The Revolutionary Days of July 2012

The Rojava Revolution began in mid-July 2012, when democratic counterinstitutions that had been carefully build over a long period finally came to power in West Kurdistan. But how did the revolution unfold on a day-to-day basis? I wanted to know more and found a account in this article, “From Genocide to Revolution,” in the German-language Kurdistan Report in late 2012. The article was written while the revolution was still under way—Qamişlo had not yet gone to the revolution—and in that sense is out of date. But it conveys some of the excitement of the revolution’s earliest days, after explaining some of the social and political developments that led up to it. Enjoy!

 From Genocide to Revolution 

by Mako Qoçgirî

The Kurds of Syria (or West Kurdistan) have long lived in the shadows. Anyone who looked for information about Kurdistan would mainly find material concerning other Kurdish areas. That wasn’t because Kurds in West Kurdistan had it better than their cousins in Turkey, Iraq, or Iran. No, the reason may simply have been that in comparison to the other parts of Kurdistan, their population and geographical area in Syria is quite small.

But then [in 2011] the Syrian uprising began, and [in 2012] a revolution broke out in West Kurdistan, and the situation has abruptly changed. Now the attention of people in the rest of Kurdistan is riveted on the developments here. Little West Kurdistan may even one day become a model and a trailblazer for a political solution for North and East Kurdistan. But the people of West Kurdistan traveled a long and difficult road to get to their present state; it was a road that took them through repression and assimilation, torture and massacre.

Let’s take a look at the situation of the Syrian Kurds before the outbreak of the revolution.

The Kurdish Berlin Wall and the Arab Belt

View of Qamislo

View of Qamislo

The Lausanne Treaty of June 1923 divided Kurdistan into four parts. That was actually the second traumatic dismemberment in Kurdish history—the first was the treaty of Qasr-e Shirin in 1639, which had divided Kurdish areas between the Safavid and Ottoman empires. That 1639 boundary remains valid even today—the Lausanne Treaty preserved it as the border between Iran and Turkey. But the signing of the Lausanne Treaty created, in addition, Iraq and Syria, into which parts of Kurdistan now fell. It drew the border between Turkey and Syria arbitrarily, as can been seen in the example of Qamişlo (Al-Qamishli) and Nisêbîn (Nusaybin). These two cities were once one, but in the Lausanne Treaty the southern neighborhoods fell in the area of the new Syrian state as Qamişlo, while the northern neighborhoods, Nisêbîn, went to Turkish republic. This boundary-drawing separated many families, and to this day on special occasions family members take the opportunity to visit one another on opposite sides of the border. With black humor, Kurds living near the Qamişlo-Nisêbîn border speak of a “Kurdish Berlin Wall.”

As a result of the Lausanne Treaty, then, about three million Kurds found themselves living within the newly created Syrian state. From the outset they faced policies of denial and assimilation, but the 1963 rise to power of the Baath regime in Damascus intensified the situation drastically. The new regime saw the Kurdish population as a potential danger and developed a comprehensive twelve-point plan to neutralize it. One important point created the so-called Arab Belt, by settling two Arab villages between every Kurdish village. Using material inducements, the regime attracted Arabs from other parts of Syria and resettled them north to live in West Kurdistan. Residing even today in West Kurdistan, they are called Mexmûrî Arabs by the Kurds. Meanwhile the Kurds who lost their lands were to be resettled in the interior of Syria. By this plan, the regime intended a wide-scale assimilation of the Kurds, which succeeded however only in part.

The Damascus regime didn’t stop with resettlement, however. It forbade publication in the Kurdish language and indeed any public use of that language. Kurdish place names were scrubbed and replaced with Arab names. A total of about 300,000 Kurds—including some of the most politically active––were stripped of their citizenship, which meant they lost all civil rights. By such means as these, the regime attempted a cultural genocide to accompany the physical genocide, and it committed numerous massacres.

The last large bloodletting occurred in the spring of 2004 in Qamişlo, an event that became a turning point for the region’s Kurds. I’ll talk about it in more detail later, but here I’ll confine myself to its results: after the Qamişlo massacre, Kurds throughout West Kurdistan entered a state of rebellion that lasted ten days. And they made a decision whose consequences we are witnessing today: they would organize themselves across West Kurdistan’s entire breadth. Because by organizing, they could guarantee the protection of the population and guard against the possibility that such a massacre would recur. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were also sowing the seeds for the present revolution.

