The headquarters of one the world's mightiest terrorist organization is located in the mountains northeast of Erbil, Iraq. Or is it the nerve center of one of the Western world's most crucial allies? It all depends on how one chooses to look at the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
All visits to the site in northern Iraq's Qandil Mountains must first be authorized by PKK leaders, and the process is not immediate. But after days of waiting, our phone finally rings. "Get ready, we're sending our driver," the voice at the other end of the line says. He picks us up in the morning and silently drives us up the winding roads into the mountains. At one point, we pass the burned out remains of a car destroyed by Turkish bombs three years ago, killing the family inside. The wreckage has been left as a kind of memorial. The driver points to it and breaks his silence. "Erdogan has gone nuts," he says.
Just behind the Kurdish autonomous government's final checkpoint, the car rounds a bend in the road and suddenly Abdullah Öcalan's iconic moustache appears, part of a giant mural made of colored stones on the opposite hillside. The machine-gun toting guards wear the same mustache. "Do you have a permit, colleagues?" they ask.
Officially, we're in the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. Really, though, it is a PKK state. A region of 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) of rugged, mountainous territory, it provides a home for PKK leadership in addition to training camps for fighters. It also has its own police force and courts. The surrounding hillsides are idyllic with their pomegranate trees, flocks of sheep and small stone huts. But they are also dotted with Humvees, captured by the PKK from the Islamic State terrorist militia, which had stolen them from the Iraqi army.
It is here in the Qandil Mountains that PKK leaders coordinate their fight against Islamic State jihadists in the Syrian town of Kobani and in the Iraqi metropolis of Kirkuk in addition to the ongoing battle in the Sinjar Mountains. Turkey, some fear, could soon be added to the list.
A Preposterous Collaboration?
Just a few years ago, the idea of the West working together with the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan would have been preposterous. Over the past three decades, PKK has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Turkish civilians, providing the US and the European Union ample reason to keep the group on its lists of terrorist organizations. For many in the West, however, these former outlaws have become solitary heroes in the fight to save the Middle East from IS. With an estimated size of 15,000 fighters, PKK is the strongest fighting force in the region and the only one that seems willing and able to put up a fight against Islamic State. They are disciplined and efficient in addition to being pro-Western and secular.
The West would have preferred to rely on the PKK's Kurdish rivals, the 100,000-strong Peshmerga force of the northern Iraq autonomous region. But Peshmerga was overpowered by Islamic State. Furthermore, they have little combat experience, a dearth of modern weaponry, insufficient training and no central command. It isn't really even a true army, merely a hodgepodge of extracurricular clubs, partisan troops and special units. In August, they ceded the Sinjar Mountains to IS virtually without a fight, forcing thousands of Kurdish Yazidis to flee. The Peshmerga retreated elsewhere too in the face of IS advances.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, the president of northern Iraq, is essentially a family-run business with an associated small state, as corrupt as it is conservative. The PKK, and its Syrian counterpart YPG, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. The tightly run cadre isn't democratic, but neither is it corrupt -- and in Kobani, they are giving their all in the fight against Islamic State. Indeed, it was the PKK that succeeded in establishing a protective corridor in Sinjar that enabled tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee. It was also PKK that defended the cities of Makhmour and Kirkuk in Iraq against Islamic State militias.
The US Air Force is now air-dropping weapons for YPG fighters in Kobani, while the German military is delivering bazookas to the Peshmerga -- and not to Kobani where they are far more urgently needed. Everyone is assuring that these weapons won't fall into the hands of the PKK. Meanwhile, Turkey has acquiesced to allowing Peshmerga fighters to join the fray in Kobani and politicians in Europe and the United States are timidly considering removing PKK from their lists of terrorist organizations. To many, it seems like a necessary step when establishing a partnership with the PKK, even if it would mean conflict with Turkey.
A Difficult Balancing Act
It's a perplexing alliance in an abstruse conflict and it raises a number of prickly issues. Is the delivery of weapons to the Kurds a defensible strategy for the West? Is it even a moral obligation, to prevent a massacre? And what happens if those weapons are then one day used against Turkey? What happens if the Kurds' growing political and military self-confidence ultimately manifests itself in a demand for independence?
