Kobani Before The Hurricane

10 mins read

The author, Carl Drott, is a Swedish freelance journalist focusing mainly on the Kurdish-dominated areas of the Middle East. He visited Kobani in August-September 2014, shortly before the Islamic State offensive.

It is late August in Kobani, northern Syria, and the streets around Peace Square are full of people. Some take their breakfast in the pastry shop, or stop for a coffee and chat in the convenience store. The labourers are busy with construction work; there is a pent-up need for new housing after years of strict and discriminatory building regulations. Meanwhile, the bus station stands almost deserted, since there is nowhere else to go from this besieged enclave.

People here do not know it yet, but in just a few weeks’ time they will be forced to flee across the border into Turkey and leave everything behind. Their homes and shops will be destroyed by fighting and bombardment as Islamic State fighters advance relentlessly into the town centre. Right here by Peace Square, which is really just a small roundabout, one of the attackers is going to detonate himself in a truck filled with explosives.

What developments led up to this cataclysm? And what was Kobani like before it suddenly emerged on the world stage?

Part I: Background

Border is Honour

During the almost fifty-year long reign of the Syrian Baath party, the Kurds in Kobani were subject to harsh assimilation policies and severe neglect. Renamed as Ayn al-Arab, meaning the “Arab water spring,” the town was in fact plagued by water scarcity and had an almost exclusively Kurdish population. Unlike in nearby Tel Abyad and Jarabulus, with Arab majorities, the border crossing in Kobani remained closed for decades. Kurds living to the north of it were supposed to become Turks – and to the south of it Arabs. A message from Turkish authorities is still today written in white block letters on a hillside facing Kobani: “BORDER IS HONOUR.”

A multitude of Kurdish political parties emerged over the decades of Baath party rule, and many of their activists were arrested and subjected to torture. However, the struggle for Kurdish rights was almost exclusively non-violent in character and failed to catch the world’s attention. Many Kurds also took part in the anti-government protests that spread across the country during 2011, but they were more reluctant to join the armed rebellion that followed.

The 19 July Revolution

As sporadic fighting morphed into full civil war, the government concentrated its overstretched security forces in key strategic places like Aleppo, and various rebel and jihadist groups took the opportunity to capture much of Syria’s northern and eastern countryside. Meanwhile, the Kurdish-dominated enclaves were taken over by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

On 19 July 2012, Kobani became the first town to fall entirely into the hands of PYD, but since not a shot had been fired, many suspected collusion with the Syrian regime. At the very least there was a common understanding to live and let live, and given that the government was no longer able to control the area, the least bad option was clearly to allow PYD to move in instead. Being strongly linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was fighting an insurgency against the Turkish government, PYD was unlikely to band together with the Turkish-backed rebels and jihadists. PYD announced as its policy to support neither the regime nor the rebels, but instead focus on protecting the Kurdish areas and build up a local administration there.

The Asayish police force was now founded as a complement to YPG. Both were staffed by volunteers, but while YPG’s role would be restricted to military operations, Asayish was tasked with the maintenance of law and order as well as internal security. However, its authority was not immediately recognised by local people, especially as it sometimes employed repressive measures against rival parties and anti-government activists. While some accused it of acting on behalf of the Syrian regime, a more likely rationale was to secure the position of PYD – as well as to prevent others from dragging the Kurdish areas into the increasingly sectarian civil war.

Surrounded by Lawlessness

“I visited the officers who had arrested me and they became nervous, but I did not want revenge,” recounts Ismet Hesen, who is today Minister of Defence in the Kobani administration and was a political prisoner before the war. Similar restraint was not observed by the rebels and jihadists in the surrounding areas. “In Sarrin, Ghuraba al-Sham killed a police officer named Abu Basil in front of his family,” says Hesen. “His wife went mad afterwards, I drove her to the hospital myself.”

A major advantage of PYD’s monopoly of power could now be observed: lawlessness never spread in Kobani, like it did elsewhere. “When the rebels came to Manbij they stole all the wheat from the silos,” says Hesen. “They burned books and educational centres in Tel Abyad, it was like an invasion of Mongol hordes.”

