MESOP TODAYS RECOMMENDATION : BETWEEN PYD & DAESH – Perspective on the Syrian Kurds after the Arab Spring: the Pressure and the Penalties


By Jana Muhammed 21 August 2015

The grass has not grown greener in Syria under the harsh edicts of the PYD. Syrian Kurds do not want to have no alternatives other than to choose between Daesh or the PYD.

Syria’s Kurds, like most Syrians, impatiently watched the revolution in Egypt and waited for it to come to an end in order to begin their own uprising against the Syrian regime. That is exactly what they did on 18 March 2011.

Syria’s Kurds had strong cause to revolt against a regime that had deprived them, since the 1962 Census, of Syrian citizenship – that had deprived them of using their language, had banned the giving of Kurdish names to their children, and had brought Arab settlers from other parts of Syria and given them the ancestral lands of the Kurds. Syria’s Kurds also suffered from the central government’s impoverishment policies as did ordinary Arabs. So if the Arabs’ suffering were two-fold – economic and political – the Kurds’ suffering was three-fold: it entailed economic, political and ethnic repression.

Kurds in Syria – or to be more accurate, a great many of them – took to the streets demonstrating against the Ba’athist regime under the Assad dynasty. For the first time during the long running regime’s rule over Syria there was a true sense of national unity across ethnic barriers whereby Kurds also found themselves chanting for Homs, Deraa, Deir ez-Zor, showing solidarity with the demonstrators in Arab areas against Bashar Al-Assad’s government.

The regime, naturally, aimed to suppress the uprising from the start, attacking demonstrators in Arab regions with the intent to kill. So far as Kurdish demonstrators were concerned, in contrast, Bashar al-Assad’s government adopted a non-lethal policy for four reasons:

Firstly, to give the impression that the Syrian Kurds were pro-regime and create a dichotomy between Kurds and the Arabs. (Many Arab political analysts at the time were suspicious and wondered why Assad’s regime wasn’t firing directly at the Kurdish demonstrators. Secondly, to give the impression that demonstrations in other areas were not ‘peaceful’ and that the regime would in fact tolerate ‘peaceful’ demonstrations like those in the Kurdish areas. Government spokesman, Sharif Shahada, in fact said the same more than once. Thirdly, so as not to disperse the Syrian Army’s forces so far from the capital and fourthly, as the Kurds were the most “organized” group in Syrian society, the regime remembered what had taken place on 12 March 2004 and how the Kurds had seemingly united overnight from Derik in the far east of the country to Afrin in the northwest and to Zorava in Damascus, as well as numerous Kurds in the European Diaspora rebelling against the regime’s violent crackdown on Kurds in Qamishly following the violence between Kurds and Arabs at a football match.

At the beginning of the revolution in Syria, Syrian opposition groups respected that the Kurds were also being coerced by the regime: the regime granted Syrian citizenship to those Kurds that had remained stateless and Bashar Assad sent several of his representatives to ask the “leaders” of Kurdish parties to meet in Damascus in order to appear to be ready to hear Kurdish demands. He then also released several Kurdish political prisoners, including Mishal Tamo, Hasan Salih, and co-leader of the PYD, Salih Muslim, who would later prove to be very useful to the regime.

Other Kurdish “leaders” refused to meet Bashar al-Assad at this time under pressure of the thousands of people demonstrating in the streets.

The Kurdish National Council

The classical Kurdish “leaders” were as much afraid as was Bashar Al-Assad himself that the disaffected youth would upset the status quo and replace them so they laboured to form a body that would compete with the Local Coordination Committees and formed the so-called ‘Kurdish National Council’.

For its part, the PKK-linked PYD, formed its own council, which it named the Council of Western Kurdistan. Both councils then sought to exclude non-partisan young males from the popular movement so as to take over the leadership for and by themselves.

The Assassination of Mishal Tamo

Mishal Tamo, a charismatic young Kurdish leader, had showed empathy with Syrian youths demonstrating against Bashar al-Assad, even when he was in prison. With his fiery speeches, Tamo was able to gather Syria’s Kurds around him. He not only attacked Bashar al-Assad’s policies but also criticized the Kurdish “leaders” of the classical Kurdish parties stating on the first day after his release “I do not belong to the Kurdish Movement, I belong to the Syrian Revolution.”