It's a difficult balancing act for the West. It has to ensure that the Kurds win the battle of Kobani -- not just to ward off IS, but also to save a peace process between PKK and the Turkish government that has been jeopardized by the conflict. At the same time, it wants to prevent a broader Kurdish triumph that could destabilize the entire region.
It's possible that the civil war in Syria and the fight against IS has already planted the seeds of a Kurdish spring that could radically shift the balance in the Middle East. Subjugated by foreign powers, some 30 million Kurds, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, have for years been fighting for recognition and for their own state in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq -- mostly without success. Only once, in the 19th century Ottoman Empire, did a Kurdistan province exist, and it disappeared after just 20 years. After World War I, the Western allies promised the Kurds they would be granted their own state, but Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, didn't keep the promise.
Turkey even refused to recognize the Kurds as an ethnic minority and it banned their language and traditions. Kurds also faced discrimination and repression in Iran, Syria and Iraq. The tragic nadir of this persecution was the massacre at Halabja. In March 1988, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his air force to drop chemical weapons on the city, killing up to 5,000 people in the attack.
A few decades later, Kurds today enjoy a broad degree of autonomy in northern Iraq, even possessing their own government and army. Northern Iraq has become both a model for, and the envy of, other Kurds in the Middle East. It's an interdenominational success, too, given that Sunnis, Alevis, Yazidis and Christians peacefully coexist with one another in what is the most stable and prosperous part of Iraq. With upheaval taking place across the Middle East, Kurds in Syria and Turkey are hoping to implement a similar model. Now, though, the Kurds have become a primary target of the Islamic state, even though the two groups share the same Sunni branch of Islam. It is precisely the Kurds' newfound strength that has placed them in the crosshairs of IS.
+++ The Qandil Mountains of Iraq: A Visit to PKK Leaders +++
After the driver passes the stone portrait of Öcalan, he applies the brakes in front of a farmhouse. A short time later, PKK spokesman Zagros Hiwa arrives. He inspects the cameras, collects our mobile phones and closes the drapes. He then pulls a PKK flag out of a plastic bag and hangs it on the wall. PKK often uses civilian homes, with its leaders constantly changing locations.
Shortly thereafter, Sabri Ok enters the room with his body guard and five fighters. The 58 year old has been a member of PKK since its founding in 1978 and he's part of the group's top echelon. He spent a total of 22 years in prison in Turkey, a stint which included an extended hunger strike. Peace negotiations between PKK and Turkey have been ongoing since 2012, but Ok says they will end if Kobani falls to IS. Should that happen, attacks and violence will return in Turkey.
He warns that many young PKK supporters are itching for a fight. "The new generation is different from us older people," Ok says with concern. "They are more radical. They have seen the war in Kurdistan and their brothers and sisters have died in Syria. It will be difficult to control them."
Ok believes that Turkey is merely using the peace talks to buy time and does not think that a peaceful solution is possible. "We're not a war-loving people, but the Kurdish question has to be resolved," he says. "It is absurd for North Kurdistan to conduct peace negotiations while the same Kurds are being murdered by IS in Kobani with Turkish support." He claims that the Turks are providing IS with artillery and money, that they are treating wounded jihadists and allowing fighters to cross its borders into Syria. There is no proof of his allegations about weapons and money, but the other claims are verifiable.
The YPG, he says, have been defending the city for 37 days. "Without them," he says, "Kobani would have already fallen 37 times by now."
Last week, Turkey reached an agreement on sending 200 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from Iraq through Turkey and into Syria in order to help in the battle to save Kobani, but Ok has little regard for the plan. "What Peshmerga?" he asks, grinning. "I fought with the Peshmerga -- that was 30 years ago. But it is no longer the same army. They've become weak. When people just sit around, they lose their will to fight." He says that weapons, medicine and ammunition are needed in Kobani, not Peshmerga fighters.
He believes that PKK's ongoing ban in Germany is unjustified. Doesn't the PKK share the same principles as the West, he asks? Things like women's rights, environmental protection and democracy? He discounts the darker side of PKK -- that involving contract killings, involvement in the drug trade, kidnappings and terror attacks.
He then invites us to lunch for a meal of wild honey, chicken and salad.
