Violent quest for empowerment returns Syrian Kurds to square one

Abandoned by the US, YPG militia is forced to turn to Assad regime in the face of Turkey's offensive

A Syrian Kurd living in Lebanon, holds a poster with the portrait of Mashaal Tammo, during a protest against the Syrian regime marking the one year anniversary of Tammo's death, in front of Muhammad al-Amin Mosque, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. Tammo one of the most vocal and charismatic Kurdish opposition figures, was assassinated in October 2011 by gunmen in northern Syria. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
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The return of Syrian Kurdish forces to the embrace of Bashar Al Assad’s regime recalls the warnings of Kurdish leader Mashaal Tammo before his assassination eight years ago, that the community would undermine its struggle for greater rights unless it supported the Arab majority in the uprising against the autocratic president.

Turkey’s cross-border assault that prompted the move was launched almost exactly eight years after the killing of Tammo, who had spoken out against the role of Kurdish militias in cracking down on the initially peaceful revolt against Mr Al Assad, including mass demonstrations by Kurds in Syria’s north-east.

Tammo had long held that the Kurds could only free themselves from decades of repression and disenfranchisement under Assad family rule by striving alongside Arabs for a democratic Syria. He was gunned down at the age of 53 on October 7, 2011 in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, as a new Kurdish militia called the People’s Protection Units (YPG) began taking on an enforcer role for the regime.

Tens of thousands attended Tammo’s funeral in defiance of the YPG and the regime, reflecting his stature as the most prominent voice of the Kurdish movement at the time.

The YPG, which went to become the major component of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS, is now staring at the death of its quest for Kurdish autonomy at any cost.

President Donald Trump has treated the force as dispensable since the YPG declared “total victory” against ISIS in February. His decision to withdraw US troops from the north-east opened the door for Turkey’s attack and placed the YPG at the mercy of the Assad regime that it long co-operated with and served.

Arab rebel auxiliaries accompanying the attacking Turkish forces are looking to exact revenge on the YPG for its role in crushing the uprising against Mr Al Assad and in the ensuing civil war.

Most notably, the YPG helped recapture rebel-held eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after siege warfare. The regime withdrew from territory in the north-east to concentrate on quelling the uprising in central regions, handing large parts of the territory to the YPG.

The militia expanded its area of control by overrunning Arab-majority towns held by the armed opposition and later held on to territory seized from ISIS during the US-backed SDF campaign.

The YPG copied the nominal governance structure installed by the Assad regime, under which local councils were supposed to have power, but controlled these from behind the scenes

The YPG did not allow opposition but has a political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which helped polish its image in the West. It follows the same Marxist-Leninist ideology of its parent organisation, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the personality cult of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned in Turkey.

Tammo was the antithesis of the PKK model, espousing non-violence and a collaborative approach to achieving the rights of Syrian Kurds. He was killed before the uprising turned into an armed rebellion in response to the violent crackdown on peaceful protests — the exact outcome the regime wanted as it released Al Qaeda-linked militants from its jails. But Tammo well understood the Syrian regime and its clients, and his instincts would have been to keep the pro-democracy movement non-violent at any cost.

Syria’s Kurds comprised 10 per cent of Syria's 22 million population before 2011 and were concentrated in the north-east, although there were sizeable Kurdish populations in Damascus and north of Aleppo.

The north-east, inhabited by Kurds and Arabs, is home to Syria's oil reserves and the bulk of its wheat production. But its Kurdish inhabitants have long been an underclass, suffering discrimination and extortion by authorities and denied the right to teach Kurdish in schools.

With his charisma and new approach, Tammo appealed to a new generation of Syrian Kurds fed up with the traditional Kurdish groups and the PKK. In 2009, the regime sentenced him to three-and-a-half years in jail for “weakening national sentiment”.

Tammo was released in June 2011, three months after the Syrian revolt broke out, and began speaking out about how Syria’s Kurds could not ignore the regime slaughter of their Arab compatriots.

At a rally in Qamishli in 2011, Tammo said: “We belong to the Syrian revolution not to you," referring to the YPG.

“We have a problem with those working with the regime,” he said on another occasion, adding that Syria’s Kurds must not “contribute to a regime that is killing the Syrian people”.

Tammo envisioned a “new social contract” in a Syria free of Assad family rule, under which the Kurds would be a component of a pluralist society and pursue their rights.

For Tammo it was unthinkable for Kurds to achieve this separately from the rest of the population, in contrast with the PYD/YPG policy of allying with whichever force necessary to achieve de facto Kurdish autonomy.

After his assassination the YPG went to great lengths to put down the Kurds whose cause the group said it was advancing.

In 2012, eight Kurdish officers who defected from the Syrian army disappeared in Malikiya, a YPG-controlled town near the Tigris River running between Syria and Iraq. Their families, as well as the rebel Free Syrian Army, accused the YPG of kidnapping them.

A 2015 report by Amnesty International accused the YPG of war crimes and a land grab in the north-east. Later reports implicated the YPG in the killing, torture and disappearances of Kurdish activists opposed to its rule.

But as Turkish forces and their Arab proxies advance into the north-east, the YPG's initial gambit to collaborate with the regime for its own narrow aims appears to have backfired.