x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

As politics trumps food, Kurds in Syria grow desperate

The first order of business, for Syria's Kurds, is to deliver aid and humanitarian services to a part of the country that is quickly splintering.

'I'm still in Aleppo and still alive," Newroz reassured me one day this month. She had just fled the city's Kurdish district of Sheikh Maqsud, where her brother had been pinned down since fighting engulfed the area on March 29.

After navigating regime and opposition checkpoints, Newroz was lucky to be speaking to me. "As I reached the house where my brother was sheltering, a man shouted to alert me to a sniper. Miraculously we managed to sprint the 500 metres to safety without harm." But "safety", she added, is a relative term in Aleppo.

Stories of survival from Syria's largest city have received relatively little attention in the international press of late. Yet, the shift in power dynamics of Syria's Kurdish districts - and the desperation many Syrian Kurds feel - is being compounded by infighting over how best to deliver aid to embattled Kurdish populations.

While the quarters of Ashrafiyya and the high vantage point of Sheikh Maqsud have been the site of occasional outbreaks in fighting between various factions since October 2012, the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) had for much of this time remained the dominant force.

April's developments have ended a period of perceived YPG neutrality and brought into question its relationship (and possible collaboration) with the Free Syrian Army.

Still less coverage has been given to the humanitarian consequences of this conflict, including large displacement of civilians from affected areas to the Kurdish towns north of Aleppo. Afrin in particular is struggling to accommodate an estimated million displaced people (including those previously hosted due to conflict elsewhere in Syria). According to Samer Zein, who watched from a distance as his house in the eastern district of Sheikh Maqsud was destroyed, practically no civilians remain there, while only a few families have stayed in the western part.

The mass exodus from Aleppo's Kurdish districts caused gridlock on the roads in early April. While some people were accommodated by relatives in Afrin, others were left sleeping in schools and on the streets. Afrin's limited relief infrastructure has severely undermined the town's capacity to provide rapid response and implement necessary humanitarian programmes. For those who remain, aid is in short supply.

One relief group active before the revolution began was the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Officially sanctioned by the state, the agency has played a somewhat ambiguous role since. Its Afrin branch continues to provide essential material assistance. While the Red Crescent claims a non-political identity, the pervasive politicisation of relief organisations and activities has produced an environment hostile to international engagement.

Many non-Syrian NGOs have chosen not to operate in the Kurdish regions of the country, despite a geography suited to cross-border implementation. Kurds have also been unable to mobilise funds as easily as their Arab counterparts.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant Kurdish party in Syria, is distrustful of humanitarian aid projects operating from Turkish soil. The party's policy, perhaps understandably, prioritises "security" over maximising humanitarian reach through supporting a liberal diversification of relief actors.

PYD's argument is that aid must be delivered through the politically correct channels of the Supreme Kurdish Body, an umbrella uniting all Kurdish parties in Syria, and its relief committee. But some groups outside PYD's operational domain are frustrated by the impediments placed upon them in view of the patently insufficient collective response to the escalating humanitarian crisis.

One NGO, the Bihar Relief Organisation, for example, has gained a reputation for providing medical care, both at its clinics in Kilis, Turkey, and through regular missions inside Syria. But according to member Niazi Habash, relief work is suffering in Kurdish areas due to political interference. "We have a relief plan but are unable to implement it." He fears that if the situation is mismanaged, Afrin could be devastated.

Relief efforts in Kurdish parts of Syria have been slowed by intra-Kurdish disagreement. Were the current emergency to lead to more collaboration this could be a positive step for the future of Kurdish political relations. But the first order of business, for Syria's Kurds, is to deliver aid and humanitarian services to a part of the country that is quickly splintering.


Thomas McGee is a researcher of Middle Eastern social identity at the University of Exeter

On Twitter: @ThMcGee