By Erika Solomon
QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) - In the northeast corner of Syria, a pocket of stability is emerging amid the country's civil war. Here the talk is of building, not bombing.
Local leaders have launched projects to revive normal life and encourage people to stay. They are creating a regional administration, producing cheap fuel, subsidizing seeds for crops and trying to restore electricity to an area that had lost power for nearly 24 hours a day. And so far they are fighting off the forces of both President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels who want to oust him.
The people now in control here are Kurds, an ethnic group that forms the majority of the population in parts of northern Syria, eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran.
"We have no power or water. Food is short," said Hardin, a 30-year-old teacher, shivering as cold rain began to fall at the funeral of a Kurdish fighter. "But before, our minds and spirits were repressed. Now our dreams are becoming reality. This is the Kurdish moment. Going back to the way we were is not an option. It would be a betrayal of those who sacrificed their lives."
For years the 30 million Kurds spread across those territories have been the world's largest ethnic group without an independent homeland. Only the Kurds in Iraq, who displaced Iraqi forces in the 1990s when a U.S. and British no-fly zone was in place against Saddam Hussein, have managed to carve out an area of real autonomy.
Now some of Syria's 2.2 million Kurds sense an opportunity to take another step towards the long-term dream of creating an independent state of "Kurdistan."
On Tuesday, on the eve of peace talks in Switzerland, Kurds in Syria declared a provincial government in the area. The move came after international powers denied their request to send a separate delegation to the peace talks.
Local leaders insist they have no plans for secession but say they are preparing a local constitution and aim to hold elections early this year. This is not independence but "local democratic administration," they say.
Whatever name it goes by, it is another complicating factor in a war that threatens to remake the Middle East. Syria has fractured into statelets, with little evidence of any one group emerging as clear victor.
Both Damascus and neighboring Turkey fear the Kurds' growing autonomy will pave the way for secession. Turkey has closed its border with Syria in a bid to contain such a move. Ankara, which fought a Kurdish insurgency for decades, has already strengthened a barbed wire fence that snakes along parts of the border with Syrian Kurdish regions. Plans to build a wall there sparked large Kurdish protests.
Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus all have a history of suppressing Kurdish ambitions, often ruthlessly. But with both Syria and Iraq torn by internal conflicts, and Turkey trying to make peace with its Kurds, Syria's Kurds see a chance to stake a claim on territory they say belongs to them.
Locals no longer call this region northeastern Syria, but "Rojava" - Western Kurdistan.
In Qamishli, a Syrian town close to the border with Turkey, journalist Mohammed Sharo talked of an emerging sense of Kurdish community ready to defy official frontiers. "Kurds in Turkey protested against Turkey's planned wall, while we protested on the other side from Syria," he said. "The way I feel now is, let them build the wall. That thing they call a border is no longer really there."
TOWN BY TOWN
The northeastern Kurds have long been one of Syria's poorest and most oppressed minorities, with few official rights to the fertile land they live on or the oil reserves it contains. Their language, seen as a threat to the rule of Assad's Arab nationalist party, was banned. Thousands of people were never given official identity papers. Many of the villages here are no more than a maze of mud huts.
Nearly three years of rebellion and civil war, which have killed more than 100,000 people and displaced 6 million, have inflicted further physical deprivation on the Kurds - but liberated them psychologically.
While Assad's forces were distracted with their fight against rebels in Syria's west, Kurdish leaders gradually seized territory. "We started near the Iraqi border - just one tiny little checkpoint," said Aldar Xelil, a leading member of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the strongest political force in Kurdish Syria. "And from checkpoint to checkpoint we went across the entire region. Now we only have two cities to finish: Qamishli and Hassaka."
A visitor with a single permission slip from the PYD can now travel the 200 or so kilometers (124 miles) from the verdant borderlands with Iraq to the flat brown plains outside Ras al-Ain, which marks the end of Kurdish territory. Such freedom of movement is impossible in most of the rest of Syria, where the government or various rebel factions control different towns and, in some areas, even different roads.
The resurgent sense of Kurdish identity was evident at the funeral where participants celebrated even as they mourned, singing songs about "Kurdistan" and "freedom" that would have been unimaginable before the uprising against Assad.
Beyond the cemetery, rows of ploughed brown fields were ready for planting. In the town of Amuda, a lanky man with a droopy moustache was playing his own small part in the battle for autonomy. Basheer Suleiman patted a truck-sized generator that he had set up to power a market; its loud groans competed with honking cars and chatty shoppers as they inspected vegetables and queued for bread in the muddy central square.
Though Kurdish forces have staunched most of the violence in the northeast, economic essentials, including electricity, remain in short supply. Suleiman heads the new Ronak Electric Company - a lofty name for a group that is cobbling together a power system using smuggled and looted supplies.
"I got some cables from smugglers. We bought some big generators from factories here that can no longer operate because of the war. I even sent a delegation of men east to (rebel-held) Deir al-Zor and we bought some generators from looters who ransacked companies," Suleiman said.
The main districts of Amuda now have electricity for about 10 hours a day, split between the morning and evening.
THE OIL QUESTION
Oil could have helped the Kurds' ambitions, but production stopped after armed groups began stealing crude from the pipelines, which head to government-held refineries in central and coastal Syria. To compensate, the PYD seized large stockpiles of crude and have refined it to make diesel for use in farmers' tractors and heating stoves. The party sells it at only 30 lira (10 cents) per liter - cheaper than Assad's government can offer.
