Escape from Qamishli: the night that independent Kurdish Syria died in a deal

When the Kurdish authorities agreed for the regime to return, everything changed in northern Syria writes Gareth Browne in Qamishli

It is not uncommon for the internet and phone networks to go down in north-east Syria.

There are Turkish frontlines barely a few hours drive from the border city of Qamishli and the flickering lights of the Turkish town of Nusaybin just over the frontier remind you of Ankara’s loom over Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region.

So when all connections died shortly after filing my report for the day, I simply wandered to a nearby hotel where the internet is usually more reliable.

“In two hours, this street could be under regime control,” another journalist leaving the hotel said as I entered.

It was a sentence that would set in motion a whirlwind 12 hours for Kurdish-controlled Syria and for me personally.

The grinding eight-year Syrian civil war abruptly changed direction and the landscape of the conflict was redrawn in just hours thanks to a deal.

The long-threatened Turkish offensive was in its fifth day and Ankara-backed forces looked set to take control of two key border towns.

But on Sunday evening, the city’s streets were quieter than usual.

The patrols of Kurdish fighters and Asayish plain-clothed officers sporting their Kalashnikovs were greatly reduced, almost non-existent.

For a moment, my phone connected to a Turkish phone tower on the other side of the border and a flurry of messages pinged.

“Mazloum [Head of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)] is on a Russian base now drinking tea,” read one.

Barely an hour later, Kurdish officials would announce a deal for the Syrian government to take control of a number of cities and towns and to deploy troops in a bid to beat back the Turkish-led offensive.

Kobane, a place synonymous with the fight against ISIS, was among the towns to be handed over.

It was a deal that saw the Kurds give away much of the territory they have fought for the past six years to take back from ISIS. Beyond their survival, there were few details of what the government in Damascus had given in return.

The SDF, without their primary international backer Washington who had pulled troops back to make way for the Turkish assault, were in too frail a position to be laying down demands.

SDF leadership insists the deal was the only alternative to being wiped-out by Turkish forces.

It was, they said, a choice between concession or extinction.

But the deal also brought worry.

The regime has a track record of exacting revenge and settling scores in areas it recaptures.

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But more personally, the regime has a terrible reputation with the press and sees foreign journalists entering any areas of Syria without almost impossible to secure accreditation from Damascus as fair game for arrest.

As we throttle out of Qamishli, barely 20 minutes after that initial WhatsApp ping, I’m struck by the feeling that the experiment that was the statelet of Rojava – whatever one thinks of it – is collapsing in front of me in a matter of hours, at the whim of international powers.

Every time the silhouettes of soldiers manning another checkpoint come into view, our driver slows as he squints into the dark. Is the position held by the SDF, the Kurdish YPG fighters or had government troops already got so far north?

In Qamishli, the government has held parts of the city centre city all through the war, but now there were reports of new regime checkpoints popping up across the area.

One of Syria’s most stable and secure areas was suddenly unpredictable. Given the increased dangers for the international press, and those working with it, almost all journalists pulled out.

Kurdish officials continue to insist nothing has changed for the media and nothing has changed for the administration or security of cities. Senior Kurdish official Alder Xelil said on Monday that “Rojava lives on”.

But it remains to be seen whether a regime that takes as naturally to deception as Damascus does can be trusted to honour their deal.

But more pressing on Sunday night was the question of what happens to Semelka border crossing with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.

The border point has been the way through for journalists reporting the fall of ISIS and its aftermath.

But it’s also been a lifeline to independence with officials travelling overseas, families coming back and forth and trade moving across away from the auspices of either Damascus or Turkey.

With suggestions that government forces may be heading to take this exit point as well, a move that would have left us trapped in the country, Sunday night turned into a race to Semelka.

Yet whilst the foreign press corps were able to flee, it was not the case for many local journalists and fixers.

Many of them have avoided the government’s draconian and deadly conscription policies but that might change with Damascus’ return. My fixer said he most feared being forced to fight in the army.

It’s still premature to judge whether the Rojava experiment is dead. But if it lives on, it will do in a dramatically different fashion under the patronage of Russia and Damascus.

The Kurdish autonomous region in this corner of Syria has bought a semblance of stability, and breathing space for a relatively normal, if flawed, statelet to function.

At the same time, it was inherently perceived as an existential threat by Ankara, a fact many of its with which many of its key apologists repeatedly failed to engage.

I recall sitting in a UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee grilling of then foreign ministry official for the Middle East Alistair Burt last year. An otherwise competent minister, well-versed in his brief bumbled around direct questioning on the SDF’s links to the PKK – a guerrilla group that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state for decades.

His response was an indicator of the wider flaws in the international approach to Rojava and the failure to address the central tension between an internationally backed force loathed by a Nato ally.

The SDF leadership has opted to put its faith in Bashar Al Assad, and his backers in Moscow. But it was a decision made in desperation, and, as many who had fled fighting in Ras Al Ain told me on Saturday, there was still hope the US will come to the rescue. Despite all that has happened, there was still faith in Washington.

The entire international press corps left north-east Syria in a matter of hours on Sunday, but the Rojava experiment looks like it will limp on, cameras or not. That said, whatever remains of the project from here, it is set to be very, very different.