+++ Kirkuk, Iraq: The Front against IS +++
The old Saddam-era fortifications still encircle Kirkuk, built by the dictator as a bulwark against the Kurds. Today, they are manned by Peshmerga and PKK units, staring out at the black Islamic State flag flying across from them.
The Iraqi army left Kirkuk months ago, leaving the Kurds to defend the oil city on their own. Islamic State jihadists are now just a few kilometers away. The PKK and Peshmerga have fought against in each other in the past, but now they're working together. During the day, 150 Peshmerga guard the front, with 300 PKK fighters taking over at sundown. Most of the serious combat happens at night.
Their commander, Agid Kellary, is based a little further to the south in Daquq. The PKK man has set up a make-shift office in a half-finished apartment. An Iraqi army helicopter roars overhead and shots can be heard. Kellary, a friendly and soft-spoken man who studied literature, explains, "We're in control here. If you don't show any strength, no one will respect you."
Kirkuk is located on the important arterial between Erbil and Baghdad. The area is flat, meaning that whoever has control of the city also has control of the surrounding area. Bulldozers push large ramparts around the camp and workers dig deep trenches behind the front. It looks like they are planning to stay. Kellary says he's looking forward to winter, in the hopes that snow and mud will restrict IS movements to major roadways, making them easier to stop.
But Islamic State is a powerful adversary, one with more than 30,000 fighters at its disposal, seemingly unlimited resources and modern heavy weaponry, much of it captured in recent months. Most has been seized from the Iraqi army, which was armed by the United States, but some has also come from the Syrian regime. Last week, IS even presented three fighter jets along with pilots, but it was likely just propaganda, an area in which the jihadists have proven themselves to be highly adept.
The next sentence that comes out of Commander Kellary's mouth would have been unfathomable only a few months ago. "We thank the Americans for their help," he says. "When they help us, they are also helping themselves. We share the same enemy." He says weapons deliveries from Germany to the Peshmerga are also nice, but that it would be more important for Berlin to finally abandon its support of Turkey.
Kellary says that, even as the battle of Kobani gets worldwide coverage, the ongoing fight in the Sinjar Mountains has been virtually ignored. "Our units are trapped, under constant fire -- it's the heaviest fighting that I can recall," he says. The corridor they had been using just a few weeks ago to deliver food and humanitarian assistance to the Yazidis in the mountains is now under Islamic State control and the threat of another massacre is growing.
'If No One Helps Us, We're All Going To Be Killed'
Heydar Shesho, commander of the Yazidi army in the mountains, sounds a little desperate on the phone. "We are surrounded on all sides," he says. "Islamic State is attacking us with tanks and artillery. There are still 2,000 families here. If no one helps us, we're all going to be killed." There has been no air support from the US and no aid deliveries, he says, before adding that they urgently need heavy weaponry.
The Kurdish government has also dispatched a few hundred Peshmerga to the mountains. "But you can forget about them," Shesho says. "They just wait around here and they don't fight. They might as well just fly home."
+++ Ömerli, Turkey: The Home of Öcalan's Brother +++
Barring a visit to the prison where he is being held, the closest you can get to the PKK's leader is the village of Ömerli on the Turkish-Syrian border, 70 kilometers from Kobani. Abdullah Öcalan was born and raised here, and it is the place that his younger brother Mehmet still calls home.
The path to his house leads through a pistachio orchard to a simple stone house. Garlands in the green, yellow and red of the Kurdish flag hang from the ceiling bearing Abdullah Öcalan's portrait. Memhet Öcalan, 63, sits beneath them in a plastic chair. He bears an unmistakable likeness to his brother, with the same compact stature, slouching shoulders, coarse facial features and broad moustache. Öcalan is a farmer and his hands are toughened from hard labor in the fields. He wears simple clothing -- a blue shirt, cloth pants and sandals. He leads us into his living room, the walls of which are also covered with photos of his brother and other PKK commanders.
The Öcalan family was poor and the parents couldn't afford to send all seven of their children to school. Mehmet never learned to read and write while Abdullah went to school and proved to be a good pupil, eventually making it to secondary school in Ankara. Mehmet Öcalan says that politics was never a topic in his parents' home. Their Kurdish heritage didn't play a role, either. The state denied that Kurds even existed and for a time they were referred to as "mountain Turks". Their language was forbidden. The Öcalan family assimilated.
