The Salafi Emirate of Ras al-Ain

Jehad Saleh   – FIKRA FORUM – 22.12.2012 – Serekani is a small Kurdish town whose name was Arabized and dubbed “Ras al-Ain” under the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad. With a population under 50,000, the majority of whom are Kurdish, in addition to Arab and Christian, Ras al-Ain was considered one of the exemplary cities of the peaceful, civilian-led revolution.  Today, however, Ras al-Ain has been transformed into a Salafi emirate, perhaps under Turkey’s tarbush.

The city, as many Kurdish cities, acted as a sanctuary, free from the spread of the Assad regime’s forces. Today, Ras al-Ain is under the grip of jihadis and young men with black beards and black flags circling the streets under the banner of the FSA. Tunisians, Moroccans, Afghanis, Iraqis, Saudis, and Syrians are in the squares, raising the Turkish flag alongside the black flag, and the flag of independence. They distribute bags of rice, flour, and sugar to poor and terrified residents, after seizing many grain warehouses, with the goal of garnering local support and using residents under the guise of freedom and toppling the regime.

The jihadi brigades — among them groups such as Liwa Ahfad al-Rasoul [The Brigade of the Prophet’s Descendants], al-Umma [The Nation], and Jabhat al-Nusra [The Victory Front] — are spread throughout Ras al-Ain, occupying over 80%, while the Kurdish militias control the rest, particularly the eastern side of the city.

The situation began in November, when these brigades entered the city under the false name of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Some FSA leadership have condemned the brigades’ entrance into the city, which resulted in the city’s exposure to regime air raids by MiG aircraft, leaving over 30,000 residents homeless in Turkey, Qamishli, Hasaka, and Amuda. Yet, since the regime’s multiple bombings of Ras al-Ain and Tel Nasri, a small Christian Assyrian village near Hasaka, which endangered some of the antiquarian churches and took the lives of innocents, there have been no condemnations issued by the Syrian opposition forces or activists, provoking a wave of resentment and astonishment among the Kurdish and Christian ranks.

From the moment they invaded the city, the jihadis have behaved like an occupying force, forbidding the presence of Kurdish flags. They have built blockades, rifled with residents’ possessions, raided Syriac and Orthodox churches, and detained some Kurds and Christians under the pretext that these individuals were members of the regime’s shabbiha forces. Strangely enough, some local Arab clans, despite their previous defense of the regime, have joined the jihadi brigades, and partake in the insult of and assault on civilians. The shabbiha have committed similar acts, including theft and kidnapping in the Hasaka province under the name of the FSA. All of this has prompted the Kurdish National Council to announce its intention of forming a Free Kurdish Army to liberate their region from the regime and the jihadis and protect the local population.

The Kurdish National Council and the political office of the Assyrian Organization have urged the FSA and revolutionary and opposition forces to apply pressure on the jihadis occupying Ras al-Ain and Hasaka to withdraw from this area of Syria. Its secure location has made it a safe haven for refugees and it represents the peaceful and civilian-led approach to the revolution and removal of the regime.

However, the Turkish government fears the popular armed groups loyal to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and their attempts to act as an alternative governing and administrative body to the region, in addition to their support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Therefore, Turkey supported fighters and Islamic-Salafi brigades through an agreement with the heads of Arab clans living in Istanbul to control the Kurdish area, whose gateway is the city of Ras al-Ain.

Another Turkish concern with regards to Syria’s Kurdish region is its wealth in oil, gas, and grain, its racial and ethnic diversity, and its geographic and geopolitical reach toward both Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey’s Kurdish majority areas. Strategically, Turkey is motivated to create ethnic tension between the Kurds, the Arabs, and the Christians in order to weaken the Kurds politically within the revolution, and therefore distance them from participating in the post-Assad era to determine the future of Syria.

It seems possible that, with the help of Turkish intelligence, the jihadis entered the city from the Turkish border under the pretense of fighting the regime and liberating the province of Hasaka, when in reality, the goal was to fight the PKK and create chaos within the Kurdish community. This angered the Kurdish people, as well as Arabs and Christians, who refuse to coexist with jihadis under the name of the FSA who will turn the region into a battlefield for settling accounts and confrontations between Turkey and the PKK.

Caught between the jihadi forces, Turkey, and supporters of the regime in this grave situation, the region is heading for an unknown fate, which could result in ethnic war in the interest of the regime and Turkey, and against the true goals of the revolution.

Jehad Saleh is an independent Syrian Kurdish journalist based in Washington, DC.