Oct 18th 2017
THE BODIES of the dead would hang for days from the railings in the main square of Raqqa. It was a macabre warning to residents that Islamic State (IS) had declared the capital of its so-called caliphate in the Syrian city. Signs around the victims’ necks revealed their crimes. Dozens were executed for spying; others for smoking or listening to music.
This week that reign of terror ended. On October 17th, after four months of heavy fighting, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an army of Kurds and Arabs, took the square. Tying yellow and green flags to the railings where the bodies once hung, they stomped and shouted to celebrate.
The capture of Raqqa highlights how over the past few years the SDF has become the most effective American-backed force in the fight against IS in Syria. Its parent group, the left-wing Democratic Union Party (PYD), now controls a swathe of territory running almost the entire width of northern Syria that it calls Rojava. The PYD declared it autonomous in 2016. Under the Assad regime, Kurds were forbidden to teach in their own language, and hundreds of thousands were stateless. Many saw Rojava as a step towards reversing decades of brutal discrimination.
Yet the region’s autocratic rulers seem intent on replacing one form of oppression with another. Over the past few years Kurdish militiamen have razed or evacuated dozens of Arab villages across northern Syria. They have also conscripted hundreds of people into the SDF. Young Arab men are “noticeably underrepresented” at camps for internally displaced persons, says the UN, because they fear being drafted or detained. The PYD does not tolerate dissent from fellow Kurds, either. In May its police, the Asayish, raided the offices of Kurdish opposition parties in Qamishli, the region’s de facto capital, and arrested about a dozen activists. As many as half a million Kurds have fled to neighbouring countries rather than live under the PYD’s rule, activists say.
It is also intent on moulding young minds. Schools in Raqqa, most of whose inhabitants are Arab, are still using official Syrian textbooks—though with photos of the ruling Assad family ripped out. However, some local Kurdish officials have suggested a new curriculum much like the one the PYD has introduced in other areas under its control. The new one is very political, promotes the PYD’s left-wing view of the world, and is not accredited by any official standards authority. Arab teachers in Hasaka, in the north-east of Syria, protested in August against the switch.
But apart from sporadic protests, there has been no serious internal opposition to the PYD. The Asayish are ruthlessly effective, and the population is exhausted by war. In the long run, though, the PYD’s oppressive rule will fuel the same Sunni Arab alienation that gave rise to the Islamic State. “The Kurds didn’t read their history well,” says an activist from the region. “Their acts will just allow other extremists to come back.”
It may also splinter the SDF. Thousands of Arab rebels have already defected to other groups. Because of its American backing, the SDF has enjoyed a degree of immunity from pro-regime forces and Russian warplanes. But with Raqqa liberated, America will probably pull back its special forces. Even without further desertions, the SDF’s 50,000 troops are stretched too thin to defend all of its territory, some of which is also important for the regime since the east holds much of Syria’s oil reserves. Rather than fight the regime, some SDF commanders are open to negotiating with it. The SDF has accepted pro-regime militias into its ranks and has been arresting vocal anti-Assad activists.
It will be harder to cut a deal with Turkey. The PYD is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, calls the PYD a terrorist organisation, and his warplanes have already bombed camps belonging to the PYD’s armed wing in both Syria and Iraq. In October he deployed troops to Idlib province, ostensibly to fight jihadist groups. The real target may be the Kurds.
Just as Iraq’s Kurds may fail to realise their dreams of an independent state, so their Syrian brethren could find that their own autonomy is even shorter-lived.