What is behind tension between “Kurdish-led NES” and Syrian regime in Qamishli?

Young men participating in a rally in support of the Syrian regime in Qamishli - December 2018 (AFP)

Young men participating in a rally in support of the Syrian regime in Qamishli - December 2018 (AFP)


Over the past two months, there have been numerous indications of growing tension between the two governing sides of al-Hasakeha province; the Syrian regime and the Kurdish-led “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES),” taking into accounts that the latter is responsible for broader governance of larger areas in the province.

These tensions varied between statements issued by the NES, accusing the Syrian regime of trying to spread the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in north-eastern Syria, up to fighting between the two sides in Qamishli. 

In the face of this problematic reality, questions arise about the two sides’ underlying motives for these tensions and about the fate of the region in case the situation gets worse, and the armed confrontations continue in the region. 

Coronavirus lights fuse 

In the first week of April, the “health authority” of the Kurdish-led NES stated that the government of the Syrian regime would be responsible for any coronavirus cases in north-eastern Syria. 

In an official statement, the “health authority” blamed the government of the Syrian regime for the occurrence of cases of COVID-19  because the Syrian regime showed “indiscretion” and failure to adhere to the rules and procedures for the prevention and control of infection; the Syrian regime kept sending flights to the NES-held areas without testing suspected passengers for the virus.

Bedir Mulla Rashid, an analyst, working on Kurdish affairs at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, believes that tension pertaining to the charges of spreading the coronavirus against the Syrian regime by the NES can be included within several frameworks. First, the administration stressed that the Syrian regime has not cooperated with the administration to implement certain measures to fight the spread of the coronavirus around the country; the regime did not suspend the passenger flights between Damascus and Qamishli.

Besides, the regime facilitated the movement of many travelers to enter Qamishli without going through the checkpoints of the Asayish Security Forces ( the security arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the area, Mulla Rashid said. 

In an interview with Enab Baladi, Mulla Rashid said the behavior of the Syrian regime is met by the NES’s efforts to send a clear message to the people of the north-eastern region that the Kurdish administration is in the process of facing the potential spread of the coronavirus and to emphasize that it is the actual authority in the region.

The US-baked NES closed all crossings with the Syrian regime-controlled areas, except for the Qamishli Airport, as preventive measures to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus into its areas of control.

The head of the Executive Board of the “Syrian Democratic Council,” Ilham Ahmed, previously voiced harsh criticism of the Syrian regime for its poor measures to prevent the coronavirus pandemic. She confirmed that the Syrian regime did not show coordination with the “health authority” in the region;  the regime did not halt passenger traffic between Damascus and Qamishli. Furthermore, the Syrian regime did not respond adequately to take measures to detect suspected COVID-19 passengers and quarantine them to protect the area from the outbreak of the virus.

The NES announced the first death from COVID-19 on 17 April, in the hospital that is operated by the Syrian regime. However, the Health Ministry of the Syrian regime’s government responded to the announcement indirectly by saying that all coronavirus confirmed cases and deaths were recorded in the provinces of Damascus and Rif-Dimashq.

This conflict has gone beyond the two local agents, the Russian-supported Syrian regime and the US-backed NES, when Maria Zakharova Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson said: “We receive reports of explosive coronavirus infection spread among the US servicemen [in north-eastern Syria] and of these facts being kept mum on.”

Zakharova underscored that Washington holds full responsibility for the safety and welfare of the civilian population, Russia’s state news agency, ITAR-TASS, quoted. 

Dispute over control

In addition to the political statements that accuse the Syrian regime of neglecting measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in al-Hasakeha province, the city of Qamishli is experiencing clashes between the Kurdish Security Forces “Asayish” and the “National Defense Forces NDF – a pro-government militiainterspersed with explosions targeting the headquarters of the two sides, by unknown persons.

These confrontations are not new as the two parties have a long history of bloody confrontations, which led to the death of dozens of them. But what distinguishes these confrontations now is their synchronization with the COVID-19 pandemic and the intense presence of the Russian forces in north-eastern Syria, which are now playing the role of policeman between the two sides.

The researcher Mulla Rashid explained that the cities of Qamishli and al-Hasakeha have seen several confrontations between the pro-government militia of the NDF and the Kurdish “Asayish” forces, and sometimes the People’s Protection Units, the backbone of “the Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) have to intervene in clashes.

He pointed out that “Asayish” took control of the city of al-Hasakeha after a prolonged conflict with the regime, referring to what happened in July 2016, when the regime forces established control of the College of Arts, the Children’s Hospital, and Iyad al-Fihri  School near al-Nashwa neighborhood in the city of al-Hasakeha. These clashes subsided a few days later when the regime withdrew from these locations.

As for Qamishli, Mulla Rashid pointed out that the Tayy neighborhood in the city still represents a point of tension between “Asayish” and the regime. 

The NES today cannot make the same confrontation as it did in the city of al-Hasakeh, due to several reasons. First of all, the regime has the power in the area; there are many supporters of the regime and the NDF militia in the southern countryside of Qamishli.  

In addition to that, the city depends on the government of the Syrian regime in the administration of many of its official departments.

The Russians act as the policeman .. What do they want?

It was remarkable in every recent tension between the “NDF” militia and “Asayish” that the Russian forces were rushing to resolve the dispute. The Russian forces in Qamishli seem to be concerned about any dispute that leads to the outbreak of the situation that may evolve into open confrontations.

Regarding the expanding Russian role in north-eastern Syria, Mulla Rashid said that we are facing competition between the Russian and Iranian sides to prove their effectiveness among the pro-regime tribes in the region.

He elaborated that Moscow tried to form military forces by recruiting young people in the region, especially the Kurds, at first, but it failed.

 Moscow will now try to increase its pressure on the International Coalition Forces (ICF) and Washington in the region by increasing its support for tribes and clans because it sees the regime unable to make greater use of them.

 In addition, Moscow is seeking to reduce Iran’s chances of achieving something similar to what it did in Deir Ezzor and parts of the Aleppo countryside.

In previous reports, Enab Baladi has monitored accelerated Russian moves in the countryside of al-Hasakeha. The Russians are trying to get closer to the Arab tribes, and even the Kurdish ones in north-eastern Syria.

Russia is taking advantage of its presence imposed in the region as a result of an agreement with Turkey, on 22 October 2019, which led to the cessation of Turkey’s Operation “Spring of Peace” against the “Kurdish People’s Protection Units,” in the east of the Euphrates.

In the last period, the officers of the Russian armed forces held meetings with the elders and dignitaries of the tribes and clans in al-Hasakeha countryside in an attempt to permeate into society at large there. Besides, the Russians at the end of last March brought in dozens of soldiers and military vehicles.

Two weeks ago, Russia sent a military convoy of more than 50 military trucks, tanks, and troop carriers which set off from the town of Ain Issa in rural Raqqa, passing by the town of Tel Tamer in rural al-Hasakeha, reaching to the city of Qamishli via the “M4” international highway.

Russia has also reinforced its presence near the Qamishli Airport, where there are about 200 Russian soldiers, dozens of armored vehicles, and tanks as well as six helicopters. The Russian officers also take villas near the airport as headquarters, after they took over them, according to Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu.

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