The Civil Defense Forces (HPC) is a voluntary, community-based organisation which carries out community policing functions in NES.
Following the recent unrest in the USA, the HPC has been held up by some commentators as an alternative model to a traditional, professional, state-controlled police force. Less often mentioned is the fact that HPC works alongside the Asayish (internal security), a professional force which conducts anti-terror operations and is responsible for day-to-day security and policing functions across NES.
In this interview, two female commanders in HPC explain how and why their organisation was established; how it works alongside, relates to and differs from the Asayish; which roles they fill in their community; and how they aim to construct a new model of policing in a region which suffered for decades under the security apparatus of the Assad regime, and which faces a critical security situation to this day.
Zibeda Eli commands the Civil Defense Forces in Qamishlo and the Jazira region, while Samira Mihemed is the commander of the all-female Women’s Civil Defense Forces (HPC-Jin) in Qamishlo.
Could you explain more about the history of the HPC?
Zibeda Eli: It all started in 2014 when ISIS attacked Sere Kaniye and the surrounding villages. The fighting was very heavy and we saw that there was a need for a different organization to be responsible for the security inside the cities and villages as the other military structures were busy fighting on the front lines.
Back then, the war was extremely difficult and there was a huge need for people to learn how to defend themselves and their societies. At first it was very important for everyone to learn how to handle the weapons so as to be able to protect themselves, their land and loved ones. In the beginning we were very focused on the military aspect of self-defense. After the fighting subsided we were able to give our attention to the other parts of self-defense, such as education.
So the HPC were originally founded in Qamishlo and later spread all over Rojava, and step by step more and more people started to step up to protect their neighborhoods and cities. Many who had become refugees during the war were able to return to their homes with the help of the YPG, and then protected by the HPC.
How are you organized today?
ZE: Now, our members total between 13,000-15,000. The HPC have a presence in all cities and in almost all of the villages in the Jazira region. We work via the communes in the civil society.
In the beginning when the organization was founded there was a lot of criminality and drug use by the young people here, but that has since become significantly less.
Samira Mihemed: it is very important for us that we have a presence in all places so as to keep our young people from making bad decisions and helping them choose a good path in life. We live a communal life here, we are all responsible for each other and it is our duty to look out for and help each other.
North and East Syria also has a professional military force – the Syrian Democratic Forces – and a professional internal security force, the Asayish. What’s the difference between HPC and these bodies?
SM: HPC is tied to Asayish, but the women’s branch is independent because we organize ourselves and the men cannot give us orders or intervene in our work. If a problem occurs we try to solve it ourselves first. If this fails we will bring the issue to the women’s branch of the Asayish.
During the war in Sere Kaniye [Turkey’s 2019 invasion of North and East Syria], other institutions joined the combat – Asayish, The Syrian Democratic Forces and other military forces. But our role is different. Our job is to keep the society whole, to defend the society from within. We protect the society from everything from espionage to preventing drugs and forbidden substances from entering.
ZE: We organise together with other institutions, for example with the women from the Asayish. We are a civilian organisation but we have some military responsibilities. For example we have the right to arrest people who have broken the law but we are obligated to hand them over to the Asayish, who will take over the case from there. So we ourselves are civilians but our work includes some military responsibilities. Our job is to support and help the Asayish with civilian matters.
Besides providing neighborhood security, what are HPC’s other duties?
SM: We want to help those women who are being oppressed and who are experiencing difficulties to improve their quality of life. As HPC-Jin we have the right to get involved in anything that concerns women. For example, if a women is being beaten or mistreated by her husband, or if she is being oppressed, we have a right to step in to end the mistreatment of the woman. We also go visit people in civil society and listen to what they have to say and they can tell us what they are struggling with.
We also give seminars on women’s rights. For example we don’t accept for a man to marry two women, or for underage girls to get married. Usually when a man marries a girl so young they end up divorcing them one or two years later which causes the girl a lot of pain. So this is where we put our foot down. Our duty is to protect the society.
ZE: The first step is education. Home by home, neighborhood by neighborhood, all the way up to the cities and villages. The people are always very happy and excited when we come to visit them, because it gives them a chance to better get to know us and our ideology.
One of our main goals is to educate people about women’s rights and to empower women. The people in the society look up to and admire the women who have joined the movement and fought the enemy on the front lines.
Could you explain the difference between the HPC and the police of the Syrian regime, how do they differ from each other?
ZE: The differences are huge. When the police of the Syrian regime arrests someone they can abuse them and deny them food and water and their basic rights. We, on the other hand, would never do that.
Why? Because the people who volunteer with us volunteer out of their own free will, because they want to help protect their societies and the people living in it. Some of our volunteers are 18 years old while others are 70 years old, and no one volunteers with us for money. The people with the regime are not like that. They all work for money and don’t have the best interest of the people in mind.
Why do you have an autonomous women’s structure, HPC-Jin? What role do women play in the organisation?
SM: It is very important for us to help women empower and defend themselves. Women should be involved in and play a role in all structures of society. For a long time the women here have been looked down upon and only been considered good for marriage. This is something we want to change.
That is why we give educations and seminars for women on women’s rights and women’s history, so that they can get to know themselves and their rights and through that empower themselves. And we also give educations that are more militarily focused because self-defence is a big part of empowering women. All women should know how to defend themselves.
Now, if someone tries to force a girl or woman to do something she does not want to do, she won’t accept it because she has the option to join the military forces or any other institution which will protect her. In the system we have now there are women in all institutions and leadership positions. Men and women are now working together. Women in civil society get a lot of morale and inspiration from us, and we get many girls and women wanting to join us.
What are your thoughts on the uprising that the police in the USA are facing after the killing of George Floyd? And how do you think that your organisation differs from police forces around the world?
ZE: The HPC differ in that we are supported and made up by the local people. We have all races working together to protect and keep their societies safe. There is no one who is considered to be better or worse than anyone, we are all equal. For example, the Turkish attacks were against us Kurds, but we Kurds had Arabs fighting with us side by side.
The Rojava revolution is for democracy and is for everyone, not only Kurds. We want everyone, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians and Turkmen to unit and help each other to protect our societies together.
The pictures featured in this article were taken during a HPC-Jin training session.