Middle East

Syria crisis: Kurds fight to keep out encroaching jihadists

A grieving family attend the funeral of their daughter, who was killed by ISIS fighters Image copyright Jewan Abdi
Image caption Kurdish and rebel fighters have fought over control of several towns in northern Syria

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) came to Tal Maarouf in the early hours of the morning, a surprise attack that took the lightly guarded village by surprise.

"They came to our house, and kicked in the door," said a woman who was among a small group of villagers taken away. She did not want to be named.

"We were terrified," she added. "It was dark, and the children were crying and screaming. They pointed their guns at us and said: 'Get moving, and if you talk to the kids in Kurdish, we'll shoot you.' We shut up and walked."

They were taken to a nearby village, Tal Hamis, which is still under the control of ISIS, a jihadist rebel group whose practices are so extreme that it has even been disavowed by al-Qaeda.

The women were questioned and later released with the children. Some of the men are still being held.

Trail of destruction

ISIS occupied Tal Maarouf for less than 24 hours.

The Popular Protection Units (YPG) - the mainly Kurdish militia that controls this "canton", known as al-Jazira, along the Turkish and Iraqi borders in remote north-eastern Syria - rallied for a counter-attack, and the ISIS fighters pulled out.

They left behind an extraordinary trail of devastation in a village now virtually deserted except for chickens, cats, stray dogs and YPG fighters.

Any building associated with the YPG was ransacked and torched.

But by far the greatest damage was done to the village's two mosques, which were systematically demolished - not the collateral damage of war, but deliberate destruction.

There was even a pile of ashes and charred pages where a collection of Korans had been burnt, the verses of some of its Surahs still clearly identifiable on the delicately carbonised leaves.

For most Muslims, these would be the ultimate acts of desecration because they consider the Koran the sacred word of God.

Image copyright Jewan Abdi
Image caption Two mosques in the village of Tal Maarouf were ransacked by ISIS fighters
Image copyright Jewan Abdi
Image caption The mosques were left in ruins after fighters pulled the buildings apart
Image copyright Jewan Abdi
Image caption They also lit fires and and even burned a collection of Korans

But the mosques and the adjacent seminary and residences, which were also torched, belonged to the Naqshabandis, members of a liberal Sufi sect of Sunni Islam who would be regarded as heretics by hardline fundamentalists such as ISIS.

That, presumably, would also explain the burning of the Korans, on the grounds that they had been contaminated and defiled by being handled by such "heretics".

The most recent eminence of the sect, Sheikh Mohammed Mashouq al-Khaznawi, was abducted and killed, allegedly by the Syrian government, in 2005.

He had famously said: "I am Kurdish first, and Muslim second."

Foreign fighters

But the struggle here is not simply one between Syrian Kurds and Arabs.

At a cemetery in a muddy field near the village of Ain al-Khadra, we attended the highly emotional funeral of Tahsin al-Mushawwa, from the big Arab tribe of al-Tayy.

Although an Arab, he was a fighter - going by the nom de guerre Zagros - with the mainly-Kurdish YPG. He was fatally wounded when a suicide bomber from ISIS blew himself up near a YPG checkpoint.

Image copyright Jewan Abdi
Image caption The cemetery at Ain al-Khadra is filled with the graves of those killed in the clashes with Islamist militants

Thousands of Kurds flocked to the cemetery and joined his Arab relatives weeping and grieving for the young man.

"We have no problems among ourselves," said Tahsin's angry cousin Jamal al-Kharouf.

"The trouble is these terrorist takfiri gangs sent by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey," he added, referring to extremists who believe Muslim society has reverted to a state of non-belief, legitimising attacks on other Muslims.

"And behind them, the West is sending us their terrorists, the scum of Europe. They grow beards, but they have nothing to do with Islam. What kind of Muslim would destroy a mosque and desecrate the grave of a sheikh who taught generations of students?"

ISIS itself said that two of its fighters killed at Tal Maarouf were from the United Arab Emirates.

We were given access to a jail where the mainly Kurdish security force, Asayesh, is holding Islamist rebel prisoners we were told had been captured by the YPG during clashes, or intercepted on failed suicide- or car-bombing operations.

The handful of prisoners paraded for us were all said to be Syrians, both Arabs and Kurds, though we were not allowed to speak to them.

Image copyright Jewan Abdi
Image caption The YPG presented a collection of the foreign passports it said had been found on the bodies of ISIS fighters

But we were shown the passports and identity papers that the YPG said were found on the bodies of nine fighters from ISIS or the al-Nusra Front - the only official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria - killed in recent clashes.

They were three Turks, three Iraqis, and one each from Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain. Stamps on their passports showed that the Arabs had transited through Turkey.

A separate register bearing the insignia of al-Nusra logged the details of another 35 fighters, many of them clearly from outside Syria.

