Qamishli, a city of 300,000 that brings together many of Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities, has acted as a safe haven from the violence inflicted on neighboring villages. It has drawn more than 7,000 refugee families since the start of the conflict, mainly from the neighboring cities of Deir Azzour, Raqqa and Aleppo. The Assad regime has previously been content to cede control of the city’s outskirts to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is aligned with the PKK, and Arab rebels in the south have held their lines roughly 15 miles from the city.
But on April 5, violence erupted unexpectedly. A Syrian army patrol attacked a group of fighters from the YPG, the military wing of the PYD. Three YPG members were killed. The YPG retaliated by attacking the Syrian army at the Zeitoneh roundabout in Qamishli, killing three soldiers and taking two hostages, and overrunning a government checkpoint in the eastern part of the city. The attacks didn’t escalate further, but YPG fighters said they were prepared to defend their positions.
An estimated 30,000 have fled the city in recent months due to clashes with rebels, either to neighboring villages to the east or to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The clashes were unusual, given the close proximity of government and YPG checkpoints in Qamishli. The Walati news agency reported that the Syrian military has become more aggressive in recent weeks after the arrival of a new commanding officer believed to be from the Alawite village of Qurdaha, the hometown of the Assad family.
A recent advance by rebels with the Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups from the south has also increased tensions in Qamishli. On April 12, rebels took control of a string of villages south of Qamishli and used the location to launch rockets at the airport, which is under government control. The military responded by shelling the city and surrounding villages, but no casualties were reported.
Residents and activists in Qamishli, along with the YPG, have repeatedly asked rebels not to enter the city because they want to be spared the shelling and air strikes unleashed on territories controlled by the armed opponents of the Assad regime. The latest incidents have caused panic among civilians, as many expect a further escalation of violence in the coming weeks.
(A Kurdish fighter with the Free Syrian Army tears a poster of Bashar al-Assad in Qamishli)
Qamishli has a mixed population that has lived in peace for many generations. Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Syriacs and other Christians have traditionally partnered together in business and even intermarried, and most of the city’s residents speak Kurdish, rare in a larger Syrian city.
Baath Party politics, characterized by chauvinistic Arab identity, created resentment among Kurds by granting land along the Turkish border to Arabs from Raqqa and Aleppo provinces from 1973 to 1982. The scheme that altered the demographics of the region. Arabs were granted agricultural land and the government built model towns for its new inhabitants.
Kurds were further marginalized in a controversial census that stripped hundreds of thousands of Kurds from citizenship. In the 1990s, a wave of Alawite bureaucrats moved to the city to fill the lucrative oil sector jobs and security posts.
In 2004, tensions erupted after a football match, and Kurds took to the streets in a precedent to the 2011 uprising. The Kurdish rebellion was violently quelled, stopping it from becoming a national movement.
But the reluctance of Arabs in Syria to rally to the Kurdish cause in 2004 wasn’t forgotten by the country’s established Kurdish parties. In 2011, they initially shunned the protest movement that erupted in Daraa and kicked off what has now been a two-year conflict. Kurdish youth eventually arrived on the scene and convinced their fellow Kurds to join the cause.
Likewise, Sunni Arabs in Qamishli didn’t embrace the protests initially and remain the weakest participants today. “The regime created rifts in society, where Kurds are afraid of Arabs and Arabs distrust Kurds and Christians,” said Khaled, an Arab activist living in Qamishli. “That’s why Arabs were reluctant to join protests that included Kurds.”
Despite these tensions, Qamishli has become the scene of large, peaceful protests that oppose the Assad regime and celebrate Kurdish identity. Residents want to keep it at that, rather than enter what is viewed as a futile war against the few remaining Syrian soldiers left in the region.
“We have many refugees from around the country to protect, and besides, the Assad regime will fall in Damascus, not in Qamishli,” said one of the city’s prominent Kurdish politicians. Tellingly, he chose not to use his name.
(Hasan Biro is a lawyer and writer based in Ras al-Ayn. This article was translated by senior editor Mohammed Sergie)