Anyone searching for a sliver of light in the darkness of the Syrian catastrophe has no better place to go than the country’s northeast. There some 2.2 million Kurds have created a quasi state that is astonishingly safe—and strangely unknown abroad. No barrel bombs are dropped by Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes. No ISIS executioners enforce the wearing of the niqab. No Turkish air strikes send civilians running, as Turkish attacks on Kurdish militia bases do across the border in Iraq.
Safety is of course a relative concept. Car bombs and suicide attacks by ISIS assassins regularly take lives in this predominantly Kurdish 250-mile-wide stretch of Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but by the standards of the rest of the country it is quiet.
The 2.2 million Kurds make up a tenth of the Syrian population. During the protests of 2011—the Arab Spring—they, like their Arab counterparts in other Syrian cities, publicly demonstrated for reform in Qamishli, the region’s largest city. But Assad was milder toward them than he was to other protesters elsewhere. He gave citizenship to 300,000 stateless Kurds and in July 2012 even withdrew most of his combat troops from the area on the grounds that they were needed more urgently in the Syrian heartland of Aleppo, Damascus, and the cities in between.
Kurdish militias known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) quickly organized the support of much of the Kurdish adult population under thirty and took control of the region, which they divide into three “cantons” and which they call Rojava (i.e., West, meaning western Kurdistan, from roj, the Kurdish word for sun). The other Kurdish regions are in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.
Over the next three years the YPG trained and built a well-disciplined, though lightly armed, military force and set up an efficient system of local government. It is a measure of the Assads’ repression that, whereas in Turkey bans on the Kurdish language were lifted in 1991, they were kept in place for another two decades in Syria. As a result most adults in Rojava speak better Arabic than Kurdish. Now in charge of their own statelet, Kurdish leaders are reviving the use of the Kurdish language in schools and on TV and radio stations.
The language, Kurmanji, belongs to the Indo-European family and is akin to Farsi but distinct from Arabic or Turkish. Unlike Arabs and Turks but like Iranians, Kurds celebrate the New Year, Newroz, on the first day of spring.
The Kurds are originally a mountain people, who emerged near Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Their most famous warrior, Saladin, who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, was active with his regiments along the Mediterranean in the twelfth century. Many settled in Damascus…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.