Syndicated News
The Qamishli Front in Syria
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Bookmark and Share

The northeastern corner of Syria- with the city of Qamishli and its surrounding area- has attracted some media attention as a scene of what is known as the wider "Kurdish-Jihadi" conflict that erupted since the expulsion of jihadis from the Hasakah northern border town of Ras al-Ayn by the YPG in July. So which factions are fighting on the Qamishli front on both sides? Rebel Offensive On the offensive, most egregious is the ongoing wave of suicide bombings that have struck the positions of the YPG and of the Assad regime's National Defense Force militia (NDF) in the city of Qamishli itself, perpetrated more recently by the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham [ISIS]. Fighting between ISIS and factions defending Qamishli has been intermittent for a number of months now, including the claimed capture by ISIS in early August of two villages near Qamishli: namely, al-Baza and al-Hamara. Similarly, in late October, ISIS sources reported ongoing clashes between ISIS and the YPG on a number of fronts. Keen to downplay accusations of anti-Kurdish racism, ISIS has been eager to show Kurdish participation in its operations on the Qamishli front in particular and Hasakah governorate in general (now renamed 'al-Baraka' province in ISIS circles). It would be mistaken to characterize ISIS as the sole or leading participant in the offensive on the Qamishli front. For example, in July, in the immediate aftermath of the expulsion of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra from Qamishli, an umbrella "liberation front" for the Qamishli area was announced, with chanting featured at the end of a jihadist orientation, most notably the slogan: "The Caliphate is the promise of God." In this context, it is worth mentioning another major set of groups on the Qamishli front of a jihadi/Caliphate orientation: namely, those going by the name of Ansar al-Khilafa. At least one of these ruled with Jabhat al-Nusra/ISIS as part of a joint coalition over the eastern border town of Yaroubiya until these forces were expelled by the YPG in late October. This Ansar al-Khilafa of the ruling coalition of Yaroubiya- described as 'ansar' (i.e. affiliates) of ISIS by a local pro-ISIS Hasakah contact- is independent from the Ansar al-Khilafa brigade affiliated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir in the western Aleppo countryside. However, an announcement posted on 15 October announcing a new offensive on the Qamishli front entitled "And say: Truth has come and Falsehood has perished" indicates that Hizb-ut-Tahrir's Ansar al-Khilafa has sent deployments to the Qamishli area as well, cooperating with these other Ansar al-Khilafa groups. Indeed, the announcement listed the following participating battalions: "Jabhat al-Nusra, Liwa Amjad al-Islam, Collection of Ansar al-Khilafa Brigades, including" [NB: emphasis my own] the Ansar al-Khilafa brigades of western Aleppo countryside and the town of Aleppo itself, and finally Liwa al-Qadisiyah. The last brigade in this list has claimed some dead fighters as of October in Hasakah province through fighting regime forces and the "militias of the Kurdistan Workers' Party" (PKK, used interchangeably in rebel discourse with the PYD and YPG): namely, Abdullah Said al-Namar al-Dagheem, Ahmad Ali Ibrahim al-Dagheem, Hafez Saleem al-Omori and Mahmoud Khattab. At the same time as this "And say: Truth has come and Falsehood has perished" offensive was announced, a "Battle of Furqan" offensive in the Qamishli area was declared against the PKK/PYD, including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and the "Free Army." Ahrar ash-Sham has previously coordinated with An?ar al-Khilafa and fellow Salafist rebel groups such as Jaysh al-Tawheed (part of the former Syrian Islamic Front coalition) in the Qamishli area. More generally in Hasakah province, Ahrar ash-Sham coordinates and maintains good relations with ISIS, contrasting with localized tensions in both Aleppo and Idlib governorates out towards the west (e.g. see this local Ahrar ash-Sham statement on conflict with ISIS in Maskana, Aleppo province, over a court dispute). Thus a joint ISIS-Ahrar ash-Sham operation was conducted against the YPG in Tel Ma'aruf in late November. An Ahrar ash-Sham supporter from Qamishli similarly confirmed to me an overall good working relationship between ISIS and Ahrar ash-Sham in Hasakah province. Considering how often rebel groups announce new umbrella fronts and united battle initiatives, one should not imagine an organized sustained offensive on the Qamishli front. There are instances of cooperation but fighting remains haphazard and confused, though the overall effort to push on Qamishli and surrounding towns is undoubtedly being led by groups of jihadist and Salafist orientation. Factions on the DefensiveThe city of Qamishli itself is controlled by two main factions: the YPG militias, and the Assad regime's NDF. Since the summer, the YPG has significantly expanded its power base in the city at the expense of regime forces, but the exact nature of the relationship between the two factions remains nebulous. Any cooperation that does exist- perhaps in trying to prevent suicide bomb attacks on the town, for example- ought to be attributed more to PYD pragmatism rather than ideological sympathy and affinity. A more recent incident pointing to tension between the two factions involved the case of an American journalist whom regime forces in Qamishli tried to detain as opposed to YPG policy of securing the person's release. Perhaps of most interest in the context of relations between factions on the defensive in the Qamishli area is the existence of Syriac [Assyrian] Christian defense militias going by the name of Sootoro. They exist in Qamishli, al-Malikiya and al-Qahtaniya. According to Echoue Gouriye, head of the Syriac Union Party that seeks to advance Syriac Christian interests in Syria and has a base in Qamishli, Sootoro had its beginnings among Syriac youth in the town of al-Qahtaniya after the withdrawal of regime forces, then in al-Malikiyah (again, outside of regime control), and finally in Qamishli, rooted in the belief that Syriac Christians must take it upon themselves to defend their areas and cannot simply rely on others to provide protection. At the same time, Gouriye made clear to me that the approach does not exclude cooperation with Kurds or Arabs when problems arise. It has been suggested that the Sootoro movement has split since its inception, with the Qamishli branch overrun by pro-regime elements while those in al-Qahtaniya and al-Malikiya remaining linked to the Syriac Union Party. The Qamishli branch officially claims neutrality, with the Syriac Protection Office having stated the following to me in an interview: "We do not fight against any side of the conflict in Syria, but our work encompasses protecting our regions from theft or kidnapping operations

Type your comment and click
or register to post a comment.
* required field
User ID*
enter user ID or e-mail to recover login credentials