Aleppo's Kurds: Living Under Siege

Syrian-Kurdish refugee carries water containers on a wheelbarrow at the Quru Gusik (Kawergosk) refugee camp, 20 kilometers east of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on December 29, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Safin Hamed).

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has retreated from the Ifrin region of the Aleppo countryside. Though the crippling blockade on Ifrin has been lifted, the siege remains enforced by other factions, including the Islamic Front. Al-Akhbar examines daily life in Ifrin under siege.

To reach Kurdish-majority Ifrin in the far north of Syria, many preparations and precautionary measures must be undertaken. First, one has to be a non-Kurd. To be sure, this “charge” alone is enough to turn a person into a statistic on the long list of abductees or casualties.

One is also recommended to grow a long beard, wear old clothes, use an old mobile phone, and not carry any luggage. As a precaution, one has to have a convincing reason for going to a city “inhabited by infidels,” such as “visiting relatives who had fled to Ifrin to escape the brutal shelling at the beginning of the revolution.”

One would be lucky to have rural roots as well, as this would make the backstory more credible. Naturally, one has to pick a non-Kurdish driver who is familiar with the roads leading to the region. All precautions would mean next to nothing if one were to follow a road full of checkpoints.

The region is suffering under a crippling siege imposed by ISIS, amid total media silence. ISIS’s siege is not unprecedented, though it has been the harshest by far. The area spent most of the outgoing year under a siege imposed by factions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), most notably the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front represented by Liwaa al-Tawhid, and the Ahrar al-Sham Movement.

At the time, they said the aim of the siege was to pressure the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which they claimed was an “enemy of the revolution.” Since the beginning of December 2013, ISIS took over and tightened the blockade, deeming the civilian residents of Ifrin, especially Kurds, “legitimate targets.” The number of abductees from the area has surpassed 200, in addition to cases of mass kidnappings, the most recent of which involved 50 victims from the city of Dana who were on their way to Lebanon in search of employment.

Turkey Complicit in the Siege

Some villages in the Ifrin region are located along the strip bordering Turkey. There are no formal crossings there, and the closest official crossing is Bab al-Salama, currently controlled by ISIS. Nevertheless, “the Turkish government could have mitigated some of the effects of the siege,” according to Farhad, a resident of Ifrin.

Farhad added, “Some try to break through the blockade by smuggling foodstuffs from Turkey. But these attempts collide in most cases with strict Turkish security measures, as though smuggling food is worse than letting in weapons and jihadists.” According to Farhad, the Turkish authorities enforce tough measures in most border regions adjacent to areas inhabited by Syrian Kurds, while Turkish troops fire on anyone trying to cross the border near the city of Derbassiyeh, in Hassakeh province, which has led to deaths and injuries.

Despite this, life inside Ifrin proceeds in an orderly manner, and nothing suggests that the state is absent. Civil society organizations and local councils manage services and various affairs in the area.

The security situation is also quasi-stable. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPD) protects the city and the villages around it, while Kurdish security forces handle public security. The PKK and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) militants are also present in the area, but mostly along the entrances of the city and specific points.

Farmers continue to work their lands, despite rising costs and the difficulty of selling their produce. Shops are open, but buying and selling is very limited. Meanwhile, stalls have spread in downscale markets, and most residents of the city prefer them for their basic needs. One woman told us, “Even the goods sold at stalls are no longer cheap, but they remain cheaper compared to shops. At any rate, we now only buy what is necessary.”

Subscribing to get electricity from the huge generators that have sprung up everywhere is the only way to offset the complete interruption in power supply these days. There is also a severe shortage in drinking water, and wells are now the only alternative. Meanwhile, communication via landline is still possible, and the Syrian mobile phone networks are operational, with intermittent interruptions. Residents of border villages can use Turkish mobile phone lines, while internet is accessible via Turkish providers.

There are vast differences between the Ashrafieh district in the east of the city and the western Autostrada district. But the siege has since created many common traits. There is a clear difference in the standard of living between the two neighborhoods, yet this does not change the fact that economic concerns are now shared among all.

Everyone talks about the record rise in “price indexes.” Tomatoes now cost up to 450 Syrian pounds ($3) per kilogram, sugar more than 250 pounds per kilogram, and a bag of flour more than 9,500 pounds. A 1-kilogram bag of bread could sometimes cost 150 pounds, beef between 1,200 and 1,600 pounds per kilogram, and chicken between 500 and 800 pounds, all unprecedented prices in Syria.

