• MECRA

In Northeast Syria, a mix of relief and concerns

Updated: Aug 7, 2019


The 'I Love Raqqa' sign in Raqqa. (Adam Lucente)


By ADAM LUCENTE


Raqqa, Syria — Two-lane roads through the vast Syrian desert connect Raqqa to government-held Aleppo, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) base in Ain Issa, and the cities of Qamishlo and Hasakah in the mostly Kurdish northeast. The city best known as the capital of the Islamic State (ISIS)’s caliphate is more than that today.


An “I love Raqqa” sign sits in the middle of Naim Square. This type of sign exists in other regional cities like Amman and Beirut, and now it is in Raqqa in the square where ISIS once carried out executions. Restaurants are full in this area, and children swim in the fountain in the square’s middle. The clear waters of the Euphrates are a short drive away, where more people swim among the minnows.


In northeast Syria, civilians feel a mix of hope, relief and anxiety over the security situation

The return of services to Raqqa is progressing well, according to locals. However, one man said that Syria is not at peace.


“There’s no security. See all the planes in the sky?” said Ahmed, who declined to give his full name.


Ahmed insisted he would only speak about Syria in general, not Raqqa specifically. An SDF soldier accompanied MECRA to Raqqa – a requirement for media entering the city – and was beside Ahmed when he spoke. To Ahmed, as long as Syria is at war, nowhere will be safe.


In northeast Syria, civilians feel a mix of hope, relief and anxiety over the security situation and the future of the Autonomous Administration.


Qamishlo city. (Adam Lucente)


‘The most important thing is always security’


The SDF is a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Christian and Turkmen groups backed by the US to fight ISIS. The Kurdish paramilitary the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the dominant component of the alliance.


The SDF controls the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) – a self-governing region that the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad deals with, but does not recognize. Kurds call the area Rojava. Cities like Qamishlo and Hasakah in the Autonomous Administration are predominantly Kurdish with Christian minorities. However, the SDF controls many Arab-majority areas as well, like Raqqa and Deir Ezzour.

Operations by the SDF and the US-led international coalition to defeat ISIS ended in March. Violence has not ended, however. There were a string of bombings in Qamishlo and Hasakah in July, including one in Hasakah the day MECRA visited the city. SDF officials suspect ISIS is behind some, but they also blame Turkey and Assad.


The persistent incidents concern people in the area.


“The most important thing is always security,” said Ahmed Abd al-Salam.


Salam runs a juice bar in Naim Square. The place is full on weekdays and serves fruit smoothies, as well as the traditional choice tea. Water and electricity are improving in the city, according to him, but he fears the calm will not last.


“We want stability,” said Salam. “We’ve been suffering for eight years.”

Al-Salam has hopes that Syria will develop in the way Germany did after reunification following the Cold War.


“East Germany developed after a few years,” he said.


Asayish stop everyone at these checkpoints and often ask for their papers.

The SDF is not the military force of a state, but takes its security role seriously. There are checkpoints every few kilometers throughout its territory – more than in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq next door. It does not make a difference whether it is the capital Qamishlo or the full-of-ISIS al-Hol. Asayish stop everyone at these checkpoints and often ask for their papers. Kurds and foreign journalists are not immune to the checks. Most traffic passes through them quickly, though.



Al-Hol camp is home to many former ISIS supporters. (Adam Lucente)


The security threats differ by area. In Deir Ezzour, the last area to be liberated from ISIS rule, the group continues to carry out small attacks. On July 27, the Arabic-language news site Baladi News reported ISIS fighters killed seven SDF soldiers in Deir Ezzour. On August 4, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights attributed explosions in and near Hasakah to ISIS.


In Qamishlo and Hasakah, there are small bombings that the SDF blames on Turkey and the Assad government. The Assad government controls small pockets of these cities, particularly Christian areas, though some Christians also live in SDF neighborhoods. The government forces sit beneath Syrian flags and huge pictures of Assad and his late father Hafez, but do not cross into the SDF neighborhoods.


Many reports on the Al-Hol camp for ISIS families describe the situation as dire and a huge security threat. The camp is overcrowded and many inhabitants still support ISIS and fly its infamous black flag. Children are at risk of growing up to be radicalized if they are not rehabilitated. Some residents stab SDF forces there. The camp was divided into Iraqi, Syrian and foreign sections to prevent them fighting.


It is not an overly dangerous place, though. Journalists are allowed to tour the Iraqi section with one guard. A chain-link fence is all that separates the administrative offices of the camp from the main population. Some women now show their faces in the Iraqi section. There are tensions, but the SDF is in control.



