- - Thursday, April 12, 2018

QAMISHLI, Syria — The complexities of Syria’s 7-year-old civil war are playing out in the odd, uneasy peace that reigns in this northeastern town on the Turkish border after forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and U.S.-allied Kurdish militia fighters struck a truce deal.

Each group holds an area but allows civilians to pass unmolested from one side to the other. Qamishli exists for now in a kind of political purgatory, but for many, it beats the alternative.

Qamishli sits 180 miles east of the Euphrates River outside the zone where the Turkish army has been fighting Syrian Kurdish groups since January, claiming they have links to a militant Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey.

“Sometimes Turkey attacks and bombs the area beyond the border, but people in Qamishli and the whole area around us are living their normal lives without any fears,” said Bahram Zaradesht, the head of the political department for the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The SDF is a U.S.-supported army of Kurds and Arab fighters hostile to the Assad regime. Working with some 2,000 U.S. troops inside Syria, the SDF was a critical element in the coalition that reclaimed large swaths of territory from the Islamic State terrorist group. Its members say they reject the militant Islamism that Turkey has supported among other Sunni Muslim rebels.

The SDF claims to have 80,000 fighters in Rojava, a self-proclaimed autonomous region in northern Syria where the Damascus government maintains a sparse presence.

It’s not clear if all those soldiers are willing to fight. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has accused the SDF of arbitrarily arresting hundreds of civilians and forcing them into the army to fight the Islamic State.

Still, with the help of American, French and British troops, the SDF has largely driven out jihadis affiliated with the Islamic State in the region.

But SDF advances in the Islamic State’s largest remaining bastion in Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria slowed last month after Kurdish members of the group left the front lines to redeploy west to the Afrin area to fight an invading Turkish force.

The Turkish and Kurdish forces — with U.S. troops squarely in the path of the advancing Turks — are clashing as President Trump weighs a punitive strike against the Assad regime over a suspected chemical weapons attack on rebel positions near Damascus. The strike may put personnel from Mr. Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies in danger as well.

Bustling marketplace

With so many geopolitical currents swirling around it, the placid atmosphere in Qamishli is even more remarkable. In the town’s central marketplace — where the SDF and pro-Assad government forces share jurisdiction, merchants and customers — are more concerned about the fluctuating value of the Syrian pound, or SYP. Merchants regularly use American dollars and other foreign currencies in their day-to-day transactions because of the instability of the domestic currency.

“It’s a basic fact of life here that what people eat for dinner depends on the dollar-to-pound rate,” said Abdullah Amin, a currency shop owner. “When the government advanced last week and the dollar went down, people bought more food.”

The local economy is directly tied to global events. The SYP reached 415 to the U.S. dollar before President Trump’s announcement this week that missiles “will be coming” to hit Mr. Assad’s military assets in response to Saturday’s suspected chemical attack on Douma, a rebel-held Damascus suburb.

The stronger Syrian currency reflected confidence in Mr. Assad’s regime, even if it took the suspected use of weapons of mass destruction to inspire that confidence. By midweek, after Mr. Trump at least temporarily put the attack on hold, the Syrian currency fell and the cost of food rose again in the Qamishli marketplace.

Qamishli residents don’t welcome a strike by the U.S. and its allies. They have been enjoying their political autonomy and emergence as a trading center with access to goods from Turkey and Iraq and customers throughout Syria.

“In general, we can secure our needs from Turkey, the Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq and government-held parts of Syria,” said Zakaria Wiso, a 29-year-old grocer. “We still have to pay for customs duties at borders and bribes at Free Syrian Army checkpoints, so prices for food stay expensive and customers focus more on their basic needs.”

Still, Qamishli’s experiment in power-sharing and self-defense has drawn respect in Western capitals that are desperate to see any sign that Syria’s feuding factions are capable of forging a better future for themselves.

Last week, a group of British parliamentarians visited the city and called for U.S. and European support for its people.

“We’re here for a long-term relationship with you, where we can support you against all the people who are trying to destroy your liberty,” said Maurice Glasman, a Labor Party peer in the House of Lords. “We would like the U.S. and British troops to be in Manbij and to stop the attack of Turkey on Rojava.”

Manbij is a key crossroads town in northern Syria where U.S. special operations forces have dug in and which Turkey has targeted directly in its offensive.

Local leaders could not have been more pleased with the attention.

“We are the owners of a project aimed from the beginning to solve political and social issues by calling for a parliamentary and federal system for the whole of Syria,” said Suliman Hami Khalil, the 34-year-old deputy administrator for the Qamishli area. “Compared to other areas in Syria, we can say the people here are living with a better level of security and the situation is better than before.”

On Sunday, the Assyrian Christian community celebrated Easter.

While no longer the majority in the city, the Assyrian churches and their schools have taken advantage of the diminishing power of the Assad regime and the rise of a certain level of multiculturalism under the SDF to hold classes in Aramaic, the community’s language and the same tongue spoken in the Holy Land during the lifetime of Jesus.

“People come to Mass to hear the language of Christ and to pray for peace in the region,” said Pierre Gaurie, a 51-year-old parishioner at St. George’s Church just a few steps from the market. “Here we live beside each other like brothers. My message to those international countries who are supporting the war here — stop supporting the war and start supporting the peace. It’s a better choice.”

Jacob Wirtschafter reported from Cairo.


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