Hip Berlin district twins with war-torn Syrian city

The city of Derik in Kurdish northern Syria is struggling to overcome eight years of war. It's getting help from an unlikely source: the multicultural, hipster Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg.

Some 3,850 kilometers (2,392 miles) separate Kreuzberg in southern Berlin from Derik in the northeastern tip of Syria, and as the Syrian civil war enters its ninth year on March 15, the situations of the two communities may seem galaxies apart.

Whereas the biggest worry of the traditionally alternative-lifestyle and Turkish neighborhood in the German capital is gentrification, the people of 26,000-strong, majority Kurdish-Assyrian city are concerned with keeping the lights and water on — and resisting pressure from Turkey, Iraq, the Assad regime and the remnants of the "Islamic State" (IS) movement.

But there's much more connecting Kreuzberg and Derik than initially appears. And thanks to a citizens' initiative in Berlin, the two places are now officially twinned. Kreuzberg may be known for its Turkish community, but no one knows how many of the Turkish nationals are actually Kurds.

Flash-Galerie Deutschland 60 Jahre Kapitel 6 1999 – 2009 Billigladen am Kottbusser Damm

The hip neighborhood of Kreuzberg is home to many Turkish nationals — some of whom are Kurds

Günter Kleff, one of the founders of the initiative, says that Derik was selected because the Berliners wanted to support a group often forgotten by politicians and the media.

"One main idea is to show a certain solidarity with the city," Kleff told DW. "These are the people who bore the main burden of the fight against IS. We have them to thank for the fact that IS has practically been defeated."

Seven hundred people who died fighting Islamist militant terror are buried in Derick's "Martyrs Cemetery." And recovering from this degree of loss is only one of the challenges faced by this unusual community.

Derik and Kreuzberg signed the city partnership agreement last October

A multicultural, progressive Syrian town

In many respects, Kleff says, Derik confounds the usual stereotypes about the Middle East. It is surprisingly multicultural, and Muslims and Christians coexist side by side. The city is governed by democratically elected municipal councilors. It has two co-mayors, who, by statute, must be a man and a woman.

"Derik is known for its multiculturalism," Derik City Council Co-President Sahed Osman Mohamad told DW. "Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Syrians, Chaldean Christians and Armenians live together here. They're represented on the city council and in the city administration."

The city is controlled by Kurdish forces and enjoys relative autonomy, but it is surrounded by potential threats. Derik is only five kilometers from the Turkish border and only 10 kilometers from the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which would like to subsume it. And to the south are the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"They're completely isolated politically," Kleff says. "Turkey considers them terrorists because they're Kurds and admittedly sympathize to an extent with the [banned Kurdish Workers' Party] PKK. And the Assad regime, of course, wants to get rid of them because Assad would like to re-establish complete domination."

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Kleff — a pensioner formerly employed in integrating Turkish migrants to Berlin — visited Derik in October 2018 as part of a small delegation to sign an initial partnership agreement. His descriptions of the political situation tally with media reports. Late last December, for instance, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Syria's Kurds were "scared to death" of being squeezed between Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the US announced it would withdraw its forces from Syria.

The first joint project will be to green sites like this in Derik

€10,000 for a greener city

Kleff acknowledges that the effect of twinning Kreuzberg and Derik is largely "symbolic" but hopes that the two communities' relationship will be the beginning of greater recognition for Kurdish affairs in Europe and the world. He also stresses that his initiative is not another case of relatively wealthy Europeans swooping in to dole out aid to recipients without a say of their own.

The first project the Kreuzberg group is helping to fund in Derik is re-greening a part of the town severely affected by Turkey's restriction of the water supply from the Euphrates River to northern Syria. The project was launched after authorities and residents requested this specific form of aid.

"We've received €10,000 ($11,300) from the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district to plant trees in Derik," says Mohamad. "Depending on the weather, we'll be planting them this spring."

Despite the damage done to the city by the civil war, the people of Derik are astonishingly ecologically minded. That's another point of convergence between the city and its traditionally left-wing twin district in Berlin.

700 people from Derik died fighting the militant Islamist organization IS

A return visit in May or June

A delegation from Derik hopes to come to Kreuzberg later this spring or early summer. But as Kleff explains, the return visit is anything but a sure thing.

The Syrians need to obtain passports, despite the hostility of the central government in Damascus, to travel to the West, and the route from Derik to Berlin involves a boat trip and then a car ride to the airport in Irbil in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

If the visit does come to pass, it will be a further small step toward ending the isolation of Derik and indeed the entire majority-Kurdish north of Syria, an area rich in oil but poor in opportunities to exploit its natural resources.

Kleff says his biggest hope is that the people of Northern Syria can gain more of a voice in determining their own destiny. And he believes that communities like Derik can serve as an alternative role model for an entire region mired in deadly conflict for eight long years.

Sahed Osman Mohamad was interviewed by Aref Gabeau from DW's Arabic department.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

War with no end

Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The dictator

Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The northern watchman

Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The eastern guardian

The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The western allies

A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The rebels

The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The resistance

Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The new jihadists

"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is on the brink of defeat after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The old jihadists

IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The Persian shadow

Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.

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