I Took a Road Trip Through Syria — And This is What I Saw

September 23, 2019Kevin Knodell
Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

I almost ignored the explosion at first. Loud noises weren’t unusual here in Qamishli, and I’d already heard jackhammers that could have been mistaken for gunfire throughout the day. Maybe I shouldn’t ignore that one, I thought. I got up from the laptop where I was sorting photos and went out onto my balcony. I saw a plume of smoke rising a few blocks away.

That’s definitely a bomb. A few Syrian friends texted me, confirming that it was indeed a bomb, and it went off in a regime-controlled area outside a church. One warns me to stay inside. I relayed the warning to colleagues who I knew would be returning to the city soon.

The city of Qamishli is a unique microcosm of the war that has gripped Syria for years. A border town just south of Turkey, it’s home to a diverse mix of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians. It’s controlled both by forces loyal to the Baathist regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and members of the Kurdish-led (and U.S.-backed) Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have carved up the city and maintain a (very) uneasy truce.

Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

I heard sirens as local authorities responded. The market below me turned into a ghost town as people got off the street. Everyone waited to see if there was going to be another blast or if gunfire was about to break out. Qamishli could explode into fighting at any minute.

But it didn’t.

After 20 minutes, people returned to the street and continued about their business. If Syrians put their lives on hold every time something blew up, they wouldn’t have any life at all. They have no choice but to be resilient. 

Hungry, I followed their lead. I walked about a block to a burger and chicken joint I’d seen a few days prior and asked for a cheeseburger and fries. I reasoned that if I didn’t, if I just stayed inside, I was letting the terrorists and dictators of the world win.

And I sure as fuck wasn’t going to let the terrorists win.

Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

The Syrian Revolution started as a nonviolent call for democracy in 2011, part of the Arab Spring, until Assad ordered security forces to open fire on demonstrators, kicking off the Syrian Civil War. Since then, it has become a sprawling web of interconnected conflicts involving Syrian Arab rebels, jihadists from around the globe, Iran, Russia, Turkey, the U.S.-led coalition, the SDF, and a variety of other players with their own agendas.

In December 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump declared ISIS defeated and announced the United States would withdraw all troops and diplomats from Syria. Both pronouncements turned out to be premature. Shortly after he declared victory, an explosion killed four Americans in Manbij as they hunted for ISIS sleeper cells, and it wasn’t until March that SDF forces officially seized the last major ISIS stronghold in Baghouz. 

After the Battle of Baghouz wrapped up, much of the media that had descended on the town to grab theatrical video and photos of the fighting left. But ISIS cells remain scattered throughout the country to this day, and the SDF has thousands of ISIS prisoners in its custody that it still can’t figure out what to do with. While pitched battles may no longer be a fact of daily life, the war isn’t over.

Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

When Trump announced that he intended for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Turkish military and forces loyal to Assad began massing on the borders of territory held by the SDF. Both locals and SDF leaders allege that they have been waging a shadow war in northeast Syria by coordinating bombings and arson attacks, even as ISIS makes an effort at a comeback.

Coffee or Die sent me to Syria to examine the state of play in Northeast Syria. It’s where American troops and their local allies fought and continue to fight against ISIS. The war in Syria isn’t over. It has entered a complicated new phase that’s as complex — and perilous — as ever.

Crossing the border into Syria at Faysh Khabur, Iraq, is an odd experience. East of the river is the Kurdish Region of Iraq; to the west is the Democratic Federation of Northeast Syria. The officials on either side represent regions that aren’t internationally recognized as independent countries. Turkish forces have shelled the crossing before, leading to occasional closings, but currently you can cross the border by taking a shuttle bus across a pontoon bridge.

Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

On the other side I meet my fixer, Ali. He’s a last-minute contact referred by my original fixer, who had to back out at the last minute due to a family emergency. I’d been in contact with my original team for months but had only been talking to Ali for a few days. I secretly hoped that he wouldn’t leave me dead in the desert. After wrangling with local authorities, we hit the road. Ali sets the music, leading with Johnny Cash. 

“We’re going to get along just fine,” I told him.

We drive through miles and miles of oil fields, watching as oil derricks pump crude out of the ground. Ali tells me he lived in the mountain town of Afrin until Turkish troops invaded it, speaking longingly of the mountains there. “I guess America can defend this place because of the oil, but they just didn’t care about Afrin,” he tells me with palpable bitterness. It’s not directed at me personally, that much is clear. But the prospect of an American withdrawal has many people in Northeast Syria — Kurds especially — apprehensive about the future.

Burning farm in Northeast Syria. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Eventually the oil fields gave way to wheat fields. As we drove, a towering plume of smoke became visible. There had been smoke in the oil fields before, but this was different. I immediately recognized it as a crop fire. Local people looked at the huge blaze while others tried — largely in vain — to fight the fire with rakes and shovels. Locals tell us that the fire was started by a Turkish military checkpoint along the border.

We eventually make it into Qamishli. As we drive through the SDF-controlled parts of the city, we see hundreds of portraits of fallen SDF fighters along the streets and hanging from the doors of homes. It’s a sobering reminder of the heavy toll the war has taken on the people of the region. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces officially came into existence in 2015 after a collection of armed groups in Northeast Syria formally created an alliance to take on ISIS. But the beginnings of the multi-ethnic alliance were at the battle of Kobani in 2014 as members of the Kurdish People’s Protection units (better known as the YPG) agreed to a truce with several factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight against ISIS.

The battle of Kobani, 2014. Photo courtesy of Vager Sadullah.

