Disappointment and Defiance in Northeast Syria

January 29, 2020Kevin Knodell

Ario Syriani stands with one of his fighters at an outpost along the frontline with the Free Syrian Army and Turkey. A few meters away, Syrian Regime troops stood guard as well. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

I feel disappointed because we fought side-by-side with the Americans against ISIS, but when Turkey decided to attack these areas, they just left,” said Ario Syriani, a fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the frontline around Tal Tamr, Syria, in late November 2019. 

He and a group of fellow fighters were taking a lunch break. They operated out of an old, abandoned home. Frequently announced ceasefires broke down quickly. The latest Russian-backed efforts appeared to be holding, but the situation remained tense and volatile. Throughout the Turkish incursion, Syriani and his fellow fighters had been dodging fire from Turkish drones and artillery as they tried to hold the line against Turkish-backed Syrian Islamist fighters. 

He said that their adversaries attacked mostly at night, usually with artillery or drones. They rarely advanced into pitched ground battles until Turkish commanders believed their heavy weapons had sufficiently weakened the SDF’s defense. 

northeast syria
Ario Syriani stands with one of his fighters at an outpost along the frontline with the Free Syrian Army and Turkey. A few meters away, Syrian Regime troops also stand guard. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or die.

“Yesterday at night there were drones in the sky,” said Syriani. “We see them in the sky, sometimes for hours at a time. We don’t always see them, but they are always around.”

Syriani is a Sunni Arab fighter from Shaddadi in the province of Hasakah. He spent years living under ISIS rule until the Kurdish-led SDF pushed the militants out of his home with the help of American air support. 

“When the SDF liberated my town, I joined to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups,” he said. Syriani went on to fight against ISIS in the Caliphate’s capital of Raqqa and in various battles in Deir Ezzor province.

Though Syriani is an Arab, he occupies a junior leadership position with the Syriac Military Council, a Syrian Christian faction that was one of the first armed groups to join the SDF — a Kurdish-majority but multi-ethnic alliance of groups that formed in 2015 to fight ISIS. 

All was quiet along the front during the day, with the majority of Turkish drone strikes occurring at night. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

Syriani volunteered to fight with the Christian group after Turkish forces launched their invasion in October because Tal Tamr is close to his hometown — these people are his neighbors. The small group of fighters he leads is mostly Christian, but they said they’re unconcerned with labels. “We all work together, there’s no difference between Kurds, Arabs, and Syriacs when we fight,” Syriani said.

Syrian government soldiers occupy fighting positions of their own nearby; a Syrian soldier paced on the road outside. When American forces withdrew in October 2019 after a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the SDF reached an agreement with the Syrian regime to coordinate in defense of the territory. Russian forces that support the Syrian government also entered the region.

But it was always a shaky arrangement — they’re not quite allies. “As fighters, we don’t have any communication with regime soldiers,” said Syriani. “The coordination is between the commanders.”

The “Self-Administration of Northeast Syria,” known as Rojava to the Kurds and many of their supporters, functions as an autonomous area beyond Syrian regime control protected by the SDF and previously backed by American firepower. The Syrian government insists that the SDF relinquish all autonomy over Northeast Syria and pledge unconditional loyalty to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad — something many members of the SDF, including several of its top commanders, have said they will not accept.

“All those people who fight with the Turks aren’t really Muslims, they don’t fight for Islam. A lot of them are jihadists — they’re with Al Nusrah front or ex-ISIS fighters. Turkey has brought them to attack these areas where people co-exist.”

The Turkish invasion, which Ankara dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” was launched in October 2019 ostensibly to create a “safe zone” along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. The mission’s stated goal was to target the Kurdish YPG, the armed faction that makes up the backbone of the SDF and that Turkey considers a terrorist organization. The Turkish government also stated that it intended to resettle to the area Arab Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. Erdogan told reporters before the invasion that Turkey would “return [Northeast Syria] to its original owners. And the original owners are mainly Arabs — up to 85 to 90 percent.”

