Syria's Kurds turn new year festival into protests for Afrin


Qamishli (Syria) (AFP)

Donning vibrant traditional dress, thousands of Kurds in Syria's Qamishli turned their new year celebration of Nowruz on Wednesday into mass protests in solidarity with the city of Afrin.

They wore floral scarves, waved Kurdish flags, and carried posters that pledged to win back Afrin, where Kurdish fighters on Sunday were ousted by a Turkish offensive.

"Afrin's resistance will become the people's Nowruz!" read one banner, and another said, "With the spirit of Nowruz, we will ramp up our resistance and win in Afrin."

The annual Nowruz celebration had always been a time for Kurdish families across Syria to gather together and mark new beginnings, but the holiday this year has taken on a different tone.

Ankara and allied Syrian rebels captured the symbolic city of Afrin on Sunday, after a two-month military operation against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

Kurds across the country's north have pledged revenge.

In Qamishli, a Kurdish-majority city in northeast Syria, residents flocked to the city centre, where a massive banner featured the portraits of YPG fighters killed defending Afrin.

The public rally was smaller than in previous years, with many Kurds opting to stay home because of the dampened mood.

Security forces at the entrance of the square patted down demonstrators and searched their bags.

- 'Nowruz against Erdogan' -

"Nowruz this year is different than in years past because of Afrin," said Abdulmonam Mohammad, 42, who came to the demonstration with his young daughter in his arms.

"We are sad, but we won't stop celebrating Nowruz. It will be a Nowruz of resistance and war against (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan and the Turks."

All around him, demonstrators bobbed to the beat of traditional Kurdish music, with many throwing up two fingers in the victory sign.

A gust of wind kicked up flags bearing the picture of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), considered by Turkey and the US as a "terrorist group."

Ankara says the YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK.

"We are celebrating here not because of joy. We are here because of Afrin. We are marking Nowruz for our people in Afrin," Kurdish commander Eldar Khalil called out to the crowds.

Afrin had been one of three "cantons" where Syria's Kurds were implementing a system of self-rule, separate from regime authorities in Damascus.

The area along the border with Turkey juts out from the northern Aleppo province and had remained relatively shielded from the conflict raging across Syria since 2011.

Erdogan has repeatedly pledged to take his "Olive Branch" military operation past Afrin to other Kurdish-controlled areas, including Qamishli and the towns of Manbij and Kobane.

"This year, we are marking Nowruz in sadness. Our hearts are in Afrin," said 21-year-old demonstrator Ilaf Hassan, her hair pulled back by a colourful scarf.

"But the flame of Nowruz will not be put out -- it will be the flame of victory for Afrin, and we will mark next year's Nowruz victorious."