Smell roses when there aren't any

'Do you smell it? It has nothing to do with roses. "

I remember very well that feeling of relief that came over me. Nobody ever thanked God everywhere and constantly, women wore their hair down, men were clean-shaven and had at most a stubble. In a restaurant on a roof terrace there was ice-cold beer against the summer heat and then arak with dinner. Everything was clean, there was electricity, running water, neither shootings nor air raids. Here I could wear my earring without being considered morally obnoxious.

It was a completely different world, even though it was the same country, namely Syria. Actually, I should have written: another planet in another galaxy. Because that's how it actually seemed to me for a few days during my stay in Rojava in the late summer of 2013. I had never been to the mainly Kurdish area along the Turkish border during the Syrian civil war.

Otherwise I had mostly traveled to the area around Aleppo, to the mountains of Jebel al-Zawiya and towards Hama. Just where the real rebels were. At least those who were associated with the Syrian revolution. At that time she had just entered her second year and the euphoria was still correspondingly great. Everyone thought that the reign of President Bashar al-Assad would in fact end soon. At that time, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist gang had not made headlines, although they had been roaming around Syria for months.

At every opportunity: "Bismillah!"

Yes, in the revolutionary realm one usually only dealt with bearded men. Women were hardly present in public spaces and you never saw them in private apartments. They sat in the kitchen, making coffee or cooking. It was no wonder that female colleagues were repeatedly asked to wear a headscarf or at least a scarf.

I thought that was pretty outrageous. Because as a guest who risked his life to report on his hosts' struggle against the dictatorship, you should at least be able to choose your clothes. And it wasn't about a visit to a mosque, but a visit to a military base or to the front.

Even then it was clear that the rebels were quite conservative, which the West did not really want to admit. Religion was somehow always present in rebel Syria. At every opportunity someone spoke of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed. Often one was instructed and urged to convert to the really better religion, Islam. Everything was interpreted as a conspiracy against Muslims and their beliefs, which of course only the West could be behind. Interviews had to wait because someone was praying or stop because someone had to pray.

Any driver, before turning the key, said Bismillah, in the name of God. You could hear it when the gas stove was lit, when the meal began, or even when only one door was opened. And then there was still a lot of Allahu Akbar, God is great, which almost every child knows today. But the worst on the rebel side was of course something else entirely. Namely the air strikes by the Syrian Air Force and the artillery fire. At any moment, a bomb could go down next to you, a mortar hit you, or a shell could explode. The fact that there was no water, no electricity and only a little food was hardly a problem.

And then you came to Rojava, a comparatively liberal, peaceful and tolerant oasis. At the edges of the region, however, there was already a violent crash. Back then, the threat did not come from IS, but from normal Syrian rebels. These were Ahrar al-Sham, the Tawid Brigade and, above all, Jabaht al-Nusra, which recently renamed itself the front line of the conquerors of the Levant and officially broke away from al-Qaeda. In 2013, the Islamists tried for over six months to penetrate the Kurdish areas between Ras al-Ain and Kamishli. The region along the borders with Turkey and Iraq supplied 60 percent of Syria's oil production and at the same time has rich gas reserves. There is also a profitable agriculture there.

Kurdish core area (Map: Saiten Grafik / Google, Mapa GISrael, ORION-ME)

"All in vain," said Commander Schorwasch of the Kurdish militia YPG at the time. The 25-year-old accompanied us to the front near the village of Alouk. "The Islamists have holed up there in the forest," he said on the outskirts. With a radio in hand, he pointed to some treetops. "You are less than 700 meters away from us." Suddenly a shot rang out and the unmistakable rush of a bullet from a sniper rifle could be heard. "You are nervous," said Schorwasch with a smile. "Better we take cover."

The walls of the mosque in the village that al-Nursa had occupied for a few days were full of bullet holes. The front door was riddled with holes, and pieces of the Imam's bronze-colored pulpit had blown off projectiles. The curtains were in tatters, the floor was littered with cartridges, and empty tuna cans and processed cheese packets were strewn all over the place. You entered the mosque through a hole in the wall that had been hit with a sledgehammer. It was lying in a corner with its handle broken.