The Turkish military has used several factions of what was once the Free Syrian Army as shock troops. Though many of these fighters have been accused of atrocities and looting, Turkish officials have framed its operations in the region as an effort to liberate oppressed Arabs from “Kurdish terrorists” that make it safe for Syrian refugees currently in Turkey to return home. Some of the Turkish-backed fighters have called on Muslims in the area — particularly Arabs — to join them in their fight. But Syriani defiantly insisted that he intends to fight on the side of his Christian comrades.

“All those people who fight with the Turks aren’t really Muslims, they don’t fight for Islam,” Syriani said. “A lot of them are jihadists — they’re with Al Nusrah front or ex-ISIS fighters. Turkey has brought them to attack these areas where people co-exist. Here, we all live together, Muslims and Christians. Anyone threatening my friends and neighbors is my enemy and doesn’t represent my religion.”

Mahmud Al Ali explains his frustrations over camp conditions and says there has been no contention between groups neighboring each other in Northeastern Syria. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

The Turkish invasion has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis in a region that was relatively stable and displaced the original residents of its “safe zone” — perhaps ironically including Arabs that lived in the areas that were supposed to be “liberated.” Now thousands of people are displaced and struggling to make it through the winter.

The Washokani IDP Camp near the town of Hasakah opened on Nov. 1, 2019, and grew quickly. Najaa Salih, an official with Self Administration’s Refugee Office, said that the camp took in as many as 120 to 130 new people each day in November. “The biggest problem is that the Turkish attack is ongoing. People are getting displaced day by day,” he said, bitterly adding that “the UN hasn’t supported us with anything.”

He said that the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Mercy Corps pledged to provide heaters for 1,000 residents, but that working with Western NGOs has often been a struggle. “From our experience, we can’t trust what they say until we see it with our own eyes,” Salih said. Lately, the local Kurdish Red Crescent and the Iraqi Kurdish Barzani Foundation have been the most active, while many international NGOs withdrew their staff during the fighting.

Mahmud Al Ali, a 45-year-old Arab laborer living at Washokani, said that he and his family tried to stay in his village for over a month, but continuous mortar fire forced him to leave. Now all of the village’s original inhabitants have left, he said. “There’s no heat, no electricity. We want the NGOs to help.”

Schools — such as this one in Qamishlo — have become shelters for internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing the incursion. Students have not been able to attend classes while the school has been used for this purpose, but many displaced people would prefer to stay where they are rather than face a hard winter in camps that are inadequately prepared for poor weather. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

“We were very happy before these attacks. We had our own businesses, our own lives,” said Farhan Musa Al Mahal, a 35-year-old Arab refugee in the camp. He said that the Turkish-backed militias took everything he had. “Before these attacks, we used to respect Mr. Trump because the SDF and the Americans kicked out ISIS and made us safe,” Mahal said. “We were very thankful to the American people, the American government, and even Mr. Trump. But after this? All we want is peace […] the poor people are always the victims of these battles.”

Salih said that many refugees are afraid to come to camps because there’s a lack of services, and NGOs rarely pledge resources until people arrive — then they have to wait for them. Rent is going up across the region as a result of refugees looking for shelter. Some are living in schools and relatives’ homes in cities like Hasaka and Qamishli.

Leila Murad is a Kurdish member of the Qamishli City Council who has worked hard to accommodate refugees in the city, many of whom have been living in schools and other spaces. “Some people still don’t have a place to go,” she said. “We can’t force people to go to camps, but we have to come up with a solution because we need to send kids back to school.”

“We just want to go back to our home, we don’t want anything else,” said an Arab woman living in a school in Qamishli with her husband and several children. She said that the Turkish-backed militias stole everything from their home and their neighbors, leaving them with nothing. “We used to live a happy life in Ras Al Ain. Arabs, Kurds, Christians — we all lived together. We are not terrorists. Why does Turkey come and attack us? Why do they destroy our lives?” 

Leila Murad of Qamishlo City Council sits in the administrative office of the school where many IDPs are currently taking refuge. She expressed frustration over the incursion and lack of aid being provided in Northeastern Syria. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

Truck driver Ahmed Abdullah Ibrahim, 26, was delivering goods when Coffee or Die spoke to him in Tal Tamr. When the war began, Ibrahim was a college student studying economics but has been driving his truck for seven years. 