By that time, the FSA had suffered a series of crushing defeats in 2013 after Russian forces entered the war in support of the Syrian Regime and their Iranian allies. Between infighting and Russian bombing, the FSA had essentially splintered. Many fighters had become proxies for Turkey, joined ISIS or the Al Nusra Front, quit fighting to flee the country, or “reconciled” with the regime by agreeing to fight for Assad in return for amnesty. But in scattered pockets, some still stubbornly fought for democracy.

Many FSA fighters accused the YPG of only focusing on their own “Rojava Revolution” and fighting against the FSA while avoiding fights against the regime. Rojava is the name Kurds have for Northeast Syria, which roughly translates to “West Kurdistan.” The FSA members who survived the 2013 onslaught also had serious doubts about America’s role after Barack Obama backed out of supporting their assault on Latakia province at the last minute. 

But after Kobani, more and more Arab fighters began gravitating toward the YPG. “We would be Syrian after Kobani,” said Farhad Youssef, a veteran Kurdish fighter who now acts as a spokesman for the SDF in Ain Issa. Kurdish fighters still make up the backbone of the SDF and most of its military commanders are still Kurds, but they hoped the rebrand would allow them to reach more people. It also allowed them to court more support from the West. “After that, the Americans put their trust in us,” he said.

Farhad Youssef, SDF spokesman. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Coalition troops have worked closely with the SDF. Special operations troops have fought alongside them as advisers and called in close air support during battles for ISIS strongholds. They’ve also received weapons and vehicles from Western countries as they’ve worked to build themselves into a professional fighting force.

It’s comprised of a wide swathe of units and factions that vary in quality, but they are widely considered among the most effective fighters in Syria — though they are largely dependent on the Coalition for air support since they lack any of their own.

I met a young Arab member of the SDF from Raqqa named Silva. The 20-year-old had a thick scar on her left cheek, dark-brown eyes, and jet-black hair in a long braided ponytail. Her eyes gave off the intensity of a warrior, but she was reserved and shy throughout much of our interview. She requested that I not take a photo and spoke with a soft, girlish voice. Fellow SDF members encouraged her to speak. Near the end of our interview, she admitted to her comrades, “I like fighting not talking.”

Silva had been in grade school when the war began. She watched as the forces of the Al Qaeda-aligned Al Nusra Front — and later, ISIS — massacred her people and forced women into subservience. “As a female, I wanted to participate in the liberation of my city and my country,” she said.

Ain Issa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

She joined the SDF in 2018, after the SDF drove ISIS out of Raqqa with the help of Coalition air and artillery power. Silva ended up fighting in the countryside in Deir Ezzor province and eventually found herself on the frontline at the Battle of Baghouz when ISIS made its last stand. She relished in the camaraderie of battle, marching with fellow Syrians against a foe that had taken so much from them.

But even though her experiences growing up with violence have hardened her, she admitted that she occasionally finds herself struck by the war’s sometimes senseless cruelty. “I was at the corridor where we were letting the civilians and families get out, but ISIS had booby traps around all of these places,” she said. “I watched as their bombs and traps killed people as they tried to escape.”

Many critics of the Rojava Revolution argue that it is primarily a Kurdish project. Some analysts and commentators charge that the SDF is just the YPG under a new banner, that it uses its Arab members as props to allow them to receive U.S. support, and that the movement serves Kurdish interests at the expense of Arab and other communities in Northeast Syria. But Silva insists that it’s the force that has done the most for Syrians like her. “It’s not really a Kurdish movement,” she says. “The SDF has Arabs and all the pieces of the Syrian people.”

SDF patch. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Despite this, the SDF has stumbled in gaining the trust of Arab tribes in many territories it controls due to suspicion of the American-backed force. But it’s something that SDF members say they’re committed to overcoming. “One color is not enough,” said Youssef. “Everyone needs to see themselves represented and find their own strength.”

However, not everyone in the SDF shares these values. There have occasionally been tensions between units made up of different ethnicities and scattered incidents of racially motivated violence.

On Feb. 17, 2018, in Deir Ezzor, a group of Kurdish SDF fighters tried to stop U.S. Marines from providing medical treatment to wounded Arab civilians. One of the Marines later told Task & Purpose that “it was purely racial, they refused to give them an ambulance.” Tensions between the Kurdish fighters and the Marines rapidly escalated into an insider attack that night that left one Marine wounded and a Kurdish fighter dead.

“There are some Kurds and you cannot trust them, so it’s not a matter of Kurd or Arab people. I believe that Arabs and Kurds can live together peacefully.”

“You may find some bad Arab guys who do bad things, but they represent themselves only. They don’t represent the Arab people. And you may find the same thing among Kurdish people,” said Youssef. “There are some Kurds and you cannot trust them, so it’s not a matter of Kurd or Arab people. I believe that Arabs and Kurds can live together peacefully.”

However, since the Battle of Baghouz, the common enemy that brought the SDF together has been severely weakened. Now some Syrians wonder whether it can stay together or whether the old feuds and divides won’t merely resurface. 

But Youssef says the territorial defeat of ISIS offers the ideal opportunity for a new start in Syria. “ISIS and the regime used to separate us and tell us ‘you are Kurds and Arabs’ … as a Kurdish commander, I don’t feel there’s a real difference between Arabs and Kurds. We’ve lived together for centuries,” he argues. “What’s separated us is the politics of the people who have ruled us.”

Ocalan graffiti in Kobani. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

At the center of the Rojava Revolution is the philosophy of Democratic Confederalism, a system of government advocated by Abdullah Ocalan — one of the founding members of the militant Kurdish Workers Party (better known as the PKK).

The U.S. government lists the PKK as a terrorist organization, and Ocalan has been in Turkish prison since 1999 when Turkish intelligence operatives captured him in Kenya with the support of the CIA. At the time of his arrest, Ocalan subscribed to a more Marxist-Leninist mindset. He developed Democratic Confederalism in prison, and his ideas are heavily influenced by Western leftists, particularly proponents of Libertarian Socialism.