YPG maintained a tense truce with the rebel and jihadist groups, until the latter finally went on the attack against the Kurdish enclaves in the summer of 2013. Kurds residing or travelling outside of YPG-controlled zones were now subjected to a campaign of expulsions, kidnappings and killings. “First I was arrested by the Free Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor, and they took all my belongings,” says the restaurant owner Ehmed Bakhi. “Then I was arrested by Islamic State, on the way from Raqqa to Kobani. They asked if I knew how to pray and threatened to behead me.”

In early 2014, three autonomous governments were proclaimed in the Kurdish enclaves of Kobani, Efrin and Jazira, with the stated intention to formalise institutions and prepare for general elections. While previous power-sharing agreements had never been implemented in practice, other Kurdish parties were now welcomed to join the administration – but on PYD’s terms. Some eventually did, but most turned down the offer.

Around this time, competing rebel and jihadist groups turned against the increasingly unpopular Islamic State – but were in the end themselves driven out from all of eastern and most of northern Syria. After defeating its rivals, and with the regime contained in a few isolated enclaves, Islamic State turned its attention to Kobani. By completely cutting off the water and electricity supply, and attempting to block all incoming traffic of goods, Kobani was subjected to an increasingly effective siege. During intense battles in the spring and summer, YPG was forced to retreat in some places, but could mostly withstand the attacks and occasionally even reclaim some territory. Meanwhile, behind the frontlines, a new society was taking form.

Part II: The Situation

The auditorium in the cultural centre is packed with spectators, who have come to see a group of teenage boys and girls dramatise their understanding of the conflict. Dressed in a dark cloak, a boy representing Islamic State is seen conspiring with regional powers, and together they rip Kurdistan apart – but are of course in the end defeated by YPG, who piece it together again. The audience cheers. Folk songs, dances, handicraft and language are also taught at the centre. “All of this Kurdish culture was forbidden by the regime, it could only survive in people’s homes,” says Ebdilrezaq Eli, Kobani’s Minister of Culture.

In another recently established institution, the musician Rashid Sufi returns from a violin class taught to a group of young children. “Because of our misery, many talented students have came to the surface. In times of luxury there is no creativity,” he says. “You can only sense the true things through suffering and isolation.” The spiritual, non-dogmatic Sufi branch of Islam where he finds his inspiration is traditionally popular among Kurds, but seen as a heretic digression by Islamic State, which has also banned musical instruments.

Outside the martyrs’ cemetery, hundreds of people are gathering to bury two recently fallen fighters. At the entrance they are met by orderly teenagers dressed in yellow vests, who politely direct them to the place of the ceremony. On other days, the same teenagers volunteer to clean the streets. It may sound odd, but this is the Revolutionary Youth Movement. While its counterpart in the Kurdish areas of Turkey is known for rioting and wreaking havoc, this is another kind of revolution, no longer in opposition.

”We are trying to build a new society based on morals and the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan,” says a young man named Merwan Muslim back at the branch centre. The place is teeming with energetic teenagers, probably at least as motivated by the opportunity for fun and freedom as by ideology. The mainly female leader figures display confidence and assertiveness; for the younger members, these are role models who show that the time when girls shyly hid in the back of the room is over.

Challenging Gender Norms

“I want to prove to the whole world that women can work beside men,” says Sozan, a recent Law graduate of the University of Aleppo who joined Asayish one month ago. “We are stepping towards development by our toiling and the blood of our martyrs,” she continues. This is not empty rhetoric. Sozan’s husband, a YPG fighter, was killed in action a few months ago – three days after the birth of their first child.

“The main problem here is men’s violence against women. There are many suicide cases because of this,” says Narin Yusuf, head of the all-female Asayish unit. “Since this is a tribal society, the victims are ashamed and do not come to us. We hear from other sources when there is a problem.”

A perhaps more easily approachable institution is the Women’s House, located in a former regime intelligence headquarters. Instead of projecting fear and terror, this is nowadays a place where women suffering domestic abuse can come to seek help. “The tribes do not really solve any problems, they just convince women to go back to their husbands,” says Falak Yusuf, who is head of the institution. “We follow up the cases over time.”

A middle-aged woman appears in the doorway and is invited to take place in the sofa. Hunched down and nervously moving around, she recounts regular beatings and death threats from her husband. “For years I hoped things would get better, but he cannot be reformed,” she says. A group of volunteers offer encouragement and promise to help her take out divorce, as well as to enforce a house and monthly maintenance. ”First your husband will be summoned here, and then to a court if he refuses,” says Falak Yusuf.

