Residents of divided Syrian town Qamiishli enjoy autonomy amidst political purgatory

Qamishli, autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – Billboards of Bashar al-Assad overlook a traffic circle in downtown Qamishli. A section of the traffic circle is controlled by Assad’s regime, while the remainder is held by coalition SDF forces. (Bottom Left) A regime traffic officer standing in the SDF controlled part of traffic circle.”Qamishli, Syria – This town in northeastern Syria has slipped into a largely quiet truce between forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad and Kurdish militia fighters.

Each group holds an area but allows civilians to pass unmolested from one quarter to the other.

Qamishli sits 180 miles east of the Euphrates River outside the zone where the Turkish army has been fighting Kurdish groups since January.

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

The Syrian Democratic Forces are a US-supported army of Kurds and other anti-Assad revolutionaries. But they have rejected the militant Islamism that Turkey has supported among other Sunni Muslim rebels.

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

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

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

But SDF advances in the Islamic State’s largest remaining bastion in Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria slowed last month after Kurdish members of the group redeployed west to the Afrin area to fight Turkey.

That appeared to bolster Pentagon officials’ concerns of allowing the Islamic State to regroup if President Trump follows through with his call to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria even as he’s also threatening to launch attacks against President Bashar Al Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people.

But in the marketplace in central Qamishli – where the SDF and government forces share jurisdiction – merchants and customers are more concerned about the fluctuating value of the Syrian pound, or SYP. Merchants regularly use American dollars and other foreign currencies in their day to day businesses due to the instability of their native currency.

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

The SYP had reached 415 to the U.S. dollar prior to President Donald Trump’s announcement that missiles 'will be coming' to Assad’s military assets in response to Saturday’s chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Douma in the Damascus suburbs.

The stronger Syrian currency reflected confidence in Al Assad’s regime even as he took potentially used weapons of mass destruction to achieve them. By midweek, after Trump’s threats, it fell to the 515 SYP to the dollar raising the cost of food again in the Qamishli marketplace.

Qamishli residents’ don't welcome a American military escalation. They have been enjoying their political autonomy and rise as a trading center with access to goods from Turkey and Iraq and customers from throughout Syria.

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

Still, Qamishli s experiment in power sharing and self-defense has drawn respect in Western capitals desperate to see Syrians capable of forging a better future for themselves.

Last week a group of British parliamentarians visited the city and called for an American and European commitment to its people.  

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

Local leaders could not have been more pleased.

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

Last Sunday the Assyrian Christian community here celebrated Easter.

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

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

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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