AINISSA, Syria — At the headquarters of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Ainissa, the normally bustling offices were thinly populated on a recent day as the Kurdish-dominated coalition shifted its fighters to battle the Turkish invasion in northwestern Syria.
While Kurds hold most of the leadership positions, the SDF is a majority Arab force now, engaged with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State group, mostly in Arab rather than Kurdish areas of Syria.
“Arabs love Abdullah Ocalan too,” Kobani said, casting a glance at the portrait. “There’s nothing hidden from our side. Everything we do is obvious and clear to the world.”
Many Arabs would probably differ about their love of Ocalan, whose socialist, radically egalitarian philosophy of governance holds sway throughout the autonomous region, known as Rojava, that the Kurds have carved out in Syria, with the help of the U.S.-led international coalition. Their uneasy alliance, held together by the fight against the Islamic State, could be severely tested as the Kurds expand their control.
Kurdish aspirations will also come up against an implacable Turkey, which regards a self-governing Kurdish region across its southern border, and controlled by the PKK, as nothing short of an existential threat. Those fears led to the offensive against Afrin, the eastern region of Rojava, and Turkey has even talked about attacking farther east, which would put it in conflict with U.S. forces.
In the face of those daunting obstacles, the Kurds have been slowly and systematically building Rojava, knowing that eventually the war would end and the truly difficult job of managing the peace would begin.
For six years, they have been establishing local and regional governments, sending foreign affairs representatives abroad, collecting taxes, organizing socialist communes and raising militias. They often describe their revolution as “the project” or “the experiment,” the implementation of local self-governing democracy, freedom and equality for women and a socialist system inspired by anarchist and Marxist philosophies.
As the Islamic State has crumbled in the eastern part of Syria controlled by the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurds have moved into what had been majority Arab areas, bringing Ocalan’s principles and governing philosophy along with them. Self-administration governments, after the Kurdish model, have been established in the city of Manbij since the Islamic State was defeated there in 2016, and recently even in Raqqa, after the coalition and their Kurdish-led allies drove the extremists from their self-declared capital in 2017.
On a recent visit to the predominantly Arab city of Manbij, outside Rojava, strains between the Kurdish leadership and the Arab populace were clearly visible, despite official efforts to deny the problem. But there were also signs of acceptance.
An Arab schoolteacher said most Arabs in the town were unhappy with what they see as a Kurdish government, but were afraid to speak out. For visiting journalists, it was difficult to speak to Arab residents without government minders insisting on being present.
Many Arabs, the schoolteacher said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared detention, have been particularly unhappy since the reported arrests in early January of two Arab men, whose bodies were found 17 days later, dumped on the highway outside town.
Government officials at first promised journalists that they could visit family members of those who were killed, and also meet with a committee of Arab elders, set up to investigate the killings. The officials said both groups had absolved the Kurdish authorities of blame.
But the visit to the families was denied, and while the meeting with the committee did take place, it happened only in front of half a dozen Kurdish officials. Reached independently later, at the village of Kabor Emo outside Manbij, the father of one of the victims had a different story.
“It was the democratic government, I blame the democratic government,” said the father, Muhammad Omar al-Masri, but then he broke off the interview as villagers became angry and agitated at visitors.
Dealing with Arab populations is not the only problem that Ocalan presents for Kurdish aspirations. The group he leads from prison, the PKK, is a designated terrorist organization to Western countries, including the Kurds’ U.S. allies. The Syrian Kurds claim they have nothing to do with the PKK, but Ocalan’s cultlike popularity in Rojava argues otherwise.
Washington does not consider the Peoples Protection Units, or YPG, the Kurdish militia that is the dominant partner in the Syrian Democratic Forces, a terrorist outfit. They fight alongside U.S. Special Operations troops in Syria, and U.S. military leaders praise them for bringing stable government to the areas they control. That includes areas that are largely Arab, as the Kurds have expanded their writ in the north and the Islamic State has been reduced to small pockets mostly near the Iraqi border in the south.
“There’s a lot of people that do equate them with the PKK, but I have not seen any indication of that in my dealings with them,” said Maj. Gen. James B. Jarrard, the U.S. Special Operations commander in Syria and Iraq.
The Kurdish forces have set up civilian governments that are often run by Arabs in areas where they predominate, and have successfully turned the SDF into a majority Arab force, Jarrard said. The result has been stable government, which has helped to turn sympathies away from the extremists, the general said, during a recent visit to the front lines near Manbij.
Many independent observers disagree about the YPG. “Everybody knows with a wink and a nod that it’s the PKK,” said Joost Hilterman, a longtime observer of the Kurds with the International Crisis Group. “The YPG is an integral part of the PKK command structure. They may be mostly Syrians, though not exclusively, but all are part of the PKK.”
Salih Muslim, the foreign affairs representative for the coalition representing the civilian side of the Kurdish movement, denied that. “We belong in Rojava. We have organized our people in Rojava, but it doesn’t mean we are PKK also,” he said. “We decide for ourselves.”
But he also defended the PKK and refused to describe it as a terrorist organization, one implicated in attacks that killed civilians. “That is not true now, maybe during the ‘80s or ‘90s, but then they agreed internationally to protect civilians, and since then I didn’t hear of any attack on civilians.”
For now, Syria’s Kurds and their U.S. allies are doing their best to manage an awkward situation, and not all signs are bleak for the future of Rojava. Many Arabs say they are happy with the new authority, even in Arab areas. Younger Arab women have eagerly joined gender equality initiatives and even volunteered for the YPJ, the Kurdish women’s military force.
At the Hassan al-Amin High School in Manbij, a group of Arab teenage boys gathered outside after classes were dismissed, so that people could join demonstrations in town against the Turkish attack on Afrin. All of them said they looked forward to joining the Manbij Military Council as soon as they were old enough to fight. While the council is majority Arab, its leadership is Kurdish and it is under the ultimate control of the Kurdish military and part of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Ali, 14, said his father had joined; Thebet, 13, said the same of two of his brothers. “I will be the first to join, as soon as I graduate,” said Ahmed, 16, the tallest, while several of the other boys objected that they would be. “We will go and fight the Turkish colonizers.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.