Al-Hasakah, At The Crossroads Of The Syrian Civil War

Kurdish fighters and the forces loyal to the Syrian regime have settled into a delicate coexistence against jihadists in this city marked by chaos and competing interests.

Two YPG fighters near al-Hasakah, Syria
Two YPG fighters near al-Hasakah, Syria
Allan Kaval

AL-HASAKAH — On the large roundabout that marks one of the entrances into Al-Hasakah, in northeastern Syria, the Kurdish red, green and yellow colors have recently replaced those of the Syrian flag. On the monument in the center, portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been painted over with emblems of the People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the two branches of the Syrian Kurdish military forces.

Trenches are dug directly into the main roads and sand bags pile high here, for the balance seems to always shift in this city that is quite literally at the crossroads of the civil war that has engulfed this country for four years.

Gathering in the middle of the road, local residents form a group around a stationary minibus that belongs to the Asayish, or Kurdish security forces. Into the open side door, young men pass their identity papers. The less fortunate, those who don’t have the right papers, will be recruited for military service in the YPG. A few streets away, in another neighborhood and at another checkpoint, they could have been forced into the Assad regime’s army. But here, on this road, the Kurds now make the rules, controlling civilian vehicles that enter and exit the city.

Taken over by the Kurds at the end of January, the traffic circle is seen as a war trophy. With a slight smile on his face, “comrade Ahmet,” an officer of the Kurdish security forces, remembers this brief moment of military glory. “Bashar’s forces attacked us from the north but our sharpshooters managed to push them back quite easily from the top of the silos.”

In al-Hasakah — Photo: Cengiz Yar Jr./ZUMA

Terror contractors

At the time of the January clashes, the Syrian army deployed tanks in several parts of the city, and entire neighborhoods were turned into war zones. But the regime and the Kurdish forces managed to negotiate a peace agreement and seem to have recovered the delicate coexistence that has marked their relations in this zone for almost three years. Yet tensions haven't stilled here, where Kurds and Arabs have vowed a lasting hatred of one another and where a once-abundant Christian community is slowly vanishing.

While so-called attrition warfare between Kurdish forces and ISIS jihadists is taking root in the devastated countryside around Al-Hasakah, Kurdish targets are hit by bombings. The deadliest attack happened on March 20, 2014, during Kurdish New Year celebrations, killing 35 people.

The confrontation between the Kurdish forces, the regime and ISIS, however, doesn’t diminish the complexity of the city's power struggles. "Here, the Kurds no longer have problems with the regime soldiers," comrade Ahmet explains. "They can come and go as they want. On the other hand, we never let the Arab militias approach our positions."

In Al-Hasakah, as in every place where Damascus has managed to maintain influence, the Syrian regime has been able to rely on local potentates, terror contractors maneuvering at the crossroads of paramilitary order, militia tribalism and local banditry. Divided into a multitude of more or less official entities, they are reportedly supervised and trained by members of the Iranian armed forces and Hezbollah. In the abandoned streets of Al-Hasakah, with the Kurdish heads, they have been engaging in a battle of influence, in which, from isolated shootings to abductions with ransoms, the regional geopolitics revolves around gang wars.

Leaving al-Hasakah — Photo: Cengiz Yar Jr./ZUMA

“The regime knows exactly how to use them against each other and make the most out of the situation to maintain itself,” explains an Al-Hasakah resident involved in the local political game.

Masters of chaos

“I don’t think the regime has the intention of frontally attacking the Kurds, but in Al-Hasakah, if it continues, clashes can resume at any moment,” says Redur Khalil, the spokesperson of the YPG-YPJ. Unparalleled masters of chaos, the Syrian authorities are indeed well-advised to maintain a certain level of violence to a backdrop of ancient rivalries between Kurds and Arabs. Second-rank citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic before the revolution, the Kurds now have an army and a police force, armed men in uniforms that will be able to be the instrument of revenge. Certain Arab families turn to the Syrian state, the only guarantor of their historical supremacy, some having been set in the region during the Arabization campaigns in the 1970s.

As the sun sets on the roundabout, there are fewer cars and an old Arab man dressed in Bedouin clothes has come to find the Kurdish security, along with two young men from his family. After saluting them briefly in Kurdish, he asks for his son, who was enrolled by the Asayish the same day at this checkpoint. In an atmosphere thickened by decades of resentment, he waits, then fills in an unclear administrative document before he’s asked to leave. It's just another moment of suffering and frustration in a city where arbitrariness hasn’t changed sides, but has simply become democratized.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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