A total of 39 Islamists were killed in the reconquest, Schorwasch told me. Four fresh mounds of earth could be seen in the garden of a farm. There was a smell of putrefaction in the air. The bodies of the Islamists were hastily buried. "Allegedly, martyrs smell like roses," said Commander Schorwasch with a grin. 'Do you smell it? It has nothing to do with roses. "

Later I heard other jihadist myths in Qamishli. Islamists would always carry a key and a spoon with them. "They need the key to open the gate to paradise after being martyred," said Kurdish journalist Taha Khalil. He lived as an author in Switzerland and Germany for many years. Today he works for Rohani TV, a broadcaster that supports the YPG's struggle with propaganda.

The spoon is again for the Lord's Supper with the Prophet Mohammed, said Khalil and went on to tell about a captured Islamist who had recently been sentenced to death. He is said to have cut off eight people's heads, including three girls. As a last wish, he asked for a glass of water and mysteriously stirred it with his heavenly key. After drinking it in one gulp, he wanted to walk away, convinced that the drink had made him invisible. "These people really believe what they are told," said Khalil. "And that's what makes them so dangerous." Then he laughed out loud.

The Kurds and the Assad regime

In Rojava there was always a clear dividing line: us and our freedom against the Islamists who want to take them away from us. This separation never existed among the rebels in the other part of Syria. The Assad regime was the incarnation of evil and everyone else who fought it was good, or at least somehow good - no matter how radical and crazy some were.

It was this “yes, but they are fighting against Assad” that brought the rebels and their revolution completely to a dead end. In addition, anyone who did not call for total war with the regime automatically became a mortal enemy. On the one hand, the famous “moderate rebels” accepted the Syrian al-Qaida offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and for a long time tolerated IS within their ranks. But the Kurds were demonized as Assad lackeys.

"Regime" is still used by the rebels as a synonym for Kurds and their allies. These are now all the ethnic minorities in the region in northern Syria, namely Assyrians, Arabs, Turkmens and Armenians. They have been fighting together under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since October last year. Very successful, you have to say. They pushed ISIS completely back from Rojava and even went on the offensive. The SDF crossed the Euphrates and captured the IS stronghold of Manbij in July. The supply line via Turkey to Raqqa is therefore tight.

The aim of the SDF is to penetrate further east into the Kurdish region of Afrin in order to connect it with Rojava. The only question is whether Turkey, the archenemy of the Kurds, will let them.

For the rebels, the Kurds and SDF are just one of the two sides of the regime's coin. Everything bad, everything bad and best of all destroy! Because they are collaborators with the butcher in Damascus. Her favorite evidence of this is the Syrian army's military bases in Qamishli and Hasakah. The rebels are not impressed by the fact that this has nothing to report there and that armed clashes between the SDF and the regime recently broke out again. Bad is bad and that's it.

But: The SDF and the civil administration in Rojava simply make the smarter decisions. "Why should we drive the regime out while it remains quiet?" Asked an SDF official just a few months ago. "Whether for marriage, birth, death or university, people need official documents." The regime's airport in Qamaishli is the only way for the sick to get out into the world, and the regime pays salaries of thousands of government employees. "Without these payments the economy would collapse completely, there would be even greater social misery." They would also be bombed and many people would die if the regime were forcibly driven out.

Indeed, the Rojava regime has little to say. In the last three years I have observed several times how even officers of the Syrian army laughed at SDF checkpoints and were sent away, almost like dogs. The trigger for the armed clashes, as most recently in the city of Hasakah, are mostly the militiamen of the National Defense Front (NDF). They want to restore their tarnished pride. Ultimately, militarily, they have no chance against the SDF.

