Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Dispatch From A Divided City: The Confusing Plight Of Qamishli


Now to Syria. In a divided town, two sides maintain a fragile working coexistence. One side is run by ethnic Kurds, who fight with U.S. against the Islamic State. Another part of town is under the regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, who's opposed by both the U.S. and the Kurds. NPR's Alice Fordham visited and reports on how people navigate the overlapping powers from one street to another.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The city of Qamishli is confusing. Take this traffic circle - it features two statues of Hafez al-Assad, the autocratic father of today's Syrian president, and regime traffic police checking cars. But then a few 100-yards away at another intersection, there are other traffic cops with different uniforms - the logo written Kurdish rather than Arabic - and posters of a Kurdish leader imprisoned in Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan.

Like much of northeastern Syria, control of this city is divided between ethnic Kurds aspiring to self-rule and the weakened regime of Bashir al-Assad. And that makes for a strange daily life. I meet Dlovan Asaad, a Kurdish man weighing out apples in his dad's grocer's store in a Kurdish-controlled part of the city.

DLOVAN ASAAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Yeah," he says, "areas like this one are controlled by the Kurds. They have a local administration system." And then he says, "the regime holds some parts of the market and has a road to an airport, which it also controls." I ask if he crosses over from the Kurdish into the regime areas.

ASAAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Oh, yeah." He's studying at a regime-run university in a nearby city. So while he's here, he actually leaves the Kurdish area and goes to the regime side to show them the paperwork that proves he's a student and keeps him from getting hauled in to serve in the Syrian military.

ASAAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says he really hopes the Kurds take full control of the city, but he doesn't seem very sure they will. And that could make sense because the hallmark of the main Kurdish group here seems to be pragmatism. That group, the YPG, fights against ISIS and has allied with the U.S.-led coalition, which calls for the fall of the Assad regime. But in this city of Qamishli, despite occasional clashes, Kurds and regime generally coexist. The regime is more interested in fighting rebels and the Kurds mostly stake out their own territory and fight ISIS. It kind of makes sense, but it's unpopular in some quarters. There are a lot of Kurds who hate the Syrian government's discriminatory policies against them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Because this regime has deprived them of their nationality - a citizenship, that's to say. It has deprived them of the right of speaking in their own mother-language. It has deprived them of working. So it's really strange that the Kurds stand by the regime.

FORDHAM: This man is afraid to let us use his name, afraid of the Kurdish forces here, although he's a Kurd. He thinks this is a just a temporary marriage of convenience between Kurds and regime. I ask if he thinks the regime will take back full control.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It depends on the superpowers. So if the superpowers want to - the regime be back, he will be back here.

FORDHAM: For now, he says it suits the U.S. to support Kurds against ISIS, but they're just being used. He expects one day Assad will crush the Kurds again. Today's Kurdish control, he says, is all sand castles. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Qamishli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.