Democratic Confederalism rejects the idea of a nation-state and instead emphasizes a system of locally elected administrative councils that are linked to other communities through a network of confederal councils. Theoretically, it allows local communities to control their own assets and resources while still interacting with and trading with a larger community. Every resident of a neighborhood, village, or city can participate in the communal councils — but unlike some similar leftist movements, political participation is not necessarily mandated.

Abdullah Öcalan. Photo courtesy of the archive of the International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Ocalan – Peace in Kurdistan.”

There is ostensibly no private property in Democratic Confederalism. However, it recognizes “ownership by use,” which author Paul White explains in his book “The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains” as giving individuals “usage rights to the buildings, land, and infrastructure, but not the right to sell and buy on the market or convert them into private enterprises.” It follows the Libertarian Socialist vision of the late leftist American philosopher Murray Bookchin (a major influence on Ocalan) of an economy that is “neither collectivized nor privatized, it is common.”

Particularly among Kurdish members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, devotion to Ocalan runs high. His portrait is a common sight in areas where the YPG have a strong presence: framed pictures of him are commonly found in their offices, and his face is graffitied on the walls of towns across Northeast Syria. Turkish officials argue that this is evidence that the SDF is little more than an extension of the insurgency in their own Kurdish regions.

Red stars, the occasional hammer and sickle, and other symbols of hard-left militancy are common on their uniforms and in the flags that adorn their fighting positions. On some occasions, the American operators advising them have even donned some of these symbols on their own uniforms. At one point while waiting in an office, I struck up a chat with a young SDF fighter and traded dumb YouTube videos until he eventually taught me the tune to “Bella Ciao,” an Italian folk song adopted by leftist Italian partisans who fought Mussolini.

SDF garden. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

It remained stuck in my head the rest of the trip (and for a few weeks after).

It’s ironic that a significant portion of the guerillas who make up what some U.S. commanders have called the most effective indigenous partner force the American military has ever worked with are in many ways exactly the sort of leftist rebels that the Green Berets advising and fighting alongside them were originally created to fight during the Cold War.

On multiple occasions, I saw coalition troops on the road as they went to and from operations hunting ISIS cells and backing up the SDF. While the troops in Syria are often referred to as “elite special operations” in the media, a significant number are actually conventional troops deployed in support of special operations troops and their mission. Coalition troops aren’t an uncommon sight on the road.

SDF in Kobani. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

More than once in Syria I stayed the night with a group of particularly accommodating SDF fighters in their garrison. Their garrison is essentially an apartment complex that they’ve billeted in with a wall around it. A mixture of fighters and their families live in the massive complex. Children playing soccer are just as common a sight as uniformed guerillas inspecting their weapons.

Each time I visit, they feed me generously — as Syrians always do. A revolving cast of fighters from different units pass through, visiting their apartment at the end of the day for food and tea. Many pay little mind to the American with them, others pepper me with questions about America — where I’m from, what I think of Trump, and what, as an American, I think of Syria (and especially Rojava).

Their paramilitary nature means that uniform standards are often relaxed. Despite their ostensible commitment to an anti-capitalist economic vision, many eagerly embrace several Western brands and products. They use iPhones, and one proudly showed off a brand-new pair of Merrell hiking boots he managed to get his hands on. Others wear Nikes and other familiar brands that they freely mix with their camo uniforms.

SDF playing music in the evening. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

In the evenings, they often play traditional Kurdish music to unwind. But the SDF love all kinds of music. During one stop, one of them asks me if Taylor Swift is the best American singer (I later learn that Swift is particularly popular among several YPG frontline units). I think about it. I tell him I don’t know who the best American singer is, but that he should check out Loretta Lynn.

The drive into Kobani was the most beautiful stretch of road I saw in Rojava. Even as summer has turned most of the grass brown, well-kept vineyards and fields of fruits and vegetables dotted the roadsides with color as we entered the town. Moving into the town center, the streets bustled with activity. We have breakfast at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant off the beaten path — a bowl of beans and hummus. 

Though SDF fighters are a common sight on the streets, the atmosphere is peaceful.

However, in 2014, Kobani was the scene of fierce fighting. At the time, I was an editor remotely supervising a small team of freelancers covering the fighting in Iraq and Syria. One of them, an Iraqi Kurd named Vager Sadullah (who has since left journalism), travelled to the Turkish side of the border to document the fighting and interview refugees and fighters as they watched American bombs striking ISIS positions in the city in support of YPG and FSA fighters working together to drive them out of the city.

Downtown Kobani. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Vager sent back photos and quotes that presented a surreal scene at the border. Refugees from the town and Kurds from Turkey lined up along the border to watch the battle. They cheered when bombs struck ISIS targets. Some Kurds from Turkey even went south to join the YPG — including some that Turkish officials said had ties to the PKK. At the time, Turkish authorities allowed some fighters to cross the border — some wounded YPG fighters were even able to go to hospitals in Turkey for treatment — but Turkish troops along the border often prevented them from returning.

Before the end of the battle, Turkish officials allowed Peshmerga troops from the Kurdish Region of Iraq to travel to Kobani to support the YPG in driving the last of ISIS from the city. But over time, the Turkish military had changed its stance to be much more hostile to the Kurds in Kobani.

Before my visit, a U.S. military intelligence specialist who had been in Turkey during the 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told me that there were some officers in the Turkish military who were interested in a truce and possibly even cooperation with the YPG — at least until ISIS could be defeated. 

Many of them were arrested in post-coup purges by Erdoğan.

