Vicken Cheterian

Looking North from Qamishli

As we pass next to regime checkpoints in the centre of the city, my driver cautions not to film, as we risk being stopped and interrogated. The Syrian regime still has presence in Qamishli, preserving some government buildings there known as “security square”. The Qamishli airport, just to the south-west of the city, is also under regime control.

In Qamishli, Turkey is omnipresent. In the northern neighbourhoods of this town, one sees not only the buildings of Nusaybin, on the other side of the border, but also the wall recently built to make those borders insular, guarded by military posts. Travelling on the highway and one sees the Turkish side clearly, illuminated by bright streetlights. Yet, the relations of those two neighbouring towns remains tense. Nusaybin seems to have cut fresh water from flowing southwards, releasing only used municipal waters, which made the Jaghjagh River that crosses Qamishli a horribly smelling dark fluid. The border crossing, which is under the control of the Syrian regime forces, remains closed, making the economic situation of this frontier region difficult, increasing the out-migration of its youth.

Yet, the most important problem for Qamishli, and the Kurdish dominated “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria” is security: Turkish drones regularly make raids, and threats are continuous for further military operations against Kurdish militants that Turkey accuses them of being part of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or the PKK.

The Autonomous Region is one of the more stable and prosperous regions in this tragic land that is Syria. The region came under Kurdish armed groups following the Syrian uprising, and the withdrawal of the Syrian regime forces. Then, Kurdish fighters associated with the PKK were better organized and motivated from among Kurdish groups and succeeded to take control of the region. In the days when “Islamic State” or ISIS extremists were a major regional threat, those Kurdish units of YPG proved to be an able fighting force, and especially during the battle of Kobane (2014). It was then that the US abandoned the “Free Syrian Army” and made a military alliance with the YPG.

This alliance went further when the US asked the Kurdish fighters to become the foot soldiers in the fight against ISIS to liberate Raqqa – the capital of the “khalifate” -  Der Ez-Zor, and until the last stand of ISIS in Baghuz. Those were no more Kurdish but Arab inhabited regions. An alliance of Kurdish-Arab forces was formed under US umbrella, known as the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), which today rules over an area of 50’000 km2, with a population of three million inhabitants, the majority of whom are ethnic Arabs. While Kurdish forces initially coined the term “Rojava” or “West Kurdistan” to name the new political entity, they name it now the more neutral “North and East Syria”. In this way, the second Kurdish autonomy was formed in the Middle East.

The region of Jazeera (or “island”, a region between Euphrates and Tigris Rivers), is the breadbasket of Syria. It also dominates over 90% of Syrian oil and half its gas reserves. This might be one of the many reasons why the Asad regime does not accept to enter any kind of political discussions with the Autonomous Region. Clearly, the northeast is part of “useful Syria” that the regime wants to regain, as it used to be an important source to fill the state coffers.

As we pass next to regime checkpoints in the centre of the city, my driver cautions not to film, as we risk being stopped and interrogated. The Syrian regime still has presence in Qamishli, preserving some government buildings there known as “security square”. The Qamishli airport, just to the south-west of the city, is also under regime control. The relationship between the Kurdish forces and regime loyalists are not always easy. In April 2022, the SDF imposed a blockade around regime forces and took some buildings from them, in return for regime blockade against Kurdish majority suburb of Sheikh Maqsud in Aleppo.

“There are no negotiations with Damascus” tells me Abdulkarim Omar, the de facto foreign minister of the Autonomous Administration, “only contacts through Russian mediators. The regime still thinks as if it is 2011, they want to reproduce once again their total hegemony.”

Foreign Troops: Russians and Americans

What is the future of the “Autonomous Region” squeezed between the regime forces in the south, and a hostile Turkey in the north? For the moment, the region enjoys American protection, as some 900 US troops remain after former US president Donal Trump ordered troop withdrawal. They are spread around the area in numerous bases and regularly patrolling its main roads. But there are also Russian troops stationed in the region, like the small base I saw in the town of Amuda. Yet, Turkish leaders have repeated their plans to create a 30km deep security zone inside northern Syria and have already attacked and occupied a large band stretching from Afrin to Ras ul-Ayn. If the Americans remain, it seems that Turkish military activities will be limited to occasional airstrikes against Kurdish militants.

But what will happen to the Autonomous Administration when the Americans leave? “We never cut our relations with Russia, in spite of our military alliance with the US” says Abdulkarim Omar. “Russian military presence is symbolic” yet important, he reminds me. Now with the war in Ukraine, Russian presence in Syria is weakened, and at any case it is the US that provides the security umbrella for North-East Syria.

Kurdish politicians in Qamishli can be divided into two groups. There are those who think that the final objective of Turkey is to eliminate the presence of an organized Kurdish political unit in northern Syria. They remind us in their conversation the fate of Afrin, the westernmost Kurdish populated area in Syria, which was attacked by the Turkish army and occupied in early 2018. According to them, now only 20% of the original Kurdish population remain there from an original 97% of ethnic Kurds, the rest were forced to seek refuge fleeing the exactions of the Islamist groups. This was followed by a second attack on Ras ul-Ayn and Tal-Abyad. With such a vision, it is difficult to imagine anything other than an existential struggle.

“Turkish demand is consistent, they want to go as far as Raqqa” tells me Saleh Muslim, the former co-Chair of Kurdish Democratic Party or PYD. We are sitting in an old vacation complex, next to a current American air base, where our discussion is interrupted by the noise of helicopters. His view on the relations between the Autonomous Administration and Turkey is bleak. Yet, from 2013 to 2015 he visited Istanbul three times to negotiate with Turkish leadership. This fact nuances existential fears and makes the political a possibility. In 2013, there was a cease-fire agreement between the Turkish army and PKK, and political discussions between Ankara and the PKK leadership. This reflected positively on the Kurds in Syria and Turkey. Then, what went wrong?

“The battle of Kobane was the breaking point,” tells me Saleh Muslim. “Even during the battle, we had contacts with Turkey. The contacts stopped after ISIS was defeated. Their project was that ISIS would occupy Kobane and open the way to Turkish intervention so that they take over a band in northern Syria, just like they did in Jarablus.” With renewed conversation in Turkey of sending a million and a half of Syrian refugees to northern Syria, Saleh Muslim says that “Turkey now is realizing the project of ‘Arab belt’ in north Syria” a Baath era project of bringing ethnic Arab settlers in Kurdish majority regions, as part of “Arabization” policies.

Naser Haj Mansour is the director of the Syrian Centre for Research and Dialogue. He is aware of the Kurdish-Turkish relations, and the way Kurdish leadership thinks. “In the last years the idea of a united Kurdistan started eroding,” he tells me in his office in Qamishli, “this made Kurdish leaders more realistic about possible political changes within the state they are living in.” He says that today there is a paradoxical situation in North-East Syria: it is under Kurdish political and military domination, but the region today is populated by Arab majority. “The Kurds will not achieve an independent state [in Syria] but let us think how to achieve stability instead of continuous warfare.” Then he adds a surprising note: “PKK leaders are saying: if Turkey solves the Kurdish problem, it will become the dominant force in the entire Middle East.” But the question remains: “is Turkey ready to give anything to the Kurds, or not?”

For the moment, neither political dialogue is taking place between the Autonomous Administration and the two major forces around it – Damascus and Ankara – nor the “great powers” like the US and Russia are in a state that permits them anything other than coexistence in a divided and ruined country. As politics remains unable to solve those vast problems, the space is left to military operations, attacks and counter attacks as the only alternative to fill the lost time.