At the end of April, the Tayy neighborhood, in the southern part of the city of Qamishli in Syria’s Hasaka Province, witnessed violent clashes between the National Defense Forces (NDF) of the Syrian regime and the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). The conflict ended with the negotiation of a permanent truce between the two parties under Russian auspices.
The cease-fire agreement between the Syrian regime and the AANES stipulates several points. The first is the withdrawal of all NDF elements from the Tayy neighborhood while maintaining a “security square” under the control of the Syrian regime, extending from the southern side of the neighborhood near the Abbas Allawi school to the railway at the end of the neighborhood. The second point is the deployment of the regime’s local police inside the neighborhood. This clause, however, has not yet been implemented. Although the Syrian regime sent 200 policemen to the neighborhood days after the agreement, the AANES has not allowed them to enter it to take up their duties per the terms of the deal.
How it all began
The tensions between the NDF and the Asayish erupted due to the arrest of Abdul Fattah al-Laylu, one of the NDF’s leaders, by Asayish forces. Laylu headed a special headquarters inside Tayy, known as the Laylu headquarters, located near the al-Wahda roundabout toward the northern entrance to the neighborhood, which is controlled by the Asayish. As a result of his arrest, fighting broke out between the two parties.
After the Asayish released Laylu, he returned to the Tayy neighborhood. Some NDF elements then opened fire on the Asayish-controlled al-Wahda roundabout, killing Khaled Haji, the Asayish checkpoint security official. That in turn led to an escalation of tensions and an eruption of clashes between the two parties.
Afterward, the AANES brought in ample military reinforcements and cordoned off the Tayy neighborhood from the east, north, and west sides. Its snipers took up positions on the roofs of the buildings between the Salam and al-Wahda roundabouts overlooking the neighborhood. On the first day of their assault, the military forces of the AANES made no progress and the NDF elements were able to withstand their attacks.
On the second day, new formations joined the Asayish, namely the Anti-Terror Forces (HAT), which are special forces highly trained by the U.S. military and equipped with modern machine guns, sniper rifles, night vision goggles, 4x4s, and armor. They were arguably the main force that stormed the Tayy neighborhood, but they were also joined by groups from the Women’s Protection Units, and the Syrian Democratic Forces participated in the battle as well.
On April 26, the military forces of the AANES managed to gain control of the neighborhood after taking the NDF’s Tayy headquarters. This area contained three main headquarters, for al-Laylu, Salem al-Hallosh, and Mahmoud al-Nuhair. The AANES takeover thus ended the presence of the NDF in its most important stronghold in the city of Qamishli.
Iran’s tribal gambit against Washington
The NDF militias in Hasaka Province is considered the weakest military formation and the least well-armed and funded. From mid-2020 until early 2021, the Syrian regime did not pay their salaries, which do not exceed $20 per person per month. The leaders of these militias considered this to be a sign that the regime had abandoned them.
As financial support from the regime was halted, NDF elements have relied on other sources of income, such as monopolizing bread and gas sales on the black market and fencing stolen goods, as alternatives. They have also demanded some charities add certain names as beneficiaries to receive free food baskets and aid rations. They then take the baskets and aid rations themselves and sometimes sell the contents, such as rice, bulgur, and oil, through certain shops in Qamishli, especially in the Tayy neighborhood.
In March 2021, Iran began attempting to win the loyalty of the NDF militias, especially those located in the Tayy neighborhood of Qamishli and in the greater Hasaka Province, by offering to fund them, reorganizing their ranks, and supporting them financially and militarily. This would enable the forces to protect their areas of influence as well as implement Iranian policies in the province.
After the leaders of the NDF accepted the offer, Iran sent military elements to supervise the process of restructuring and training the forces. Once the restructured NDF was established, the pro-Iran elements adopted a new name for it: the Task Forces. They also inserted a militia into the NDF known as Ansar Military Security, which is made up of volunteer tribal elements.
Through supporting the NDF, Iran aims to create a foothold in the province of Hasaka. This is not its first attempt; it had previously tried to recruit tribal members in Hasaka, transferring them to fight in the ranks of its militias deployed elsewhere in Syria. That was particularly the case with members of the Sharabiin and Bakara tribes. Iran tried to utilize the claim that these two tribes descended from the lineage of the Prophet Mohammad, according to popular narratives, to gain their loyalty.
During the clashes between the Asayish and the NDF, Iran did not make any effort to support its ally in the military confrontation, either financially or militarily. Instead, it left the NDF to fight on its own throughout the whole episode, causing its leaders to accuse Iran of betrayal. Thus, the Tayy incident became Iran’s first lost battle in Hasaka. Meanwhile, Iran continues to maintain a good relationship with the NDF in the southern countryside of Qamishli, endeavoring to entice local notables and incite them to organize a tribal resistance against American forces in the region.
However, Iran was not the only one to abandon the NDF during the Tayy neighborhood clashes. The Syrian regime also made no effort to support the militias, despite having a sizable military presence in Hasaka Province. The regime’s reluctance was the result of pressure from the Russians, who rejected its intervention in the battle. Leaving the NDF to fight alone without support operations was in line with Russia’s desire to weaken the emerging Iranian influence in the province — and the effort succeeded.
Mapping territorial control in Hasaka Province
The recent battle between the NDF and the Asayish forces imposed new boundaries of territorial control between the conflicting parties. The AANES strengthened its influence inside Qamishli at the expense of the regime, which lost part of its security square, including the Tayy neighborhood. Yet the regime’s forces maintained their presence in the security square in the neighboring city of Hasaka. Thus, the boundaries of control for each party shifted as follows:
The areas inside the city of Qamishli controlled by the Syrian regime can be divided into four parts. The first, in the north of the city, includes the border crossing with Turkey, the security square, and the headquarters of the Ba’ath Party. The second includes the government square west of the al-Wusta neighborhood, which includes several service departments, in addition to the district directorate and the courthouse. The third includes the National Hospital and the Agricultural Club, along with the Qamishli Airport, which is controlled by the Russians. And the fourth includes the areas east of the city, a military detachment, and the eastern police station.
As for the south of Qamishli, the regime controls the Znoud neighborhood, through the headquarters of the 54th Special Forces Regiment, up to the M4 road. South of the road, the regime controls more than 20 villages and manors extending over an area 20 km south of the city and 10 km wide, in which NDF formations are deployed along with some regime army checkpoints and security detachments.
The AANES controls the entire Hasaka Province except for the areas outlined above where the regime and Russian forces are present, along with the city of Ras al-Ain and part of its countryside, which are controlled by Turkish-backed factions, and its reach has now extended to encompass the Tayy neighborhood in the city of Qamishli as well.
Samer al-Ahmed is a Syrian journalist and researcher. Mohammed Hassan is a university student at the Faculty of Law, Department of International Law. His writings focus on the regions of northern and eastern Syria, especially extremist Islamic groups and tribal societies. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images
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