 The New Courts

Five specialised courts operate here, but only one of the fifteen judges has previous  experience, as Kurdish lawyers were generally barred from holding such positions during the reign of the Baath party. “Right now our priority is to protect our children from Islamic State,” says Ewas Eli, Kobani’s Minister of Justice. “Later we will build courts according to international standards.”

Provisional solutions are abound in the new judicial system, and even something as fundamental as which law to apply is decided on a case-to-case basis. The legislative assembly has only been in place since January – hardly long enough to overhaul the entire legislation. At the same time, the existing Syrian law leaves much to be desired, so the judges sometimes simply borrow sections from European law books.

Other difficulties have to do with the society they operate in. “Our greatest challenge is to change the bribe mentality. We have lived for fifty years under this regime, and every institution has been spoiled,” says Ewas Eli. “Every day people try to bribe me.” Indeed, not even the fiercest critics of the new administration accuse it of corruption. However, even supposedly neutral institutions like the courts are generally seen as being strongly dependent on PYD.

Autocracy and Criticism

Critics of the administration could roughly be divided into hard-liners and soft-liners, both of which co-exist within the umbrella Kurdish National Council (ENKS). In the autumn of 2013, around the time when US airstrikes against the Syrian regime appeared likely, the hard-liners finally managed to drag ENKS into joining the Syrian National Coalition, which supports the rebels and opposes Kurdish autonomy.

Already before this decision, relations between PYD supporters and ENKS hard-liners were characterised by bitter mutual hatred – fuelled by a propaganda machinery on both sides. The hard-liners have been accused of collusion with rebels attacking the Kurdish enclaves and are widely seen as traitors, while on their side, the hard-liners have accused PYD of being a totalitarian regime proxy, and some even seem to embrace the Turkish government’s view that it is no better than Islamic State.

The soft-liners appear highly uncomfortable with ENKS’ decision to join the Syrian National Coalition, and while criticising PYD, they are looking for a solution rather than a confrontation. However, they are currently locked in a dilemma. If they remain on the sidelines, they will drift further into passivity and irrelevance, but by recognising or even joining the administration without credible assurances of future reforms, they may end up as mere pluralist alibis while PYD continues to make all the decisions.

“Our members have joined the civilian administration as well as the armed forces,” says Moussa Kino of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in Syria (Yekiti), which has resolved the dilemma by a balancing act. While the party de facto supports the administration, it has not yet officially recognised it, and retains membership in ENKS. Kino says that his party has never been asked to register or seek permission for its events, yet never encountered any problems. ”Other parties cannot have activities like we have,” he admits.

Gloom and Hope

On the streets of Kobani, sentiments appear split between PYD supporters and soft-line critics, while the hard-liners are widely reviled. The administration has clearly proven its worth, especially with regards to services and security – both internal and external. While YPG has kept Islamic State at bay on the frontlines, Asayish has softened its approach and come to be perceived as largely effective and fair. At the same time, many recognise the need for reforms to ensure pluralism in civil society and politics, as well as an independent bureacracy and judiciary. “It is good and healthy to have a diverse society, everything should not be the same,” says a displaced shopkeeper from Raqqa, who is reluctant to give his name.

There are also other, more pressing concerns than politics. In addition to the ever-present threat from Islamic State, electricity and water shortages make life difficult, food prices have soared, and many have lost their source of income. Like elsewhere in Syria, public servants still get their salary paid by the Syrian government, but can only collect it after passing through numerous Islamic State checkpoints on the road to Aleppo. Many still take their chances – not all of them return.

While Kobani has seen an influx of displaced people from the surrounding area, there is also a steady outpour. Some are looking for work in Turkey, while others no longer see a future in the region and try to reach Europe. Yet others remain out of a dogged sense of duty and refusal to give up hope. “Every night we hope that tomorrow everything will be better,” says Khelil Kiko, whose run-down gym club remains open for those seeking relief from the constant strains and stress. “We Kurds are not enemies of anyone, we accept everybody and just want to live here peacefully.”

Two weeks later, the Islamic State hurricane struck.

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