Rubble in Kobani. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

In 2018, the Turkish military, along with FSA factions it controlled, launched an invasion of the YPG-controlled city of Afrin. The bloody battle drove out not just Kurdish fighters but many Kurdish residents. Pro-Turkish forces destroyed Kurdish cultural symbols, and Turkey has built a wall separating the city from other Kurdish communities since the battle. The system of walls now stretches to Kobani. Locals say it’s meant to separate the Kurds living in Syria from friends and family in Turkey.

The wall is a constant reminder of the tenuous situation. But Kobani is held as a model of what Northeast Syria could look like. It rebuilt relatively quickly after the battle and is now home to a burgeoning arts scene. I talked to Noorhan Jemma, a 25-year-old art teacher in Kobani, about the state of free expression in Rojava. Jemma told me that she’s loved painting since she was a little girl, but there was little support for aspiring artists in Syria under Assad.

“There was some activity, but Baathist activity, so you could not be free in your expression, you could not paint whatever you want,” she said. “In the regime times, your art had to praise the regime. You could not be free in your expression. Art was closed unless you wanted to praise the Assads … If you did something wrong or painted something wrong or wrote something wrong, you would be in jail, especially for us Kurds.”

Student art in Northeastern Syria. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

As the revolution began kicking into high gear, Jemma began dabbling in political cartoons. “Art is the soul of the revolution,” she said. “From the very beginning, artists played a huge role through theater, writing slogans, graffiti. When you have good art, you can control your people’s mentality and you can inspire them to be free.”

It didn’t escape my notice that Jemma’s desk was surrounded by art glorifying the YPG and Ocalan. While no longer forced to pay tribute to Assad, there’s still some debate about how free expression in Northeast Syria really is.

Jemma shows off some of her students’ art. The collection is largely apolitical, representing a wide gamut ranging from realist art to stylized figures. Subjects included a portrait of Albert Einstein, spooky monsters that looked like they leapt out of the “Silent Hill” video game series, stylized imagery of flowers, and even a handful of nude figure drawings — work that neither ISIS nor the regime would have ever embraced. “Art is freedom,” she says. “If you are not free you cannot make good art.”

Student art in Northeastern Syria. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Jemma said she takes pride in being an art teacher. “I don’t want these children to have the same experience we had. We have a long way to go, but I want to be here to the end,” she explains. “When wars come, it has a profound impact on children’s psyche. Through art, we can make them feel better, feel safe.”

After our visit with Jemma, Ali and I head toward the northern border. While much of Kobani has been rebuilt, the local authorities have decided to leave sections of the town destroyed. The rubble is a reminder of the cost of war and what their people endured. 

Closer to the border, many of the wrecked buildings sport conspicuous PKK and YPG graffiti. As we surveyed the wreckage, a group of children noticed me and asked if I was American. When Ali told them yes, they shouted, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” As if I’d personally had anything to do with the Coalition efforts to help Kobani’s defenders drive ISIS out of their town.

It’s not long until we hit the literal wall that the Turks erected across their border. Locals warn me to be careful as I take pictures and to only do so behind cover. They tell me Turkish troops will shoot me if I don’t. 

Graffiti in Kobani. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

In several nearby bombed-out buildings, YPG fighters have set up shop with sandbags for observation posts and fighting positions along the border, turning the rubble into fortresses. We walk through the bombed-out sections of town. It’s an eerie contrast to the bustling neighborhoods just blocks away. We stop by a small bodega tucked among the wreckage to pick up water as the merciless summer sun beats down.

As we leave town, we stop by another store, and Ali grabs some beer for everyone in the van. We pick up some Efes — a Turkish brand that is surprisingly strong. We crack them open as we drive away. In America, it would be considered “a serious crime” to drink beer on the road. But as we stop at checkpoints along the way, our day drinking in Syria merely signals to the guards that we’re “clearly not ISIS” as they casually wave us along.

Traveling across Northeast Syria means hours on the road driving through wheat fields and plains. There are countless checkpoints manned by SDF troops and security personnel. They’re an interesting window into the varying discipline of their forces. At one checkpoint, the guards have neatly pressed uniforms and berets. At the next, a bearded hipster in a fedora with an AK47 slung by his hip will check your papers.

Farmers in Northeastern Syria. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Life moves slowly as you drive through the Syrian countryside. Syrians sell fruit, animals, tea, and candy on the side of the road. At least outwardly, some villages seem untouched by both war and the 21st century — simple clay structures and bedouin tents make some of settlements and camps. In others, homes are covered in bullet holes or demolished by bombs. You can occasionally spot salvagers looking for scrap metal and other valuables among the rubble.

I stayed in Qamishli when I wasn’t on the road with the SDF. It’s a strange city, carved up between rival factions. While the SDF and regime forces have had firefights in the city before, they usually just stare at each other awkwardly. The opposing forces’ areas of control are well-marked by graffiti and flags. The areas under regime control are adorned with cultish portraits of Assad, while the SDF’s are adorned with similar portraits and graffiti of Ocalan and dead YPG fighters.

At night, the city comes to life. The youth drive motorcycles through the streets, loudly revving the engines of their heavily modified rides. Neon and string lights illuminate restaurants and bars around town. One night, Ali takes me out to a restaurant across town with his wife and kids. We drive past several groups of armed men. In the dark, it’s hard to tell from their silhouettes if they’re pro-regime or SDF aligned. In addition to YPG and Syrian army troops in the street, the Syriac Christian community is split between pro-SDF and pro-Assad factions, and both have militias of their own in Qamishli — paying attention to the flags is critical for outsiders navigating the town.

Kids on the street in Kobani. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

It’s a unique place that’s home to a broad cross-section of Syrians. One I meet is a young Arab named Bashir. He grew up in Damascus and went to college in Latakia — Assad’s home province. He’s eager to practice his English. “With English, you can talk to anyone around the world,” he says. “It’s a global language.”

