'Best bad option': Syria Kurds brace for regime return

Qamishli (Syria) (AFP) –


In Qamishli, the de-facto capital of Syria's embattled Kurdish minority, the future looks uncertain and shoppers at the market say they have no good options left.

"What scares me most is that nothing is clear. Nobody knows where this region is headed," said Saad Mohammad, a 35-year-old shopkeeper with a degree in Arabic literature.

Syria's Kurds have largely stayed out of their country's civil war since 2011, but set up their own institutions across almost a third of Syrian territory after regime forces redeployed to fight rebels and jihadists elsewhere.

That ended as a Turkish attack earlier this month forced them to seek the regime's protection, dashing their dreams of lasting autonomy.

A complex Russian-Turkish ceasefire deal struck last week has left Qamishli's Kurds uncertain about their future.

"Will the regime return? Will the Russians and Turks deploy? Or maybe the Americans will come back?" he said at his clothes shop in the city.

"I don't understand any of this."

For Mohammad and millions more, life in Kurdish-held parts of northeastern Syria, home to more than two million people, has changed dramatically in recent weeks.

The withdrawal of US forces from Syria's northern border, widely seen as a betrayal of Washington's erstwhile Kurdish allies.

"The US pullout had a big effect on us -- it made people sick with worry," said Mohammad.

The withdrawal allowed Ankara to capture 120 kilometres along the length of the frontier after a weeks-long cross-border invasion.

It also created conditions for the mass deployment of regime forces in northeast Syria for the first time in eight years.

- Regime return -

Three weeks ago, shops in Qamishli were closed and people hid in their houses as Turkey started pounding areas near the frontier.

The city's main marketplace has regained some of its usual bustle since Turkey reached a deal with Russia last week to halt the assault. Traffic has started to pick up and shops are open again.

A steady stream of customers peruse food stalls, sampling nuts put on display, as merchants stand outside their stores, inviting customers to enter.

But a few dozen metres from the market, Syrian flags flutter in the wind, near a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Turkish-Russian agreement stripped Kurdish forces of some of their key towns and cities, with regime forces taking on the task of ensuring the Kurds withdraw from the frontier.

"The return of the regime is a better bad option... than living under the rule of Turkish forces" and their proxies, Mohammad said.

Turkish-backed Syrian forces went on a rampage after taking the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin in 2018, pillaging shops and homes.

But Mohammad said he would still leave if regime troops deployed inside Qamishli, because he does not trust them either.

He said many of his friends had already sought refuge in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, for the same reason.

Syrian regime forces started a gradual withdrawal from Kurdish-controlled parts of Syria's northeast in 2012, maintaining a symbolic presence in the key cities of Hassakeh and Qamishli.

Their recent return to the area, which Kurdish officials say is strictly for military purposes and will not impact the status of their institutions, has nevertheless triggered anxiety among residents.

- 'I'm afraid' -

Hossam Ismail, who works in a jewelry shop even though he holds a law degree, said he was counting on the Kurdish administration, not the international community, to keep Damascus in check.

"I'm wanted for mandatory military conscription so, of course, I'm afraid," he said.

"But I'm sure the Kurdish administration will find solutions and compromises that will prevent the regime from returning to its pre-war status."

Jano Shaker, 37, agreed.

"I don't think the regime can return with the same arrogance," he said.

"Today, in 2019, the Kurdish issue is a global one."

In 2014, the journalist escaped the Damascus region, where he had taken part in anti-regime demonstrations. He settled in Qamishli, far from the reach of President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

"The return of the regime poses a threat to people like me who have gained a margin of freedom in areas controlled by the Kurdish administration," Shaker told AFP from his house in Qamishli.

But he added that even if regime troops returned, he would stay in Qamishli.

"How can I leave my people at times like these?"