War in Syria

On the Syrian front line: Accounts from both sides of the Turkish offensive

The withdrawal of US troops has seen the conflict in Syria take a fresh turn. EL PAÍS correspondents in Qamishli and Ceylanpınar explain the effect on the ground

Syrian government forces arrive this Tuesday in Tal Tamr, near Ras al Ain.
Syrian government forces arrive this Tuesday in Tal Tamr, near Ras al Ain.DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP

The withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria has once again stirred up a conflict that directly affects the balance of power in the Middle East. In this article, EL PAÍS reports from both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border on the impact of the new alliances: in the city of Qamishli, inhabited by Kurds, Arabs, Muslims and Christians, who are suffering bombing by Erdogan’s forces while they face the risks of the pact with Damascus; and also in Ceylanpınar, one of the Turkish cities where residents, alarmed by the conflict in neighboring Syria, have fled.

Trapped between Turkey and al-Assad

Natalia Sancha, Qamishli (Syria)

Panic, relief, then uncertainty again; this is the terrifying emotional roller coaster being experienced by the residents of Qamishli, a city in the northeast of Syria that is inhabited by both Muslims and Christians – Arabs and Kurds. It lies on the border with Turkey, whose armed forces have launched an offensive in order to take control of a significant slice of Syrian territory. After the mass exodus triggered by the Turkish bombing, the city has returned to partial normality.

The pact that was made on October 13 between the Kurdish authorities who have controlled this area in northern Syria for years and Bashar al-Assad in response to the Turkish offensive has shifted not only the military balance, but also the political perspective and the feelings of both civilians and members of the armed forces here.

The Kurds protected us from ISIS. The regime can defend us from the Turks. All we want is safety and bread

Teacher Anahida Bedrus

Adding to the religious and ethnic mix, al-Assad’s forces and the Kurdish-led forces are now living side-by-side. Around Qamishli’s streets, one checkpoint is controlled by soldiers from al-Assad’s army, the next by Kurds.

“Whoever marries our mother will be our father,” says Anahida Bedrus, a teacher of Armenian origin. It is a view shared by many locals, although the pact made with al-Assad has been received with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Bedrus speaks with tears in her eyes outside her house, which was leveled by a Turkish shell three days ago. On the blackened tarmac she indicates the place where she saw her Muslim neighbor Abu Khaled die with his head blown apart. Close by, her Christian neighbor Julia was seriously injured by shrapnel. “The Kurds protected us from ISIS,” says Bedrus. “The regime can defend us from the Turks. All we want is safety and bread.”

Shaken by the bombs and shells landing scarcely four kilometers away from the border with Turkey over the last few days, thousands of locals have fled Qamishli for the center of the country to escape the Turkish artillery. More than 160,000 people have been displaced in northern Syria in less than a week. The streets are empty, stores have pulled down their shutters and those who have stayed have packed all their valuables, documents and money ready for a swift departure in the event of an advance of pro-Turkish troops who are coming in from the west. The chaos has been a boon for ISIS, which has lost no time in planting multiple car and motorbike bombings and whose jailed members have broken free.

It’s been scarcely 24 hours since the shopkeepers have opened their shutters again ready for business. Hundreds of locals have returned to their homes, at least those who were relieved by the news of an agreement between the Kurdish militias and the Syrian government.

The city reflects the tremendous complexity of the Syrian conflict with its different religious persuasions, ethnicities and factions.

The Christian district of Wusat is still celebrating the eventual return of the entire city to the central government. “We have always supported the military and Bashar here,” says the owner of a store whose window has a picture of the president in military attire and dark glasses. “There were never any demonstrations and protests.”

 What about those of us who joined the protests against the regime? What will happen to us?

Abu Mohamed, 36

In Qamishli’s central market, however, the Kurdish and Arabic traders appear less convinced. After five years living under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) that is run by both Kurdish and Arabic civilians, a return to the pre-war central government feels impossible. “The deal says that the army will keep a presence along the border because it is responsible for the security of the country, but that it won’t take control of the internal administration of the cities,” says one of the men in the group that has gathered. In the middle of the talks between the Kurds and Damascus, the small print is a determining factor in the residents’ approval.