Soon afterwards, Mishal Tamo became an icon for the young demonstrators and was heralded as the new leader of the revolutionary movement. The erstwhile Kurdish parties panicked when they saw Tamo gaining people’s hearts. On 7 October 2011, sensing the threat he posed to them all, the Syrian security forces assassinated Mishal Tamo.

After his murder, some 50,000 people walked behind the funeral procession chanting slogans against the Syrian regime. The late Hafiz al-Assad’s statue in Amouda was destroyed for the second time and Mishal Tamo’s coffin was set upon the pedestal of the former President of Syria.

In fact, Mishal Tamo’s assassination marked a turning point in the position adopted by Syrian Kurds towards the Syrian revolution. Soon afterwards, the number of demonstrators decreased and the revolution’s flags were replaced by Kurdish national flags.  



The PYD and the Council of Western Kurdistan

Being adept at benefiting from regional clashes during the reign of Hafiz al-Assad, the Syrian regime had used the PKK as a cat’s paw in its struggle with Turkey over the water of the Euphrates river – Turkey having constructed a series of huge dams in the accomplishment of the GAP project that seriously affected the flow of water into Syria. When the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, was expelled from Syria in October 1998, the Assad regime signed a new security agreement with Turkey and the PKK’s activities in Syria were henceforth banned.

The PYD, the Syrian sister branch of the PKK, was also banned and its members began to be captured and imprisoned.

Once the Syrian revolution got underway, however, the Syrian security forces sought to use the PYD to suppress Kurds that were demonstrating against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Every Friday, Syrian security forces were put on alert to disperse the demonstrators. They then supplied the PYD’s militias with arms and began to prevent non-PYD affiliated Kurds from taking part in the demonstrations, first from the Kasimo mosque and then elsewhere. In return, the PYD militias were allowed to take over key locations such as petrol stations and bakeries.

After a short period ordinary civilians began to feel that the regime was, in fact, better than the militias. The militias had begun to impose taxes on vehicles filling their tanks with petrol and being able to buy bread became little more than a dream for ordinary Syrian Kurdish families. They would have to get up between 1 o’clock and 2 o’clock in the morning and wait in line until 9 am or even into the afternoon just to get a loaf or two of bread.

The PYD militias that had been given arms and ammunition then took control of outlying areas while the city centers remained under the regime’s control. PYD loyalists began to teach the Kurdish language in schools without a Presidential Decree necessary to legalize it. As a result, schools were then closed down for more than three months. This may likely have been a tactic in order for the PYD to recruit more underage students.

At this juncture, the PYD militias then named themselves “Units of the People’s Protection” and began to threaten, imprison and even kill, anyone criticizing them. The PYD thereby reserved a sense of being in the right by claiming to ‘protect people’. In fact, in Amouda, the PYD’s militias had imprisoned large numbers and when the friends of those that had been detained went on hunger strike sitting down in tents in protest, the militias burned down their tents, killing six people and injuring scores of others. The victims were then accused of being agents of Recep Tayyib Erdogan, then Turkish Prime Minister.  

The Summer of 2014

On 21 January 2014, the PYD announced that it was setting up a local administration in some Kurdish areas and began calling itself a ‘government’, in conjunction with a number of smaller, marginal parties, some of which lacked a suitable candidate able to adopt the post of Deputy Prime Minister.

A person well known to this author that did not belong to any particular political party was asked by one of these parties to represent them in the “government” because, as they told him, they didn’t have a university graduate available to take up that post. My friend resigned when the party concerned sought to introduce him as their member.

By the present date, the PYD has shown itself to be more tyrannical than the Ba’ath regime itself. Its party personnel do not accept any criticism and should anyone dare criticise them, then he risks being exiled to Iraqi Kurdistan or even killed and accused of being an agent to justify the killing.

When the Ba’ath regime imprisoned dissidents, the public would view them as political prisoners and freedom fighters. The Ba’ath regime used to overlook the Kurdish parties but the PYD insisted on getting a license to engage in political activity.

