A Kurdish boy beside the Turkey-Syria border fence in the city of Nusaybin (with Qamishle in the background)

© John Zada

Along the border fence separating the Turkish town of Nusaybin with its sister city of Qamishli in Syria, a familiar scene unfolds.

A group of heavily armed Turkish troops vigilantly patrols its side of a frontier marked by thickets of barbed wire and a minefield bristling with weeds. For months, a heightened state of alert has presided along this tense divide.

But unlike other border towns located farther west, one important element here remains conspicuously absent: signs of warfare.

On the Syrian side there is no crackling of gunfire, no crashing shells or rising plumes of smoke. Incidents of Syrian mortars landing in Turkish fields followed by Ankara’s now-routine artillery retaliations are also non-existent. Instead, Qamishli’s concrete horizon of lowrise buildings and minarets looms calmly intact, almost beckoningly.

Across the fence lies Syria’s predominantly Kurdish northeast — a dust-blown region of poor towns and villages populated by members of the world’s largest ethnic group without their own state. Numbering close to two million in Syria — out of a combined 30 million across the Middle East — the Kurds have largely managed to stay out of the lethal slugging match between Damascus and the Sunni rebel forces.

Though no friends of the Assad regime, the Kurds have repeatedly spurned calls by Syria’s rebels to join the uprising, citing a deep mistrust of Arabs and of rebel intentions in a post-Assad Syria.

They have chosen instead to bide their time in guarded aloofness, hoping to seize the opportunity to realize a long-held dream of self-determination similar to that of their brethren in northern Iraq.

“If you were to try to find someone who was winning the conflict in Syria so far, it would have to be the Syrian Kurds,” says David Romano, a Kurdish specialist at Missouri State University. “They’re coming up in the middle while the mostly Sunni Arab Free Syrian Army and other groups battle the regime to a standstill.”

In the summer, the Syrian military redeployed most of its forces out of the Kurdish areas in order to focus on its fight with the rebels. A well-armed Kurdish group, the PYD, has filled that vacuum, turning the area into a small Kurdish-run fiefdom. Assad’s opponents say the regime brokered a Faustian deal with the Kurds, offering them nominal autonomy in return for a guarantee that they will stay out of the rebel camp. Others even allege the PYD has agreed to a situation of passive collusion with Damascus in the conflict.

The Kurds themselves insist they want nothing to do with either side in the civil war. The delicateness of the situation was illustrated just a few weeks ago when Sunni rebels, crossing into Kurdish areas on the outskirts of Aleppo, were attacked by the Kurds who had previously forbidden the rebels from using their territory. Dozens were killed in those skirmishes.

In addition to impacting the strategic balance domestically, the recent change of fortune for Syria’s Kurds embodies a complex matrix of rivalries and allegiances that observers say extends beyond the civil war and which portends additional conflict.

The Kurdish militia that has taken power in Syria is closely aligned with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a pan-Kurdish rebel movement based in the remote Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish military for autonomy in Turkey since the early 1980s. Because of the close links between the PYD and PKK, Turkey has threatened to intervene if Syria’s Kurdish areas become a launching point for attacks against it.

Kurdish residents in the city of Nusaybin, Turkey, on the Turkey-Syria border

© John Zada

Though separated by the border, Nusaybin and Qamishli are considered by Kurds on both sides to be one city. There is a distinct Syrian flavour to Nusaybin life. Arabic is also understood, if not spoken there, in addition to both Turkish and Kurdish.

Turkey has sealed the border crossing between the two towns, worried that the newly empowered Syrian Kurds will now support their PKK brethren fighting Ankara.

Turkish armoured personnel carriers rumble obtrusively through the narrow streets of the town, while paramilitaries patrol the main avenues on foot scrutinizing both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

The Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, an autonomous entity that has taken shape since the end of the first Gulf War, has also been providing training, weapons and political support for other groups of Syrian Kurds, further complicating this kaleidoscope of relationships.

There is a firm conviction among the Kurds that no matter how the Syrian revolt plays out, the day will come when they’ll have to defend their newly won areas from either a victorious Damascus — or a triumphant alliance of Sunni rebel groups backed by Turkey.

“The rebels in Syria are very much beholden to Turkey which has had enough trouble accepting Iraqi Kurdish self-determination,” says Romano. “Now with Syrian Kurdish autonomy in the cards with a PKK affiliate group set up to lead that region, it really crosses all of Turkey’s red lines. They will do all they can to stop it.”

That spectre of conflict, in addition to acute shortages of food, electricity and medicine, has prompted many Kurds to leave their areas of Syria.

Alan Mohammed, a 24 year-old economics student from Qamishli fled one night to neighbouring Nusaybin in Turkey after Syrian intelligence agents repeatedly tried to force him to enlist in the army.

“Even though we now control our own areas, the Syrian government still moves in the shadows,” he says, sipping tea in Nusaybin’s bazaar. “They are everywhere, and are quietly threatening people if they don’t join to fight in their dirty war.”

Hundreds of Qamishli Kurds, like Mohammed, have chosen to billet with friends or family in Nusaybin, rather than travel to northern Iraq where more than 30,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees now reside.

The closing of the border crossing between the two towns has had a crippling impact on Nusaybin’s economy. The town’s bazaar, which in better times was bustling with the steady traffic of shoppers moving between Turkey and Syria, is now quiet.

“There’s no more money here,” says Ali Endam, a merchant and store owner, as he walks alongside the border fence in view of a Turkish bunker. “Myself and others like me used to travel to Syria every week and do all kinds of business. Now, no more.”

Endam continues walking along the edge of a no-man’s-land strewn with mines, and turns into an alleyway at the edge of town. The corridor leads to Nusaybin’s cemetery — a park-like sprawl of greenery and calm just a stone throw’s away from the barbed wire.

“Once a week, the town gathers here to spend time with loved ones who have died”, he says. “By tonight, this place will be of full of people.”

Endam stops beside a line of white tombstones resting above a brick hedge painted with yellow, red and green stripes. A five-pointed red star hovers above the names on each of the tombstones. The graves, he says, are those of a group of PKK rebels who were killed in an ambush against the Turks some years back. Endam says he wishes they were alive today so they could see the events unfolding in Syria.

“When Assad falls it will be the beginning of something new for everyone,” he adds. “You can maybe delay a people from building their own country, but if they are determined, nothing will stop them from succeeding.”

This article ran in the Toronto Star on November 10, 2012.