Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch talks to Syria Deeply about the declaration of an autonomous Kurdistan in northern Syria by the Kurdish faction PYD, and about issues such as governance, detentions, and security:
Syria Deeply: What exactly has taken place in Hassakeh?
Lama Fakih: The PYD, which is a part of the Kurdish Workers Party and affiliated with the PKK in Turkey, has established itself as the lead party [in Syrian Kurdistan], and now it has established its own government in the three cantons in northern Syria where the population is predominantly Kurdish. That’s the Jazeera area of Hassakeh, and then Afrin and Kobani, whose Arab name is Ayn al Arab.
What that has meant is that they have established a cabinet, an executive branch, administrative services and an overall government through these areas. When we visited the Jazeera area, we were able to see how police forces had developed and were working, how the military arm of the government was working. We also had a chance to visit a [newly-established] court in Qamishli and speak with a judge there about the administration of justice.
Their government structure is no longer applying Syrian law. Instead, they are trying to resolve things through mediation process between the parties. Sometimes this works well, but there’s not a clear guidance as to what the rules are and how long charges are [held] against [people].
SD: How is the treatment in PYD detention compared to the brutality experienced by those detained elsewhere in the country?
LF: We visited two prisons, where we were able to interview detainees about their treatment in prison. The detainees did describe some beatings, but for most part said that once they had been transferred to prisons, they did not suffer from abuse. They were not tortured or threatened. They described to us prisoner rights that were avail to them like being able to see a physician, being able to phone their families, being able to spend time out of the facility.
The overall concern was that in many cases people appeared to be arbitrarily detained, sometimes for weeks, and often did not know what charges against them were.
SD: Is there anything that gives the PYD a particular ability to govern?
LF: The dynamics in these areas are very different from other northern areas where opposition groups operating in that they were never subject to attack by the Syrian government. You don’t see remnants of air strikes. There have been some car bombings and IEDs, but this is a community whose infrastructure still [exists], which makes it much easier to build new [initiatives]. The PYD has a working relationship with the Syrian government, and they continue to operate in Qamishli, and they do so without interference from the PYD, and vice versa.
The PYD also has a military arm, which developed a couple of years ago, when the government predominantly withdrew from the Kurdish areas, and it has been building itself as a police force. They say they have 2400 people working with their police force there. Having had that time to establish a police force and establish and maintain control over the area has facilitated their ability to now govern these areas.
SD: What are the challenges they will face in running an autonomous government in wartime?
LF: Their main challenge now is how to change this new government from a party project to a government project that is inclusive of the opposition party like the [Kurdistan Region President Massoud] Barzani-backed Kurdish National Council. [The PYD] continues to make attempts to have opposition parties or other parties participate in the government, but the largest opposition party is not yet doing that.
We were also looking at attacks on members of opposition parties, because we had recent reports of political detainees being held in the cantons. We interviewed the head of (one opposition) office and he said he’d been “disappeared” for a year and a half ad they believed the PYD was responsible for his disappearance. There are other concerns that there have been attempts to silence other opposition voices, including the media. Local Kurdish journalists talked about “red lines” they could not cross [in reporting], like the use of child soldiers by the military arm.
SD: Are extremists a security concern? Or are they backing off the PYD-controlled areas for now?
LF: These areas are subject to car bombings and IEDs in some areas, and that continues to be a security challenge. But these communities are not on the front line, and in some respects they are buffered. You don’t hear regular mortar fire. But their struggle now is going to be growing and protecting these [new government] institutions.