“Because of the situation, I need to have another job so I can afford living,” he said. However, he didn’t forget what he learned at school — and he had been watching Northeast Syria’s unique economic predicament with concern.

“We can’t bring goods from Turkey and Europe anymore, so we have to go to Regime areas,” Ibrahim said, which, he added, has led to price hikes at a time when it’s harder for people to earn money. He said that ISIS cells frequently rob people on the roads, further disrupting the economy. 

“People are poor, they can’t buy anything. They’re displaced,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim’s father is a Syrian Arab, and his mother is Kurdish. “I’m both,” he said. “Turkey’s claim that they are here to protect the Arabs or bring the Arabs back is a big lie. We always lived together, we always co-existed with each other and have been neighbors and relatives. This is a fake thing.” The Arabs Turkey is sending into its “safe zone” aren’t people from the region, he added, and they are displacing people of all ethnicities who are.

Truck driver Ahmed Abdullah Ibrahim, right, chats during a break at a shop in Tal Tamr. He says many people owe him money after he started deliveries on credit, as no one can afford to buy goods anymore. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

“We are disappointed because the Americans and the Coalition just gave up on us,” Ibrahim said. “If they were here, no one would dare to attack us.”

Mohammad Samalha, a 61-year-old Kurdish farmer displaced by Turkish shelling, travelled to Tal Tamr after Turkish-backed militias drove him and his family from their farm. He fled along with his wife, children, and his eldest son’s wife and four children — 12 people in all. He said that Syrian regime forces came near the village but haven’t done anything to drive out the Turkish-backed militants.

When news first broke that Syrian Regime troops would return to Northeast Syria many — particularly Arabs who had participated in the protests and fighting against the regime in the early days of the revolution — feared their return. However, most of the soldiers who arrived were poorly equipped young draftees who, in a darkly ironic fashion, are ferried to the front lines in cattle trucks.

Fear quickly turned to pity. Some SDF fighters and locals occasionally brought them food and basic goods. “[The regime] treats them like sheep,” one Kurdish local told Coffee or Die. Syrian troops are more often than not used as cannon fodder by the Russian and Iranian advisers who largely run the regime’s war effort. However, despite regime troops being ill-equipped and badly trained, their presence in towns and cities across Northeast Syria pose a potentially long-term problem for the SDF.

“We are very angry. We have been displaced — this is the second time we’ve been displaced. First by ISIS, and now again.”

Turkish and Syrian intelligence officials recently met in Moscow. A Turkish official told Reuters that among the topics of discussion was “the possibility of working together against YPG.” Turkish and Syrian intelligence had several meetings over the summer in the lead up to the Turkish invasion as both conducted covert campaigns against the SDF. Though Syrian troops have fought Turkish-backed militants, they’ve rarely engaged Turkish troops directly in Northeast Syria.The two sides continue to have conflicting demands, but Russia has pushed hard to mend fences as the Kremlin increasingly partners with both countries.

Samalha’s family had lived in the same village since 1953. “We built that village, we established it,” he said. “We are farmers — look at my hands! In just seconds, everything is gone. Those mercenaries came to my village and stole everything […] my efforts, my father’s efforts erased in a day. All because of a phone call.”

Samalha clutched his prayer beads as he talked. “These men are mercenaries, not Muslims,” he said of the militants who took over his village. “We are very angry. We have been displaced — this is the second time we’ve been displaced. First by ISIS, and now again.

“We are farmers. We are nothing if we lose our lands. We plant our seeds, and we wait for the crops. When we’re displaced, there’s nothing we can do,” Samalha continued. “Without the help of the USA and Europe, they will kill us all. What can we do?”

Habar Akkad, a thickly built Christian fighter with the Syriac Military Council, was drinking coffee in one of the armed faction’s offices in Tal Tamr. Akkad has a dark-red beard and a cross tattooed on his hand. He pointed to the wall behind him that was covered with the portraits of Syriac Christian fighters who died in battles against ISIS. He pointed to each face and said where they were fighting when they died — places like Manbij, Raqqa, and Baghouz.

