Crisis in Syria boosts Kurdish hopes

Shepherd boy tending his flock in the Kurdish region of north-east Syria Government forces have pulled out of much of the quiet corner of Syria

With Syrian forces focused on the fighting in the big cities, Kurdish leaders say they now control half of their region in the north-east. Travelling undercover, the BBC's Orla Guerin found many already looking forward to autonomy in a democratic Syria.

With gold-rimmed glasses, a neat black moustache and a pinstripe shirt, the middle-aged man who came to meet us could have been a bank manager.

He was unmarried, he explained, and had no children. He wanted us to know that was a choice, not a twist of fate.

"As a Kurd I am not free," he said. "I couldn't father a child who was also a prisoner."

Instead of becoming a husband and a father, he became a guerrilla fighter, and an activist.

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We Kurds are in charge here. We'll have no problems.”

End Quote Amer Syrian Kurd in Qamishli

He has spent 15 years fighting for self-rule for the Kurds. These days he feels it is getting a lot closer.

In parts of Syria's Kurdish north-east, that is how it seems.

Under a hot sun, we travelled through dusty villages and towns, passing hillsides where shepherds still tend their flocks.

And we found something missing - the dark shadow of the security forces.

After a wave of protests in late July, President Bashar al-Assad loosened his grip on the Kurdish region, probably so that he could try to tighten it elsewhere.

Kurdish leaders say they now control about half their territory. Kurdish flags have replaced Syrian ones. Kurdish language schools have opened.

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And though the government's security forces are not gone completely, they are lying low.

Over glasses of tamarind juice in the city of Qamishli, a former law student turned politician summed it up. "These days," said Amer, sitting cross-legged on the carpet, "the police wouldn't show up even if someone was killed."

On our undercover journey through the region, bumping into the Syrian military was not part of our plan.

But we had a telling close encounter as we filmed outside a courthouse. Our local guide had assured us it was safe.

"We Kurds are in charge here," he said. "We'll have no problems."

Then a young Syrian soldier emerged from inside. In a vest, and sandals, he was not dressed for combat. He stood in silence, looking a bit scared of us.

A moment later a plain-clothes Syrian official strode into view - the type of man who could have detained us or dispatched us to Damascus. But he was more interested in hurrying us away.

Boy peering through a window in the Kurdish region of north-east Syria Schools teaching the Kurdish language have opened across in north-east Syria

Travel among the Kurds and you get enmeshed in a web of hospitality. It seems every door is open, every hand is outstretched.

And over plates of figs and grapes, and cups of cardamom-flavoured coffee, every family has a story of suffering to tell.

In the home of Said Hameh, we sat in a circle on the floor, in the Kurdish way. "Just to gather here like this would have been impossible a month ago," he said. "We couldn't dare talk to a journalist."

Recalling how the regime had fired him from his teaching job, Said beat the patterned rug in frustration with his fist.

He and many others want the government erased from the region altogether.

Kurdish militiaman manning a checkpoint in north-west Syria Kurdish militia checkpoints have sprung up

"They are not killing us," he said "but we are not completely free. Freedom means more than just existence. If I go somewhere, I could still be arrested."

The Kurds insist they want peaceful change, but they are ready for a fight if it comes to it. District by district, they have been setting up armed self-defence units. And a militia has sprung up, though it is media-shy.

"Those guys are everywhere, but they are not under our control," said Saleh Mohamed, the softly spoken leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union - the most powerful party here.

He also denies having operational links to the guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, who have been fighting for self-rule across the border in Turkey for decades.

Mohamed is a veteran of the struggle for Kurdish rights, with the CV to prove it.

I asked how long he had spent in prison. "Not long," he said, with a laugh.

"Just two or three months a year - every year - since 2003. And it was the Middle East-type of prison with the underground rooms for torture."

Mohamed talked about the past and the future of his ancient people with an unhurried air. "I believe our struggle is beginning to have results," he said, voicing a feeling shared by many Kurds.

It is unclear what will emerge from the broken jigsaw of Syria but the Kurds are already benefiting from the chaos. They are pushing for autonomy in a new Syria.

But ultimately many yearn for Greater Kurdistan - an independent state for all the Kurds.

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