QAMISHLI — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's smiling face beams down from a large billboard on the central artery of Qamishli, a city in northeast Syria. But further down the road towards the city's eastern suburbs, what looks imposingly over the avenue is a portrait of a triumphant-looking Abdullah Ocalan, the anointed leader of Turkey's Kurdish population.
The jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a formerly Marxist-Leninist militant group that has long battled the Turkish state for Kurdish independence, is still widely revered here. After all, Qamishli is the center of a region controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the local PKK affiliate that seized most of Syria's Kurdish areas after July 2012 thanks to an informal non-aggression pact with the Assad regime.
The Kurdish political party went on to create its own autonomous region, establishing its own institutions. Qamishli is now the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed "Rojava" region, as local nationalists call western Kurdistan. Curiously enough, it also remains one of the Syrian government's last bastions of control in the remote northeast.
The Damascus regime still controls the airport to maintain a route to the capital since the city is bordered by ISIS-controlled territory, as well as the nearby border crossing with Turkey, which remains shut. While the suburbs have long been ceded to the Kurds, the regime maintains a significant presence in the city center, where the old Christian majority has slowly been replaced by a steady stream of Arab refugees hailing from other parts of the war-torn country. Along Qamishli's decrepit streets, the Kurdish party's pickup trucks sit parked beside those of the regime's fearsome shabiha militia, posing a surreal sight for any onlooker.
Parallel worlds side by side
This odd coexistence doesn't seem to bother anyone but each side's armed forces. Before the city streets empty at nightfall, old Bedouin men walk alongside Christian widows with impeccable perms and Kurdish students dressed in military fatigues. These parallel worlds intersect but ignore one another in the grid city of Qamishli, a frontier town built less than a century ago around a station on the Berlin-Baghdad railway.
We meet Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), in his office on the mezzanine level of an unremarkable building. The YPG is the Kurds' famed mixed-gender militia and a prominent player in the endless Syrian civil war. "Our immediate objective is to defend our territory against ISIS," he says. "We have no interest in opening a second front against the regime, and neither do they with us, but this doesn't mean that we are allies."
Since that interview, the Kurdish forces have gone on the offensive. On June 16, their troops captured the strategic town of Tal Abyad from ISIS, opening a vital corridor between the canton of Jazira — where Qamishli is located — and the Kurdish stronghold of Kobani and uniting their disparate enclaves. Kobani, located on the border with Turkey, gained iconic status during an epic four-month siege that ended last January when the Kurds repelled ISIS with the aid of coalition airstrikes.
The regime's broad retreat from the region allowed the Kurds to begin providing services in their territories and to impose their own model of governance called "democratic federalism," a political theory Ocalan coined. According to a PYD manifesto, it is designed to build a political system without a state, where "society governs itself."
In practice, democratic federalism has led to the establishment of a labyrinthine array of local institutions called "houses of the people," composed of city councils, local assemblies and self-proclaimed committees and ministries. Every institution is headed by two co-presidents, one male and one female, and must maintain strict gender parity. Supposedly democratic and representative, in reality these "houses of the people" are dominated by the Kurdish political party leadership, many of whom are veterans of the PKK's decades-long war with Ankara.
Syrian Kurdish flags and banners of Ocalan in Qamishli — David Enders/TNS/ZUMA
A society where might makes right
The PYD's political propaganda is ubiquitous in Qamishli, where it tries to convince the locals that their new system can effectively replace the Syrian government. Working parallel with the judicial system still loyal to the Damascus regime, the Kurds have established their own "people's tribunals."
"Our judges, former lawyers and public figures still operate under Syrian law, but we prefer out-of-court settlements," says Rovind Khalaf, the president of Qamishli's people's tribunal. "It's quicker that way." His office is located in an old Syrian military barracks captured by the PYD from a pro-Assad militia, just a stone's throw from the city's police station, which is still affiliated with Damascus.
Behind the apparent confusion is a society still very much at war, where might makes right and the blood of martyrs has become the key to achieving legitimacy and rising in the new social order. Qamishli's streets are lined with the portraits of Kurdish men who lost their lives in the struggle against ISIS and the regime, a constant reminder of the war that transforms every city block into a symbol of conquest and victory.
"The families of our martyrs have priority in the provision of social services and in obtaining posts in our new institutions," one PYD leader explains. These families form a new social class that the party leadership has allowed to ascend in the local hierarchy.
"Many of the local powerbrokers don't trust the Kurdish authorities, and this has allowed people like taxi drivers and street vendors who are allied with the PYD to gain important posts in the party administration," says a local Kurdish university professor. A public official still surviving on a salary paid by the Damascus regime, he is worried by the sharp drop in the number of students attending his classes over the past three years. "All our young people are leaving to Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Europe," he says. "The Kurdish authorities could find themselves in charge of a deserted region if this situation continues."
The years since Rojava's foundation in 2012 have been a demographic catastrophe for Syrian Kurdistan, and the region is now suffering its consequences. As the YPG advances, its territories empty. Some flee certain death at the hands of Kurdistan's enemies, while others escape enclaves surrounded by active war fronts. Many young Kurds seek to evade mandatory conscription into the YPG and an oppressive local authority that doesn't tolerate any opposition to its political project.
As the exodus continues unabated, it seems that Syria's Kurds have chosen to sentence Rojava to a life as a land for warriors and martyrs.