On December 7, 2014, the Academic Delegation traveled to Serê Kaniyê, where we visited the local YPG command center, the PYD headquarters, a neighborhood that had been a battlefield, and the border crossing to Turkey.
The YPG and YPJ’s astounding success in liberating Kobanê deserved every bit of the universal praise it received. Yet as astounding as that liberation was, Kobanê was not the first place where the Rojava’s defense forces beat back fanatical, murderous armed jihadists. In November 2012, Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda spinoff, attacked and occupied the city of Serê Kaniyê, on the western edge of Cizire canton, and over the next months the YPG threw off that occupation as well.
A city of 50,000 people, mostly Kurds, but also Chechens, Armenians, Aramaeans, and Arabs, Serê Kaniyê lies hard on the Turkish border, across from the city of Ceylanpınar. A century ago the two were actually one, but in the wake of World War I, when the new states of Turkey and Syria were established from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the great powers drew the boundary line between them through the old intact city.
The two halves remain divided after almost a century of uneasy Turkish-Syrian relations. “The border separates us from our relatives,” the guide told our visiting delegation. “People here still refer to Ceylanpinar as ‘Serê Kaniyê above the line’ and this part as ‘below the line.’”
The Syrian uprising began in the spring of 2011 and soon degenerated into a brutal civil war, as many the forces opposing the Assad regime emerged as radical Islamists. In the darkness of the morning of November 8, 2012, one of those forces, the Al Nusra Front, entered a residential neighborhood of Serê Kaniyê, the sounds of helicopters and machine guns shattering the silence. The several hundred invaders seized people’s homes for military use.
Although Al Nusra was part of opposition to the Assad regime, its fighters entered Serê Kaniyê not from the south but from the north, from Turkey. In fact, they were able to cross with no problem. As PYD co-president Asiya Abdullah would soon point out, “The attacks are coming from Turkey, and are in violation of international law. We call on all states and organizations and the UN to condemn Turkey for this violation of human rights.“ Nothing would come of her appeal—indeed, the invasion scarcely registered in international media reports.
Aircraft of the Assad regime soon bombed the city, ostensibly to fight the jihadists. But the bombs killed at least ten civilians and wounded seventy others; fifty houses were demolished. Thousands of terrified residents bolted, within a day or two, mostly for the east. The YPG mobilized to defend the city.
Seven days after the initial attack, on November 19, a coalition of Kurdish parties called a march to protest the occupation. Civilians from Dirbespiye, Qamişlo, and Amude—other cities in Rojava—took to the roads leading to Serê Kaniyê. In advance, Al Nusra set up barriers to block them.
The co-head of the local people’s council, Abid Xelil, emerged, accompanied by Kurdish security forces (Asayiş), and demanded that the armed Islamists remove the roadblocks and allow the march. By way of an answer, the jihadists opened fire and shot him to death, along with a young demonstrator.
According to PYD co-president Abdullah, Xelil had been “a symbolic figure for interethnic understanding” in Serê Kaniyê. Here “Arabs, Aramaeans, Armenians, and Kurds live together peacefully. … Turkey is trying to undermine our harmonious coexistence and provoke a war between Arabs and Kurds.”
On November 20 the Turkish army helped Al-Nusra’s invasion by firing short-range missiles from across the border. The jihadists in Serê Kaniyê gave the Turks the coordinates of YPG positions, the better to target them.
As the YPG fought back, observers noticed that injured jihadists were being taken in Turkish ambulances back across the border to hospitals Ceylanpinar, but wounded Kurds were barred from receiving treatment in the same hospitals. It was and is hard to avoid the conclusion that the invasion of Serê Kaniyê was a Turkish operation, ordered from Ankara and coordinated from Ceylanpınar.
On the twenty-first, five Turkish tanks rolled over the border, again on behalf of Al Nusra. Thereupon the jihadists occupied most of the city, except for the districts of Hawarna and Xiraba. But the YPG resisted fiercely, and on the morning of November 23, Al Nusra asked for a truce, which was negotiated. Although broken by intermittent clashes, it persisted for two months.
Two months later, on January 16, 2013, some 1,500 jihadists again crossed the Turkish border into Serê Kaniyê, this time with several tanks. But over the next days, once again, the YPG resisted, destroying three of the tanks and killing 100 to 120 jihadists, losing only a few of their own. Reinforcements arrived for the jihadists, leading to a clash of forces over the police station, the governorate building, and an Assyrian Christian church. But by now the YPG was beginning to liberate neighborhoods, and by January 30 it had mostly driven Al Nusra from the city and retaken the all-important border crossing.
On February 17 the YPG and the Free Syrian Army agreed to a cease-fire, which Al Nusra said it would observe. Under its terms, armed groups were to leave Serê Kaniyê; a civil council, consisting of representatives of various Syrian peoples, was to control the border crossing. Salih Muslim, co-president of the PYD, said, “The Kurdish side is fully behind the agreement … We have to formulate and guarantee the rights of the various ethnic and religious groups as well as women in a democratic constitution.”