But Abdullah found himself searching for a direction and, for a while, thought he had found it in Islam. He often frequented the mosque in Diyarbakr, where he spent two years working in the land registry. He saved his wages and he enrolled at Ankara University at the beginning of the 1970s to study political science. It was an era in which left- and right-wing groups often brawled and in which thousands of people died in street battles.
Abdullah Öcalan went from being a devout Muslim to a Socialist, one who admired both Marx and Mao. He also became involved in the left-wing extremist movement and was sentenced to several months in prison, where he became radicalized after seeing how other political prisoners were tortured. He also began to focus more on the oppression of his people.
The PKK's Armed Struggle
Following his release, Öcalan began propagating armed struggle in the fight for an independent Kurdish state and founded a group that ultimately gave birth to the PKK in 1978. His troops carried out attacks, took hostages and murdered soldiers -- but also killed thousands of civilians, resulting in his group being placed on European and American lists of terrorist organizations. Starting in 1977, Mehmet Öcalan didn't see his brother for two entire decades, preferring to stay in his home village and staying away from the PKK. He suffered from Turkish state oppression nonetheless, with police raiding his home repeatedly. He was also arrested and beaten in prison.
He certainly wasn't alone. Thousands of Kurds were tortured in the 1980s, particularly in the military prison in Diyarbakir, known as "Hell Nr. 5." Guards would force prisoners to rape each other and to climb into bathtubs full of feces; they ripped out their hair, tore out their nails and zapped them with electric shocks.
It was nothing less than war between the PKK and Turkey. Turkish soldiers lit entire villages on fire, shot farmers dead and raped their wives; hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled their homes to escape the violence. Mehmet Öcalan also had to leave his village of Ömerli, finding work in the fields on the Gulf of Iskenderun. He was only able to return home many years later.
Initially, the PKK was not universally supported by the Kurdish population, with many in the countryside unable to connect with its Marxist-Leninist liberation ideology. Furthermore, Abdullah Öcalan was brutal in his treatment of dissidents, pursuing suspected collaborators across borders and even executing women and children. But the ferocity of the Turkish military served to push many people into the arms of the PKK.
Mehmet Öcalan gazes at a photograph of his brother in his hand. He says he doesn't reproach his brother for everything that happened. "Abdullah did what he had to do," he says. He adds that although he isn't political himself, he does support his brother's fight.
The PKK leader was finally captured by the Turkish secret service in 1999 in Kenya with CIA assistance. Initially, he was sentenced to death for establishing a terrorist organization and for high treason, but the sentence was later commuted to life in prison. For the last 15 years, he has been held in a high-security prison on the island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara. He is only allowed to leave his cell once a day for an hour. For a long time, a radio was his only connection to the world outside, though he has had a television for the last two years. His lawyers say that he suffers from migraines and has developed breathing difficulties.
Abdullah Öcalan's Link to the Outside World
Mehmet recalls that Abdullah looked pale and seemed absent the first time he was able to visit him in prison and that they were only allowed to talk for 15 minutes. "You know that I did everything for the Kurdish people," Abdullah told his brother.
Now, though, Mehmet has become his brother's most important connection to the outside world. Though he shies away from public appearances, Mehmet receives Kurdish politicians to discuss his brother's ideas.
The two have never been able to talk without supervision during their meetings in Irmali, with security personnel constantly present, Mehmet says. Still, they spend much of their time talking about political issues, following Abdullah's initial questions regarding the family's wellbeing. At their last meeting in early October, Mehmet says his brother was riled up, fearful that the Turkish government was in the process of torpedoing the peace process.
Ankara began secret talks with the PKK in 2009 in Oslo. But it wasn't until the fall of 2011 that Turkish government officials approached Abdullah Öcalan, realizing that any peace agreement would have to bear his signature. Mehmet says his brother agreed to the negotiations with Ankara because he realized that the guerilla war had not been successful in guaranteeing more rights and freedoms for the Kurds.
The talks, by contrast, have resulted in significant improvements. Kurds are now allowed to use their language in schools and Kurdish newspapers and television channels have been established. Many Kurds are also more prosperous, having profited from the economic boom and from government investment in their region, which had long been neglected. In the summer, parliament in Ankara passed a law aimed at making it easier for PKK fighters to return from the Qandil Mountains, a move Abdullah Öcalan welcomed as an "historic initiative." An end to the decades-long conflict appeared nigh.
