AMUDA, Syria — "There are 35 million Kurds and only 30,000 of them live in Amuda. Now, if you have 35 kilograms of meat for a meal, you are not going to eat them because of a bunch of flies?" a Kurdish fighter with the Popular Protection Units (YPG) asked cynically while relaxing outside the military barracks. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) — the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the political affiliate of the YPG — has carefully consolidated its project to manage the Syrian Kurdish areas. It will not accept anyone interfering with its hegemony — especially if this happens ahead of the Geneva II conference, where the party has been promised a seat by Russia.
In Amuda, the PYD's hegemony has become increasingly under threat from the pro-Free Syrian Army youth committees and other Kurdish parties, prompting its first military crackdown last week. Between June 27 and 28, seven civilians were gunned down by YPG forces following protests. According to witnesses, only one of them was armed. The United States issued a statement on Monday saying it was “appalled” by the PYD crackdown, calling on the PYD to “respect the human rights and dignity of all Syrians.”
It all started on June 17, when the Asayish — Kurdish security forces — arrested the vocalist of anti-regime protests Wilat Feto, the Yekiti Party member Dersem Omar and Serbest Najjari, known to be close to the youth committees. Only Omar has been released so far. They have officially been accused of drug trafficking, even though numerous residents understood their detention as politically motivated. A series of small silent sit-ins started to occupy one of the city's main streets, and after a couple of days they turned into proper demonstrations with thousands of people, according to the participants.
On June 27, according to the PYD's official version of the events, the Martyr Serhad Brigade that reached Amuda was heading back to Qamishli, after it defeated an Arab “mercenary armed gang" in control of a dam located on the road between Tell Tamr and Hasakeh. The operation is said to have restored water supplies to Hasakeh, after the city remained dry for several days.
"If they were going directly to Qamishli, then they didn't need to pass from Amuda," objected Omar Uge, a 41-year-old pharmacist who witnessed the killings. "At first, several demonstrators mediated with those throwing stones at the YPG forces, to convince them that the armed men were not there to stifle the protest, but as soon as they were allowed to cross into the main street they took control of it, and we realized it was a planned crackdown," Uge told Al-Monitor.
"I was 100 meters away from the spot and saw them opening fire on protesters sitting in the street; they used kalashnikovs and doshka jeeps," recalled Ciwan (not his real name), a 16-year-old student who spent that night carrying wounded to the hospitals.
The following video was shot by a protester, who wished to remain anonymous, in Amuda on June 27. It shows the arrival of the YPG military convoy, later on joined by Asayish. Demonstrators "welcome" them by throwing stones and calling them "shabiha." Some of the protesters convinced the others to allow the convoys pass. However, once they took control of the streets, the Asayish and YPG did not hesitate to descend from their cars and open fire on civilians.
The motivations given by the YPG and its female brigade the YPJ, which also took part in the crackdown, were predictably different from other accounts. "Our comrades from Qamishli found themselves besieged by demonstrators who opened fire causing the death of fighter Issa Gulo. Therefore, we had to respond," explained Amuda's YPJ Commander Avshin, disclosing only her battle nickname. Nonetheless, in a video shot by an eyewitness there is no evidence of gunshots coming from demonstrators before the YPG offensive.
This "response" quickly turned into indiscriminate shooting. "As I saw someone wounded falling on the ground next to me, I tried to drag him away from the street with the help of another person. But they opened fire on us, and we had to run away," Uge recalled.
The violence didn't spare hospitals and party sections. "My friend Ahmad Khalaf [a shopkeeper] was wounded by a bomb thrown by the YPG; therefore, I took him to the Hammo Dari Hospital," a pensioner in his fifties told Al-Monitor. "Later on, I saw the Asayish breaking into the hospital and slapping Dr. Ahmad Hammo Adari, because he tried to prevent them from searching the building." Those seriously wounded — who needed to be transferred to Qamishli — have allegedly been blocked at YPG checkpoints, and they had to be smuggled across the border toward Turkish hospitals.
The offices of the Yekiti Party — the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS) and several other rivals of the PYD — were vandalized and their members beaten and arrested by YPG militiamen. The Yekiti headquarters were quickly turned into a PYD association — the Civil Society Institution. Also the KDPS's office bears no trace of the political party, but the graffiti in the corridor leaves no doubt about who raided it: "Beware of the YPG … YPG is the Azrael [the Quranic angel of death] of traitors."
On June 28, the day after the bloodbath, early in the morning a curfew was announced by YPG patrols' speakers. The people of Amuda woke up to the sound of sniper shootings from the rooftops of schools and mosques. Numerous houses, including ours, were raided by YPG militiamen looking for "saboteurs" (mukharribin) behind the previous day's events. A Syrian colleague and I were taken to a military barrack near the checkpoint at the entrance of Amuda. He was interrogated by 'comrade' Hamza, a pot-bellied YPG cadre in charge of interrogations with a hand grenade tied around his waist and a wounded eye. Interrogations took place inside inner rooms, where those arrested were dragged blindfolded by militiamen. We were released after a couple of hours, but our laptops were kept for further controls. Our computers were returned to us on the following day, after I was questioned on some articles criticizing the YPG that were found stored on our computers. We were also asked whether we had any Kurdish political affiliation.
Personal belongings were stolen during the arrests and several families complained about the violent manners adopted by armed men. The relatives of the victims have been prevented from gathering large crowds around funeral processions to limit the risk of demonstrations, a measure adopted by the Baathist regime at the beginning of the uprising.
The significance of such an escalation in the authoritarian approach of the PYD stretches far beyond this episode in Amuda, striking a blow against anyone else willing to represent the Syrian Kurds before the international community. On June 25, Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria, chose Abdul-Basit Saida from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as sole legitimate representative of the Syrian Kurds at the Geneva II peace talks, despite Moscow’s opposition which tends to prefer the PYD-dominated Kurdish Supreme Commission (KSC). After last week’s violence in Amuda, numerous local councils of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) — a body formed by 16 Kurdish parties — withdrew from the KSC in a sign of protest. Only time will tell if the KNC will consider joining the SNC to marginalize the PYD, or whether it will pursue reconciliation with the followers of Abdullah Ocalan, one of the founding members of the PKK.
Andrea Glioti is a freelance journalist who covered the first five months of the Syrian uprising from inside the country. His work has been published by the Associated Press, IRIN News, openDemocracy, The Daily Star (Lebanon), New Internationalist and numerous Italian and German newspapers.