On the front line in Syria, a confusing conversation with a doctor who may be an official of the YPG
Dr Heddo – trained as a doctor at the Aleppo medical school, he confided – wouldn’t exactly confirm he was an official of the YPG although he certainly sounded like it. He insisted we were in a medical facility. It had marble floors. It was spotless. And it seemed to have no patients.
Dr Karaman Heddo breezed into the office in surgical kit, a plastic covering for his hair, a big grin on his bearded face.
“Ask me anything about Afrin – ask me anything political,” he said.
It was an odd meeting. Dr Heddo – trained as a doctor at the Aleppo medical school, he confided – wouldn’t exactly confirm he was an official of the YPG, the local Kurdish “protection units”, although he certainly sounded like it. He insisted we were in a medical facility. It had marble floors. It was spotless. It was guarded by two armed men. But it seemed to have no patients. It certainly had no ambulances or worried families at the door or busy nurses.
Like the Kurdish Afrin enclave itself, it was neither one thing nor the other, a bit like a scene from Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. Dr Heddo himself, with a mischievous smile and remarkably good English (when he chose to use it), might have emerged from a Joseph Conrad novel, an ex-policeman, perhaps, with an interest in human folly.
“If the Kurds have to fight alone for Afrin, you will see me on the steps of this building with a Kurdish flag. If the Syrian army comes to help us, I will be on the steps with a Kurdish and a Syrian flag. If the Turks come, I shall be dead.”
Well, maybe. But Dr Heddo has already agreed that the Turkish army will probably not enter Afrin and I don’t think the Syrian army will come – not now – and I suspect that the whole Turkish enterprise in the Syrian Kurdish province is more theatre than invasion (except for the 60 or so civilians and fighters to have died to date). Far away, over the hills to the north, you can hear the very faint rumble of gunfire, the wallpaper sound to every war movie. But is all this an act?
Dr Heddo admits that his brother Rezan, whom we have met earlier while touring a Kurdish military cemetery, is an “official” who “talks to the Russians and Iranians”. The good doctor’s mind currently revolves around the Turkish troops and their allied Syrian militias who are around 14 miles away from us. “The Syrian army must deploy on the Afrin border with Turkey to defend the Ifrin people,” he says. “I would be very happy if I saw the Syrian army fighting the Turkish army. As the YPD, we can fight the Turks alone, but it may take a time and we hope the Syrian army will defend us.”
And then comes the cruncher. “But if we win on our own, this land will be for us alone and nobody will have the right to enter it. Yes, we are seeking a federal state, along with the other states of the region, Syria, Iran, Iraq and other countries, except Turkey.” And a real Kurdish state? “This is a dream,” announces Dr Heddo. Truly, here is a man who dreamt he dwelt in marble halls. There’s no doubt about the marble. But the dream is surely impossible.
Razan Heddo, younger by two years, spectacles perched on his nose, balding, professorial and with a slightly cynical sense of humour, emphasises the Kurds’ good relations with Russia, although he seems to be talking about an earlier generation of Russians living under a different leadership to the present uniquely Putin-led empire. “The Soviet Union received lots of Kurdish students to study in their universities [in Russia] because of the good relations between the Soviet Union and Syria. We have been seeking a good role from Russia towards the Kurdish state. We thought that Russia would help us in this war but it didn’t.”
That may be a little harsh. Moscow has never given promises to the Kurds – it’s the Americans who were arming them before the assault on Raqqa – and the Russian military still move on the roads of Afrin province during the hours of daylight, keeping an eye on the Turkish army. As for Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader imprisoned in Turkey – or “terrorist leader”, as the Turks would have it – “Ocalan’s ideology is the source of our ideology: he believes that the national state is a failed state. The Kurds don’t want a Kurdish country in the north of Syria. They just want their rights in establishing their own local administration. We live now in a democracy and have a good life with all the sects of Syria. Afrin received thousands of refugees [fleeing Isis] from all over Syria.”
The latter is evidently true. Sunnis and Christians and Alawites – the religion of the Syrian President – have all sought shelter here. Indeed, an Alawite family was among the first to suffer in the Turkish assault on Afrin last month.
But Karaman Heddo has a more political brief and its bedrock lies almost two decades ago in Syrian history. “Dr Hafez Assad’s [secular Baathist] ideology still exists in our minds. We belong to his ideology. He preserved the Syrian cause and its rights. [Assad’s son] Bashar hurt Kurdish interests when he made good relations with Turkey and introduced the Five Seas Project.” This grandiose plan – vanity project or real political vision, according to your point of view – foresaw Syria at the centre of the Middle East, both geographically and economically, linking up pipelines and communications between the Black and Red Seas, the Caspian, the Mediterranean and the Gulf.
There are those who still suspect that this ambitious plan prompted some of Syria’s neighbours to plot against it. Isn’t Saudi Arabia supposed to be the centre of Islam? Isn’t Turkey meant to be the rejuvenation of the old Ottoman spirit under Erdogan? But it’s clear that the Heddo brothers were most angered by the close pre-war relations which existed between Bashar’s Syria and Erdogan’s Turkey, albeit now long poisoned by war.
It’s also true that, just after Turkey’s assault on Syrian Afrin, two senior Syrian officers referred in front of me to the Turkish army as “the enemy”. Now that might have brought a smile to the marble halls.