Syrian Kurds reshape region with books and schools

Kurdish students attend class at a school in Qamishli, Syria. (Reuters)
Updated 07 May 2019

Syrian Kurds reshape region with books and schools

  • A law student who was tortured for carrying a Kurdish book now owns a bookstore
  • A woman who once secretly huddled with friends at night to learn Kurdish is now a de facto education minister

QAMISHLI: When Eyub Mohamad was a boy, security forces beat his father into paralysis. His offense was typing leaflets in Kurdish, banned under Syria’s ruling Baath party.

Mohamad, with his family, fed and bathed his father for years. Wary of the typewriter that landed his father in interrogation rooms, he avoided learning to read his own language.

“I never saw my dad walking,” he said. “Till his last day, he believed he would get up for this cause.”

Mohamad’s father died in 2011, the year Syria’s conflict began. He did not see Kurdish fighters carve out autonomous rule across north and east Syria. He did not see his son, now 34, become a teacher at a Kurdish school in the city of Qamishli on the border with Turkey. Kurdish leaders now hold about a quarter of Syria, the biggest chunk outside state hands. But their grip on power — in a region rich in oil, farmland and water — remains vulnerable: The Bashar Assad regime wants all of Syria, Turkey threatens to crush them and US support is wavering.

The changes reshaping swathes of Syria have alarmed neighboring states that fear separatism within their own Kurdish communities. In Qamishli, these changes were once unimaginable. 

A law student who was tortured for carrying a Kurdish book now owns a bookstore. A woman who once secretly huddled with friends at night to learn Kurdish is now a de facto education minister.

Kurdish activists who could not protest without risking arrest now have printing presses, festivals and television channels.

The shift is glaring in school hallways where, for eight years, a generation has grown up not only learning Kurdish but also learning to believe that Kurds deserve the rights they were denied for decades and must hold on to them.

“We never imagined this. This was a dream,” said Semira Hajj Ali, who co-chairs the education board in the northeast. “Of course, we will not go back to before 2011. We will not turn back.”

Syrian Kurdish leaders say they do not seek independence but want to cement autonomy that has evolved to include security forces and what amounts to a government.

Yet the sandbags and trenches around some schools or the armed men guarding printing presses show their fate still hangs in the balance.

On one side, there is the Turkish army, which has swept across the border twice to roll back the Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria.

On another, there is Assad, now holding most of Syria with Russia and Iran’s help. Damascus has pledged to reclaim YPG territory though the two have kept channels open.

Their main ally, the US, helped Kurdish-led forces seize vast territory from Daesh. But it opposes their autonomy plans and has promised nothing.

President Donald Trump’s plan last year to withdraw all US troops from Syria threw Kurdish officials into crisis.

Washington later changed course, and intends to leave some troops, along with forces from European allies, preserving for now the security umbrella that helped Kurdish leaders deepen their autonomy.

In the early days of Syria’s conflict, when Hajj Ali and other activists tried introducing a Kurdish class, the government shut down the schools.


Turkey vows not to quit besieged army post in Syria

Updated 24 August 2019

Turkey vows not to quit besieged army post in Syria

  • Calls for a ‘political solution’ to the crisis 

BEIRUT: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday said Ankara wants “a political solution to the Syrian crisis,” and that its soldiers “will not leave the besieged observation post south of Idlib” after Syrian regime forces took control of the area.
The recent advances by Bashar Assad’s forces have put Turkish troops stationed in the region in the firing line and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, threatening Ankara’s hopes of preventing a fresh wave of refugees on its southern border.
Speaking at a press conference in Lebanon, Cavusoglu said: “We are not there because we are unable to leave but because we do not want to.”
He denied that the Turkish forces are isolated in Morek, where their largest observation post is based. He said: “This post is not encircled, and no one can isolate it. The Syrian regime forces are leading activities in the vicinity of this post, we are discussing this with Russia and Iran.”
His comments followed a telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to the Anatolia Agency, Erdogan told Putin that the “developments in Idlib would cause a major humanitarian crisis” and “undermine the process of reaching a settlement in Syria and pose a serious threat to Turkish national security.”
Cavusoglu met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Rafic Chlala, the media adviser to Aoun, told Arab News: “The Turkish official gave a presentation on the current military developments in Idlib, and a view of the future was delivered, but he did not ask anything from Lebanon.”
During a joint press conference with Bassil, Cavusoglu said: “Turkey will exchange experiences with Lebanon to return Syrian refugees to their country. Ankara understands Beirut’s suffering from the refugee crisis.”
He added: “Syrian refugees are afraid of returning to their country. This fear must be dispelled, and the international community should give greater importance to meeting the basic needs of Syrians.”
Lebanon hosts over 1 million Syrian refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Beirut estimates the real figure is over 1.5 million.
Cavusoglu proposed “to organize a joint forum with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq on the return of Syrians and invite the international community to participate.”
During his meeting with Cavusoglu, Aoun said: “The international community’s continued disregard for the need for Syrian refugees to return to their country raises many questions.”
According to his media office, Aoun said the return of displaced people to their homes remains a common concern for Lebanon and Turkey. He reiterated that the provision of international assistance to refugees inside Syria is an important incentive for their return.
Aoun added: “Until now, Syrian refugees who have returned to Syria under the supervision of the Lebanese General Security did not suffer any persecution. The process of returning refugees will continue in turn.”
Cavusoglu said that Turkey shares Lebanon’s stance in supporting the return of refugees.
He told Aoun that Turkey will vote for Lebanon to establish the Human Academy for Encounter and Dialogue when the item is submitted to the UN on Sept. 13.
Berri’s media office said that talks with Cavusoglu included “the general situation in the region, the need to uphold the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, the importance of a political solution in Syria that ensures its unity and sovereignty and the return of refugees.”
Cavusoglu said: “Turkey views Lebanon as a neighbor and a sister country. The stability and growth of this country are very important for us and the region. We will continue to support Lebanon, and many Turkish energy companies want to invest there.”
The Turkish president will visit Moscow on Tuesday for a meeting with his Russian counterpart, the presidency said in a statement, days after a Turkish convoy was hit by an airstrike in Syria.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the Putin-Erdogan meeting on Aug. 27 to the Russian agencies.