Rojava – ‘Protection Zone’ for Religious and Ethnic Minorities in Northern Syria?

Sêmalka border crossing between KRG territory and Rojava is frequently closed by the KRG

Sêmalka border crossing between KRG territory (south Kurdistan) and Rojava is frequently closed by the KRG

By Dr Kamal Sido:

Report on a research trip by the Society for Threatened People’s (STP) Middle East expert


“The causes for flight must be resolved locally. We expect Germany, Europe and the United States of America to help us. We are going to establish a multiethnic and multi-religious project in Rojava – northern Syria. Here, in northern Syria, we want to support all minorities – regardless of their religion, ethnicity, or language – and we expect help, not only from the public, but also from other governments. The project we started in northern Syria could be implemented in all of Syria, leading to a free, peaceful, and equitable coexistence of the different religions, ethnicities, and religious denominations. Currently, all minority groups living here are represented in the administration – guaranteeing a right to mother tongue, a right to freedom of belief and freedom of expression. These rights are governed by the social contract, and three languages were declared official languages of the region: Arabic, Kurdish, and Aramaic.” Elizabeth Koriyeh, a Christian woman from Qamischli

Dr. Kamal Sido, Middle East Consultant of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), visited Rojava in northern Syria from March 12 to April 3, 2016, to get his own impression of the situation. The important outcome of his research trip are around 24 interviews with members of different ethnic groups, 18 of which are published as an annex to this report.

The Western media are still dominated by the images of the “good revolutionaries” and the “evil regime” in Syria. However, this dichotomous image is obsolete, at least since the emergence of the terrorist group “Islamic State” (IS), formerly known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) or the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL). Today, it must be noted that the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria is completely infiltrated by Islamists. Throughout the country, the civilian population is suffering from the terrible civil war, which has been going on since 2011. The situation is growing worse every day – especially for the minorities. Many members of minority groups have left the country for fear of discrimination or assaults. They cannot live in safety. Everywhere they go, they are at risk of being abducted, executed, or tortured. Members of ethnic and religious minorities who are on the run within Syria are either trying to reach the area along the Syrian Mediterranean coast in the west, which is held by the regime, Damascus, or Rojava in northern Syria.

There are about 3,000,000 Kurds living in Syria. They represent about 15 percent of the population, and most of them live in two (not connected) enclaves in the north of the country – Jazire/Cazîra and Afrin. The area, which is referred to as Rojava – Northern Syria in this report, has several other names, some of which are linked to the political views of the persons using the term: The Kurds from the ranks of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading force in northern Syria, call this area “Rojava”. The term is a derivation or abbreviation of the Kurdish name “Rojavayê Kurdistan”. Followers of Masoud Barzani, the current president of Iraqi Kurdistan, who are competing with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (which is banned in Germany), call the area “Kurdistana Suriye”. Many Assyrians/Aramaeans and Arabs simply call the area “northern Syria”. It should be noted that the PYD and the PKK are more flexible about the name of the area than other groups. Some of the Assyrians/Aramaeans and Arabic people who live there with the Kurds but don’t approve of the term “Kurdistan” simply use the term “Rojava”. Thus, when representatives of the PYD, other Kurdish parties, as well as representatives of some of the Assyrian Aramaic, Arabic, and Turkmen organizations established a federation of northern Syria on March 17, 2016, they agreed on the term “Rojava – Northern Syria”.

First, the Kurds managed to establish a “safe haven” in the turmoil of the Syrian civil war. However, the initial aim was not to establish a separate state, but to lay the basis for a democratic Syria (with a self-government in a federal state), ensuring protection for minority groups and political freedoms for the entire population. A self-government was established in 2013 – with government quotas based on the individual minority groups’ proportion of the population, women’s equality, cultural centers, military and police forces.

During the last few years, the police and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were able to defende Rojava – Northern Syria against the Islamic State (IS) and other radical Islamists. The Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) make up about 30 to 40 percent of the military forces. This also applies to the police forces and the civil administration. Thus, the Kurds and their allies – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Arab militia of the Shammar tribe, and the Christian Sutoro militia – managed to gain control over and defend almost the entire province of Al Hasakeh in the far northeast of Syria, the neighboring districts Tell Abyad and Kobani in the north, as well as Afrin in the far northwest of Syria.

However, the Kurds are facing numerous problems that might undermine their autonomy. Firstly, their territory has been under attack by radical Islamists for the last two years; there are serious armed clashes, and the Islamist attackers are increasingly trying to harm the civilian population. Secondly, Rojava is under an embargo by the other powers in the respective part of the world. In the south, there is a blockade by radical Islamists, and Turkey is building a wall in the north of the country and has been keeping all border crossings closed. Also, the border with Iraqi Kurdistan in the east is not completely open. The border crossing Fish Khabour (Sêmalka) is controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP Iraq), under the command of the Iraqi-Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. The relations between the KDP Iraq, the PYD and the PKK are currently characterized by fierce competition, and the intra-Kurdish dispute also affects the border crossing Sêmalka. Again and again, there are temporary closures. If at all, individuals can only cross the “Kurdish-Kurdish” border using a motor boat on the Tigris. The total embargo has fatal consequences for the civilian population in Rojava – Northern Syria: There is a lack of medication and food, and the people are becoming poorer and poorer. The shelters are lacking fuel for heating and cooking, and infectious diseases have broken out.

Read the report in full (pdf)


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