But Mehmet says the PKK now finds itself at a crossroads. His brother said he can only continue the talks if Erdogan ceases his support for the Islamic State, but Ankara appears to be pursuing a schizophrenic approach to the Kurds at the moment. To that end, Erdogan recently compared the PKK to Islamic State and he is still blocking any kind of aid for Kobani. It looks as though the Turkish president is hoping that the Kurds will be satisfied with a minimal compromise -- pushed through by Abdullah Öcalan so that he can get out of prison and, perhaps, so that he will go down in history as a peacemaker rather than a terrorist. But it is a risky gamble that has strengthened radical elements. "My brother alone is to thank for the fact that the conflict has not yet escalated," Mehmet says. How much longer people will continue listening to him remains an open question.
+++ Diyarbakir, Turkey: The Younger Generation +++
Ulas Yasak, a young PKK activist, is sitting in a windowless room in a concrete building on the outskirts of Diyarbakir, smoking filterless cigarettes and waiting. There are several Kurdish-language newspapers on the table in front of him and a poster of Abdullah Öcalan hangs on the wall. "I am ready to go on the attack," he says.
With his gaunt, sunken cheeks and scruffy beard, Yasak looks much older than his 30 years. He used to fight for the PKK in northern Iraq, but he is now the commander of the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), a PKK sub-group focused on establishing a parallel society, with its own schools, security forces and judiciary.
Yasak, who prefers to keep his real name secret, is illustrative of a generational conflict currently threatening to split the Kurdish movement. Young Kurds seem determined to take the fight to the streets and have engaged in battles with Turkish security forces in recent weeks. Indeed, nationwide protests at the beginning of October resulted in 20 deaths, with the scene reminiscent of the 1990s, when the conflict between Turks and Kurds devastated the region.
Just the night before, Yasak tells us, he met with his comrades to discuss what they should do if Turkey continues standing by as Kurds are slaughtered by Islamic State militants in Kobani. "Our leadership advises us to remain calm. But my people are losing their patience." Erdogan, he says, sought to use the negotiations with PKK to win over Kurdish voters, but the situation in Kobani shows that reconciliation was not his main priority.
Kobani, the Embodiment Kurdish Dreams
Yasak believes that Kobani embodies everything they have been fighting for over the years. In addition to being self-governed by the Kurds, it is also democratic and secular -- and is seen by Kurds as a model for the entire region. Were it to fall, Yasak warns, all of Turkey would pay a high price. "Then we would light the country on fire."
During the last three decades, 40,000 people in Turkey have lost their lives in the conflict between PKK and the state, including Yasak's uncle and cousin. As a child, Yasak was not allowed to speak Kurdish and when he went to university to study sociology, he was arrested and sent to prison, having been accused of spreading propaganda for PKK. When he got out of jail, he joined the group.
When the peace process began, he returned to Diyarbakir and realized that it had undergone a transformation while he was away. Several Turkish companies have opened branches there and the cafés are full of young men and women checking their smartphones. Stores in the city are open around the clock and the airport is currently being expanded to become one of the biggest in the country. Kurds in the region have profited from peace and many have started new companies themselves. That could all be in danger now.
+++ Afrin, Syria: Inside the Kurdish Mini-State +++
The Turkish government is even more afraid of the Kurds in neighboring Syria than it is of those inside its own country. Kobani is one of three separate regions where Kurds live in Syria. The second is the area surrounding Qamishli. There, the PYD leadership continues to cooperate with Damascus. Assad's air force uses the city's airfield to launch air strikes against towns and cities that are bastions of the opposition.
The third Kurdish region is Afrin, located northwest of Aleppo. It is here where the term canton -- a word Kurds have borrowed from Switzerland to refer to the three regions they control -- fits best, with Afrin seeming almost like a miniature Kurdish state. Two-thousand square kilometers (770 square miles) large, the enclave is both lush and green along the Afrin river valley, and arid and craggy in the surrounding hills. The violence nearby seems far away here, despite the presence of some 300,000 refugees who have joined the official population of 1.2 million. The region includes 366 villages and six small cities, all of it under the control of the PYD, the Syrian branch of PKK. In addition to a functioning administration, a court system and police, the region also boasts its very own secret service and it produces its own electricity. Furthermore, the government actively seeks to attract companies to the region and has a council dedicated to stimulating the economy. Allied rebel groups are welcome to come to the region for a bit of shopping and to have their wounded tended to.