Let’s skip ahead now to 2012 now and take a closer look at how those days went, in the West Kurdish cities of Kobanê (Ain–al Arab), Dêrik (Al-Malikiya), Qamişlo, and Amûde.

Kobanê, where it all began

It’s the night of July 18-19. People in the city of Kobanê are stealing into a mosque to participate in a people’s assembly there. They reach a decision: the revolution must proceed!

Their armed defense committees (which would become part of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG), take control of the main access roads to and from Kobanê, while civilians, in an organized action, lay siege to regime institutions and the Assad army’s military strongpoints. A short negotiation is enough to convince those in charge of the barracks that they have nothing left but to lay down their arms. That night the solders leave the barracks and return to their home cities or else, accepting an offer from the people of Kobanê, choose to live as civilians in the city. Without a bullet being fired, the revolution on that summer night has begun. In the coming days it will will spread to other cities.

Second Station of the Revolution: Dêrik

Photo by Janet Biehl

A street corner in Derik, 2014

The day after the revolution began in Kobanê, the people of Dêrik decided that their city would be the second station. Here too the Kurdish residents had already begun, months earlier, to organize themselves. Now the time had come for all that organizing work to bear fruit. [Afrin was the second city to be liberated and Amude was third; Derik was fourth.—trans.] At this writing, by their own account, the people’s councils of Dêrik now control 95 percent of the city. The only service delivery that is still performed by the state is the transfer of natural gas and petroleum. [This is no longer the case. –trans.]

Dêrik’s population numbers about 80,000, mostly people of Kurdish heritage, but Christians make up 15 percent of the population, and about 4,000 Arabs live there, resettled as a result of the Arab Belt policy. The Baath regime originally wanted Dêrik to be entirely Arabized, because the area is rich in petroleum and natural gas. About 75 percent of all Syrian petroleum comes form the region around Dêrik. But now most of West Kurdistan’s oil wells lie idle. Before the Syrian uprising, it was mainly foreign developers who refined the region’s oil, but after fighting began, they pulled out. In any case, the people of West Kurdistan were not satisfied with these foreign investors. Especially in the last three or four years, cancer rates among people who live near the oil wells have noticeably risen. Residents assume the increase is connected to the oil developers’ processing techniques.

Oil rig near Derik

Oil rig near Derik

“The people’s council has to deal with these problems,” says Haci Çeto, one of the two speakers of the people’s council of Dêrik. At the outbreak of the revolution, the council took over the city’s leadership functions. Currently 111 people make up the people’s council, among them Arabs and Christians. The Christian population sympathizes with the construction of Democratic Autonomy, but many Arabs remain skeptical, Çeto explains, especially Arabs whom the Baath regime settled in West Kurdistan. The so-called Mexmûrî Arabs remain Assad supporters. But Çeto is optimistic that if the people’s council does excellent work, they can be persuaded. “And then in the next elections to the people’s council, surely more Arabs and Christians will be elected,” Çeto says.

The Revolution’s Success Depends on Qamişlo

As the revolution unfolded in Kobanê and Dêrik, many observers turned speculative eyes on Qamişlo. With half a million residents, it is the largest city in West Kurdistan, and it lies directly on the border with Turkey. Both facts give the city a special character, so it may not be an exaggeration to say that the revolution will stand or fall in Qamişlo.

Accordingly the people in Qamişlo are proceeding with very deliberate steps. Up to now the regime institutions have not occupied, as they were in other West Kurdistan cities. When asked why not, Remziye Mihemed, speaker of the people’s council of Qamişlo replies: “On March 12, 2004, a massacre was carried out in Qamişlo. With the approval of the regime, which had prepared the various groups here in the city would kill each other off. Fortunately that didn’t happen, but we’re afraid the regime could try it again. So we don’t want to take any hasty steps and are letting the process get drawn out a little.”

