20-27 December 2013

by Margaret Owen OBE

I was invited to visit the Syrian Kurdish region, known as Rojava, by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), as a human rights lawyer focusing on women’s rights in conflict and post-conflict environments.

I travelled also as a Patron of Peace in Kurdistan, former adviser on women and children’s rights to the Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP); as Director of Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD); a founder member of GAPS-UK (Gender Action on Peace and Security); and as a member of the government liaison group of the UKNGOCSWALLIANCE.

This last week was a critical one for Syria and the MENA region generally for several reasons:

First, because the ever-increasing violence in Syria has resulted in huge numbers of civilian deaths, with millions of refugees (composed of high numbers of women and children, and many widows) struggling to survive not only in neighbouring countries but in Rojava. Here they are IDPs, not registered as refugees by the UNHCR, and therefore totally dependent on the scarce resources of the Kurdish population to house, feed and support them.

Second, the crisis emerging over the lack of humanitarian aid going in to Rojava, to provide the much needed food, blankets, medicines and other essential services for those fleeing the fighting and the destruction of their homes and villages in other parts of Syria; especially around Aleppo, and on the borders of Rojava where the YPG is defending attacks by Al-Qaeda. These needs must be addressed, and aid must come in.

My visit coincided with the meeting of both Kurdish Councils – the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) – in Erbil, hosted by KRG President Barzani, to sign up to a 10 point agreement to ensure a unified Kurdish representation at the UN Geneva II Syrian Peace Conference to be held in Montreux on January 22nd.

Disagreements between the two Kurdish parties needed to be resolved if the Kurds were to be given a role at this UN meeting. Tensions were high, since Brahimi had declared that the Kurds could only have representation at Geneva II as members of the opposition. Yet in the week of my visit it was clear that the opposition had been infiltrated by jihadists and Al-Qaeda affiliates, by ISIS, and al Nusra, and the Kurds were now obliged to fight the latter in order to defend Rojava.

Third, before Christmas, UN-Women’s CEO had decided that it was essential, and in compliance with UN SCR 1325, that Syrian women were supported to be “central” to the Geneva II peace talks, and had issued invitations to Syrian women for its own Syrian Women’s Conference to be held in Geneva earlier in January.  But the Rojava

women’s representative had not, during my visit, received an invitation, although women from the FSA Syrian opposition had been invited. (This omission may have been rectified by the time I left Rojava, according to Sinam Mohammad, the Co-Chair of the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan.)

I visited three towns, Derike, Qamishly and Ramallan; various projects – the Families of the Martyrs Association; SARA, a women’s organisation addressing gender based violence (GBV); the Martyrs Cemetery; the Widows’ organisation; Assayis (the Rojava Police Training Centre); the armed women defenders of Rojava; the Women’s Academies and the Women’s Houses.

The Vision and Principles of the Interim Transitional Administration (ITA) was impressive and could be a model for other countries emerging from conflict.

1. The ITA constitution of the PYD is based on the ideology Democratic Autonomy and self-governance.  Gender Equality is no mere add-on, or fringe theme, it is central to the PYD’s philosophy and manifesto.

Not only does the PYD have co-chairs, a man, Salih Muslim, and a woman, Asya Abdullah, but every organisation, institution, corporate body, structure in Rojava has co-chairs on this model.  All co-chairs share equal responsibilities, so that a female co-chair (of education, police, military, health, security bodies, for example) is not limited to exclusively “women’s concerns” but with her male co-chair, covers all areas of the work irrespective of gender.

2. The PYD manifesto is based on the principles of freedom, equality, human rights, and the Rule of Law and enjoyment of these rights by all people living in Rojava, irrespective, not just of gender, but of age, religion, and ethnicity.

While Rojava is home to about 3.5 million Kurds, its constitution guarantees the rights of all minority groups, including Arabs, Christians, Druze, Assyrians, Alawites, Armenians, and others.

3. In acknowledgement of the huge numbers of IDPs who have fled to Rojava from other conflict afflicted parts of Syria, victims of both the Assad regime and of the jihadists and Al-Qaeda associated mercenaries, 90% of whom are women and children (many young widowed mothers); and of the high incidence of GBV, including sexual violence, where the perpetrators may be family members or violators from the regime’s forces or fundamentalist Al-Qaeda fighters, the following organisations have been established:

The Star Union, the All-Women Political Party

The Women’s Academies for Education and Training

The Women’s Houses, serving women and family needs

The YPG women’s Training and Deployment Section (YPJ), the women’s protection units.

There are no camps for the IDPs in Rojava.  Predominant among the 200,000 are many widowed mothers, and huge numbers of children. They are housed in dilapidated shelters, in half-finished buildings, empty offices, wherever a roof can be found.  There is little electricity – Al-Qaeda cut the power supply, and these young families are living in dangerously cold housing, dependent for clothes, food, medicine, counselling, and other help from the population and specifically from the women’s organisations mentioned above. Also providing some food parcels, blankets and clothes to Christian IFPs is the Alliance church, and the Syrian Orthodox Church.

I was the only individual to cross the border from the KRG at the Fishharbur crossing, and permission for my crossing was granted by the Director of the KRG Foreign Affairs Department.  But I understood, on the day I left that the border would now be opened, and that humanitarian aid would then come in.

I hope this happens as soon as possible. There will be tragedies, even deaths of children and women if there is any delay.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is now very strong in Syria, fighting the Opposition and fighting the Kurds.  A fatwa was issued earlier last year decreeing that it was “halal” to rape infidels such as Kurdish women.

Al-Qaeda is attacking continually the border villages on the frontier of Rojava. Some of the Arab villages have now joined up with Rojava against Al-Qaeda, and I met several Arab widows and their children with gruesome stories of what had happened to their husbands, how they were tortured.

Of course the winner with all this fighting is the regime, as there is so much fighting between the FSA and Al-Qaeda, and at times Al-Qaeda (ISIS) seems to be winning.

Will Geneva II, with 26 UN Member States represented, and the Assad regime, and the Opposition provide a constructive platform for the Kurds or will it be a re-run of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty?

And will UN-Women ensure that Rojava women are invited to their pre-Geneva II Geneva Conference?  For they have a strategy to offer Syria and for the women in other countries in conflict afflicted scenarios.

In order to secure peace for the Kurds and for the whole of Syria, I make these important recommendations to the UN and the international community:

1. Support the representation of the Kurds at Geneva II;

2. Support and recognise the establishment of the Interim Transitional Government in Rojava;

3. Fulfil their moral obligations to protect and support civilians and refugees by sending aid directly to Rojava.

4. Ensure Kurdish women’s participation in the Geneva II peace negotiations and at the UN-Women pre-conference for Syrian Women, in compliance with UN 1325 and subsequent UN Resolutions on Women, Peace, and Security.

Margaret Owen’s visit to Rojava, Syria, was supported by:

Peace in Kurdistan
Campaign for a political solution of the Kurdish Question
Contacts Estella Schmid 020 7586 5892 & Melanie  Sirinathsingh – Tel: 020 7272 7890
Fax: 020 7263 0596

Patrons: Lord Avebury, Lord Rea, Lord Dholakia, Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Jill Evans MEP, Jean Lambert MEP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Hywel Williams MP, Elfyn Llwyd MP, Conor Murphy MP, John Austin, Bruce Kent, Gareth Peirce, Julie Christie, Noam Chomsky, John Berger, Edward Albee, Margaret Owen OBE, Prof Mary Davis, Mark Thomas