It is a remarkable spot in war-torn Syria, with new construction everywhere and families strolling in the streets until late in the evening, enjoying the several newly opened cafés (including a Starbucks knock-off). Afrin is so safe that more than 100 textile factories and workshops from the decimated city of Aleppo have moved in. The region has its own mineral water bottling plant, being sold under the brands Kalos and Hana, and there are soap factories, printing shops and construction companies. Other plants produce tomato paste, hoses and toilet paper.
It is a grand experiment in statehood, and one that is being conducted largely out of the limelight. Its seeming success is almost certainly disquieting for the Turks.
Building a State
It is a bit surreal to watch regional officials go about their daily tasks, despite being surrounded by a war zone. Abdulrahman Ibo, Afrin's chain-smoking mayor, for example, says that his greatest triumph in office was moving the city's bus station out of the city center. The energy minister, a gold trader from Aleppo, is currently working on a law to regulate gravel mining while waiting for the return of an envoy who went to Helsinki to propose a wind and solar energy project to the government there.
Meanwhile, Afrin's Prime Minister Hevin Ibrahim, an Alawi chemistry and physics teacher, is phoning around to find out what became of the school books he ordered from a Turkish publishing company. They have to be smuggled across the border into Syria.
"We don't want independence and we don't want our own state," the prime minister insists, sitting in her office. "We don't want enemies and we are doing our best to prevent Syria from falling apart." They are not in the process of establishing a state, she says. Rather, they are merely engaged in "self-management." Nobody should be overly concerned, she insists. "We are technocrats," she adds, doing her best to look friendly and innocuous.
The line being walked here is a fine one. They neither want to dare a complete breakaway from Syria nor to raise Turkish suspicions with talk of secession. But the trappings of autonomy are difficult to ignore.
Even the meeting with Prime Minister Ibrahim almost failed to come about because Afrin sets its clocks differently than the rest of Syria, having resolved to turn the clocks back here for daylight-savings, just like in Europe. Furthermore, in a step that is ironically reminiscent of a significant milestone on Turkey's own path to statehood, the Kurds of Afrin have introduced Latin script. The founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, did the same almost 100 years ago as a way of further delineating his country from the collapsing Ottoman Empire. Now, Latin lettering has replaced Arabic almost everywhere in Afrin: in school books, on street signs and in newspapers. "It's simply a better fit for the way Kurdish sounds," Ibrahim says in a stroke of linguistic disingenuity.
It would hardly be possible to separate more completely from a state that one professes to want to preserve. But it is a strategy -- that of quietly and pragmatically building one's own structures -- that has served the Kurds in Syria well. In the beginning, they did so to fill the vacuum left behind by the departure of Assad's troops. But now, they have gone well beyond that. "We are now preparing an electoral council for all three cantons," assures the prime minister, "to enable a step-by-step introduction of democracy." Should the Syrian state completely collapse at some point, the Kurds of Afrin are prepared. They don't talk about having their own state, they simply focus on building it.
Not everybody, of course, is quite so diplomatic. When asked about Afrin, Sabri Ok, the PKK leader in the Qandil Mountains near the border with Iran, excitedly exclaims: "That kind of self-government is something we want for all of northern Kurdistan and for all Kurdish communities in the world."
Afrin's Foreign Minister Suleyman Jafer says officials there would like to initiate a dialogue with Turkey. "We even went so far as to send them a letter saying that we wanted peaceful relations with them, but we didn't get an answer," he says. Indeed, Jafer admits, he hasn't had much contact at all with any real states. It is a bit reminiscent of Europe during the Thirty Years' War, but Jafer is clearly an admirer of today's Europe. "We should simply get along with each other. Like in the EU. A world without borders!"
The government has, however, thoroughly fortified its own borders. A kind of Kurdish Maginot Line has developed in recent months on hilltops throughout the canton, complete with guard towers connected to each other with reinforced tunnels. In addition, a 50-kilometer-long, four-meter-deep trench is being dug around the canton -- for protection, of course, not as a border.