Most of Qamişlo’s population is of Kurdish heritage, but Arabs, Armenians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians also live in the city. In the 2004 Qamişlo massacre, the regime tried to stir up the city’s Arab population against the Kurds. The starting point, on March 12, 2004, was a local soccer game between an Arab and a Kurdish team. At the entrance to the stadium, security forces frisked and inspected the Kurdish fans, but they let the fans of the Arab team through with knives, clubs, and other weapons. During the game some of the Arab fans chanted “Long live Saddam” and “You can expect a second Halabja.” A poster of Saddam Hussein was unrolled in the stadium, at which point the fan groups finally started fighting. The police had moved out to the front of the stadium, but as the riot spilled over outside, they attacked. They didn’t try to calm people down—they weren’t supposed to do that. They shot at the Kurdish fans and killed a total of eight Kurds.

As Mihemed told me, the Qamişlo massacre was an effort by the regime to pit the Kurds and Arabs against each other. If Kurds now were to seek revenge, the regime might incite the Arabs to attack the Kurdish people all over again. But instead the Kurds had drawn a lesson from this massacre and had organized themselves better. So they made sure the Baath regime’s plan came to nothing and in the process laid the foundation for West Kurdistan revolution.

A neighborhood meeting in Qamislo, 2014

A neighborhood meeting in Qamislo, 2014

Remziye Mihemed is convinced that Democratic Autonomy is the best solution for a city like Qamişlo, because it’s the only way to guarantee a democratic and peaceful coexistence among all the residents. And already representatives of all groups are represented in the Qamişlo people’s council. The council consists of about 300 members who sit on various committees and handle the various issues of social and political life. Two neighborhoods of Qamişlo now have people’s houses, and four more are being planned. Thee people’s houses are contact points for people with problems and concerns. Eventually in every neighborhood a neighborhood council will emerge, where the residents can organize themselves to solve their problems locally. [This was done. –trans.]

Even if the people of Qamişlo don’t take over regime institutions, they will make them redundant, step by step. That’s the goal of the people’s houses and the council structure. [The regime continues to control one district within Qamislo and the airport, at this writing. –trans.]

The Spirit of Resistance Lives in Amûde

Amûde is a very rural district, and the city center is home to only about 60,000 people; but if you include the 156 villages around Amûde, the number of residents rises to about 200,000. They have long been known for their spirit of resistance, which always made them a thorn in the side of the regime. On November 13, 1960, Syria’s rulers tried to break this spirit of resistance with a gruesome massacre. About 300 of the city’s elementary school students were invited to view a film in a cinema. During the showing the cinema was set on fire, and all the children were burned to death horrifically. This massacre is seared into the collective memory of the people of Amûde, but it did not cause them to lose their rebellious sprit. Up until two years ago, the regime forbade them even to memorialize the massacre victims, but now things have started to change here.

Memorial to the children who died in the cinema fire

Memorial to the children who died in the cinema fire

The strength of the sprit of resistance in Amûde can be seen in the speed of its self-organization. In mid-May the people’s council organized itself and elected its delegates, who have since then been running the city. Government agencies have entirely lost their function. Even the energy and gas supply, up to now an absolute state monopoly, has been taken over by the people’s council. In addition to the people’s council, the people have set up a people’s house, a women’s center, two speech centers, a culture center, and a youth center.

Amûde’s women’s center is of especially great interest. Every day dozens of women got there to share their concerns and worries with other women. Women realized, at a conference last year, that such a center was urgently needed. Since its opening in July of this year, it has offered not only advice but education, ranging from literacy courses to gender ideology. “We reject the roles that the system prescribes for women,” explains Evin Xalid, one of those in charge of the center. “The reason women today are so alienated from their own identity is that they can ‘enjoy’ only the education provided by the system. We want to construct a new education system here, one that helps women find their own identity,”

The Strongest Weapon: Continue to Build Democratic Autonomy

The revolution in West Kurdistan is a ray of hope in the otherwise chaotic Middle East. The experience of communal self-government here is valuable for the people in the entire region. Democratic Autonomy appears today as the only solution for a peaceful and democratic cohabitation among the region’s various cultures. But Democratic Autonomy also has enemies, especially the region’s states, who must fear its challenge to their power. And representatives of international capital to have problems with the progressive solutions proposed by the Kurdish freedom movement, because they know that a regional implementation of Democratic Autonomy would cause problems for their exploitation of the region and its wealth.

For the people of West Kurdistan, defending the revolution against all its enemies will not be easy. The best way to do so would be simply to continue the current process without interruption. And they are working day and night to do so.


Published in Kurdistan Report 165 (November December 2012), at Translated from the German by Janet Biehl.

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