AL-HASAKAH — On the large roundabout that marks one of the entrances into Al-Hasakah, in northeastern Syria, the Kurdish red, green and yellow colors have recently replaced those of the Syrian flag. On the monument in the center, portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been painted over with emblems of the People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the two branches of the Syrian Kurdish military forces.
Trenches are dug directly into the main roads and sand bags pile high here, for the balance seems to always shift in this city that is quite literally at the crossroads of the civil war that has engulfed this country for four years.
Gathering in the middle of the road, local residents form a group around a stationary minibus that belongs to the Asayish, or Kurdish security forces. Into the open side door, young men pass their identity papers. The less fortunate, those who don’t have the right papers, will be recruited for military service in the YPG. A few streets away, in another neighborhood and at another checkpoint, they could have been forced into the Assad regime’s army. But here, on this road, the Kurds now make the rules, controlling civilian vehicles that enter and exit the city.
Taken over by the Kurds at the end of January, the traffic circle is seen as a war trophy. With a slight smile on his face, “comrade Ahmet,” an officer of the Kurdish security forces, remembers this brief moment of military glory. “Bashar’s forces attacked us from the north but our sharpshooters managed to push them back quite easily from the top of the silos.”
In al-Hasakah — Photo: Cengiz Yar Jr./ZUMA
At the time of the January clashes, the Syrian army deployed tanks in several parts of the city, and entire neighborhoods were turned into war zones. But the regime and the Kurdish forces managed to negotiate a peace agreement and seem to have recovered the delicate coexistence that has marked their relations in this zone for almost three years. Yet tensions haven't stilled here, where Kurds and Arabs have vowed a lasting hatred of one another and where a once-abundant Christian community is slowly vanishing.
While so-called attrition warfare between Kurdish forces and ISIS jihadists is taking root in the devastated countryside around Al-Hasakah, Kurdish targets are hit by bombings. The deadliest attack happened on March 20, 2014, during Kurdish New Year celebrations, killing 35 people.
The confrontation between the Kurdish forces, the regime and ISIS, however, doesn’t diminish the complexity of the city's power struggles. "Here, the Kurds no longer have problems with the regime soldiers," comrade Ahmet explains. "They can come and go as they want. On the other hand, we never let the Arab militias approach our positions."
In Al-Hasakah, as in every place where Damascus has managed to maintain influence, the Syrian regime has been able to rely on local potentates, terror contractors maneuvering at the crossroads of paramilitary order, militia tribalism and local banditry. Divided into a multitude of more or less official entities, they are reportedly supervised and trained by members of the Iranian armed forces and Hezbollah. In the abandoned streets of Al-Hasakah, with the Kurdish heads, they have been engaging in a battle of influence, in which, from isolated shootings to abductions with ransoms, the regional geopolitics revolves around gang wars.
Leaving al-Hasakah — Photo: Cengiz Yar Jr./ZUMA
“The regime knows exactly how to use them against each other and make the most out of the situation to maintain itself,” explains an Al-Hasakah resident involved in the local political game.
Masters of chaos
“I don’t think the regime has the intention of frontally attacking the Kurds, but in Al-Hasakah, if it continues, clashes can resume at any moment,” says Redur Khalil, the spokesperson of the YPG-YPJ. Unparalleled masters of chaos, the Syrian authorities are indeed well-advised to maintain a certain level of violence to a backdrop of ancient rivalries between Kurds and Arabs. Second-rank citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic before the revolution, the Kurds now have an army and a police force, armed men in uniforms that will be able to be the instrument of revenge. Certain Arab families turn to the Syrian state, the only guarantor of their historical supremacy, some having been set in the region during the Arabization campaigns in the 1970s.
As the sun sets on the roundabout, there are fewer cars and an old Arab man dressed in Bedouin clothes has come to find the Kurdish security, along with two young men from his family. After saluting them briefly in Kurdish, he asks for his son, who was enrolled by the Asayish the same day at this checkpoint. In an atmosphere thickened by decades of resentment, he waits, then fills in an unclear administrative document before he’s asked to leave. It's just another moment of suffering and frustration in a city where arbitrariness hasn’t changed sides, but has simply become democratized.