In addition to the military and political bodies, the PYD has also set up an oil company - "Sadco" - and a "Council for Economics and Development." The two bodies would not allow reporters into the Rumeilan oilfield, but they did offer an interview with Abdelrahman Hamu, head of the economic council.
Wearing a smart fitted blazer, Hamu ushered his visitors into a black BMW, shoving aside a Kalashnikov laid against the leather seats, and drove towards an isolated group of shipping containers, surrounded by a chain-link fence, that serve as a base for various development projects from making fertilizer to fuel.
PYD officials say the oilfield will remain untouched until a political deal is reached on Syria's fate. The problem, however, is what Kurds will do if the conflict lasts longer than their crude stockpiles.
If the Kurds did begin to use the Rumeilan oilfield, they would either have to send oil to Assad's refineries or launch a costly project to redirect it through Iraqi Kurdistan. Either would require a deal with forces they are not currently friendly with. Nevertheless, Hamu is confident that economic interests will ultimately trump political differences, indicating that he even hopes for foreign investment.
"We'll make it easy for any company, whatever its nationality, to invest. If their economic gain will benefit Syrians here, we will make it easy for them to do that by speeding up licensing, providing security and a place to work." Foreign companies would have a tax-free grace period of a year or two, he said.
Despite such optimism, many problems remain for the northeast region, both within Syria and with its neighbors in Turkey and Iraq.
In the main cities of Hassaka and Qamishli, power hangs in an uneasy balance. Assad's army and some allied militias still control parts of Qamishli, including some of the city center, a nearby military base, and the airport. You can still catch a flight from Damascus to Qamishli.
The rest of the city, which had a population of 200,000 before the conflict began, is controlled by Kurdish police forces, called "Asayish," and their allies.
For now, the two sides seem to co-exist. Fighters pass each other like ghosts. At a square in the heart of the city, Syrian soldiers on trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns drove through a crowd of school children crossing the street, just as a Kurdish patrol drove past on the other side of the square.
Such is the co-existence of the forces that opponents of the PYD say it is either aligned with or being duped by Assad's regime.
"Government ministers still come on visits here. State employees still get their salaries, the phones still work, the healthcare system is in place," said Mohammed Ismail, a member of the rival Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). "Where is this local autonomy they speak of?"
The PYD's ambitious slate of social projects is looked on with suspicion by its opponents, who say it has been handed power by Assad in an attempt to weaken the opposition. What look like steps toward autonomy, they argue, are undermining the Syrian uprising and are actually a charade that will be revealed if Assad defeats his enemies, at which point Kurdish gains will be crushed.
Aldar Xelil shrugs with exasperation at the accusations of an under-the-table deal with the government. "Let the regime hold on to a base here or there, let it keep its administrative offices — they exist now in name only. At least they keep paying the salaries to state employees. People can continue to live. So yes, we are playing politics," he said.
There are divisions, too, between the Syrian Kurds and those over the border in Iraq. The two groups speak different dialects. Though 250,000 Kurds from Syria have moved to live in Iraqi Kurdistan, there is clear rivalry between the PYD in Syria and Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Iraqi Kurds.
The dominant fighting force in Kurdish Syria is the People's Defence Unit (YPG), which is tied to the PYD political party. Both have an ideology inspired by the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey, and posters of a potbellied and mustachioed Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, are now common in northeastern Syria.
The YPG has stopped rival groups from entering the Kurdish enclave. Syrian Kurds suspect Barzani, the leader of the Iraqi Kurds, of wanting to extend his control into their territory. Publicly, Barzani has said only that he wants to keep the Kurds united.
Syrian Kurds also fear interference from Turkey, which has no desire to see its Kurdish population forge links with an autonomous region in Syria. Both the PYD and PKK have accused Turkey of sending Islamists to Syria to fight them - a claim Ankara denies.
Damascus, too, sees a challenge in the growing Kurdish autonomy. The chances of recreating a unified Syria with one central government seem slim, even if a peace settlement can be reached. Kurdish nationalism adds to the challenge of reuniting a country now embroiled in the far broader power struggle between Sunni Muslims - who make up many of the rebels - and the Shia Muslims of Iran, who back Assad's Alawite sect.
Quite apart from the Kurdish ambitions, the war is creating mini statelets, some run by the Sunni Muslim rebels, others by Assad's Alawite minority. As Syria breaks apart, ethnic groups and sects elsewhere may increasingly question existing borders. In particular, Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq may argue that they have more in common with their brethren in Syria than the rest of the population of Iraq.
Given the array of competing interests, some local politicians believe a federal system might emerge in Syria. PYD leader Aldar Xelil said: "I can't imagine that an Alawite or a Sunni will be able to agree to share a single administration. There has been too much killing. The whole psychological state of these communities has changed.
"Perhaps we will have to resort to separating Alawites and Sunnis and Kurds administratively."
He foresees a federalized system, rather than Syria's Kurds carving out an entirely new land for themselves.
"A division from Syria itself, it won't happen. A federalized system though - that is possible."
Nevertheless, some ordinary Kurds still hope to realize a single, united Kurdish identity. Turkish youths continue to smuggle themselves in to join the fight in Syria; others from Turkey and Iran are trying to help Syria's Kurds revive their culture.
Iranian Kurdish activists and Turkish Kurdish writers are becoming a source of inspiration in Syria's Kurdish regions. As Khoshman Qado, a journalist and local poet in Qamishli, put it: "We have an opportunity to develop our ideas on social issues, religion, politics. This could become a kind of renaissance for Kurds."
(With reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil, Iraq; Edited by Richard Woods and Simon Robinson)