"You can say the war is like a giant game of chess..." the Syrian Kurdish 'fixer' and driver told photographer and author Joey Lawrence as they traveled across the Kurdish northern Syrian heartland locally dubbed Rojava.
As perhaps confusing and chess-like the now eight-year long war might be even for the players on the ground, many in the West woke up Monday morning to a new seeming contradictory reality: US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces (SDF) have struck a deal with the Syrian government, and the national flag of President Bashar al-Assad is now flying alongside that of the Kurdish resistance movement, which had been for years backed by American forces. Currently, US special forces are in retreat from the Turkish border upon White House orders, and simultaneously the Syrian Army is moving in.
How did such a reunion occur seemingly overnight between the two "enemies"? Hours before the deal was struck, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Force's top commander, Mazloum Abdi, wrote a Foreign Policy op-ed in which he explained to the world: "We know we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Assad if we go down that road. But if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life."
To understand this, as well as why the invading Turkish Army and its 'rebel' proxies now face a nightmarish resistance and insurgency, it is crucial to revisit the little-discussed role of Syria's main Kurdish militias from the start of the war, how they've survived as the region's fiercest and most experienced ground force, and further how their secular identity and pragmatism has ensured not just survival but flourishing even as they've faced extinction by ISIS and the invading Turkish state, and after enduring multiple historic betrayals.
Extracts in the below essay are taken from the book We Came From Fire, by Joey L. published by Powerhouse Books (2019), and are used with permission.
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"For Kurds, fire is extremely important. We came from fire, and we will return to fire — it's an ancient saying," one Syrian Kurdish fighter explained to Joey Lawrence.
"The recent war in Iraq and Syria had become a globalized conflict, except rather than a world war fought with state armies, it was fought by proxy, with the blood of the local people. The world had become entwined in the conflict in ways never before imaginable, and events were both amplified and distorted by propaganda from all sides..."
"After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the great European powers divided up the former Ottoman territory. The ensuing treaty — the Treaty of Sevres — promised the Kurds their own continguous and sovereign entity for the first time in modern history. However, three years later, after a series of military victories by the former Ottoman Brigadier General Kemal Pasha (now known as Ataturk), the great powers had to relent to Turkish pressure and replace Sevres with the Treaty of Lausanne. This new treaty established the new Republic of Turkey and squashed Kurdish hopes for a state of their own. The land of the Kurds would be divided between four different countries, splitting tribal lines, villages, and even families...
As the latest conflict in Iraq and Syria, starting in 2011, spiraled out of control, state powers that once kept the Kurdish ethnic minority down found themselves spread thin, fighting against both rebellions and jihadist insurgencies; they were forced to retreat from Kurdish areas and dedicate resources to government heartlands. However grim, the crisis and dismantling of perceived nation-state borders presented Kurds with a golden opportunity. The once-persecuted rose to secure power in the vacuum."
"Seeing an opportunity to crush the Assad government — an old rival often at odds with the Western and Gulf sphere of influence — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, and other NATO-aligned European powers all acted in their own way against the crumbling Syrian state. Intelligence services sent vast amounts of weapons, money, and other materials to the rebels. Western and Gulf states chose their own champions in the war...
Turkey purposely left its border wide open... It became a gateway for tens of thousands of international jihadists to openly enter Syria and fight alongside the FSA against the Syrian government. These foreign fighters filled the ranks of al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, the al-Nusra Front, the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham, and later, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A Syrian jihad was born."
"As the largest ethnic minority in Syria — some 10 to 15 percent of the population — the Kurds are treated by the government with both deep suspicion and discrimination. While smaller minorities were given status, the Syrian Ba'ath regime viewed the Kurdish population as too large to risk empowering with representation in politics, yet small enough to keep down. The regime outlawed speaking the Kurdish language in public, as well as all related cultural activities. In the 1970s, the Syrian Ba'ath regime had enacted a forced resettlement program that changed the ethnographic makeup of predominantly Kurdish regions...
In April 2011, the Assad government, losing control of the population following the large-scale demonstrations and riots sweeping the country, reversed some of these policies. The Syrian government vowed to issue identity cards back to a small portion of the stateless Kurds, but could never fully reconcile given the growing dissent within the population. The country was in crisis; it was too little too late."
"In July 2012, the Syrian Arab Army abandoned Kurdish enclaves of Syria to dedicate their dwindling resources to other areas of the country at war. Kurds were now free of the repressive nature of the Assad regime, but at the same time, they were left on their own to defend themselves from the al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups ravaging the land. Even though the Syrian Kurds were predominantly of Sunni faith, the secular nature of the community in general was perceived as heretical by Sunni fundamentalists groups like ISIS, and were therefore targeted for conversion or extermination...
Thus, the People's Protection Units (YPG) and their all-female wing, the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), were born. Other spectrums of Kurdish political voices either abandoned the region and fled across the border, or were forced out by the domination of the new power structure."
"At the same time, the Syrian Arab Army's retreat was self-serving. As foreign fighters were flooding into Syria from Turkey, the regime left the Kurds — Turkey's insurgent enemy — to fight jihadist groups along the border. Clashes between the YPG/J and the Syrian Arab Army happened on many occasions, but a pragmatic neutrality would always be restored. Both sides knew that opening fronts against one another would weaken themselves, and both feared the future country falling in the hands of jihadists. It seemed neither the Syrian government nor the Turkish-backed rebels could guarantee minority rights for the Kurds, and the YPG/J chose a delicate third path in the war.
For the first time the term Rojava could be uttered in public. (Rojava, which means "the west" in the Kurdish language, refers to the part of the northeast syria that makes up west Kurdistan, and also is sued to describe the setting sun.) The newly empowered Rojava Kurds immediately began establishing popular governance, from neighborhood communes and academies to citywide councils to a regional administration spread across three different cantons: Afrin, Kobane, and Jazira. In January 2014, the three self-governing cantons declared themselves as autonomous zones."
"The YPG/J would prove themselves to be one of the first forces capable of stopping the ISIS advance in Syria... Most of these battles were unreported in the Western press, and the war between the Syrian Kurds and the radical Islamists was generally viewed as a sideshow to the greater war between Assad and the rebellion...
ISIS — seemingly the world's most terrifying boogeyman — was collapsing under every offensive. It was purely a military alliance [the US and YPG/J/SDF forces], and the Americans rejected recognizing any political project of Kurdish autonomy in Syria. The US-led coalition support was extremely limited to the occasional delivery of light weapons and airstrikes, which were called in covertly by a small number of special operations forces embedded among the fighters. The US was wary to give the YPG/J heavy weapons such as the anti-tank TOW missile, perhaps fearing that one day they could fall into the hands of the PKK against their NATO partner, Turkey."
"After the fall of Idlib Governate and its provincial capital to a controversial coalition of al-Qaeda-affiliated armed groups and CIA-backed FSA rebels, the Syrian conflict took a dramatic turn. Russia entered the war... Although the YPG/J had openly fought Assad's forces in the beginning of the war, the fragile neutrality that later formed was only seldom broken by odd skirmishes over checkpoints and access to roads. While they were opposed to everything the Assad regime represented, the YPG/J's reluctance to join the rebels in the beginning of the war had benefited them greatly."
"They were not yet targets of Russian airpower. After all, the Syrian Arab Army was severely lacking in manpower, and the YPG/J mostly had the same enemies. They say it's wise to fight your enemy's enemy last."
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See Joey L.'s full account and photos in We Came From Fire: Photographs of Kurdistan's Armed Struggle Against ISIS.