The prospect of shortages of infant formula and medicines, meanwhile, remains for many one of the worst possible nightmares. Most residents rely on local produce, and most meals use potatoes, cracked wheat, and rice as staples, in addition to olive oil, thyme, olives, and pickles.

The local economy depends primarily on the cultivation of olives (about 15 million trees) and olive oil production. Local trader Abu Nidal told Al-Akhbar, “We used to postpone all activities until the olive harvest. But the produce has not been sold this season, except for some local consumption.”

After he showed us a warehouse full of oil containers, he sighed and continued, “Take as much as you want at whatever price you wish, but you will have to find a way to get it out of Ifrin.” “The price of an oil can (16 kilograms) was no more than 4,500 pounds for premium quality, which has harmed producers; most of the output remained in the area because of the siege,” he added.

What happened to the olive harvest and olive oil also applies to the pomegranate crop. A 10-kilogram box of pomegranates sold at 100 pounds (less than $1), even though each kilogram had cost more than 25 pounds to grow as a result of rising fuel prices, that is, when fuel is available.

Public sector employees have also been affected, especially since many have to go to Aleppo to get their paychecks. This is not possible now because of the siege and the risk of getting kidnapped.

Hostility to Erdogan and Extremist Groups

The people of Ifrin are not worried about the future, however. They believe in their ability to overcome challenges if the Syrian crisis were to be resolved. Most of them are confident in their ability to “play politics,” and do not like to be accused of just having “separatist tendencies.” Yet they believe that having an “autonomous administration” is a legitimate right. So does this mean that they have received promises from the Syrian government over this?

Joan, an activist with a local political party, avoided the question. He said, “We are Syrians, and we love this country. But we have the right to manage our own affairs, and we will.”

One volunteer in the YPG mocked the accusation against Kurds of being pro-regime thugs, or shabiha. He said, “Some Syrian opposition factions are pathetic. They want everyone to do only what suits them, even when they are not masters of their own decisions. Two main things have corrupted the opposition: [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and the takfiris.”

It seems that hostility to these two “elements” are a common denominator between most Kurdish factions and the Syrian regime. Farhad said, “But this does not mean that we agree with the regime on everything. Look around you, you can see many flags and pictures, but certainly, you will never see black banners or a portrait of Erdogan in Ifrin. This will only happen over our dead bodies.”

Kobane Between Turkey and the Takfiris

The city of Ayn al-Arab – or Kobane as its Kurdish residents call it – located in the far north of the Aleppo governorate along the Syrian-Turkish border, has been subjected to a siege similar to Ifrin’s. Journalist Nuzhat Shaheen, speaking to Al-Akhbar, said the effects of the siege began to impact people’s lives last month, when the situation veered toward a humanitarian crisis. He said, “The rise of prices of some goods reached 50 percent, and fuel in storage began to run out.”

Syrian Kurds compose about 97 percent of a population of 600,000. There are currently also about 300,000 internally displaced Syrians in Ayn al-Arab, who fled from hot zones (mostly Arabs). These people live in relatively good conditions, same as the locals.

Before the last siege, food aid was still arriving in the city from multiple sources, including Iraqi Kurdistan, independent European organizations, and the Syrian Red Crescent. The aid came to a stop shortly before last Ramadan, because of the deteriorating security situation on the roads leading to the city, and then the siege.

Power shortages are constant, despite the fact that the power plant supplying the city with electricity is only 35 kilometers away in the town of Shuyukh southwest of Ayn al-Arab. Landline communication is still possible within the city, but mobile phone service from Syrian carriers stopped nearly a year ago, and the locals rely on Turkish networks.

Security conditions in the city are stable, with Kurdish security maintaining order. YPG units are also active defending the city. As in Ifrin, all official departments continue to operate under local management.

Education Alive and Well

Civil institutions continue to run schools despite tough conditions. Students receive their lessons in Arabic, according to the official Syrian curriculum. Only the subject “nationalism” has been dropped. Kurdish is also taught independently by volunteers.

One such teacher, Abdo, told Al-Akhbar, “I give lessons to students in one of the schools on a pro-bono basis. This is the least I can do until teachers of Kurdish can be trained.” Recently, an institute was inaugurated to train teachers of Kurdish. Currently, 700 university and high school graduates are enrolled.

The needs of the schools are secured through donations from residents. The Democratic Society Movement allocates part of its budget for heating and books. Not only locals attend the schools, but also the children of the families that came to Ifrin from Aleppo, and some of the areas of the countryside. Perhaps the presence of those refugees is the only reason one hears random conversations in Arabic when roaming in the city nowadays.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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