QAMISHLI, Syria — It’s 9 P.M. and pitch black. On the M4 highway connecting the towns Tal Tamr and Qamishli, a checkpoint held by Kurdish forces is lit up like a Christmas tree. Cones on the asphalt lead in to the crossing.
But this checkpoint is now vacant. A pickup truck rushes at full speed: The Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units, the YPG, vacate their positions. “We’re leaving, the regime is coming,” one of them whispers through the window.
This was the moment the country’s destiny was seemingly changed forever.
The Kurdish authorities, cornered as U.S. troops withdraw from northern Syria, announced Sunday they had reached an agreement with the Assad regime, under the aegis of Russia, letting Syrian regime forces into the north. The goal: To stop the advance of Turkish troops and their affiliates one week into Ankara’s offensive. In exchange for Damascus’ protection, several Kurdish-controlled cities will again hoist the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic, but the exact details of the agreement remain either unknown or disputed.
The world has changed in the week since Ankara sent in the troops, three days after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the area. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to expel Kurdish forces from Turkey’s self-declared security zone along the border. It’s an assault that has already caused the exodus of at least 160,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.
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At 6 A.M. Monday, dozens of cars were lined up at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing at Semalka, hoping to find refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Mohammed Ali, 58, has brought his wife and two daughters, whom he wants to take to the other side of the river. “It’s an unprecedented crisis. We had no choice but to make an agreement with the regime,” says this Kurd from Tal Tamr, 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of Qamishli.
Out on a bleak plain that floods at the border crossing, dawn looks like twilight. “It’s a good solution. I think the regime will just take the border posts and not control all of Rojava,” he predicts, referring to the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria. However, he says this more like a question, not yet knowing that his hometown will fall a few hours later to Damascus.
As the rest of Syria was torn apart by battles and political bickering, the country’s Kurds managed to build their de facto autonomous region. But they never completely severed ties with Damascus, despite stormy relations — or worse — under Bashar Assad and his father Hafez. Today the Kurdish administration is visibly rupturing.
“What we do know is that the regime has consistently demanded essentially full surrender without granting the Kurds anything,” says Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “And the Kurds are extremely weak at the moment. They have no leverage.”
‘Where will we go next?’
Early Saturday, dozens of families pressed up against the closed doors of the Semalka crossing. Maryam Ibrahim was one of the refugees waiting on the banks of the Tigris River to cross into the relative safety of northern Iraq.
“I can’t cry anymore, I have no more tears to shed. I can’t walk, my legs don’t carry me anymore. I just want God to stop this war,” sobs the 70-year-old. “I think we have only enemies.” Children surround her; they too sob.
“To date, Turkey has benefited from the U.S. refusal to close the airspace over the Kurdish areas to prevent Turkish airstrikes. For this agreement to work, Russia will have to close the airspace to Turkish attacks,” says Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security.
“Ultimately, this agreement between the SDF and the Assad regime is the first step in a long road toward the eventual integration of northern and eastern Syria into a future Syrian state led by Bashar Assad,” he adds, referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
When Imane Haj Mamo heard the planes, she didn’t pay attention at first, thinking they were jets of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS. Then the Turkish bombs fell. She left her home in the border town of Ras al-Ain without taking anything — not even the drugs for her sick daughter — and found refuge in a classroom with her children and two other families in a primary school in the city of Hasaka.
Women and children fled Ras al-Ain last Wednesday at the start of the Turkish offensive, while their husbands remained to defend the town.
This 40-year-old mother knows only too well the feeling of exodus. She fled Aleppo in 2012 during clashes between rebels and the Assad regime. She then took refuge in Kobane, but ISIS arrived and killed her father and her older brother, Arun.
She then had to flee Kobane. She had been living in Ras al-Ain for five years when the war returned; she had to flee again. In tears, her voice breaking, she asks, “Where will we go next?”
‘Where are the Americans?’
In Qamishli, the capital of the Kurdish region, bustling streets have been deserted. The silence is only interrupted by the barking of stray dogs and the echo of explosions. Despair fills the air inside Farman Hospital. “It’s a disaster, it’s a disaster,” mutters an orthopedic surgeon.
A bearded man with shrapnel is his stomach, Massoud Ali Mehdi, loses his breath as he curses America’s “abandonment.”
“We’re much more afraid of the Turks than of the Islamic State,” he says. “Our fighters have given their lives to defeat the jihadists, and now Erdogan is here to finish us off.”
Similar comments can be heard at the hospital in Tal Tamr. “Where are the Americans? Where?” laments a man who goes by the nom de guerre Delil Hasaka. Sprawled out on a stretcher, this Arab fighter was wounded in the leg and back in an airstrike that killed his best friend.
“I fought in the Syrian Democratic Forces to retake Raqqa from ISIS,” he says. “This battle was nothing compared to what we’re seeing now. At least ISIS didn’t have warplanes,” he adds, visibly in pain as nurses carry him to the operating room.
Suddenly, a crackle. Bullets are lost over the sky of Tal Tamr. “A dormant ISIS cell is attacking,” says a soldier guarding the entrance to the hospital.
A few minutes later, silence returns. At a checkpoint on the city’s periphery, witnesses say that four or five masked men tailed a pickup truck of members of the Kurds’ People’s Protection Units, who fired warning shots when they saw they were being followed. The interlopers tried to escape before being arrested.
Were they really Islamic State fighters? The enemy — the enemies — are crafty and, amid the chaos, paranoia is high. On Sunday, the Kurds announced the escape of nearly 800 relatives of ISIS members from an internally displaced persons’ camp north of Raqqa; other escapes have also been reported. Some 12,000 ISIS fighters, including as many as 3,000 foreigners, are believed to be held in Kurdish-controlled prisons.
The repercussions of recent developments are vast and constitute a nightmare for governments in Europe and beyond. Could ISIS fighters from Europe and their families, now held in camps and prisons across Syrian Kurdistan, end up in the hands of the Assad regime? Where will the fighters who managed to flee end up? Will the current chaos be fertile ground for the terror group’s resurgence, which is already well underway?
These questions are expected to haunt the region for years, with the present mourning overshadowed by fear, anger and despair. The Kurds’ adage that they “have no friends but the mountains” has rarely sounded more true.
Gareth Browne contributed to this story.