Middle East

Kurdish militia seizes key Syrian city

Raising the PYD flag. Lauren Williams

MALIKIEH, Syria: There were scenes of wild jubilation in this northeastern Kurdish city after Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces overran Syrian intelligence and military institutions, driving out regime personnel in a sign that Kurds say are strengthening their position in the region.

Residents of Malikieh, known in Kurdish as Derik, cheered and chanted as the PYD militia, known as the Popular Protection Committees (YPG), stormed the central political intelligence and municipal headquarters.

A brief exchange of gunfire was reported before Syrian intelligence officers were escorted from the building, to chants of “down with Assad” and “YPG, YPG.”

YPG forces, including young women, led a march of thousands of residents through the streets of Malikieh from the intelligence headquarters to the army intelligence and the city directorate.

“We have waited for this day for 50 years,” said one elated young woman.

A bronze stature of the late Hafez Assad was defaced and elated residents and armed gunmen tore down and painted over images of President Bashar Assad and his father Hafez. They also replaced the Syrian flag with the red, yellow and green Kurdish flag of the Kurdish Democratic Society movement, associated with the PYD, on top of the building.

Crying women waved the Kurdish flag and the crowds hoisted posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PYD’s armed wing, the PKK, as they stormed the abandoned buildings. PKK revolutionary songs blared from loudspeakers across the city.

Gunfire was exchanged at Syrian Army checkpoints outside the city, before the Syrian forces abandoned their posts.

Regime intelligence and lieutenants, identified to The Daily Star by local residents, were seen fleeing the city in pickup trucks carrying computers and office equipment. In previously unthinkable scenes, regime officials were subjected to searches at PYD checkpoints as they left the city.

Monday’s extraordinary mobilization by Kurdish forces appeared to be partially motivated by escalating tensions this week between mainly Sunni rebels and Kurdish PYD forces in Kurdish cities bordering Turkey.

Fears that a new Arab-Kurdish front could complicate the war in Syria were sparked after FSA rebels clashed last month with PYD forces in Kurdish-controlled neighborhood of Ashrafieh in Aleppo, killing 30 people.

Tensions peaked Thursday when Islamist rebels clashed with PYD forces at Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border, killing 10 people after rebels overran the border post there. In a video circulated on the Internet a day earlier, rebels refused to allow Kurdish opposition members to raise the Kurdish flag, infuriating Kurds across the country. Ongoing clashes there have now killed some 35 people, according to PYD representatives in Malikieh.

“We don’t want the regime, and we don’t want to give the FSA any excuse to come here. We don’t need anyone to protect us,” said one armed member of the YPG.

Events unfolded in the mid-morning, when PYG fighters and civilians surrounded the political intelligence building and demanded that representatives of the Assad regime leave.

“They agreed to leave without a fight,” said Hassan Kojar, a PYD local leader in the city, adding that he believed the regime expected the move.

Aldar Khalil, the spokesman for the Democratic Society Movement and the head of the Higher Kurdish Council, a collaborative body overseeing the PYD, told The Daily Star the eviction had been planned and said “political conditions” made the time ripe to extend Kurdish control to other major cities, including Qamishli, a mainly Kurdish city of some 500,000 on the northeastern border with Turkey.

He said he believed events in Ras al-Ain appeared coordinated by Turkey.

“The FSA’s work is in Damascus and the west; there is no need for them to be in Kurdish areas.”

In Malikieh, only some appeared unhappy with the “liberation,” as the fighters termed it.

Crying, an Arab woman pleaded with PKK gunmen outside the freshly looted intelligence building for information about her husband’s whereabouts after he was captured in the PYD raid. She said he was “not a Baathist, just a civilian.”

PYD members told The Daily Star those captured would be treated well.

“We are not the Free Syrian Army. They will just go back to their areas,” said one PYD supporter, Khamgin.

“If the FSA comes here, we will kill them. We are not against the FSA, but their fight is in Damascus not here.”

Only hours earlier, Syrian and PYD forces authorities had shared a tense but tolerated co-existence in the city.

PYD forces, bolstered by affiliated PKK fighters, had largely taken control of Kurdish cities around the northeast of Syria, giving Kurds in the region a new sense of freedom and emboldened hopes for long sought autonomy similar to that enjoyed by their neighbors in northern Iraq, after decades of repression under the Asaad regime.

But the lack of violence and ease with which PYD forces took control of these areas has fueled speculation that the PYD had been working hand in hand with the regime, finding a common foe in neighboring Turkey, which has supported the mainly Sunni Arab military uprising against Assad and with whom the PKK militant has fought a decades-long war on the Turkish-Iraqi border.

Turkey has warned it will not tolerate an increased PKK presence inside Syria, while the PKK has vowed it would intervene militarily to protect Kurdish communities from “any enemy.”

But rumors of such an alliance proved hard to support in the face of such unbridled joy at the regime’s departure.

“So, now do you think the PYD is shabbiha?” asked one man, throwing his shoe at a painted image of Hafez Assad.

“It has begun,” said a masked PYG border guard at the entrance to the city.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 13, 2012, on page 1.




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