A Short History of Syria’s Rojava Kurds

If we  look at the recent history of the Kurds in northeastern Syria (known to the Kurds as “Rojava”), we can say that the major events began with the establishment of the Syrian Republic in 1961. The Rojava Kurds are distributed primarily in the three governorates of Syria, Hasaka, Raqqa and Halab, in the three major regions of Al-Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin.  

Rojava is an area of great diversity.  Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs, Yezidis, and Armenian minorities have all lived there for centuries, with none of them having experienced discrimination due to their religion. The Kurds of Rojava enjoyed a prosperous life until the establishment of the “Arab Belt” project in Syria in 1965. That project brought huge demographic changes in areas of Rojava, taking over much of the agricultural land of the Kurds. It aimed to empty the Al-Jazeera (Heseka) of the original Kurdish population, and to settle Arab families in their place. The purpose of that project was the dispossession of Kurds from their land and Syrian citizenship, which basically amounted to  a policy of Arabization — displacement and starvation against them. 

The Arab Belt was implemented in 1974 and extended the belt length of “300 km and width of 10-15 km, its width extended from the Iraqi border in the west and  in the East of Ras al-Ain (Sari-Kani). More than 4,000 Arab families have been settled in on the border strip and distributed more than 700,000 acres of land confiscated.” (Brown). The foregoing was accompanied by a systematic policy aimed at obliterating the Kurdish identity and fusing the Kurds with the crucible of Arab nationalism. This manifested in the repression of the Kurdish political movement and arrest of its activists, also changing the historical Kurdish names of hundreds of villages, towns, hills, and sites and replacing them with Arabic names. It even meant denying the Kurds the right to speak their own language, and to play Kurdish music and songs.

After that, the Rojava people — and specifically the Kurds — were silent. They could not ask for their rights because they were not acknowledged to be citizens of Syria. Their Kurdish identity was basically erased. However, Rojava was shelter for the movements of other political parties from the northern, southern and eastern sides of Kurdistan. Furthermore, Kurds in Rojava have never had an entity and formal party, even though they facilitated the foundation of other parties like the PUK, PDK and PKK. They have always fought beside the Northern Kurds and were part of initiating the beginning of other parties in southern Kurdistan. Even Kurdish singers went to Rojava to record their songs at a time when Kurdish was forbidden in their respective countries.

On the 12th of March 2004, in the northeastern city of Qamishli, Rojava encountered the worst event in its history. This event occurred after a football match between the Qamishli team (Jihad) and Der al-Zour team (Youth).  In that football match, a violent confrontation erupted between Kurds and some Arab tribes of Der al-Zour. The Syrian Security forces rapidly intervened, and the disturbance then expanded into other Kurdish cities, lasting for 6 days. A lot of people were killed and wounded, but we still don’t have an accurate number of the casualties.

After the events of 12 March 2004 in Qamishli, a lot of Syrian Kurds fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq. Local authorities, UNHCR, and other UN agencies set up the Muqabala camp at a former military base near Dohuk province near Kurdistan and they are now living in camps in Dohuk. 

In June 2005, thousands of Kurds demonstrated in Qamishli to protest the assassination of Sheikh Khaznawi, a Kurdish clerk in Syria. A policeman was killed and 4 Kurds were wounded.

In March 2008, the Syrian security forces opened fire on Kurds who were celebrating the Newroz holiday, Kurdish New Year. Three people were killed.

In 12th March 2011, days before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, thousands of Syrian Kurds protested in Qamishli and Heseka on Kurdish martyr’s day. And with the outbreak of the Syrian revolution on 15th March in Dara’a, the Syrian Kurds continued their demonstrations against the Syrian regime, in response to violent government actions against young children who had demonstrated very mildly in Dara’a.

The start of the Syrian civil war in March of 2011 saw the rise of radical Islamic groups, and Rojava has faced a lot of attacks since that time. 

First, in Sari-Kani they were attacked by Al-Nisra, and then in Kobani by ISIS. In September 2014, ISIS began a broad attack on the city of Kobani. Even though the Kurds did not have heavy weapons, and Turkey closed the border to them, Kurds were able to resist for a while, which then forced the international community to help. And that was a turning point for Rojava’s revolution, because the US then continued to help them until Kobani and many other cities that were controlled by ISIS in early 2014 were liberated. Most important was the liberation of Raqqa, which was considered the capital of ISIS. The Kurdish forces, with US help in both air strikes on ISIS locations and training by the US army, succeeded in largely recovering the Syrian land from ISIS. 

But while the Rojava Kurds had largely defeated ISIS, they were about to discover that the existential threat posed by Turkey was still very much alive. On 20th March 2018, Turkish forces seized control of the city of Afrin in northwest Syria after the YPG withdrew in the operation called “Operation Olive Branch”. Turkish and Kurdish forces in Afrin fought for 60 days until Afrin fell to the Turks. Turkish president Erdogan claimed that the Turkish incursion was in order to secure the safety of the Turkish border in northwest Syria — calling the YPG a terrorist group that threatened Turkey’s safety.

However, the true reasons for Turkey’s aggression were the following: First, for demographic and strategic reasons, because Afrin is a strategic area between Turkey and Syria. Erdogan wanted to expand Turkish territory 35 km inside Syria, and to set up a point there to facilitate military campaigns through that point to control Arab villages in Afrin and to exploit Arab youth in forming an army that could help with their attacks. He brought forces from Turkey as well to extract Kurds, Yezidis, and Assyrians from their areas in Afrin, and he replaced them with Turkmen and Arabs.

Turkey also seeks to prevent the Kurds from reaching the Mediterranean Sea — and this is important — because it is historically believed that if Kurds reach the Mediterranean, they will be able to have a state of their own.

All of those events helped Rojava in building a strong democratic state, where men and women participate equally in both social and political lives. Rojava has become a great and successful democratic experiment, unique in the entire Middle East, with women for the first time being armed alongside men. Women are also equally represented in the local government, compared to men. It is also important to mention that Rojava has established a self-sufficient economy, using their own resources of oil, water, and agricultural crops.

But after the 2018 fall of Afrin, Turkey’s Erdogan had spoken of that offensive as only a “comma” in his efforts against the Kurds. And on 9 October 2019, following a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Erdogan, Trump announced the imminent withdrawal of US forces from Rojava. They withdrew very quickly from the border area, and Turkish forces began air strikes and overland attacks against the Kurds there. It continues until now, despite much international pressure on Turkey to stop. The Turks are still fighting to take control over all of Rojava’s areas, but until now the Kurds are defending themselves and not giving up. Kurds from all over the world are protesting and asking Turkey to stop their attacks. 

In fact, much of the world is protesting the Turkish attack on the Rojava Kurds. On 10 October 2019, European leaders called a meeting of the UN Security Council, seeking a joint resolution against Turkey’s actions, but the US and Russia used their veto to prevent a resolution from being passed. 

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