting to discuss Crisis Group reports based on fieldwork I and fellow Crisis Group colleagues have conducted on previous trips. They have made clear that I should stop by before attempting to travel further afield.
Above all, they want to push back about the way we say they are linked to the PKK. They accept that they adhere to the secular, Marxist-inspired thinking of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in jail in Turkey since 1999, and his prescriptions for local governance. Indeed, Öcalan’s picture is inescapable in north-east Syria – along roads, in town squares, and in the offices of some “self-administration” and YPG officials.
The two men insist that their north Syrian structures are “completely separate organisations” from the PKK, echoing the official line. Adding nuance to their argument, they say we put too much emphasis on the PKK link relative to other matters, like positive aspects of their governance. They worry that we are making it easier for Turkey to justify attacking them, as it has done in the airstrikes a few weeks before my visit. I point out that denying the PKK link isn’t convincing, and that to be credible they will have to do more to strengthen the local character of governance and security arrangements in the areas under their control. I note that their north Syrian cantons are expanding while forces around them are weak and while the US needs them in the fight against ISIS, but these circumstances will eventually change. To protect what they’ve achieved, I suggest, they need a more distinct, separate identity to obtain external security guarantees, either from the US or in an understanding with Turkey, or both.
Field interviews are a mix of listening, learning, explaining and researching. Getting to know officials like this is a huge part of it. I know one of them from before, and this is my first meeting with the other. I throw in how we as Crisis Group view the broader conflict challenges they face locally, with regard to Turkey, with regard to the complex U.S. position toward them. At first the conversation is tense, but it warms as the evening goes on. I tell them of policy insights I have from trips to see officials in Ankara and Washington DC, places they can’t go. The more I and my interlocutors learn from each other, the more we can build our relationships, the more valuable that experience and the lessons that come from it can be.
The result is a friendly ending. My interlocutors say they are satisfied that I understand their concerns, and tell me I can travel where I like. But this is a mixed blessing. They want me to take a minder during my visits to Arab-majority towns to the west: Tel Abyad, Manbij and Ain Eissa (roughly 50km north of Raqqa). This, in theory at least, is partly for my security, but it’s also to check that what is said to me is consistent with what we write in our reports. The arrangement is not ideal, but acceptable under the circumstances. In the coming days I do not feel like anyone is watching me too closely.
On the Road to Manbij
The next day I wake up early, link up with the minder and head to Manbij, which is the westernmost edge of YPG-held territory. One extension of the YPG is an alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes Arab elements and captured Manbij in August 2016. It’s a hot, five-hour drive west. The road is busy, now part of a new direct land route to Aleppo, Damascus and other areas controlled by the regime. Residents of YPG-held areas are hoping that the opening of this trade route will eventually lead to lower prices and fuller shelves in local shops, now that ISIS no longer controls the link between YPG and regime-held territory. I also see a lot of displaced people on the road, moving north west to get away from the escalating US-backed campaign to capture Raqqa.
To get to Manbij, I have to cross the Euphrates river. The water is bright blue, a contrast to the muddy white brown of the Tigris. People are jumping in and swimming. At the same time, as we approach the bridge, we pass dozens of vehicles and hundreds of people lined up waiting to pass through a YPG checkpoint. They’re fleeing the recent fighting, the sun is beating down, it’s Ramadan, and they don’t know where they are going to sleep tonight. The YPG constrains movement of displaced persons as part of a robust, sometimes draconian security effort to prevent ISIS infiltration into areas under YPG control. Most of those trying to cross the river have likely already passed some preliminary screening. Still, to be allowed entrance into Manbij generally requires having somebody there to vouch for you.
As we drive into Manbij, the city seems relatively full, even in the middle of the day in Ramadan. That’s even more striking because Manbij was the toughest battle thus far of the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria. It went on for weeks longer than expected and the city still bears many scars, with bullet-riddled walls and blown up buildings. Now the YPG and its local allies are establishing an impressive degree of security, all things considered. It is still able to function as a city. The YPG, prodded by the US, has made some small but important adjustments to the way they govern there. It’s noticeable as soon as I set foot in the city. I don’t see Öcalan posters, I don’t see YPG flags, the only flag flying is the one for the local military council. I meet local youth recruited into the security forces. The relative stability is persuading people to stay, others to return, and attracting many internally displaced.
