Rojava – a “protection zone” for religious and ethnic minorities in northern Syria?

Report on a research trip by STP's Middle East expert

During his trip through Northern Syria, STP’s Middle East expert, Dr. Kamal Sido, talked with a lot of different residents of this region. In Al-Hasakeh, he met an old Armenian woman whose parents survived the genocide against the Armenians in 1915. And she has survived the “Islamic State” now.

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 However, this dichotomous image is obsolete, at least since the emergence of the terrorist group “Islamic State” (IS), formerly known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) or the “Islamic State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.

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.

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.

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.

After the radical Islamists managed to “liberate” most of “Sunni Syria” from the Christians, they must be kept from advancing further north to Rojava. Rojava - Northern Syria has always been a diverse region – ethnically, with regard to religion, and culturally. To preserve this rich diversity, all religious and cultural communities must be able to live out their faith and culture freely. The Kurds and the few Christians in Rojava - northern Syria will not be able to resist the radical Islamists on their own. They are dependent on help from Germany, Europe, and the United States of America.

You can read the full report online including all interviews or download it for free: Rojava – a “protection zone” for religious and ethnic minorities in northern Syria? (pdf)

You can read the report online - without the interviews - also in Arabic or download it for free: Rojava – a “protection zone” for religious and ethnic minorities in northern Syria? (Arabic version) (pdf)