A militia loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad attacked the Kurdish Asayesh security forces in Hasaka, in the northeast of the country, on Sunday, breaking a longstanding, tense lull in hostilities between the two sides.
Syrian Kurdish forces — particularly the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) — have for years fought against Sunni jihadist groups in Syria and cooperated with allied U.S. forces. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition comprised largely of YPG fighters, were the primary militia involved in the liberation of Raqqa, the “capital” of the Islamic State “caliphate,” in 2017.
During the Islamic State’s reign of terror, the YPG primarily focused on fighting them and establishing a sovereign Kurdistan in the territory known as Rovjava, to the nation’s north. The Syrian army under Assad, and its Russian and Iranian allies, spent most of their time instead fighting against majority-Sunni rebel groups seeking to overthrow the regime in Damascus. The complicated theater that emerged during the peak years of the Syrian civil war meant the Kurds and the Assad forces were fighting parallel wars with little interaction with each other.
In the aftermath of the defeat of the Islamic State, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invaded Syria to attack the Kurdish forces, claiming the YPG and its all-female force, the YPJ, were a wing of the U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Years before the launch of “Operation Peace Spring” in 2019, Turkey’s formal name for its invasion of Syria, Erdogan had said Turkey would only invade Syria to “end the rule of the tyrant Assad, who terrorizes with state terror,” and “no other reason.” Assad has also referred to Erdogan as a “terrorist.”
Turkey has maintained a consistent presence in Syrian Kurdistan for over a year now, without significantly threatening the stability of the Assad regime. With few remaining enemies in between him and a complete end to the Syrian Civil War, Assad has now begun turning his attention to the Kurdish forces.
The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), run by the Assad regime, reported favorably on Sunday that protests by Arab residents had swept Hasaka and Qamishli. SANA claimed that the protesters were demanding the end of both the U.S. and Turkish military presence in Syria and accused Kurdish forces of firing into the crowd of protesters. Rudaw, a Kurdish news agency, reported that Kurdish forces did engage in a “firefight,” but against the National Defense Forces allied with Assad.
The protests were also allegedly in response to a “siege” by Kurdish forces on the towns in response to an Assad regime blockade on a Kurdish region and did not prevent civilians from moving around freely, according to Rudaw. Kurdish forces control both towns but Assad fighters remain present in some small areas of town. The “siege” reportedly only affects soldiers in those areas.
In 2018, SDF negotiators brokered a deal with the Assad regime and its Russian allies in exchange for protection from ongoing Turkish attack that included handing over some parts of Rojava to Assad, despite the historic Kurdish control of the affected areas. The deal followed an announcement by the U.S. at the time that it would seek to withdraw from Syria entirely, which has yet to occur. Russian negotiators have long sought to convince the Kurds to hand over all of Hasaka.
“We don’t like or prefer this scenario,” Elham Ahmad, the co-president of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, told Breitbart News in early 2019. “If we enable the regime on our border, that would be considered a defeat to the democratic project that we were able to build. We were forced to choose — either Turkish tanks and aerial bombardment … or putting the regime forces on the border between us and Turkey.”
“To break the siege, regime forces ‘began to incite the residents and their supporters to hold a demonstration’ in both Hasaka and Qamishli on Sunday morning,” Rudaw reported, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Voice of America confirmed that at least one person, a police officer, died in the clash on Sunday.
“In response, militiamen affiliated with the Syrian government attacked a nearby checkpoint manned by Kurdish fighters, prompting a shootout between the two sides, local news media reported,” Voice of America added. The outlet, citing regional geopolitical experts, noted that one cause of tensions is the potential of Assad negotiating with Erdogan to cooperate on an attack on Kurdish forces.
The local Kurdish forces in the affected towns issued a statement on Monday accusing Assad forces of intentionally seeking to create chaos to expand its influence in the region.
“The National Defense Militia continues to sow discord among the different components of the region, especially after it has targeted our security checkpoints in Qamishli and today targeted our security points in Hasaka,” the statement read, according to Rudaw.