At quarter past four in the afternoon, three coffins are carried out from the National Hospital in Al-Malikiyah. They are placed in cars covered with Kurdish flags and portrait pictures of the dead. The cars take the lead in a caravan heading out of the town. People of all ages line the road in a simultaneous expression of condolence and display of patriotic unity. Slogans and songs celebrating the Kurdish militias blast from loudspeakers attached to one of the pickup trucks. An hour later, the procession arrives at the cemetery. Some 800 people gather around the coffins to bid a last farewell. A cry rises from the crowd: “Martyrs do not die."
The day before, three unmarked trucks approached a checkpoint near the village of Gir Ziro, raising the suspicions of the Kurdish Asayish militia men stationed there. After the guards opened fire, the vehicles exploded. Three women lost their husbands and fifteen children lost their fathers. Thirteen others were wounded in the blasts. If the assailants managed to reach their intended targets, the casualties might have been considerably higher.
Collision in the North-East
Kurdish militias began to take control of territory in northern Syria in July of last year. Some areas had already been vacated by the regime forces. The soldiers and policemen in the remaining garrisons were simply asked to surrender their weapons and return home. Only few local commanders decided to put up a fight. During the following 12-month period, the Kurds slowly expanded their territory. Some neighboring areas were captured by Islamist groups instead, which led to sporadic clashes. After a fragile ceasefire broke down in July this year, the Islamists attacked the Kurdish areas in force.
The main players on the Islamist side are two groups formally affiliated with Al-Qaida: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). On the Kurdish side stand militias that are inspired by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and de facto controlled by its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The People’s Defense Units (YPG) and the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) handle the frontline fighting, while the Asayish take care of security in the rear and inside population centers.
In the frontline south of Al-Maabadah, YPG and YPJ fighters have dug simple shelters and built sand walls for cover. The position was recently attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra. Empty cartridges from a dushka, or heavy machine gun, lie scattered on the ground. Derek, a militiaman from nearby Rimelan, claims that large amounts of drugs have been found in the pockets of dead enemy fighters. Taking them may not reduce the risk of getting killed in a frontal assault, but it will reduce the fear of it.
"They do not fall down when we shoot them, they just keep going," says Derek. "They want to go there," he adds with a wry smile, pointing at the sky.
Attacks tend to take place at night to reduce visibility, but there are few other means available to reduce casualties in these World War I-like battles. If either side wants to attack the position of their adversary, they must run across the flat and open landscape. The Islamists occasionally use T-55 tanks or BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles to shield their advancing fighters. Luckily for the Kurds, these old models can be knocked out with their similarly outdated anti-tank weapons. If either side would get their hands on more heavy or advanced weaponry, or better-armored vehicles, they might get a decisive advantage.
So far, the Kurdish militias have managed to gain the upper hand in the frontline fighting. The Islamist groups have been driven out from village after village over the past few weeks. However, they still have one method at their disposal that is almost guaranteed to inflict Kurdish casualties: suicide car bombs. The direct military impact of such attacks has been limited so far, but the psychological effect is all the more significant.
An ideological battle
There are substantial economic interests involved in this conflict, as both sides seek to control the oil and gas resources in the area. In the shorter term these resources can satisfy the military and civilian demand for makeshift fuel. In the longer term they could generate considerable profit. However, the conflict in the northeast does not stand between loot-seeking warlords. At the core lie profound ideological differences between the two sides.
"The Islamist groups see women like machines that just live to take care of their men," says Sozdar, one of the female militia commanders serving in the frontline. "This is completely contrary to our ideas."
While all of the Syrian Kurdish political parties promote gender equality and a secular democratic system, their adversaries seek to establish an Islamic caliphate and introduce Sharia legislation. There is no middle ground to be found between these two political ideals. Far from all Kurds support the PYD, but almost no one would prefer the rule of the Islamists.
Hearts, minds and protection
The north-eastern corner of Syria is dominated by Kurds, but many Syriac and Armenian Christians also live here. The relations between these groups are generally characterized by trust and cooperation. While some Christians have misgivings about the Kurdish nationalist project, such concerns are clearly outweighed by their strong fear of the Islamists. Some have joined the YPG or Asayish, while others have set up their own armed units that co-ordinate their activities closely with the Kurdish militias.
The Arab population constitutes a wild card in the ongoing power struggle in the northeast. No one has yet been able to conclusively win the majority over on their side. Traditionally, Arabs here have often stood close to the regime, but now they need to look elsewhere for protection. Substantial numbers have fled to the Kurdish areas after their towns and villages have been captured by Islamist groups. Some have even joined the Kurdish militias in order to drive the Islamists back out. At the same time, there are clearly others that have welcomed the arrival of these groups. Yet others might be prepared to support moderate rebel forces if they would only gain a stronger presence. Last but not least, the regime is still in the game, although it has been severely weakened.
The other enemy
In one of the main roads passing through the city of Qamishli, a statue of Hafez Assad stands untouched in the middle of a roundabout. Tattered and bleak regime flags hang behind the soldiers standing a few meters away on the pavement. This is the checkpoint that marks the entrance to one of the remaining regime-controlled areas in a city that is otherwise mostly in the hands of the Kurdish militias.
Critics, including Syrian Kurdish politicians, accuse the PYD and their militias of directly cooperating with the regime. Indeed, it is hard to believe that there would not be any sort of agreement between them. Supporters of the Kurdish militias argue that they only tolerate these remaining islands of regime presence because they fear heavy civilian casualties in the case of direct confrontation. The destroyed cities and traumatized populations of Aleppo, Hama and Homs demonstrate what might otherwise lie ahead.
Unlike many of the Arabs and at least some of the Christians in the city, the Kurds feel no love for the regime that has oppressed them for decades. This goes for the PYD and their militias as much as for anyone else. However, while they may be on the verge of clearing the northeastern corner of Islamist groups, the situation further west is far more critical. Initiating hostilities with the regime at this point in time would mean getting involved in a two-front war. Sooner or later, something has got to give in Qamishli. For the Kurdish militias, it would clearly rather be later.