The results of the internal rupture

Kurdish society is now more divided more than at any previous time. Before the uprising there were sixteen political parties, now there are thirty-six, in addition to more than 40 independent groups classified as “civil society organizations.” More importantly, there’s a vertical and horizontal dichotomy in Kurdish society into Apocus (followers of ‘Apo’ Ocalan and the PKK) and Barzanies (followers of Massoud Barzani and the KDP).

The Kurdish areas have been evacuated and have changed demographically speaking. About 150,000 people, mainly Syrian Kurds, are currently refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan; thousands of others have fled across the border into Turkey and many thousands more to Europe. The Ba’ath regime had previously tried by all means to force Kurds into fleeing but had not succeeded.

PYD’s obligatory recruitment drive

During the blockade of Kurdish areas by the Islamic State organization (Daesh/IS) and other opposition groups, many Kurds soon found themselves jobless and were obliged to look for work outside Syria owing to the PYD’s coordination with Assad. Some chose to migrate because of the obligatory recruitment orders issued by the PYD’s local administration. The PYD’s henchmen would go to Kurdish workplaces, and even the homes of those they knew not to support them, and would demand that these Kurds take up arms for them or show financial support.

From the outset, the Assad regime tried to allow people to choose between security, or ‘democracy’, and consequently want him back. To a great extent he has succeeded in this. Many citizens of Syria nowadays long for the days when stability and security prevailed.

Many Syrians consider that the PYD is deliberately trying to create a bad impression so as to let others long for the past where the Ba’ath party ruled supreme. Those people will often say “rahmat allah kafandiz” in a reference to a story known as Kafandiz – the ‘Thief of the Shrouds’.

Kafandiz – the Thief of the Shrouds

According to a Kurdish folktale, once upon a time there was a man who used to steal the shrouds of the newly buried dead. People were very angry with him – so much so that when he died no one marched in his funeral procession.

“Why are you crying?” their son asked his mother.

“Because no one even said, ‘God bless his soul’!” she replied.

The son said, “I swear I will have everyone say ‘May God bless him!’ and wish for him to come back.”

A few days later, the son began to do as his father used to, but he would thrust a stick up the backsides of the dead people! The villagers began to say, “May God bless Kafandiz!”

Many Kurds in Syria nowadays cite this folktale as a counterpart between the current situation and the previous one.

                 The Status Quo before The Status quo
Fuel for heating Available at gas stations by anyone at any time. Permission is required from the head of the local commune (usually an illiterate person or someone only schooled to Elementary level).
Bread Generally available after an hour. In bakeries located in Kurdish areas like Timthal bakery, Huria, etc. Cards are given to pro-PYD people from the “People’s House”. As long as there are cardholders, ordinary people can’t get bread.
Political life The regime would overlook much Kurdish political activity. Kurdish politicians were accused of “threatening national security”. Political parties should get a license from the PYD and no demonstrations are allowed without prior consent.

Those activists they arrest are accused of being agents or drug dealers.

Electricity Available 24 hours a day 40 amperes for a monthly bill of 2500 -6000 Syrian Pounds (SYP) max.) 2-4 hours maximum. In every suburb now there are huge private generators SYP 750-950 per ampere.  


In short, Syrian Kurds feel that if the “local administration” is like the one run by PYD, then they no longer want it. They have lost confidence in this form of local administration.

Is the grass greener on the other side of the fence?

With the horrific images of the beheading of captives and the massacres and atrocities that Daesh/IS organisation has committed against the Yezidi sect in northern Iraq many Western commentators began to regard the Kurds in general, and the PYD in particular, as those who “not only fight terrorism but also build democracy”[1].

In reality, however, the canton of Aljazeera is the place where journalists are most frequently arrested or deported, and where a satellite channel like Rudaw is shut down and everybody silenced because, as they say “We are in a state of war”.

The grass has not grown greener in Syria under the harsh edicts of the PYD. Syrian Kurds do not want to have no alternatives other than to choose between Daesh or the PYD.





[1] Former French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Velpan, while visiting Amouda, the capital of the canton.