October 23, 2019 / 6:09 PM / a month ago

As Syria's war mutates, Kurds worry that Damascus will return

QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) - An uneasy, defiant mood hangs over this Kurdish-controlled city, as rapid shifts in Syria’s war place a question mark over the future of Kurdish self-rule in the country’s northeast.

Pharmacist Ali Walid breathed a deep sigh of relief this week when Turkey agreed to halt a military thrust into northeastern Syria aimed at pushing back Kurdish fighters.

But like many other Syrian Kurds in Qamishli, Walid worries that Damascus will try to reimpose control over the areas where Syrian Kurds have carved out self-rule.

“Today, things look more stable than yesterday, but you don’t know what the future will bring. God willing things will be better,” said the 40-year-old.

“We’ve had self-rule, but we fear we will lose this if the (Syrian) regime comes back,” said Walid, standing in front of his small pharmacy. “They never recognized our rule.”

Turkey launched its offensive this month after President Donald Trump pulled U.S. forces out of northeastern Syria. Ankara’s aim was to rout the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers terrorists for its ties to insurgents at home.

Syrian Kurds see the offensive as a threat to the self rule they developed in the largely Kurdish northeast during Syria’s eight years of civil war.

Scrambling for protection, the Kurds invited the Syrian army and its ally Russia to help in their defense against Turkey.

Turkey then agreed on Oct. 17 to pause its offensive for five days to let Kurdish forces withdraw from a “safe zone” Ankara had sought to capture.

In a further shift, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday agreed that their forces would start overseeing the removal of YPG fighters and weapons at least 30 km (19 miles) into Syria.

UNEASY RELATIONSHIP

That accord also seals the return of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces along the northeastern border for the first time in years, by endorsing the deployment of Syrian border guards from Wednesday.

On the minds of many were worries that Syrian forces will come further into Kurdish-controlled areas.

“Why do they want to come in and instill the pre-revolution system, which was all about oppression and the annihilation of an entire people,” said Nora Hassan.

“For us, for the Kurdish people, it was annihilation.”

When a plane was heard overhead, many glanced anxiously to the sky.

“I don’t know,” said a 56-year old man who gave his name only as Hassan, when asked what will happen.

In six days time, Russian and Turkish forces will jointly start to patrol a 10 km strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops for years deployed with their former Kurdish allies.

Qamishli is outside of the Syria-Russia patrol area, but on Tuesday rumors engulfed the town that government forces might expand their grip or take over the roads to neighboring Iraq.

So far, life remains normal.

More than 1,000 Kurds marched through the city to a U.N. base to denounce Erdogan and demand international protection in a demonstration called by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to which the YPG belongs.

The region has enjoyed relative stability since the U.S.-backed SDF defeated Islamic State militants, which had controlled several towns in northeast Syria.

MILITARY BALANCE

But this month’s rapid changes have shaken up the military balance across a quarter of the country, renewing fears of a possible resurgence of the militant Islamist group.

Shortly after the protest, a car bomb went off in central Qamishli on Wednesday, wounding one civilian, witnesses said. Syrian soldiers and Kurdish fighters rushed to the scene but hardly talked to each other, witnesses said.

On Wednesday, Trump said he had been told by Ankara that a ceasefire in northern Syria is now permanent. And SDF commander Mazloum Kobani said Trump had promised to maintain long-term support for Kurdish-led forces in the northeast.

Despite their enmity, Kurdish and Syrian government forces rarely fought each other in the war. While Damascus has pledged to reclaim YPG territory, the two have kept channels open.

The Syrian government has largely left the northeast to self-rule but kept paying public salaries and maintained a presence in Qamishli, controlling part of the city center.

Kurds who skipped Syrian army service or opposed Assad fear persecution should their areas come back under government control. But many still prefer Damascus over Ankara.

“What concerns us currently is that the Turkish invasion stops,” said Talaat Younes, a SDF official. “The (our) self-rule administration is ready for dialogue with the Syrian regime.”

Editing by William Maclean

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