A ‘true confrontation with the regime’: Kurdish perspectives on Qamishli fighting

Three days of bloody fighting between Syrian regime forces and the Kurdish-led Self-Administration’s Asayish security forces in Qamishli city came to an end last Friday when the two sides agreed to a truce after the latter captured several positions.

The subsequent truce agreement, according to the Self-Administration’s Internal Affairs Entity, includes the intention to “reconsider the so-called National Defense Forces (NDF) militias and work to dissolve them in Qamishli.” Other reported terms allow the Asayish and allied YPG forces to hold the positions they took during the fighting and an end to regime conscription across the city.

Official regime media has not reported on the agreement.

Qamishli, in northeastern Al-Hasakah province, is the de facto capital of the Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria known as Rojava, or western Kurdistan.

The Kurdish-led Self-Administration rules most of Qamishli, while Syrian army forces and allied militias control a number of neighborhoods and an airport immediately south. Tensions between the two sides controlling the divided city exploded into three days of violent clashes that began last Wednesday.

“What happened was a true confrontation with the regime,” Self-Administration spokesman Araz Mistou tells Syria Direct’s Muhammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim. Dozens of fighters on both sides were killed and captured over three days of fighting. An estimated 17 civilians were also killed.

Kurdish FSA brigade commander Mahmoud Abu Hamzah downplays the battle, calling it a “conflict between brothers in arms.”

Kurdish journalist Ismail Sharif and an activist, Mohammad Awsou, a member of the Hasakah is Being Slaughtered Silently media campaign, respectively call the incident a “battle for influence” and “military theater.”

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Araz Mistou, a Qamishli-based spokesman for the Kurdish-led Self-Administration’s Internal Affairs Entity:

Q: Do you expect regime forces in Qamishli to break the truce?

It is possible. We must expect the regime to break the truce at any moment. We in the Self-Administration’s Internal Affairs Entity have announced that our forces, the Asayish, are prepared to protect civilians and the city and to repel any regime attack.

 Relatives of Asayish, YPG fighters and civilians killed in last week’s fighting in Qamishli take part in a memorial procession on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of City of Love (Qamishli).

Q: The Internal Affairs Entity stated on Sunday that one of the terms of the agreement is to “reconsider the so-called NDF militias and work to dissolve them in Qamishli.” Is there a timeframe for this?

We do not have any idea about the timing of this militia’s dissolution, but it’s only a matter of time.

Q: There have been rumors that if the NDF were dissolved, that the Arab-majority al-Tayy neighborhood, which is its support base, could be cleared out.

This wasn’t part of the agreement, and the matter of emptying al-Tayy of civilians is out of the question at the moment and not a goal of the Self-Administration. First and foremost, how to deal with this neighborhood goes back to the Self-Administration’s leaders.

Q: What is your view of the recent fighting in Qamishli?

This is a fanatical regime, and we’ve gotten used to that. It doesn’t differentiate between Kurds, Syriacs or Arabs. Everyone’s been a victim. What happened was a true confrontation with the regime. There was a huge mobilization.

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Mahmoud Abu Hamzah, commander of Kurdish FSA brigade Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin, currently fighting in the north Aleppo countryside:

Q: What is your view of last week’s fighting in Qamishli?

We are certain that what’s happening is just a conflict between brothers in arms, a battle for influence on the ground and nothing more.

 Part of Wednesday’s procession commemorating civilians and members of the Kurdish-led Asayish and YPG killed in last week’s Qamishli clashes. Photo courtesy of City of Love (Qamishli).

Q: Do you worry that events in the city could deteriorate into a battle between Arabs and Kurds?

We wouldn’t allow that, even if it cost all of us our lives. We are all brothers in the homeland. We know about the plans of the regime and its allies, but we as Kurds and Arabs will not allow fitna (discord) like this to happen, no matter what.

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Ismail Sharif, a Kurdish journalist originally from Amouda, currently in Germany:

Q: What is your view of the recent fighting in Qamishli?

Basically, there was no reason for what happened. The reasons that led to it are not convincing. There is an alliance between the two sides and we all know it. The skirmishes that happened here and there were to assert hegemony on the ground, a battle for influence. 

Q: But the clashes were very strong, and even caused some displacement within the city.

What happened was a real farce. In my opinion, the truce didn’t happen in order to stop fighting that was due to military conflicts. Rather, it was to sign off on new agreements and interests. It was the appropriate opportunity to strike fear in the hearts of the citizens, 17 of whom were killed.

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Muhammad Awsou, Kurdish member of the Al-Hasakah is Being Slaughtered Silently media campaign:

Q: In your opinion, would the PYD have been able to take Qamishli from the regime?

The “truce of allies” began when the regime withdrew from its positions in 2012 and handed over the area to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) under the pretext of protecting it so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Syrian opposition forces at that time. It was for the regime to protect itself in Al-Hasakah province and to fortify itself in the Security Square and protect its personnel from being targeted.

[Ed.: The Security Square is an area made up of several blocks in northern Qamishli city, which is controlled by and holds the security branches of the regime.]

Q: Don’t you think that the PYD forces taught the regime a harsh lesson this time by taking control of important points in Security Square?

Personally, I call what happened theater. Why? They didn’t encircle the airport or other well-known regime security positions. The strange thing is that they did not cut off the electricity or water in the regime area, which confirms that everything that happened and is happening in Qamishli city is military theater.

Q: But the points of the truce that the Self-Administration announced included the potential dissolution of the NDF militias…?

As for the latest truce, it came after some skirmishes between NDF members and the YPG and the latter’s taking control of some positions in Qamishli, like the Allaya prison and a bread oven. This, rather than attacking important strategic positions like the military Regiment 154 and the Qamishli airport. Instead they liberate a bread oven and similar things!

There are a lot of question marks when we talk about this truce between two militarily aligned sides.

As for some of the articles and conditions mentioned in the agreement, it stipulates that the Assad regime should stop forcibly conscripting young people. And at the same time, there are roadblocks and checkpoints belonging to the YPG to take away young people for conscription into their own forces.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.