But the attackers—and their Turkish underwriters—refused to give up, for on July 16, the jihadists attacked Serê Kaniyê yet again. This time the YPG’s resistance was quick and decisive: after only two days, it repelled the invaders and retook control of the entire city. In areas once occupied by jihadists, YPG fighters found Turkish passports
Consigned to the rural areas around Serê Kaniyê, Al Nusra, now amplified by ISIS, took to looting, abducting, and executing civilians, Kurdish and Arab alike. On November 1-5, the YPG launched an operation to drive the jihadists from the villages. As it liberated villages by the dozen, it recovered weapons, vehicles, ammunition, and logistical material. Stolen goods were returned to their owners. The people’s council distributed bread. The Arab residents were just as relieved to be liberated as the Kurds, expressing their joy with slogans of “Long Live the YPG.”
At the YPG Command Center
By the time my Academic Delegation arrived in December 2014, normal life had mostly returned to the city, although clashes with ISIS continued 25 kilometers the west. At the YPG Contact and Administrative Center in Serê Kaniyê, a spokesman told us that “Daesh [ISIS] is in a defense position rather than offensive. . . . We’ve had an operation against them for the past two weeks. . . . High-level commanders were killed on their side, and we are approaching their center.”
The YPG and its female counterpart, the YPJ, call themselves “people’s defense units.” explained the YPG spokesman, Dr. Huseyin Koçer: they defend not a state but the society, for Rojava is self-governed through a popular democracy. “We are here for the people, for the society, that is how we understand ourselves.” Even so, Dr. Koçer emphasized, “the mobilization we have is stronger than ten states.”
Crucial to popular self-defense is interethnic and interreligious cooperation among the Kurdish, Assyrian, Arab, Aramaic, and other ethnic groups. “Only in this way can we defeat those who are attacking us try to displace us and pit communities against one another.” said Dr. Koçer. Rather than discriminating against non-Kurdish minorities, the social will of the self-government, expressed by the YPG, is to protect minorities’ cultural values and traditions.
“Hundreds of Arabs take part in the YPG and YPJ,” Dr. Koçer told us. The Assyrians have an armed militia, Sutoro, under the leadership of the YPG. A Chechen fighter at the command center told us that his people had arrived in this area generations earlier “but we have become people of this region as well. We have come here and we have joined the YPG and YPJ forces, and together with them we protect this region.”
What happens when the YPG and YPJ liberate an Arab village? we asked.
“Many of the Arab villagers support Daesh,” Dr. Koçer replied. But “we don’t try to harm them. … We are sure many of them don’t like Daesh but feel they have to support it out of fear. Daesh loot and rob wherever they go … They are committing these crimes in the name of Islam, but they have nothing to do with Islam. . . . We try to strengthen the Arab villagers’ mobilization capabilities. …We try to create consciousness of freedom and liberation. We try to communicate the need for self-organization, not only to sustain daily life but also politically.”
The YPG, the military spokesman said, is trying to bring democratic self-government to the Arab villages. “In places that we have liberated, the people’s council of Serê Kaniyê goes there and helps organize, and sometimes we go together. . . . We help and support them in creating the councils where they live. . . . We discuss with them and propose to them our [democratic] project and our goals.”
How do they perceive you? we asked. Do they join you out of fear as well?
“We don’t go to places to make them be like us. We want to ensure that they can express their own political will. Through discussions we try to raise liberationist consciousness. Many villages have supported us and joined the YPG as well.”
In the wake of its victory over Daesh in Serê Kaniyê, and the progress being made in Kobanê, the YPG’s morale is very high, Dr. Koçer us. “No matter how many times they attack us, we will no longer accept any occupation … by anyone. … We are prepared to be the graveyard of those who are attacking.
“This is a force that is committing crimes against all of humanity,” he continued. “Daesh is posing a threat to the communities of the world. We are resisting this force. It is here today, but it will be elsewhere tomorrow.”
As fierce as the resistance is, it is plagued by lack of material means, for Rojava is embargoed both politically and economically by Turkey and, with some exceptions, by the KRG. As a result, “we can’t treat the wounded adequately. We have doctors, but we lack medicines. … We really need to lift this embargo. … We want to be neighbors with Turkey, but the Turkish state is actively mobilizing, supporting, and facilitating the Daesh attacks.”
He begged the Academic Delegation to tell the West, to pressure Turkey to relent and at least open a humanitarian corridor to Rojava, so that basic medications as well as arms can get through. Those who are committed to fighting Islamist extremism, indeed terrorism, should indeed do nothing less for these most dedicated of allies, the warrior-democrats of Rojava.
Written by Janet Biehl. The account of the battle is based on reports from Firat, Civaka Azad, and Rojava Report. The comments from the YPG have been edited for conciseness.