Manbij is an Arab-majority city, but it’s pretty diverse, and the new local civil council charged with administering the city is fairly diverse too. One of the top figures is Arab, an anti-regime activist in the early days of the uprising there. There are also Kurds in the council and people from other minority groups. We chat about what they have accomplished in Manbij and the challenges ahead. I am trying to get a sense of how they are actually running things, and how much responsibility the PKK-trained cadres – who remain the backbone of governance in YPG-held areas – are placing in the hands of local council members.
Unease in Tel Abyad
After several hours in Manbij we double back north east to Tel Abyad, a mostly Arab city on the Turkish border that was captured from ISIS in June 2015. Here the population appears less at ease with their YPG rulers. I see YPG flags, I see Öcalan’s poster in one of the town’s squares. As an outsider visiting, it feels like a bit of an occupation. The social contract is not explicit, but nevertheless seems clear: in return for civil obedience, the YPG brings security, services and the basic needs of life. On this trip, as on a previous visit in March, I have time to check what I’m hearing in offices by talking with local residents. People seem to appreciate the stability, which is pretty good by current Syrian standards. The economic situation is difficult, but it could be worse. There is food in the markets, and a bit more electricity than in Qamishli, because it’s closer to a big Euphrates hydro-electric dam.
I’ve mainly come to see a local official close to YPG leadership who coordinates the efforts to build civil councils in areas liberated from ISIS. He has been the pointman for setting up the Tel Abyad Council, the Manbij Civil Council and now he is doing the same for Raqqa. On this visit he lets me spend the day with him and join in the conversations he’s having as he goes about building up these new administrations. I try to make the point to him that the lighter touch in Manbij is a step in the right direction, and argue that in Raqqa they will need to go further.
After two nights in Tel Abyad I head south to Ain Eissa, a town nearly half way to Raqqa city that was captured from ISIS in 2015 and is now the temporary headquarters of the new Raqqa Civil Council. I spend a day meeting with many of the members of that council, getting a sense of their concerns. I ask them: what challenges do you face, in your order of priority? What are you looking for in terms of external support? How do you feel about your relationship with the YPG cadres, are you given enough space?
The council includes folks from a pretty wide range of society in Raqqa and its adjacent countryside. By everyone’s admission it is not yet a sufficiently representative sample of the population, but they are preparing to administer the city and plan to expand the council’s ranks once it is completely captured. It’s fascinating to watch them gearing up for it.
The US is backing the campaign to capture Raqqa and is more and more involved in all these processes. In Ain Eissa, I cross paths with American personnel liaising with the new council, but we don’t chat in person. While it is easy for me to meet US officials in Washington, I have yet to do so inside Syria. Indications of the American presence dot northern Syria, however, and US military personnel have made a habit of appearing very publicly at YPG bases and other sensitive areas if they think there’s danger that Turkey might be preparing to attack. In so doing, they are playing an ambiguous, but thus far largely effective role somewhere between monitors and human shields.
Having such a powerful ally has a potential downside, of course. The Americans might leave. That’s why YPG officials and other Syrian Kurds so often probe me for an answer to the question: “Will the Americans abandon us?”
Wrapping up in Qamishli
I return to Qamishli in time for the Champions League football final. Yazer and I discuss Manbij as we watch Juventus collapse; the electricity stays on through the end of Real Madrid’s victory ceremony, much to the chagrin of the neighbourhood’s many Barcelona fans.
The following morning we go together to meet a top official, a Syrian cadre with a PKK background. Our conversation touches on a major problem for the PKK and YPG: that the former’s activity and full range of objectives inside Turkey are a threat to what the latter has built in Syria. That’s because Ankara, with its powerful military, will not acquiesce to YPG-rule dominated by PKK-trained cadres in Syria while an active PKK insurgency is continuing in Turkey. Turkey may share a lot of blame for the continued rebellion, but it’s a huge risk for the YPG in Syria to allow their long-term security to be pinned to the PKK’s agenda in Turkey.
On this fifth trip and my recent visit alongside Crisis Group colleagues in March, I hear more brainstorming among YPG officials about the need to think through compromises that might be necessary, and more defining of the YPG’s best interest in Syrian terms than I had on previous trips.