QAMISHLI, Syria — The Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishli, seen as the capital of Syrian Kurdistan, saw its second day of heavy clashes between the pro-Assad militias and Kurdish fighters on Thursday. Many civilians could be seen fleeing the city while cars with Kurdish reinforcements rushed in, shouting and flashing victory signs.
The uptick in violence appeared to be heading toward all-out war between the Kurds affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), America’s most trusted ground proxy in the coalition campaign against the Islamic State, and pro-Assad Arab tribes. Such a sideshow conflict could threaten to drag the United States in, for the first time, against Damascus—something the Obama administration has been loath to do as it concentrates on degrading and destroying the so-called caliphate. But everywhere, as of late Thursday evening, the sound of heavy mortars and gunfire could still be heard.
The Daily Beast witnessed many Kurdish civilians fleeing Qamishli for nearby villages. “I am bringing my wife outside of the city, and then I will come back to fight,” one civilian said.
While all throughout Thursday morning Qamishli was quiet, violence spiked in the afternoon when the regime, for the first time in the entirety of the five-year Syrian conflict, started to use heavy artillery in the city.
As a result of the intense fighting, it became impossible to reach the outskirts of the city. “There are no roads, friend, you better go back for your own safety, since you are a foreigner,” a fighter told The Daily Beast, speaking in Kurdish.
“Apparently, the truce failed and Asayish [Kurdish security tied to the PYD] opened fire on the SAA [Syrian Arab Army] after they captured the Alaya Prison. Both sides blame one another. But the PYD and the Syrian government are still negotiating,” Leith Abou Fadel, editor of the pro-government, Syrian Arabic news website al-Masdar, told The Daily Beast.
The Syrian regime got angry when the Kurds manage to advance and take the regime’s Alaya prison, capturing at least 67 regime soldiers and killing five. The regime responded by firing artillery at noon and allegedly killing 60-year-old Saadia Mohammed and injuring 20 more civilians on Qamishli’s Zaytunia street. Although pictures of dead Kurds were exhibited on social media of, The Daily Beast could not confirm the death of any as of press time.
“The fighting today started from yesterday until today and they liberated the prison and the regime bakery,” said Bave Welat, a member of the Kurdish security police. “We want to get rid of the regime from Qamishli, and today six our members were martyred.”
The prison was completely isolated. The Daily Beast managed to drive up to the site, but local Kurdish fighters prohibited a visiting the facility during the nighttime hours. “The fighting is still ongoing and we have taken the prison after they killed our comrades, that’s why we have brought all of our forces to this region,” said Bave Agid, a local Asayish leader stationed next to the prison. “About four to five high-ranking regime officers were arrested, and 55 soldiers.”
The Kurds say the prison was used as a defensive position for the regime, and that even Iranian fighters beholden to Assad were arrested. “We got information that the regime mercenaries started to pay Arabs to prepare them for a war and they joined the National Defense Forces,” Agid said, referring to a prominent pro-regime militia. “There is fighting now all over the city.”
“I think we have four martyrs at this point, and maybe in Al-Wahda six members of our forces were martyred,” he added.
Curiously, an ISIS suicide bomber attacked the Kurdish forces in nearby al-Wahda, where clashes were also taking place between regime forces and the Kurds. The simultaneity of the attacks led to rumors of collaboration between Assad and ISIS—rumors that previously were bandied about by Free Syrian Army rebels.
“This shows that ISIS is also in alliance with the regime and coordinating with them,” Agid told The Daily Beast.
The fighting also reached Arab villages outside Qamishli such as Khirbat Hamu. Most Kurds believe that these clashes owe to the Kurds’ announcement last March of a semi-autonomous federal region for northern Syria.
“The regime rejects the establishment of a federal region and wants to control all the regions. That’s why they try to create chaos,” said Mansour Saloum, the Arab co-chair of the newly established federal region, told The Daily Beast. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition don’t allow the Kurds to get their rights,” he added.
Even Kurdish rivals of the PYD seem to think the clashes are related to now-ended diplomatic negotiations in Geneva.
“We heard a few days ago there was an intervention by Algeria, to set up talks between the Syrian government and Turkey, and the PYD is angry, and is trying to control the whole Kurdish areas,” said Majdal Delil, a member of the Kurdish Unity Party, which, unlike the PYD, is part of the Syrian opposition delegation to Geneva.
Most likely the fighting will continue, although there are reports about a regime delegation arriving from Damascus to negotiate a ceasefire.
“It’s certain that the fighting will continue because all our forces are ready and are armed to fight,” said Agid. “What will happen later, we don’t know.”