AMUDA, Syria — On Aug. 17, between 5,000 and 8,000 Syrian Kurds fled their country following the reopening of the Pesh Khabur border crossing between Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. On Aug. 21, the mass exodus prompted the de facto Syrian Kurdish authorities — the Kurdish Supreme Commission (KSC), which is dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — to implement a resolution issued in April to block emigration with the exception of certified medical reasons.
PYD officials claim the decision was taken to counter a plot aimed at changing the demographic balance of these regions at the expense of Kurds, while calling on locals to remain in Syria and exploit this unique chance to achieve Kurdish autonomy.
As far as many locals are concerned, however, the long-awaited dream of Kurdish autonomy is overwhelmed by poverty, while some refuse to accept the PYD's political hegemony and hope to leave before the group further consolidates its power.
In Amuda, everyone has a reason to leave, or a relative to reach somewhere abroad. "Emigration has always been rooted in the minds of people here," a housewife told Al-Monitor. "My husband has been working as a mechanic for so many years and, until now, he cannot afford to buy a car or open his own shop."
Regardless of the living standards, others believe Kurds should never leave their homeland. "Those who leave are half-traitors, only a few of us leave out of hunger and I think Kurds should stay, even if we were eating bread and water," said shopkeeper Saad Nabo. "It is a unique opportunity, we're managing our areas and it's not easy, as we're building a system inside another system," an official with the pro-PYD Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM) known as Dalpak Abu Tawfiq, who didn't wish to reveal his real name, told Al-Monitor.
According to the same scale of priorities, the Kurdish security forces — Asayish — belittle the economic situation, recalling the harsher years Syrian Kurds went through.
“Those complaining should remember the 1990s, when we were all queuing five hours for bread due to the [US] sanctions on Syria," Sheykhmous Haji, an Asayish official in Amuda, told Al-Monitor. "The oscillation of the dollar is not something we could control and we are facing a war under siege: the passage to Iraqi Kurdistan is not open for goods and Ankara hasn’t agreed yet to reopen the Al-Darbasia gate after the talks held between [PYD Secretary-General] Salih Muslim and the Turkish government," Haji continued. Even though markets in Kurdish regions are flooded with Turkish goods smuggled into Syria, all the Turkish border crossings remain closed.
However, critics of the PYD's political hegemony believe services are intentionally rationed to bolster the party's legitimacy. "Please don't tell us you [PYD] are in a state of war and cannot grant us bread, we know the silos are full of wheat and you're just imposing your authority by controlling services," Nabo, the shopkeeper, denounced. The Hassakeh governorate in northeastern Syria is known to be the country’s breadbasket.
Whether it is embodied in the control of services or in its military supremacy, the PYD's hegemony is playing its role in prompting some residents to leave, fearing a new authoritarian "dawn." "If the Apocin [nickname given to supporters of Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)] wish to establish a Kurdish state, why don't they accept political pluralism?" the housewife asked. "In all these years, the regime never ordered a curfew in Amuda like they [PYD] did on June 28. I want to leave before they recruit my husband," she added.
To cope with the economic siege, some suggest the smuggling profits should at least be distributed to prevent people from fleeing. "Before the resolution started being implemented, the YPG [Popular Protection Units, the militia controlled by the PYD] and the Asayish used to earn 1,000 Syrian pounds [roughly $5 on the black market] for each person crossing the border, in addition to the levies collected on the smuggling of goods. So why don't they start distributing this money?" a smuggler from Amuda asked sardonically during an interview with Al-Monitor. Abu Tawfiq, the TEV-DEM official, confirmed 1,000 Syrian pounds were collected from each person crossing the border before the resolution came into force, while justifying it as a reward for patrolling the area.
Those supportive of the ban on migration argue that the main goal is to counter the displacement of Kurds from the Jazeera plain. "There is a clear agenda to evacuate Kurds, it's similar to what happened in Turkey after the coup staged in 1980, when 5,000 Kurdish villages were evacuated. Here in Syria, after the failure of the offensive launched in July by the Islamist factions backed by Turkey, the regime intentionally bombarded Derik [on Aug. 19], while the Iraqi Kurdish media such as Zagros TV tied to Massoud Barzani [president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan] kept encouraging emigration," Abu Tawfiq explained.
In the view of PYD officials, despite the recent rapprochement, Barzani is still believed to be boycotting the PKK-backed Syrian Kurdish self-management plan, to realize his ambitions to become the only unrivaled Kurdish leader in the region.
Those who support the resolution against emigration do it also out of fear of the growing Arab population. "We're witnessing a change in the demographic balance. More and more wealthy Arabs displaced from other Syrian regions are settling here because it's a safer area," Nabo observed.
The concerns caused by the growing Arab presence are also tied to the risk of an increase in support for radical Islamist groups. However, the "Islamist threat" played a marginal role in the mass exodus, despite the media frenzy about it. "Only few Kurds have actually witnessed the recent massacres of Kurdish civilians [committed in the provinces of Raqqa and Aleppo between July and August], so most people didn't leave out of fear," a Syrian Telecom employee from Amuda told Al-Monitor. The smuggler agreed, saying that only a minority of those leaving do to escape violence.
This mix of internal and external factors behind the mass exodus will keep threatening the PYD project for Kurdish autonomy and its reliance on local labor. In the background of an endless conflict, the rooted connivance between local authorities and smugglers is also likely to remain a relevant business in the war economy.
“The YPG are particularly strict in applying the resolution, but you could easily get a permission to migrate through personal acquaintances within the Asayish,” the smuggler told Al-Monitor. “My sister is married to a Turkish citizen, therefore fully entitled to travel. After having been denied permission by the Asayish, she managed to cross the border by hiding in the trunk of the car of some cigarette smugglers.”
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.