In Qamishli, in northeastern Syria, Kurds, Arabs and Christians all operate militias in their own neighbourhoods. So although the regime is still present, it is no longer omnipotent—and while other parts of the country are ablaze, here a cold war has developed.
You can hear the sound of loud music almost every night—another wedding. In the outdoors venue, a Kurdish couple and their guests dancehalperkê, the traditional round dance. The music is interrupted by a power cut, then the generator starts and the dancing resumes. You can see the stars more clearly now, when the streets are dark, and it’s not at all obvious there’s a war going on.
The great powers found it convenient to draw an international border along the railway here, ignoring the fact that people were living on both sides of it. The northern half of the city, in Turkey, is called Nusaybin. The southern Syrian half is called Qamishli, and here there are further divisions. Kurds form the majority, and their militias control most of the city. The regime still holds the area surrounding a border post in the north, a few official buildings in the city centre, a civilian airport in the southwest and a military base in the south.
The population in the Arab neighbourhood of Haret Tey is dominated by the Tey tribe, which is led by an MP, Mohammed al-Fares. Masked men from a local militia patrol the streets and guard certain buildings. They serve the regime as part of the Syria-wide militia network called the National Defence Force (NDF) but their loyalty is said to lie primarily with the tribe and al-Fares himself. The group has been operating in its current form at least since the late spring.
The adjacent Christian neighbourhood of Wusta is dominated by Syriacs (Assyrians), but a smaller group of Armenians live here too. A militia, the Sutoro, started operating here openly in February (it already had an active presence last year). The Sutoro was set up by the Syriac Union Party (SUP), but in Qamishli it takes its commands from a “peace committee” that also includes other Syriac organisations. The Sutoro units in al-Qahtaniyah and al-Malikiyah, on the other hand, are fully under SUP control and co-operate more closely with the Kurdish militias.
To understand the current situation, we must go back to last summer. Some parts of northern Syria had only a sparse presence of regime forces. Others had none left at all. When Kurdish militias took control over these areas, most of the remaining police and military units gave up without a fight, and agreed simply to leave their weapons behind and retreat. But in Qamishli, regime forces barricaded themselves in a few locations, and the Kurdish militias backed down.
There have been speculations about a high-level, comprehensive secret agreement between the regime and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls the Kurdish militias. Another suggestion is that a tacit understanding developed when local regime commanders responded tit-for-tat to the Kurdish militias’ attempts to avoid bloodshed. Whatever the case, both sides now see radical Islamist groups operating in the area as the greatest threat. So it makes no sense for either to open up a second front against the other. Everyone also knows a full-scale war would be disastrous in a crowded city overflowing with displaced people.
In a similar way to the PYD, the SUP has declared itself to be in non-violent opposition to the regime. Judi (not his real name), who is 23, was arrested last year when he was doing political work for the SUP in Damascus. He was moved around between secret prisons belonging to the Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence and General Security agencies. “I was naked, it was completely dark and we were not allowed to talk to each other,” he recounts. “Every second day we got some stale bread to eat.”
Judi was electrocuted, burned and beaten with baseball bats. For the first 15 days, there was a fixed schedule: four hours of torture, then four hours of rest. Then the questioning started, and the torture sessions were reduced to one or two hours a day. Judi was now allowed to talk to his fellow prisoners, some of whom were deserters from the army or belonged to oppositional organisations. “What I experienced was nothing compared to what others suffered,” he says. “They burned some people alive or brought their sisters there to rape them. I had heard many things before, but now I have really seen the true face of the regime.”
Judi believes his own arrest may have been the result of a misunderstanding that was unrelated to his political activities. He was placed in a regular prison for the last 18 days of his two-month long incarceration. Soon after his release, he was pardoned as part of a prisoner amnesty.
The Sutoro members in Qamishli obviously hold conflicting opinions about the regime. When one of them gives a smiling thumbs-up for Bashar al-Assad, another shakes his head and looks embarrassed. Several sources confirm that regime-friendly elements are now running the show here. One former member is none other than Judi. Although he is still supportive of the Sutoro, he admits it was difficult to work in that environment. He has now gone back to doing political work for the SUP.“They are all Shabiha there now,” says Khabur (not his real name), a young Sutoro member in the nearby town of al-Qahtaniyah, using a derogatory term for regime militias.
How could people on different sides in the civil war belong to the same militia? The reason is that group solidarity has come to dominate over politics in the local Christian community. There are threats from everywhere: The regime is arresting and torturing people; criminals are carrying out abductions for ransom or rape; al-Qaida-affiliated groups are attacking villages in the nearby countryside. Being for or against the regime is no longer the main issue; the priority is protection from harm.
The Sutoro base was attacked in a drive-by shooting this summer, allegedly from a regime car. No one was injured, but that may not have been the purpose. While Haret Tey was always regime turf, Wusta did not clearly belong to anyone. The regime is now trying to re-assert itself here through its clients within the Sutoro, whose oppositional elements have little to set against. Acting in the familiar role of a mafia-like bully, the regime is offering potential victims protection from itself in return for obedience.
The SUP is now struggling to maintain the limited space for autonomy that opened up here last year. After its vice president Said Malke and executive committee member Roubel Baho were arrested this summer, the Sutoro actually provided armed protection for an anti-regime street protest. However, the German journalist Benjamin Hiller saw some of the Sutoro members shake hands with regime soldiers they encountered along the way. This ambiguous event could only have occurred in the warped world of Qamishli, with its unique set of possibilities and restraints for all actors. In the end, this is a cold war because they all know each other and have a stake in keeping the peace.
Carl Drott is a Swedish freelance journalist focusing on Kurdish-dominated areas of the Middle East.
Copyright © 2013 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global