Habar Akkad, a fighter with the Syriac Military Council, shows his cross tattoo. Behind him, pictures of martyrs lost in the fight against ISIS. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

He wore civilian clothes and explained that when not fighting, he regularly avoids wearing a uniform so as not to look like a target to the aircraft that flew overhead and the snipers who occasionally got near the city — but it often doesn’t make a difference. “When Turkish drones attack, they don’t differentiate between civilians and military,” he said. “When they want to take a village, they just strike everywhere.”

Akkad said that Turkish drones and artillery strikes killed several of his friends as they travelled to and from the front line in convoys. He explained that face-to-face fights with enemy fighters became increasingly rare as the campaign turned into a grind. When Turkish forces wanted to advance, they would saturate with bombs and send their Syrian proxies to fight in their place.

The Syriacs in particular suffered at the hands of ISIS and other Islamist groups — and have proven to be a prime target for Turkish-backed Arab fighters. Badly outgunned Christian fighters are dependent on their Kurdish and Arab Muslim neighbors for help. Despite enduring years of persecution, Akkad said he has no doubt in the Arab Muslim fighters who have come to fight by his side. “Those Arab fighters and us come from communities that have lived together for hundreds of years,” he said. “We trust them, they trust us, and we stand for each other.

“Turkey is demanding this ‘safe zone’ and bringing people from other parts of Syria to put them here. This is demographic change,” he added. “The world powers could make a huge impact if they wanted to. But they don’t want to.”

“Those Arab fighters and us come from communities that have lived together for hundreds of years. We trust them, they trust us, and we stand for each other.”

Turkey, having consolidated much of its gains, announced on January 16 that it intends to construct settlements” in the parts of Northeast Syria that it seized during its invasion. Turkish commanders have even sent some of their Syrian fighters to fight in Libya’s Civil War, increasingly and unapologetically using them as paid mercenaries and abandoning the line that they’re revolutionaries. However, recent reports have emerged of Syrian fighters in Libya attempting to desert by fleeing to Italy.

At various points during Operation Peace Spring, some Syrian fighters mutinied against Turkish commanders. They demanded to go to Idlib to fight against the regime and complained that they wanted to overthrow Assad, not fight the Kurds and other fellow Syrians. In December 2019, some members of the Turkish-backed factions apparently tried to turn over their weapons to the SDF in return for safe passage to Idlib, likely so they could return to fight against the regime. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Russian forces intervened to stop the deal.

In Idlib, people are arguably suffering an even worse crisis. Syrian and Russian aircraft continually bomb the province, which is where many of the Syrians who participated in the protests and later rebellion against Assad have fled to — the last bastion of the revolution. More than 3 million people currently reside in the crowded province, and the ongoing, largely indiscriminate bombing campaign has killed thousands.

To make matters worse, many Syrians there have found themselves under the heel of jihadist fighters and Turkish-backed warlords. While some Syrian revolutionaries have defiantly tried to hold on to pockets of self-governing communities to keep their revolution alive, Islamists control most of the province and deal ruthlessly with dissent. Syrians who have tried to flee to Turkey from Idlib have been gunned down by Turkish-backed militias or Turkish troops. American commandos killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in Idlib just 3 miles from Turkey’s border.

Aid to Northeastern Syria was recently choked after a U.N. Security Council decision led to the closures of all but two routes into the region, one from Turkey and the other from Iraq. Even prior to the decision, conditions in Washokani Camp, just outside the village of Tuwena in Hasakeh Governate, were poor. The populace there currently receives little to no support from NGOs, including the U.N. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

On Dec. 27, 2019, the SDF’s commander General Mazloum Abdi tweeted, “Our doors are open to our people from Idlib. They can coordinate with our military personnel who have origins in Idlib and are affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces to come to our areas.” His tweet referenced the Idlib Revolutionaries Brigade, a faction of Arab fighters that still considers itself a part of the FSA but fights on the side of the SDF against ISIS and several Turkish-controlled FSA factions.