Currently, it is quiet on the outskirts of Afrin. But prior to this spring, the canton was besieged for almost a year by Islamic State fighters and other Syrian rebel groups angry with the Kurds for their cooperation with the Assad regime. Indeed, the civil war has allowed the Kurds to seize control of their regions without suffering the kind of destruction visited upon Arab towns and villages. One could say they have taken advantage of the suffering of others. Or simply that they have made the best out of a bad situation.
The Next IS Target?
Still, everyone in Afrin knows that if Kobani falls to Islamic State, their own peaceful world will be the Islamists' next target. Indeed, Afrin has long been on the IS radar. Recently, a one-man sleeper cell was discovered in Afrin, in the guise of a 17-year-old who had been recruited by Islamic State, trained in Turkey and sent home. He was told to join YPG and await further orders. There have also been attacks on Kurdish checkpoints surrounding Afrin. Furthermore, YPG and Islamic State exchanges prisoners every three to four months.
But the real ruler of Afrin is not Prime Minister Hevin Ibrahim. It is "Sipan," the YPG commander, who has some 30,000 men and women -- fighting in Kobani, Qamishli, Kirkuk and the Sinjar Mountains -- under his command.
To meet with Sipan, it is necessary to spend hours driving from checkpoint to checkpoint until one reaches a small wooden shack in the forest. After a few minutes, the commander, dressed in battle fatigues and a leather jacket, emerges with three attendants. He smokes slims, drinks tea and has an open face with attentive eyes: He says he is 40 years old and declines to provide more than his nom de guerre.
Sipan immediately wants to know how the German government views the fight for Kobani and the role being played by Turkey. The fact that Germany is only providing weapons to the Peshmerga and not to the YPG, which is leading the battle for Sinjar, makes no sense, he says. "You could also give weapons directly to us." He says that meetings have been held with US officials in both northern Iraq and Europe since September. "We talked about how our fighters could identify target coordinates in Kobani and pass them along," he says. They have apparently been successful. US air strikes have become much more accurate since then.
He also says that Turkey's recent announcement that it would allow Peshmerga fighters from Iraq to come to Kobani to defend it from Islamic State -- while continuing to prevent YPG from doing the same -- is nothing but a PR move. The Peshmerga, Sipan says, won't make the trip: "They first have to get the situation under control in Iraq."
The commander says that the battle for Kobani has increasingly become a proxy war. "The Turks are supporting Islamic State, the Americans are supporting us. It will be a valuable lesson for the US and Europe, he says, teaching them who their allies are and who are their enemies.
YPG, for its part, is doing all it can to appeal to the West, including ensuring that women play an important role. Whereas Islamic State kidnaps women and turns them into sex slaves, Kurdish women are fighting on the front.
During a visit to a training camp in Afrin, 34 young women in fatigues were presented by their commander, a 24-year-old named Saria. When asked how many of them had been in battle, 10 of them raised their hands. "No matter how much training I had before, it was different against Islamic State," says Bafri, 21, adding that she killed jihadist fighters. "I knew what I was doing it for," she says.
Once Bafri broke the ice, all of the women had stories to tell and they began talking about the differences between fighting in the mountains and house-to-house fighting in the towns. It was an unusual scene for this part of the world: Women speaking freely to strangers.
Later, during training, they had to balance on a two-meter-high beam, crawl under barbed wire and roll forwards over a half-meter-high block while running. These, too, are things that women don't commonly do in the traditional Kurdish and Arab world. During ideological training, the subject of the day has nothing to do with Kurdistan, focusing on the rights of women instead.
It is an interesting combination. Women here are fighting for the Kurdish nation, but they are at the same time trying to carve out more freedom for themselves. And the PKK has indeed changed the rigid family structures in the areas under its influence. Fathers may still be able to forbid their daughters from any number of things in their lives, but they cannot stop them from joining the PKK at the front.
Eight young women from the Afrin training camp have been sent to Kobani, a mission with no return should the city fall. But the fight against the jihadists is not just a military mission, the commander says: "It is more. It is also a fight against their macho demeanor." Some of the troops start laughing. "It exists here too, among the Kurds," she goes on. "This mentality that we belong to the men is one that we have to eliminate."