A market in Raqqa (Adam Lucente)


Arab-Kurdish tensions


The SDF is accused of favoring Kurdish interests over Arab ones. The soldiers in the SDF in Arab areas are more likely to be Arab than in mostly Kurdish areas. In Raqqa, an Arab SDF fighter from Tel Abyad accompanied MECRA to the city. On the long road to Al-Hol, many of the Asayish, or security, checkpoints are manned by Arabs.


Even in Arab areas, though, the influence of Kurdish nationalism on the SDF is apparent. At the entrance to Al-Hol, an Arab town which hosts a camp of 70,000 ISIS families, there is a giant picture of Abdullah Ocalan.


Ocalan is the imprisoned founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group that has fought Turkey for decades for greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds. The YPG and its political component the Democratic Union Party (PYD) share Ocalan’s communalist ideology.


Turkey, as well as the US, considers the PKK a terrorist group. In part due to pressure from the US, the YPG denies any links with the PKK, but does not hide Ocalan’s influence on their governance. His picture is all over Hasakah and Autonomous Administration offices. His picture may have less relevance for Arabs in al-Hol, but is there nonetheless.

Major NGOs like Mercy Corps and ACTED have a presence in northeast Syria, like they do in Iraq. NGOs are part of the response in al-Hol, for example.


Houses along a desert road. (Adam Lucente)


Underdevelopment


The territory the SDF control remains underdeveloped, in part due to years of neglect by Damascus. It is a stark contrast to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory in Iraq. There, the main cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah are complete with luxury hotels, Western food chains, well-maintained parks, and gated housing complexes. This is especially so in Erbil.


Journalists enter KRG territory via Erbil International Airport, which connects to a highway. Journalists enter northeast Syria via a bus on a makeshift bridge, and then need to take a dirt road that connects to the road to Qamishlo.


Such development is not representative of Iraqi Kurdistan as a whole, but the KRG’s years of autonomy since the 1990s have allowed the territory to progress regarding infrastructure. The autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan is still new.


Major NGOs like Mercy Corps and ACTED have a presence in northeast Syria, like they do in Iraq. NGOs are part of the response in al-Hol, for example.


The products come from all of northeast Syria’s neighbors. There are Turkish snacks that come from Iraq. For SIM cards, people can buy a local one, one from Syria, or one from Turkey.



Young men enjoy a day in the water. (Adam Lucente)


‘Now there is freedom of expression’


Turkey continues to threaten to invade northeast Syria, seeing the YPG as an extension of the PKK on Syrian soil. The fact that Turkey’s NATO ally the US supports the YPG is a giant sore point for Ankara. The PKK is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Turkish civilians and soldiers, and a PKK-tied group across Turkey’s southern border presents obvious challenges for Turkey.


Faced with this possible Turkish invasion, many people from different communities in the Autonomous Administration support the political system under which they live.


Milad Ashur, from Qamishli, sold books on the history of the Syriac Christian community he is part of at the Qamishlo book fair in July. Such events are made possible by the relative security and autonomy in northeast Syria, according to him.


“Now there is freedom of expression,” said Ashur beside a Syriac-language bible he was selling. “Sotoro, Arabs, Asayish are all together.”


Sotoro are Christian paramilitary groups. Some are loyal to the Assad government, others to the SDF.


Ashur takes a more positive outlook the security situation than Salam in Raqqa. Security as a whole is better post-ISIS, and relates to cultural expression, according to him.


“There’s a lot of culture in this area,” he said. “When there is protection there is more.”

“When Daesh was finished, there became more internal protection,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.


Arifa Baker, from Afrin, sold books from authors from her city at the same fair. Afrin was previously controlled by the YPG, but in March 2018, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took the city, causing Baker and other Kurds to flee.


Such events cultural events are possible in the Autonomous Administration, but not in Turkish-controlled Syria, according to Baker.


“There are no expos like this in Afrin, it’s all Turkish,” she said. “They will cut your heads.”

The Kurdish nationalist YPG has had conflict with Syrian rebel groups, not only in Afrin, but in Aleppo as well. Baker, though preferring the days when the YPG controlled Afrin, is supportive of the Syrian revolution of 2011.


Regardless of the future in northeast Syria, she is happy the region gave autonomy a chance after the uprising.


“There’s democracy now,” she said. “In the days of Bashar, there was no freedom.”


Perwer Muhammad Ali contributed fixing and Kurdish-English translation to this report.

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