Bashir tells me he’s never left Syria but that he badly wants to. He wants to see the world: Asia, Europe, and America someday, if he can. But for the time being, he says he’s stuck in Qamishli. 

He said he’s afraid to go back to Damascus or any of the parts of Syria controlled by the regime. “I don’t want to get drafted into the Idlib War,” Bashir says, referring to the bloody campaign for Idlib province. The northern province is a brutal battleground between the Syrian government and Turkish proxy forces, with millions of displaced Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire. It’s currently the bloodiest battleground in Syria — or at least close to it.

While Bashir said he’s glad to live in SDF-controlled territory rather than that of the regime, he expresses skepticism of the Rojava Revolution. When he learns that I recently returned from Kobani, he says, “The Kurds really took advantage of Kobani.” He argued that YPG used it as a propaganda victory to get people on their side, and that Sunni Arabs are second-class citizens regardless of whether they live in territory controlled by the Allawite regime or by the SDF.

18-year-old music students Stervan Bozan and Serbest Mustapha in Kobani sing a song in Kurdish. “It’s our music, not the Regime’s music,” said Bozan. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

At one point, an avidly pro-YPG Kurdish friend tells me what he wants to see is American companies moving into Northeast Syria — a Kentucky Fried Chicken, in particular. I remind him that one of the central tenets of Democratic Confederalism is that there is no private property or profits. “Yeah, they just need to get over that,” he says. 

He continues, saying that while the YPG’s dedication to their ideology may have motivated them as fighters, when it comes to building a real democratic society in Syria, they need to compromise. He points out that local businesses are already sprouting up across Northeast Syria, and everyone is still using money — and it’s not likely they’ll give that up. He says that his dream was to open a restaurant of his own in Qamishli that would serve both Western and Kurdish food and have a fully stocked bar.

Our team stopped multiple times at one particular auto shop on the outskirts of Qamishli for engine tune-ups. The family running the shop (and the attached convenience store) served tea while we waited, and their oldest son asked me about America. On our final visit, while Ali and I drank tea, I heard giggling. I looked up to see a coterie of curious young women on a balcony looking at me, curious about the American below. When I looked up, they ducked down and kept giggling.

One night as we drove down the road back to Qamishli, we came across a massive fire. The orange flames illuminated the countryside. We eventually saw their target. The flames were coming up on the edges of an SDF outpost. As we drove by, I saw the silhouette of a fighter carrying a PKM machine gun as he looked out at the blaze surrounding their position. 

Fires in Northeastern Syria. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Ultimately, the fire would never pass the concrete barrier around their outpost — they were safe for the moment. But the ongoing fires ravaging Northeast Syria are going to have long-term consequences.

As we continued down the road, our van’s headlights started to die out, forcing us to pull off to the side of the road. Ali and the driver tried to fix the van while I sat in the back. They said they’d need to call a friend to tow us out. 

We waited for hours, and during that time I considered the life choices that had led me to that moment. It wasn’t a particularly dangerous part of Syria, but ISIS cells are most active at night — and there was a strong chance an ISIS cell started the fire we’d seen just a few minutes earlier.

Eventually, our rescuer came to tow us back to Qamishli on a back road. On the way back, we passed a restaurant called Aryzona. It looked like a roadside establishment that you might see in the American Southwest, with patio seating and umbrellas in the back. After arriving in Qamishli fully intact, I collapsed into bed.

I saw an average of seven fires a day while driving through Syria. There have been hundreds across the country.

When we passed the outpost again during the day, we saw that the hill had been blackened and charred by flames. The summer of 2019 was the hottest on record around the entire globe, making it an incredibly dry year. That was at the forefront of my mind as we drove across the country. Drought and food shortages arguably helped set the stage for the Syrian Revolution and subsequent civil war.

Starting in 2006, Syria suffered from the worst drought in the country’s history, and it continued in the years leading to the uprising against Assad. As much as 85 percent of Syria’s livestock died while crops dried and withered. Water access became increasingly contentious, and it didn’t alleviate when Assad gave out water rights to political allies, forcing many farmers to drill illegal wells. People from the countryside began moving into the cities to look for work but found little. 

Out of work and increasingly fed up with corruption, many rural Syrians joined educated urban demonstrators in demanding Assad’s removal. The drought was still going on when Assad’s troops fired the first shots of their civil war.

Syrian farmer Salim Hami Mohammed stands on his burnt farmland. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

This year, multiple militias, terror groups, and armies have allegedly taken advantage of the dry conditions to set fire to farmlands and plains to deprive their enemies of food and land in the areas reclaimed from ISIS. Just a week before entering Syria, I stood along a ridge with Peshmerga fighters in Northern Iraq near the town of Makmhur, watching farms burn in the distance. An ISIS cell was taking advantage of the tensions between Kurdish and Iraqi forces to use the area between their lines as a staging area to conduct attacks on both sides (and the local population). In May, the ISIS-produced newsletter al-Naba published an article boasting, “soldiers of the Caliphate burn the farms of the apostates in Iraq and al-Sham, IS warns of a ‘hot summer.’”

I saw an average of seven fires a day while driving through Syria. There have been hundreds across the country. But as the smoke rises in the distance, there’s can be a bit of ambiguity about the causes of individual fires. In both Syria and Iraq, widespread drought, poor safety mechanisms on generators, and the common local practice of burning trash all create a recipe for natural fires and accidental manmade blazes.

To complicate matters further, farmers sometimes engage in controlled burns. A little bit of fire can be good for the soil, afterall. There’s also the fact that in the Middle East, disputes between families and tribes can escalate into feuds that sometimes involve property destruction. 

