The skies are grey-black from the oilfields and refineries at Rumeilan, a dingy, depressing cover that stretches from this Kurdish enclave far to the southern horizon where the Islamists of Isis are sucking their own wealth out of the ground. Not that the Kurds have much money. Without refining chemicals, the “Democratic Self-Administration of Kurdistan West” – the wedge of territory that Syria allows the Kurds to hold between Qamishli and the Iraqi-Kurdish border – can only produce 30,000 barrels a day, and that’s for their own use.
But this quaint little sub-state lives in a world almost as dark as the oil fires. Its “Self Protection Unit” militiamen lounge around the wells and beside the highway checkpoints, but no one can travel in or out of the enclave. Grass drifts over the old railway line to Mosul and all roads south lead to Isis. Turkey won’t open its border here and, half way into Qamishli, Syrian government forces control the land. The Kurds are in an enclave, reachable only by air. “Kurdistan East”, by the way, is supposed to be Iraqi Kurdistan with its capital in Irbil – which has also closed its border to the “Democratic Self-Administration of Kurdistan West”. All in all, a pretty pickle.
And there’s no point in fooling yourself about where this would-be Ruritania searches for its ideological roots. Abdullah Ocalan’s picture adorns street lamp-posts – the PKK leader still rots away in his Turkish prison – and there’s a banner over the road 20 miles east of Qamishli which insists that “Kobani is the graveyard of Isis” while avoiding the fact that Kobani has sent quite a few hundred Kurds to their grave as well.
But you’ve got to admire the Kurds, even though their history suggests they were born to be betrayed. They run a plucky little newspaper in Qamishli called Ronahi – “Light” – with 20 pages in Arabic, four in Kurdish, one of whose writers is 40-year old Mohamed Kamal who, in his world of websites, prefers to call himself a “media activist”. “We are under a full economic siege,” he says. “Everything is overpriced. Some traders even import at a price from Isis and then sell at higher prices. We understand that the oil and wheat here belongs to all of Syria. But we should have a priority benefit from the wells in our area. We have no plans for independence from Syria, but we want self-administration and use our own resources here.” Of the local 12,000 wells, the Kurds can operate only around 250, small affairs where the stink of oil and grit turns into dirty petroleum and asphalt.
Mr Kamal does not mince his words. “There has been a case of denial of the Kurdish people and their culture for the past 40 years, in fact ever since Syria’s ‘unity’ with Egypt. Some people say the Assad family also have Kurdish roots, but it has made no difference. We were not even allowed to name a child with a Kurdish name. Yes, before we lived well but we had no freedom. Now we have freedom, but we don’t live well.”
Dream on, I thought to myself. I don’t see a post-war Damascus government handing out oil concessions to these Kurds, especially when the Iraqi regime next door is a living example of what happens when you let a Kurdish federation take over some of your oil wealth. But Mr Kamal does dream on. “We have a diverse, democratic government here, based on ethnic and ideological plurality. Forty per cent of our administration officers are women. The two heads of administration are always one man and one woman. And if it were not for us, the rebels would have taken Hassake and Qamishli a long time ago.”
This is not, I should add, the view of the army in Qamishli, which claims that without its tanks and air support, Isis would have taken the Kurdish district a long time ago. But as we bump over the disused tracks of the Mosul railway, we enter the territory of the local Shumaa Arab tribe which is giving its support to the Self Protection Units. Some of these men rescued the Yazidi refugees on Sinjar mountain when Isis attacked them. The Kurds – here and at Kobani – estimate they have already lost 1,000 “martyrs” in the battle with the Islamists in the last year. And of course, when I am about to meet the vice-president of the Energy Commission of the local Kurdish administration in the town of Makileh, I forget that this is Ocalan country and expect a middle-aged and verbose official to meet me. But Hivrine Khalaf is a 30-year old female civil engineer who knows all the senior oil workers by name and leads us to wells and refineries, reeling off statistics – Rumeilan at full capacity can produce 165,000 barrels-a-day rather than the measly 30,000 it provides for local consumption – and proving that these people really do believe in women’s rights.
Hassan, an engineer, is running an ancient East German asphalt production plant – he says he was fired by the Syrian government on 27 May this year because he chose to work for the Kurdish self-administration here – and he’s the first to suggest that Isis must be receiving outside technical help to produce its oil. Another engineer was much more to the point. “We’ve talked to people – traitors – who sell oil for Isis and they say that Turkish engineers are helping Isis to operate the wells and refineries in their area, and they often see these Turkish engineers. We hear this all the time now – that the Turks are in the Isis oilfields.”
An intriguing remark. And if true, no wonder there exists a weird half-truce relationship between Turkey and the Islamists. Another member of the administration produced their own analysis of just why Isis exists. “This has deep historical roots. They want to restore an Islamic state in this area. And this here is a culture that allows Isis to prosper. No one is born a terrorist. The Islamic countries in particular have helped to breed this. Europe has overcome its history. But Isis turned Syria into a rubbish pit where they send all their foreign fighters – and they arrive there from Turkey.”
And of course, I asked Mr Kamal and Ms Khalaf about those well-known Middle Eastern characteristics – or at least the ones we Westerners like to graft onto the place – of patriarchy and chauvinism. “Our struggle is changing us,” Mr Kamal said. “We have changed our view of the role of men and women. If our society is to evolve, women must have a bigger role.” Ms Khalaf listens carefully to this. “Our struggle is a joint struggle,” she replies. So maybe the Kurds do have a chance.
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