Opposition politics was always a dangerous business in pre-conflict Syria. Now, as vast areas of the country have fallen out of the government’s control, opposition activists and politicians face risks everywhere, from Aleppo to far-flung Kurdish regions.
Islamists in rebel-controlled Aleppo, through their Sharia courts, have detained dozens of activists, conservative and liberal, for criticizing powerful groups. And in Kurdish areas, usually depicted as being more harmonious than Arab districts, the PYD’s leaders have also begun to lock up detractors.
For 52 days, Hamam was held with his son at the Asayish headquarters in Ayn al-Arab (the city is called Kobani in Kurdish) and was released in early April without being formally charged with a crime. His son remained in jail.
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Hamam, 54, said he helped his son and friends in Kobani set up a battalion that would fight under the Kurdish Military Council’s banner, which is aligned with the Free Syrian Army. For many Kurds in the PYD (an affiliate of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK), joining the Arab rebels – without extracting a pledge from Assad’s opponents on the status of the ethnic group in a future Syria – is tantamount to abandoning or softening the aspirations of Syria’s Kurds.
The proliferation of armed Kurdish groups also sets the stage for internecine conflicts, which all factions say they want to avoid.
“We didn’t operate in Kurdish areas, because we didn’t want to clash with YPG,” Hamam said, referring to the People’s Defense Units, the militant arm of the PYD. “I think they arrested us to send a message to other Kurds not to join any armed group other than the PYD.”
In reductive, ethno-sectarian analyses of Syria, the Kurds are presented as a monolithic bloc seeking an independent state. Reality is far more complex, however, and Kurds have proven to be as fractured as other components of Syrian society.
<a href=”http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2013/3/syriakurd759.htm” target=”_blank”>Kurdish groups have clashed this year</a>, and the dominance of the PYD in Kurdish areas has sparked civilian protests, some of which were violently quelled.
Hamam was arrested when he went to inquire about his son’s detention. “When I arrived at the Asayish station, I was immediately searched and locked up,” he said.
A commander from the Hezarawan, a group the Asayish describes as a neighborhood-watch group and Hamam calls a “shadow police force,” insulted Hamam, but he was never physically abused in jail. He was also questioned by a man known as Shouresh, a Syrian Kurd who fought with the PKK in Turkey.
“I’ve spent time in Assad’s jails over the past two decades, and to be fair, I was treated well by the Asayish,” Hamam said. Fayyad Mula Khalil, the effective police chief in Kobani, “was very respectful and made sure I had everything I needed, including medical care,” he added.
The volunteer court in Kobani, which Hamam said he refused to recognize because it was tied to a party, not an apolitical bureaucracy, didn’t hold proceedings against Hamam because there were no formal charges. “The court basically tried to broker my release with those who wanted me in jail.”
After 52 days – just as suddenly as he was arrested – Hamam was released.
The experience has hardened his views of the PYD. He said that the PKK (which is often used interchangeably with PYD) “hasn’t cut its umbilical cord with the Assad regime, and is trying to pit the Kurds against each other.”
But Hamam remains resolute in keeping the Kurdish disputes political, rather than violent. “I’m willing to spend years in prison if it keeps the peace among Kurds,” he said. “If we escalated based on my arrest, if there are retaliations now, the only winner in that scenario is the Assad regime.”