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Syria’s Kurds prepare for life after Assad

By Loveday Morris | Financial Times,

HASAKAH, Syria — A single patrol car sits outside the new police station in the town of Girkilige in Syria’s oil-producing heartland, the lettering on its side freshly painted in the Kurdish language.

From the dilapidated three-roomed building, once a government-owned pumping station, Rayzan Turkmani, a clean-cut young man toting a Kalashnikov assault rifle, heads a ragtag force of 140 local volunteers. He describes plans to open a training academy for recruits within the month.

“It’s an emergency situation, so we have to move fast,” he said. “We are working for autonomy, and to manage ourselves. . . . We must be ready when the regime falls.”

Syria’s approximately 1.7 million Kurds, nearly 10 percent of the population, are the only group with a history of organized opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s government, but while many towns have seen anti-government protests during the 18-month uprising, they have refrained from joining the armed opposition.

As the uprising has evolved, however, the Kurds — largely concentrated in the country’s northeast, which holds a significant portion of Syria’s limited but vital oil reserves — have been quietly preparing for a post-Assad future, opening police stations, courts and local councils that they hope will form the foundations of an autonomous region.

The proliferation of newly hung Kurdish flags and signs in the mother tongue in al-Hasakah province give the impression of liberation after years of rule under the Baath party, which expropriated land in Kurdish areas, suppressed expressions of Kurdish identity and arrested thousands of Kurdish activists, especially after riots shook the Kurdish areas in 2004.

But the effort to achieve self-governance is taking place while the government’s troops maintain a presence in many of the region’s towns and cities, appearing to turn a blind eye to what would have previously been an unthinkable threat to its power.

Turkmani points to a building a few hundred yards away, where the two-starred Syrian state flag flutters overhead.

“Bashar’s police station,” he said. “They just play cards all day. They have nothing to do.”

The state’s inaction may reflect a strategic decision to avoid opening up another front of conflict or, as many in the Syrian opposition say, could be intended to invigorate the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey to rattle Ankara as it funnels support to the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Turkey, once a friend of the Assad government but now one of its chief outside opponents, has expressed concerns that new institutions in the region are dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is known for its close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States, and its militants have stepped up their campaign in eastern Turkey in recent months.

Portraits of Abdullah Ocalan, the incarcerated PKK leader, gaze down from the walls of newly opened local council buildings here, where citizens queue to sign up for handouts sent from Iraq or to seek arbitration in local disputes.

“He is a hero for all Kurds,” said Daham Ali, a committee member at the freshly opened Mala Gel, or People’s House, in Derik, a town in the foothills of the mountains on the Turkish border, as he reeled off the names of Syrians who have died in the insurgency against Turkey.

Rival parties say the group lacks significant support and accuse the PYD of working in collaboration with the Assad regime, a claim the party denies.

“We cannot kiss the hand that kills us,” its local leader, Saleh Muslim Mohammed, said, adding that hundreds of the party’s members languish in government jails.

But as fledgling institutions take root, the PYD’s political dominance is causing friction on the ground.

“Ocalan’s school works only in oppression and propaganda for the youth to take guns and fight,” said Mohammed Ismail, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party. A picture of him meeting the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, who is backing some of the Kurdish rivals to the PYD, sits on a shelf behind him. “Barzani has never used terrorism, never bombed a restaurant,” he said.

As Ismail talks, he receives a phone call, after which he says that a young activist from his party has been detained by the PYD at a demonstration.

“This happens — they take people, they disappear for a few days,” he said. “Maybe they release them, maybe they don’t.”

Opposing parties hold separate demonstrations against the government, and some express concern that friction may spill over into conflict. But in the meantime, the PYD is the one that appears to be consolidating control.

At a party youth rally in Derik, the speaker rouses the crowd with a message from Ocalan to the Syrian Kurds, which he says was given to a lawyer on a recent prison visit.

“You must not be with Assad, you must not be with the opposition, you must be the third power in Syria,” he quoted Ocalan as saying. “You must prepare 15,000 soldiers to protect the Kurdish areas. If you don’t take this strategy you will be crushed. . . . All young Kurds must prepare themselves to join up and protect their motherland.”

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