The rebels' hatred of Rojava is likely to be accompanied by a large portion of frustration. Because the region has achieved everything that the Assad opponents were never able to do. Quite apart from the functioning, vital basic infrastructure (electricity, water, medical care, food, schools, etc.), the SDF guarantee security for the population by and large. Internal wars between different groups do not break out all the time in Rojava. There is a principle unity within the heterogeneous society in order to struggle together for survival.

This also made possible a political system built on grassroots democratic principles - democratic confederalism. A judicial branch also works. Certainly not everything is perfect there. There have been some attacks by the political parties of the Kurdish majority. But on the other hand, the rudimentary city councils, shura councils and Sharia law of the rebels are a bad joke. At most, they function within a single militia and its territory. This has nothing to do with an overarching administrative apparatus, courts and political institutions as they exist in Rojava.

Endangered «idyll» Rojava

For the rebels, the game seems to be lost anyway. You didn't lose it on the battlefield, however, but at the green table. Russia, Turkey and Iran have agreed on a common Syria policy. Assad can even become interim president of a new government. The representatives of the rebels have repeatedly rejected this in countless negotiations within the framework of the Geneva peace talks.

That was also the main reason why the peace round failed one time again. And now the moderate rebels have to give in. Otherwise they will in all likelihood end up on the hit list of Russian fighter pilots. They have been bombed a number of times in the recent past.

Turkey, its former main ally, who has supported the Assad opposition with so much money and arms for the past five years, has broken away. Without Turkey, there are hardly any alternatives for the moderates. Even the old sponsors from the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are currently keeping a low profile.

And for the Kurds, for Rojava and the new political self-management of democracy? It doesn't look that bad there, but still gloomy. Turkey has of course negotiated something in return for giving in to Iran and Russia, the two most loyal allies of the Syrian regime. "We will be more active in Syria in the next six months," said Turkish Prime Minister Binal Yildirim. "We will prevent the country from falling apart along ethnic lines." This statement can only refer to the federal state of Rojava.

Russia, Iran and Turkey have long since negotiated a common goal, namely the fight against terrorism. This means that Turkey has, so to speak, a free ticket. Because the only thing that could prevent them from military action against the Kurds would be the Russian anti-aircraft missile system in Syria. Under the current conditions, it should not fire a shot at Turkish fighter planes. Turkey is unlikely to miss this opportunity to attack the hated Kurdish “terrorists”. It will be over with my little idyll in Rojava.

Alfred Hackensberger, 1959, lives in Tangier and is a correspondent for North Africa and the Middle East, among other things he writes for “Die Welt”. He has published several books including this Lexicon of Islamic Errors. The crime novel was last published Last days in Beirut.

more on the subject

  • Strings in September: Her biji Azadi!
    Kurdistan. Reports, analyzes and discussions with Kurds from Eastern Switzerland. Also: 9/11, Rheintal, Stahlberger. And Wilhelm Tell in the Philippines.
  • "It is not possible to make a lax policy in Kurdistan"
    Metin Tekce and Zeynel Aslan on Öcalan and the women in the PKK, the Turkish policy of repression and the double standards of the western world.
  • In February: You shouldn't generalize
    A string notebook about Islam: political, queer, lyrical, then and now, in Tangier and St.Gallen. Also: the new capital city library.
  • Wolves, Pop & Renaissance
    From our February issue: Eight chapters on developments in the Arab world and on personal experiences with Islam. by Alfred Hackensberger
  • "The soap bubble will burst"
    On Monday, the Middle East correspondent Alfred Hackensberger, who lives in Beirut, was a guest at the cult building in St.Gallen to read from his thriller “Last Days in Beirut”. What was of interest, however, was ultimately the reality.
  • "Ah, you are a Muslim, so ..."
    On the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq: the St. Gallen Kurd Cenk Akdoganbulut on the importance of the autonomous region of Rovaja and the Swiss fear of Islam.
  • A piece of home
    At the start of the fifth Kurdish Culture Days in the Waaghaus St.Gallen there was music, dance, all kinds of praise and expressions of solidarity from the Swiss side - and an unexpected catchy tune.