Driven out

Another nearby village, Gerhok, was occupied by al-Nusra's Eagle Brigade for six months last year.

Although the village - lying close to the oilfields at Rumaylan - has an Arab majority, the entire population fled and only returned after the YPG had driven out al-Nusra.

"Al-Nusra was interested in the oil," said Ali al-Salih, head of the local farmers' association.

"Now that they've gone, things are stable and we can enjoy our homes again. But the oil is still a problem - there's a kind of anarchy."

"Gangs fight over it at night, and people are refining it by hand at the roadside. It's ruining our crops and our health, and we're getting nothing out of it."

Hospital officials say the most common ailment in the area now is pulmonary problems caused by the pollution from hundreds of primitive mini-refineries pumping acrid black smoke into the air.

"Even so, there's no way we would want al-Nusra or the other terrorist groups back," Mr Salih added.

"Now, I can receive you as my guest. If they were around, you wouldn't last five minutes. They'd probably kill you in my house."

Officials of the YPG militia and its political affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), say they have lost more than 500 fighters repelling ISIS, al-Nusra and allied Islamist groups.

Image copyright Jewan Abdi
Image caption People have begun refining oil by hand at the roadside near the village of Gerhok

"We may have political differences with the rest of the Syrian opposition, but our basic problem is with the groups like ISIS and al-Nusra, which are linked to al-Qaeda," said Aldar Khalil, a senior PYD figure.

"They are trying to penetrate here and make Syria a centre and base for themselves, so we have to confront them and fight them."

"It seems ISIS have taken a strategic decision to make war on us, and not just us - they want to control the area, and they'll fight any force that stands in their way."

'Still Syria'

The PYD and its affiliates announced in January the establishment of "democratic self-administration" in the three Kurdish-dominated cantons - al-Jazira in the north-east, Ain al-Arab (Kobani in Kurdish) in the central sector, and around Ifrin in the far north-west.

Despite the move, they have denied accusations that they want to join them up and pursue a path of autonomy verging on virtual independence, as the Kurds next door in Iraq have done.

"We are part of Syria, regardless of the ruling regime," said Mr Khalil.

"The regime is one thing, and the state is another. You can be at odds with the regime and want to change it, but not the geography of Syria. These cantons remain tied to Syria and subject to the central state."

That ambivalence, which has drawn accusations of collusion with the regime, is evident as you move around Qamishli, the biggest town in the al-Jazira canton.

A huge portrait of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad adorns the entrance to the busy post office. Syrian troops man positions around a base in the centre of town, and control the nearby airport.

A statue of the president's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, stands untouched in a busy square, one of the few to survive the uprising around the country.

Syrian secret police officers in their trademark black leather jackets saunter casually past Kurdish Asayesh police stations.

There are many other signs of de facto co-existence between the state and the Kurdish forces.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Asayesh Kurdish police force operate openly in areas where state security personnel are also stationed

That is hardly surprising. The PYD is strongly linked to the Turkish rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Pictures of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, adorn offices throughout the Syrian Kurdish areas.

Syria backed the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s and harboured Ocalan until a Turkish military mobilisation forced Damascus to expel him in 1998, enabling his subsequent capture and detention in Kenya the next year. So ties between the regime and the PKK and its affiliates go back a long way.

Colluding with al-Qaeda?

It is taken as axiomatic among many residents of the Kurdish-majority cantons that there must be invisible high-level co-ordination between the regime and the PYD, even if at the grassroots nothing is known.

But there is another, contradictory yet widely held, perception: that the regime is also in cahoots with ISIS and other Islamist groups that the Kurds are fighting.

Again, the roots of alleged regime complicity with radical Islamist networks go back 10 years to the war in Iraq, when Damascus was bitterly accused by Iraqi officials, the Americans and others, of facilitating and encouraging jihadists to cross the border to join the insurgency.

Now, Kurds and others point to circumstantial evidence of collusion between the government and the jihadists.

There are many stories of government forces refraining from bombarding ISIS positions, but targeting them if other rebel groups take them over.

"The regime seems to have a hand in everything, and we don't know who is friend or foe," said one puzzled Kurd.

The "self-administration" announced by the PYD and its allies remains largely theoretical or vestigial for the moment.

Throughout the al-Jazira canton, teachers, hospital staff, municipal workers and others continue to be paid by the Syrian state, and official paperwork has to be done through government offices in the provincial capital, Hassakeh.

The course that the PYD is charting is not universally approved in the cantons, and is strongly criticised by rival political factions which accuse it of imposing itself through the guns of the YPG.

Although sounding public opinion is difficult, many Kurds seem to agree that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which predominates in neighbouring northern Iraqi Kurdistan, is more popular than the PYD despite the latter's control on the ground in Syria.

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