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As tensions with Turkey continue unabated, officials in the region say western indifference is part of the problem

Traffic is light on the two creaking pontoon bridges over the Tigris that mark the only official crossing into the autonomous region of north-east Syria, a little known area of 5 million people engaged in a radical political experiment.

At the border post stands a distinctive billboard: a martyrs memorial to the men and women who died eradicating the Islamic State (Isis), as well as those killed fighting what has become a more serious threat Turkey.

Our martyrs are our honour, the poster says, depicting 40 foreign fighters, including a Briton, Anna Campbell, who was killed in March last year, aged 26, defending the city of Afrin against a Turkish incursion.

An estimated 12,000 fighters from the north-east region died in the territorial struggle against Isis, which ended in March, and a further 20,000 were wounded. What was initially a Kurdish force of ground troops with air and logistical support from a US-led coalition has expanded into an administration controlling 30% of Syria, east of the Euphrates river.

A Kurdish security officer stands guard at a rally against Turkish threats to invade the region in Qamishli in August. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

North-east Syria is the largest part of the country outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad. Once a Kurdish area, it is now governed under a communal structure involving a complex set of committees representing seven cantons including Sunni-Arab dominated areas with each post jointly held by a man and a woman.

Westerners in the area still travel under armed guard in fast-driven vehicles, and there are obvious signs of war damage, decaying infrastructure and only the most basic economy. According to the local military, Isis sleeper cells remain active. The administration says it holds 6,000 Isis prisoners, although the figure may be higher, and over 100,000 displaced persons in overcrowded prisons and increasingly lawless camps, which officials admit they are struggling to control.

Local politicians are concerned about what they say is western indifference. Amina Omar, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council in the desert town of Ain Issa, said we deserve to be supported in the light of the sacrifices of the eight-year war against Isis.

Omar said: We have had no political support from the international community to begin working towards our aims and accused Turkeys president, Recep Tayyip Erdoan, of wanting to initiate a war.

A merchant sells grains at a market in Qamishli in north-east Syria in September. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

At the UN general assembly in New York last week, Erdoan called for the creation of a 30km deep safe zone on the Syrian side of the border that could resettle up to 3 million refugees currently in Turkey, a proposal that the fledgling administration has already rejected. This is blackmailing the refugees, Omar said.

A cross-party British parliamentary delegation, led by Labour backbencher Lloyd Russell-Moyle, visited north-east Syria in September to begin a process of rallying political support. Global civilisation owes them a debt, both of honour and of practical assistance to rebuild their damaged region, he said.

Until now, UK participation has been limited to an unacknowledged presence of British special forces, with whom commanders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say they enjoy a good relationship. The UK forces are based with 1,000 US troops who provide ultimate support to the fledgling administration.

Political engagement has been minimal. On a visit to London in February, lham Ehmed, the co- of the executive council of the Syrian Democratic Council, was only met by mid-ranking civil servants in a cafe away from the Foreign Office building.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle speaks during a visit to north-east Syria in September. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

North-east Syrias leftist ideology was inspired by Abdullah calan, one of the founders of the separatist Kurdish PKK in Turkey, where he has been imprisoned since 1999. It is particularly visible in the countrys male YPG and female YPJ militias, key components of the SDF, whose list of martyrs highlights their defence against Isis and Turkish fascism.

But as the fighting has drawn to a conclusion, north-east Syria has sought to reinvent itself. It is no longer a solely Kurdish region: about 1.5 million of the population are Kurds, clustered near the Turkish border where the safe zone is proposed, while the rest are mostly Sunni Arabs from former Isis centres in the Euphrates valley.

Polygamy and underage marriage have been outlawed as part of a law of women but while this has been observed in Kurdish areas, implementation in newly taken Arab areas has been patchy.

Relations with Assads Russian-backed regime are relatively calm, although limited, with officials even acknowledging privately that they sell some of the oil they control west of the Euphrates, in defiance of US sanctions. There is no serious fight and there is no serious dialogue, said Gen Mazlum Kobane, the commander of the SDF.

A rally in support of Kurdish leader Abdullah calan in Qamishli in February. Photograph: Hector Perez/AFP/Getty Images

Instead the focus is on placating Turkey. The calan connection has been dramatically toned down. Once ubiquitous posters of the jailed leader are in shorter supply, although are still found inside some public buildings as well on the martyrs billboard. We are willing to do whatever it takes not to threaten the national security of Turkey, Kobane said.

The militias are integrated into the 70,000 strong SDF, which is also 35% female, and politicians claim that there is little or no PKK influence. Our project has nothing to do with the PKK at all, Omar argued, although she acknowledged that many PKK members have come from Syria.

North-east Syria is careful not to describe itself as independent, at a time when there is no international appetite for partition. But US military support has become critical.

Last December, Donald Trump announced a plan to withdraw all ground troops from Syria in the belief that Isis was defeated. After intense lobbying the decision was reversed, and local politicians diplomatically said that Trump had been wrongly briefed on the military situation.

Instead, north-east Syria agreed to withdraw SDF and YPJ forces away from the Turkish border and allow US and Turkish soldiers to patrol, creating a border buffer zone 5km deep between the Tigris and the Euphrates, and 20km deep for heavy weapons.

Turkish soldiers patrol the streets in Afrin in early 2018. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The concern locally is that the deal has not proved to be enough to placate Turkey. President Erdoan seems to regret what has been agreed, Kobane said, warning the Turks to brace themselves for a long war if they try to invade.

Mindful of Turkish sensibilities, last week Brig Gen Christian Wortman, the deputy director of operations in the US-European command, heaped praise on the Turks as he talked up the new security arrangement. The intention of this security mechanism is to address Turkeys legitimate security concerns, Wortman said.

Memories, however, linger of Turkeys 2018 occupation of Afrin, historically a Kurdish area, and the ensuing population displacement which has seen thousands of Kurds leave.

Photographs circulate in Kurdish political circles showing the destruction of agricultural areas and the desecration of cemeteries, and it is estimated that 30% of SDF leaders come from Afrin, the bulk of whom are opposed to the border zone settlement that has been agreed with Turkey.

Dr Abdulkarim Omar, the co-chair of foreign affairs of the SDC, accuses Turkey of human rights violations, and says that the occupation was allowed to take place through a deal between Turkey and Russia, and amid the silence of the international community, so there was a kind of international cover.

They hope that by rallying western support that wont happen again.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/02/we-deserve-support-reinvented-north-east-syria-strives-for-stability