But residents of Northeast Syria insist that this year the fires are significantly worse and that there’s nothing normal about it. “Most of the fires in our area are caused by the Syrian regime, Turkish intelligence, and ISIS cells,” said Salman Barudo, joint chairman of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s Agriculture and Economic Commission.

Syrian farmer Salim Hami Mohammed. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Countless fires have started along the Turkish border to the north. In the province of Deir Ezzor to the south, both the Syrian military and Iranian-backed militias allegedly burned crops and tried to convince local Arabs not to sell them to the self-administration — often through a mixture of payouts and intimidation.

According to the region’s Economic and Agricultural Authority, the crop losses resulting from the fires in Northeast Syria this summer are estimated at more than 19 billion Syrian pounds (about $33 million). So far, fires have destroyed in the neighborhood of 45,000 hectares (more than 110,000 acres), killed at least 10 people, and injured many more — including military personnel and civilians. Some locals have even accused Turkish and Syrian army troops of shooting at firefighters trying to put out the blazes.

We visit the farm of Salim Hami Mohammed, an 80-year-old Kurdish farmer with several hectares of land outside of Qamishli. A tall, slender figure with a kind face, Mohammed is remarkably spry for an octogenarian. Like most Syrians, he’s quick to offer tea and food. He lives in a modest but well-constructed traditional clay compound. His family has held the land since 1934. While some of his sons have left to become doctors and engineers, he and the rest of the family continue working the land.

But this year a fire destroyed 25 percent of his crops. “I believe a Daesh cell started this fire,” he tells me. “It began along the road. It was no accident. It’s not a matter of vendettas or natural circumstances because three fires started in the same place at the same time burned along four villages. And all of the farms are Kurdish.”

A group of Syrians look through rubble for rebar and other scrap metal. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Like many residents of Northeast Syria, Mohammed insists there have been far more fires this year. “It’s a huge increase. In previous years, we could usually tell pretty quickly if it was caused by an accident because of electricity or because natural circumstances. But this year it’s an expansive area … Many more of them are starting from the roads.

“This year was the end of the caliphate from a military standpoint,” he continues, “so now Daesh is trying to get revenge, especially on the Kurdish people. These agricultural lands are all we have, we can’t do anything else. When we don’t have good rainfall, we have no livelihood. It’s everything to us.”

The fires have not only destroyed fields and homes, but they’ve also damaged equipment like tractors, which are increasingly difficult to replace and repair as different factions lock down the borders regions. “The fires were so large this year, we need the world to help us by providing some firefighting equipment,” Mohammed says, adding that he hopes the coalition countries can do that.

When asked about his feelings on Trump’s declaration that ISIS is defeated and that the Americans will leave, he replied, “We would prefer for the coalition to stay. If the coalition wasn’t here, Turkey would attack us and try to wipe us out with tanks and planes. We can’t protect ourselves from things like that. We hope that the Americans will stay because we don’t want war again.”

In Raqqa, the impact of the war is inescapable. Before the war, it was a relatively prosperous city overlooking the Euphrates River. But as war consumed Syria, the city became a hotly disputed battleground. After the FSA seized the city, the Al Nusrah Front took advantage of the infighting to take control of the city. ISIS eventually took control and made it the capital of its Caliphate.

Raqqa main square. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

In 2017, the SDF drove the militants from the city with the backing of coalition airstrikes and artillery. The battle was reminiscent of a modern-day Stalingrad, with bombs falling while fighters fought bitter street-to-street firefights. During the fighting, U.S. Marine artillerymen on the ground unleashed the most intense American artillery bombardment since the Vietnam War. Over five months they fired 35,000 artillery rounds at suspected ISIS positions. For perspective, during all of Operation Desert Storm, both the Marines and the Army fired a little more than 60,000 artillery rounds combined.

No part of Raqqa was left untouched by the violence. The fighting left almost 75 percent of the city damaged or destroyed and rendered the town’s infrastructure almost completely obliterated. 

The complex nature of the battle makes it hard to figure out who killed who. To this day, local authorities continue uncovering graves of the victims of mass executions by ISIS, and bodies are still being fished out of the rubble of buildings destroyed by coalition bombings. But what’s undeniable is that the people of Raqqa have suffered immensely over the course of the long conflict. That’s evident from the minute we drove into the city.

Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

On the outer rim of town, there’s hardly a single building that hasn’t been caved in by bombs or pockmarked with bullet holes. However, even among the wreckage there are visible clothes lines and laundry hanging from decks. You can occasionally spot people coming and going from rooms in even the most badly damaged buildings.

As you move closer to the city center, the roads are crowded with cars. There’s a heavy presence of SDF personnel manning checkpoints and outposts throughout the city. It’s still a dangerous place. The firefights that defined the battle for the city have given way to a deadly game of cat and mouse as local security forces hunt bomb makers and assassins who regularly launch violent attacks against both civilians and security officials.

But residents are generally friendly and readily give directions.

We spoke to a senior commander who goes by the nom de guerre Mohammed Raqqa. Like many members of the SDF’s security and intelligence services, he declines to have his picture taken. He’s a Kurd, but he was born and raised in the city. He says that before the war, the city had a large Kurdish population that lived alongside the Arabs. With ISIS gone, some are slowly making their way back — very slowly. So far, the vast majority of the people in the city are still Arab.

Reconstruction in Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

It’s been a challenge for the SDF as they work to gain the trust of Raqqa’s residents after the nearly apocalyptic battle that flattened many of their homes and killed their friends and neighbors. “When we first got here, they refused to cooperate with us,” says Mohammed.

Mohammed was previously with the SDF in Afrin until Turkish troops drove them out of the city. He’s now returned to his hometown to lead members of the Raqqa Internal Security Forces (RISF). But he and other RISF members insist that they have gradually made their way toward a better relationship. That’s been helped by the fact that while there are still several Kurdish units of the SDF stationed in and around the city, most of the men and women in the RISF are Arabs, and a large portion of them were born and raised in Raqqa.

