HASAKAH GOVERNORATE, Syria — The little Kurdish fighting position looks far more professional than what is usually seen in Syria. Instead of just a pile of sand for protection, it has proper fighting and communications trenches, sandbags and even a small tower at the far end for the machine gunner. Discipline is what distinguishes the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the mainly Arab rebel groups the Kurdish militia is fighting in northeastern Syria.
Traveling across Syria’s Kurdish-majority northeast, one is struck by the difference between the areas controlled by the YPG and its political master, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and the rest of Syria’s liberated territories. Instead of the hundreds of armed groups that have come to lord over the population in the mainly Arab northwest, the Kurds have one militia that is kept under civilian control, plus a professional-looking police force.
Since the Syrian government withdrew in July 2012, mostly without a fight, the long-oppressed Kurds have built an independent enclave with their own governing institutions. Teaching of the Kurdish language, officially banned by Damascus, has restarted in schools where teachers work for free. Absent the airstrikes and artillery shelling that have destroyed many of Syria’s cities, the Kurdish towns are peaceful and offer far more hope than anywhere else in the war-ridden country. “This is a big moment in the history of the Kurds,” says Mazen Ramadan, a local government leader in the city of Derik. “A dream is coming true. It is the first time we control our own cities.”