Welcoming refugees from Idlib at a time when the SDF is under considerable pressure is a gamble. While it sends a strong message internationally about the SDF’s values, it further strains the group’s shaky truce with the regime and its Russian and Iranian backers. It also increases the already considerable burden of caring for displaced people as the Kurdish-led Self Administration struggles to care for thousands of people in camps.

Providing services for people in Northeast Syria could get a lot more difficult. On January 10, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that would ramp up delivery of U.N. aid to Syria, but only through border crossings controlled by either the regime or Turkey. It effectively cuts off civilians in areas controlled by the SDF.

“The United Nations has voted to limit the entry of humanitarian aid through the border crossings under the control of Turkey and the Syrian regime, clearly preventing delivery of aid to those in need,” Aldar Xelil a member of the Syrian Kurdish party Movement for a Democratic Society said in a public statement. “This measure contradicts the United Nations’ neutrality and violates its charter as happened previously with respect to the Constitutional Committee, which in last September excluded the Autonomous Administration from negotiations in Geneva and elsewhere.” 

Tal Tamr — a town along the front line with Turkish Forces and Turkish-backed militias — has suffered significantly since the beginning of the incursion. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

The 15 member U.N. Security Council spent much of the winter trying to pass a resolution that would expand aid delivery. In late December 2019, 13 members voted in favor, but permanent members Russia and China vetoed the proposal. Russia has repeatedly vetoed resolutions that would expand the delivery of aid in Syria. In the latest vote, the council essentially capitulated to Russian pressure.

“We believe that the SDF could make real solutions for Syria if America had waited,” said Syriani. “If America can help us come up with a real political solution, they’re free to leave.”

U.S. troops have returned to Syria and currently maintain bases in Hasakah and Deir Ezzor. American special operations forces have also resumed raids against ISIS alongside the SDF. However, mixed messaging has left Syrians confused about what exactly the Americans’ mission is now that they’re back. 

At the 2020 Davos World Economic Forum, Tump said that “we left Syria from the standpoint of the border, and that’s worked great with Turkey. It’s worked better than anyone ever thought possible. Importantly, as you know, we have the oil and we left soldiers for the oil because we protect the oil, and we’re working on that.”

The American operations that Syrians notice most is the mission to protect oil fields in Hasakah and Deir Ezzor. Though Pentagon officials have insisted that the oil will fund the SDF and the Self Administration of Northeast Syria, Trump has repeatedly said that America is “keeping the oil.”

Mohammad Samalha conveys his disappointment with the U.S. by sheer presence. He says he and his family have nothing now, and he isn’t sure what they will next. Photo by Kimberly Westenhiser/Coffee or Die.

Over the holiday season, dismounted American troops were photographed by local media in Hasakah talking to locals. There are rumors around the region that when American soldiers went to Tal Tamr to talk to the locals there, they had a confrontation with Russian troops that turned into a fist fight on Christmas Day — though no shots were fired and no one died. Neither side has addressed the rumors of the supposed brawl.

Lately, local Kurdish reporters have also documented several standoffs between Russian and American forces on the roads in Northeast Syria, particularly roads leading into areas that have oil fields, where U.S. troops blocked the movement of Russian military convoys.

“Those remaining [American] troops are just here for the oil. They don’t do anything to protect us from these Turkish attacks,” said Syriani. “If they’re just here for the oil, they might as well leave.” He warned that while the people of Northeast Syria once saw the Americans as heroes — and that the Americans are still technically allies of the SDF — they risk outstaying their welcome under the present circumstances.

“The American forces here need to help us if we are allies. If they won’t, people will begin to see them as occupiers just like Turkey,” said Syriani. “Many civilians here believe the U.S. gave Turkey the green light to attack us.” 

The tired young fighter paused. “But we are allies, and we want to keep fighting together.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included a photo caption that incorrectly identified Ahmed Abdullah Ibrahim as a store owner; he is a truck driver. The caption has been updated. The text has also been updated to clarify that Syrian fighters in Libya were fleeing to Italy.

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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