At the time of our interview, Mohammed said he’d lost 10 men this year from bombings, occasional firefights with insurgents, and assassinations. They’re still busy hunting ISIS. But jihadists aren’t Mohammed’s only enemy as he tries to bring stability to his hometown.

Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

“There are some problems with the regime. They have been carrying out bombings to try to scare people and make them flee the city in addition to the ISIS sleeper cells,” he says. “They want to make instability here, so they pay people to plant bombs … the regime’s goal is to send the message to the people that while the Coalition is here and SDF forces are here, they cannot control the area.”

Mohammed said that Coalition special operations troops have helped them track cells and bombers by providing logistical support, aerial surveillance, and occasional explosive ordnance disposal expertise. 

Gradually, the SDF have worked to uncover the shadowy networks of bomb makers and spies conducting operations in their territory through interrogations of suspects and observing patterns in their operations. 

The main square in Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

“Recently the regime has been behind more bombings than Daesh,” Mohammed explains. “The reduction in Daesh bombings may be because they want to change tactics — but lately the regime has been behind more … I believe most of the [ISIS] cells are in the city, but some are coming from outside territories, especially Jarabulus and the Turkish held areas, to make instability.”

He said that the way ISIS and regime cells carry out bombings follow very different patterns. ISIS bombings are more complex and coordinated, usually involving multiple explosives and sometimes joined with guerilla attacks and drive-by shootings. By contrast, regime agents tend to carry out much simpler operations with just one bomb, and they typically flee the scene as quickly as they can. “We have caught some people who confessed that they work for the regime and that they took money,” Mohammed says.

While ISIS sleeper cells continue to be driven by hardcore believers, members of the regime bombing cells seem less driven by loyalty to Assad — or any sort of ideology — than by financial motivations. Members of the RISF said that many of the regime agents are locals from Raqqa who were driven from their homes by ISIS and other militant factions and fled to regime territory. Mohammed explains that regime intelligence sometimes recruits men from the area and gives them money to return to Raqqa to plant bombs. 

Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Many of the bombings have targeted neighborhoods where entrepreneurs and business leaders live or have gone off near hospitals, which RISF members assert is an effort to intimidate professionals and specialists they need to rebuild the city. “They want people to tell their friends thinking of returning that there’s no stability here,” Mohammed said. 

He stressed that the economic desperation is fueling both insurgencies and everyday crime. “Lots of people are coming back, but there’s no opportunities for work,” he said. “When we catch people stealing, we ask them why, and they always say, ‘There are no jobs, what can we do?’”

Driving around Raqqa, you can see residents of the city working to rebuild their city and their lives in spite of the odds. 

Even among the rubble, small businesses are popping up — though usually only on the first floors of buildings as the stories above remain shattered from the intense fighting. The occasional billboard stands above the ruins advertising local businesses and services. In some parts of the city, construction crews work to restore wrecked buildings or start new ones. Young men and boys haul tools and cinder blocks. Nonexistent child labor laws mean seeing children as young as 10 or 11 working the sites.

Small businesses are slowly rebounding in Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

In town, you can see families going about their business. With ISIS gone, many women have abandoned hijabs or decide to wear colorful head scarves and dresses in place of the ISIS-enforced black niqab. However, many are still suspicious of Westerners. Some RISF members say that they’re afraid of ISIS sleeper cells seeing them talk to a Westerner.

While that’s probably true, the bombing of their city also left locals wary of Westerners — Americans in particular — even if they’re glad ISIS is no longer in control. What Coalition commanders considered “collateral damage,” the locals think of as their lost homes and dead friends, family members, and neighbors. The regime also spent much of the summer sending out messages that pro-Assad forces may try to retake the town. Some of the city’s frustrated residents seem open to the idea.

We eventually stop on a bridge over the Euphrates in the late afternoon. Out here, the mood is more relaxed and friendly. Families are out enjoying the breeze coming off the water while children and teens swam in the river. On the bridge, a teenager — maybe 15 years old — tells me he’s going to jump. I try to snap a picture but miss the moment he dives. Nearby people cheer and laugh as his face emerges from the water.

A bridge over the Euphrates River in Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Under the bridge, a group of clean-cut men dressed in Western clothes eat a large dinner on a plastic table they’d brought down to the edge of the river. They notice us and wave. Along the river’s southern shore are a series of small restaurants and cafes with riverside patios. Staff were outside preparing tables for evening customers.

We eventually continued across the bridge and drove around for a bit through dirt roads on the south end of town near several farms. Our driver notices that we need gas. He stops by a fruit vendor and asks his children to siphon some gas in return for a few Syrian pounds. Coming back across the bridge, we check out another marketplace. I notice that unlike other parts of town, many of the women still wear black niqabs and the men have thick, bushy beards. All of them glare at us. 

We don’t stick around. While some segments of the city have Assad nostalgia, others seem to long for the caliphate’s return.

The Euphrates River in Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

“If the coalition withdrew, we would face problems from both Turkey and the regime. Both would attack from the north and from the west,” Mohammed says before we leave his office. But he also said that while military support is appreciated, he and the RISF can hunt terrorists all day. For his hometown to truly recover, it needs to be rebuilt.

The Trump administration ramped up bombings against ISIS targets in 2017, but also slashed $230 million in “stabilization aid” that was meant to go toward reconstruction efforts and jumpstart the economy in Northeast Syria post-ISIS (though claimed it secured $300 million from the Gulf States to make up the difference). However, a proposed budget released by congress on September 18 calls on the State Department to spend at least $130 million in Northeast Syria in the 2020 fiscal year.

