Early this week, a car bomb detonated near a paramilitary building in a Kurdish-majority village in northeast Hassekeh province. It was the latest in a string of such bombs exploded there by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the extremist group trying to infiltrate the Kurdish stronghold patrolled by both Kurdish militant forces and the Syrian government.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, comprising more than 10 percent of the total population. Many live in and around Qamishli, Hassekeh's largest city. In recent months, forces from the YPG (the official armed wing of the Kurdish Supreme Committee) and PYD (terrorist-affiliated Kurdish Democratic Union Party) have been cooperating with fighters from the government-sponsored National Defense Force (NDF) to hold off encroaching extremists.
Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, an expert on Syrian Kurds and the Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at Middle East Forum, weighs in on the state of the battle for Qamishli.
Syria Deeply: What have been the recent big developments in Qamishli?
Aymenn J. al-Tamimi: The most recent thing is the series of suicide bombings that ISIS has dropped into Qamishli, targeting the YPD and the Syrian government's National Defense Force. That is quite similar to what they've done in various parts of Iraq, like in some towns of Anbar (e.g. Rawa). They send in a wave of suicide bombings and try to launch a new offensive.
SD: What does the situation on the ground look like today?
AJA: The fighting over past few months is quite erratic, with new fronts and offensives regularly announced, but the overall orientation of the groups on the offensive is salafist and jihadist: ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ansar al-Khilafa and Ahrar al-Sham. It includes some fighters who've come from Aleppo. That's the offense.
On the defense, you have the YPG and the PYD, Kurdish militias and the NDF. In terms of the relationship between the Kurds and the government, in the city of Qamishli itself it's pretty nebulous. The PYD increased its control over the summer. I would say roughly 80 percent is under their control, while 20 percent is under regime control via the NDF.
The relationship is nebulous because while it's probably true that they cooperate to prevent rebel fighters from coming into Qamishli, there's also some recent tension over an American journalist whom the NDF wanted to detain but whose release ended up being negotiated by the YPG.
SD: Are there any other minority factions operating here?
AJA: There is a Syriac Christian militia called the Sootoro. They started in a town north of Qamishli (al-Qahtaniya), after regime forces withdrew from that town and people linked to the Syriac Union felt the need to start their own defense group. Then they spread to al-Malikiya and Qamishli. Now the movement is split: a pro-regime chapter took it over in Qamishli city, because many of them feel that the NDF and the regime are still the best option to defend them, but there are other militias calling themselves Sootoro elsewhere that are still affiliated with the anti-government Syriac Union Party.
SD: Is this the best example of a battle where the regime and and a non-regime group are collaborating?
AJA: It's cooperation and pragmatism on the part of the PYD rather than "liking" the regime, but yes, they probably do work together to stop suicide bombers. And there's the Sootoro component, who work with the regime and the PYD. They go to funerals of PYD fighters, they've done training with them, but they wave the Syrian government flag and they do see the regime as the protector of their interest.
It's like the Druze militias in southern Syria where the regime appeals to them as their viable protector by cooperation with the Syrian army through the Popular Committees.
SD: What do you anticipate in the next few months?
AJA: I don't see too much of a change happening. I think ISIS will keep trying to fight the PYD. The problem for rebel groups here is that these aren't areas where there is a constituency they can reach out to. The regime and the PYD have more appeal than ISIS or Ahrar al-Sham, and Arab Muslims are in the minority in the Qamishli area.
SD: How is civilian life in Qamishli?
AJA: Life is pretty much going on there as normal. The main problem right now is suicide bombings attacking PYD and regime forces. Other than that there's a feeling of normality. You'd have to go out into the countryside to find active fronts.
I don't think the PYD and NDF will dislodge ISIS completely. If they did dislodge ISIS, they might turn on each other, because of course the regime's goal is to reassert control over the whole country.