“Everything depends on the concessions,” says Masud Musa, a 45-year-old laborer. “We have to share the economy’s profits, such as those from the oil, but not the security of the streets.”

Meanwhile, 36-year-old Abu Mohamed has a question: “And what about those of us who joined the protests against the regime? What will happen to us?” He believes that if the central government has the run of the city, many young people will leave for Europe, Iraq or Lebanon.

“If we had to choose between the Americans stopping the Turks and al-Assad, we would stick with al-Assad,” says a store owner who, paradoxically, admits that 80% of his products come from Turkey.

On the streets of northern Syria, many seem to paraphrase Mazkoum Abdi, the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an alliance under Kurdish control that fought alongside the international coalition against ISIS. Mazkoum Abdi was in charge of announcing the pact with Damascus on October 14 and summed up the decision with the words: “If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we choose our people.”

It is precisely the details of the “compromise” that are of concern to those least in favor of it. “If they ask me to hand my arms over to soldiers from the regime, I won’t,” says a member of the Kurdish-led forces who holds his Kalashnikov tightly at a checkpoint. “I have fought on many fronts and there have been many martyrs; their blood cannot have been spilled in vain,” he adds, explaining that if it weren’t for their weapons, the Kurds would still be oppressed by the central government.

Like his leaders, this soldier reiterates that he is not seeking independence but autonomy, and a coalition between local and central government. As far as these fighters are concerned, the pact with Damascus is a defeat, but a less bitter one than the Turkish bombardment.

For them, the best scenario would, in the current circumstances, be to replicate what Damascus has done in other cities with Christian and Druze minorities whereby local forces take charge of internal security while Damascus controls the administration.

“This is Syria,” says a soldier from al-Assad’s army. “Of course we are going to regain control, including control of the cities. We are fighting in Manbij against the Turks but after that we will have to recover control of the whole country.”

As 25% of national territory is under Kurdish control, al-Assad would indeed preside over almost the entire country again.

During the eight-and-a-half years of war, Qamishli remained largely divorced from the conflict. It even thrived, with previously non-existent universities and hospitals springing up. Until now, a tacit non-confrontational agreement has allowed all pro-Assad civilians access to the Qamishli airport as well as those who are pro-Kurdish. This is where the weapons for al-Assad’s soldiers are being brought in; it is also where Kurdish students fly from to do their exams in Damascus along with cancer patients who need treatment in the capital’s public hospitals.

“We are concerned that soldiers from the regime and the Kurdish militias who are against the agreement end up triggering a war,” a high-standing Kurdish intelligence official explains. “It’s a very volatile and delicate situation.”

In the center of Qamishli, trucks loaded with militiamen move through checkpoints under regular army and Kurdish control without incident. But an altercation a year back ended in an exchange of fire and 18 dead.

The wounds are still raw in a country where even internet connections are named after martyrs. The Kurdish-led forces have lost 11,000 fighters in the last five years against Islamic State. Meanwhile, al-Assad’s army has lost more than 100,000 in the eight-and-a-half years of civil war. But despite all the fears, on October 15, soldiers loyal to Damascus and Kurdish militiamen fought side-by-side against the Turkish forces and its allied local militias. In Qamishli, each side kept their positions and along the city’s main street, the poster of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan could still be seen facing a poster of Bashar al-Assad, protected by fighters loyal to both.

The offensive that is emptying the Turkish border towns

Andrés Mourenza, Ceylanpınar

The park in Ceylanpınar, on southeastern Turkey’s border with Syria, offers a strange perspective on the war. The benches are varnished, the lawns are green and the cement is clean. But the place is deserted. There are no men, women or children – no old people even on a pleasant afternoon with a temperature of 25ºC. In the distance is the sound of shelling and gunfire; the fighting is scarcely a kilometer away on the other side of the border in Syria.