“The reconstruction is what’s most important. Half the city has no electricity. What we need is real support, financial support, to rebuild the city,” Mohammed said, while adding that for the reconstruction to be a true success — like the reconstruction of Europe after World War II — they’ll need the support of the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations. “There are some organizations working, but they’re limited — they need international organizations to support them.”

Mohammed said that he loves his city and hopes that the world can someday see it become great again. “We would like President Trump to visit us here in Raqqa,” he said.

Raqqa. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Back in Qamishli, after the bomb had gone off and I’d eaten, I asked around about what had happened. Ten people were injured and a church gate damaged, but no one was killed. Word on the street was that the regime was the likely culprit; both locals and Westerners told me that sometimes the Baathists bombed Christian sites in order to blame Islamists in a bid to convince Syrian Christians that they need the regime to protect them.

I was immediately skeptical. I don’t accept false flag narratives lightly.

But then a Syrian friend told me that his friends in the SDF security forces told him they had offered to help regime authorities investigate the bombing. One of the investigators told him that the regime refused help and told the SDF that the surveillance cameras had gone down for an hour — the same hour that the bomb happened to go off. There was no evidence to review.

Syrians I talked to argued that if ISIS had levied the attack, it would have been more brutal and fatal — which was consistent with what the RISF said in Raqqa about regime bombings there. I’m still not sure who did it. But on a certain level, whether it’s a terrorist group, authoritarian regime, or a self-serving warlord, the reason belligerents bomb civilians is always to spread fear and uncertainty. Whoever did it got exactly what they wanted.

Airstrikes during the battle of Kobani, 2014. Photo courtesy of Vager Sadullah.

The next day, I met up with a fellow journalist who was passing through town. During that time, we met up with a western YPG volunteer she knew. Several foreigners have come to fight with the group for a myriad of reasons. He took us to a café at a park. Along the way we had to walk through a regime-controlled roundabout. He told us that we would be fine as long as we didn’t stop or take pictures. We walked under the watchful eye of dozens of Assad portraits and a statue of his late father — Syria’s previous dictator.

After grabbing a smoothie at the café, we went shopping in the local marketplace. I was on the lookout for a Kurdish scarf for a friend back home. We talked to a Kurdish shop owner who, upon learning I was an American, proudly proclaimed, “I love America. Love America and Nicole Alexander and Alexis Texas. I will die for these things.” When my colleague asked who Alexis Texas was, I told her we’d talk about it later. But I’d perhaps never been prouder of America’s role in the world.

I met up with Ali at a bar later that night and pounded glasses of Johnny Walker. We eventually went back to his apartment, where his wife made pizza. “The Marine” starring John Cena was playing on their TV. Ali and I agree that it’s not a very good movie (Cena had yet to hit his comedic stride as an actor). We switch to a low-budget horror movie starring Henry Rollins. We agree that it’s also not very good, but that Rollins is the fucking man. The pizza came out of the oven, and we devoured it.

Restaurant owners in Kobani. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

After dinner, Ali and his youngest daughter hitch a ride with me back to my room. As we drove through town, his daughter pointed out lights around town, shouting out their colors in English. She knew the primary colors but needed help with the others. I taught her how to say “purple,” both a color and word she seemed to like a lot.

The next morning, Ali took me back to the border. We said our goodbyes as I crossed back into Iraq.

Not long after I returned to America, Erdogan announced that he had mobilized the Turkish Army for imminent invasion of Northern Syria east of the Euphrates. I watched the news nervously and began chatting on WhatsApp with friends back in Syria to see how they were doing. One in Qamishli sent back a picture of a beer and said, “This is what I do in situations like this.”

I thought back to all the people I’d met — Arabs and Kurds — and about their dreams for the future. Dreams for a better life, for the opportunity to travel, to own a business, to have a democracy. But all of them are trapped between the machinations of Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States, and, in some ways, our own government.

Coalition on the road. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

One friend told me, “Don’t worry, we believe in America. We trust you, man.” I felt a pit in my stomach. I appreciated that he trusted me, but I couldn’t guarantee that America was going to come through for him. Then he told me that he’d been displaced once before and had to start over. If it happened again, he’d bring his family to safety wherever that was, no matter what he had to do to get there.

Luckily, American officials convinced Turkey to call off their invasion — for the time being at least. The SDF recently began dismantling fortifications along the border and pulling back. American troops are conducting joint patrols with Turkish soldiers along the border in hopes of easing tensions. Talks are ongoing, but it’s still very much up in the air what happens next.

While American officials say they have been “impressed” with the Turkish military’s cooperation, Turkish officials continue to talk openly of invading Northeast Syria. Earlier this month, the regime even threatened its own “imminent” military actions against SDF and U.S. troops. Meanwhile, a mysterious group calling itself Harakat Ahrar Al Shab (that some SDF commanders accused of having ties to Turkish intelligence) has begun claiming responsibility for attacks throughout SDF territory. 

The conflict continues with no end in sight as both local players and foreign powers continue to compete in Syria’s murky proxy wars.

But when I think of Syria, I will always think of the people that I met there first. I worry about their future. But the Syrians I know refuse to give into despair even after losing everything. Their resilience is grounded in their family, friends, and the communities that count on them — as well as a general stubbornness born out of years of adversity. And if they refuse to give into despair, then I don’t have any right to either. Because when you give into that despair, you let the terrorists and dictators of the world win. And they don’t get to win.

Kevin Knodell
Kevin Knodell

Kevin Knodell is a freelance journalist and author. His work has appeared at Foreign Policy, Playboy, Soldier of Fortune, and others. He’s the associate producer of the War College Podcast and a former contributing editor at Warisboring. He’s the co-author of the graphic novels The ‘Stan and Machete Squad, and he currently writes the Acts of Valor comic series for Naval History magazine.

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