Sheikh Maqsud is a unique enclave within Aleppo, one of the oldest and most populous cities in Syria. Aleppo is under Syrian Government control, but the majority-Kurdish Sheikh Maqsud and Ashrafiya neighborhoods retain autonomy and ties to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Within the tumults of the civil war Sheikh Maqsud gained independence from Syrian Government forces, and since then its population has been organizing according to the same democratic principles as the AANES. Azad from the General Council of Sheikh Maqsud explains how the district organizes its communes, self-defense forces, health care, and education, and to what extent it is able to cooperate with the central Syrian Government.
My name is Azad and I am a member of the General Council of the Sheikh Maqsud and Ashrafiya neighborhoods in Aleppo. These are the historically majority-Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo.
When the Syrian revolution started, both the regime and Islamist militias tried to bring these neighborhoods under their control because we are on a high hill, the highest point of the city, so this is a strategic place for a military base to control the whole city. If either of these forces had achieved control over these neighborhoods, they would have taken the whole city.
But Kurdish self-defense organizations were formed and resistance forces were built up that fought against both parties, and did not allow them to take control over these neighborhoods. The people defended their neighborhood so the war between the regime and the Islamist rebels would not be fought out inside their neighborhood. The Islamists tried four times to enter the neighborhood, before YPG and YPJ existed, and they managed to take control of a quarter of the neighborhood, but they were pushed back. Later, the regime also attacked, but the YPG and YPJ fought them back. The HPC [‘Civil Defense Force’, non-professional, community defense forces organized on the neighborhood level] also grew stronger and did not allow the regime to enter. Neither the Islamist rebels nor the regime were wanted by the people.
30 different groups of Islamist rebels attacked Sheikh Maqsud. The attacks came from all sides. A strong resistance from within the neighborhood prevented them from taking over the whole area. Those who were not able to [participate in the resistance], those who had children, went to Afrin. But old and young people remained and resisted and didn’t allow anyone to enter Sheikh Maqsud. They fought a war of conscience, and liberated many neighborhoods.
After the invasion of Afrin, the people first fled to Shehba, and many moved on to Sheikh Maqsud in search for a new home. Before the war on Afrin, the neighborhood had less than 10,000 inhabitants: maybe 5,000 to 7,000. After Afrin, the population grew to 30,000 families.
The democratic system of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria was developed in Sheikh Maqsoud and a part of Ashrafiya.
At first, the people who arrived had nothing, so an organization for helping the displaced people was built up. Many houses were empty because the Islamist rebels had damaged them, or they had been burnt and looted. The organization found homes for those who did not have any money. Families moved into houses that had been abandoned but were still inhabitable and just needed to be repaired and refurbished. Organization like the Kurdish Red Crescent also took care of the displaced and distributed blankets and clothes.
The number of local councils and institutions grew with the population influx. Before the Afrin war, five communes existed, and afterwards there were forty. For every ten to fifteen communes, one council has been built up, so there are three councils: the Şehîd Gelhat council, the Şehid Rûbar council and the Ashrafiya council. All three are linked to the general council.
Within each council there are associations of communes [komîngeh]: for example, in the Şehid Rûbar council there are twenty communes, with each group of six communes forming an association, which are associated with the Şehid Rûbar council, which in turn is associated with the general council.
This is how the municipality has been organized, and this is how the different social forces and services were developed: Asayish (internal security forces) were set up as well as the HPC, and a hospital was opened.
In essence, these organizations existed before, on a smaller scale, but as the population grew, the institutions became broader and extended their activities. Now, the work is well organized, especially when it comes to self-defense and the fight against coronavirus, so both in the field of security and health. For example, up to now, the coronavirus pandemic could be contained due to a good health system that has been developed here. Between our neighborhood and the regime-controlled areas, medical personnel at the checkpoints check the people who come in and sort out those displaying coronavirus symptoms, like fever.
There is a relationship between the Autonomous Administration and the regime as this area of Aleppo is strongly connected to the rest of the city. Around 20% of the residents work outside of the neighborhood, and others go to the regime area for visits or for study, so they come and go. There is an agreement by which the regime allows electricity and water to arrive to the neighborhood. For such agreements, the Autonomous Administration and the regime must sit together and cooperate. Some schools are also managed by the regime, which teach the regime curricula, but one school and education center, the Şehid Qehreman, with 300 pupils, is totally independent from the regime system. It teaches the curricula of the AANES and mainly teaches in Kurdish. It offers education to adults as well.
Sometimes the council has problems with the water supply. Again, this is solved via the coordination department which deals with the regime, who come and help and work together on this.
In my opinion, you cannot separate Sheikh Maqsud and Ashrafiya from the city of Aleppo. We have to cooperate. In the future, we want to develop the education sector further and create our own teaching material, and develop an Arabic section, too.
For now, we have no security problems. The relationships with the regime were built up with respect to our autonomous self-defense forces. We cannot foresee the future, but we will see how the political situation evolves and we will adapt accordingly here in Sheikh Maqsud.