Most of Ceylanpınar’s 87,000 inhabitants have left the city for nearby towns and just a handful of stores remain open. The smaller streets are empty, the only activity being on the main avenue that is lined with posters declaring hopes of “Victory” for the Turkish troops – “For the security of our fatherland and the peace of our nation.”

In one of the grocery stores, a woman with several children asks the owner to give them credit for their goods. He agrees, resigned, in the same way he appears resigned to the war on his doorstep. “It’s been like this for a week, the distributors are not coming and we are starting to run out of products,” he says.

From a hill on the outskirts of Ceylanpınar, the Syrian side can be clearly seen with a number of columns of smoke rising from the center of Ras al-Ain. A shell from Syria traces an arc and falls 300 meters to the east of the hill. Its proximity to the town explains why the people here have left. Since the start of the offensive against the Kurdish-led forces, more than 700 rockets and missiles have been fired into Turkish territory – dozens hitting Ceylanpınar itself – killing 20 civilians and injuring more than 150, according to government sources in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

A hundred years ago, the current border between Turkey and Syria was in fact the Ottoman railway line to Baghdad. In 1921, after the First World War, Paris agreed with Ankara that Syria, a French protectorate, would have its border here and everything to the north of it would be Turkish territory. But the towns on both sides of the border stretch in tandem, as if the railway track were still here. And a huge number of displaced persons has triggered a border conflict.

The Turkish offensive has targeted the Syrian side of the border that runs parallel to the 120-kilometer stretch from Ceylanpınar west to Akçakale. Only a recently constructed cement wall suggests the harvested fields are in another country. On the Turkish side, youngsters look after flocks of sheep and women in colored headscarves pick cotton while military vehicles trundle unrelentingly down the highway. On the Syrian side, there are more columns of smoke, indicating the targets of Turkey’s air strikes.

The local press reports that Turkish forces have advanced 35 kilometers into Syrian territory. Until Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the US Vice-President Mike Pence agreed a cease-fire on October 17, the offensive looked set for the long haul. Both US sanctions against various members of the Turkish government and the freezing of arms imports, agreed upon by a number of European countries, had failed to influence Ankara. “Turkey will continue its anti-terrorist operation in Syria until all its objectives are reached,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in response.

Now, however, it looks as though a 120-hour respite will allow Kurdish-led forces to withdraw from a large swathe of territory close to the Turkish border, which is being called a buffer zone by the Turkish side.

There is a strong military presence in the city of Akçakale. During the last week it experienced the same fate as Ceylanpınar. But gradually, as the Turkish army gained increasing control of its neighbors over the border in Tel Abyad, Akçakale returned to normality. Many of its businesses began to open despite the noise of Turkish gunfire further south and the occasional explosion. “They are explosives or mines left by the terrorists that we are detonating; the cleanup in Tel Abyad is still in progress,” explains an official from Turkey’s armed forces.

“Last Friday was hard in Akçakale. It was hit by seven shells. Thank God, five of them did not explode. The other two did and one killed two people,” says Mustafa who runs a diner. “A lot of people left because they were scared but we stayed open because we are supporting our army,” he added with a military salute.

When a convoy of pro-Ankara militias in tanks and vehicles drive by, a group of locals wave a Turkish flag in a sign of respect.

The support for the Turkish offensive in this city is evident wherever you look, though of course opposing the assault carries a certain amount of risk; more than 500 people have been investigated and 100 imprisoned for venturing criticism.

But there is an additional reason for the support: when it comes to the communities living along the border, everyone has an uncle or cousin on the other side and, though the war has disrupted communication to a large extent, family ties are still strong. When the Kurdish-led forces took Tel Abyad from ISIS in 2015, part of the Arab population crossed the border to take refuge in the homes of their relatives. Now these refugees are hoping that Turkey will liberate Tel Abyad so they can return home. The civil war in Syria has not been helped by Turkey’s invasion, which has only served to put the ethnic balance in danger.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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