When American military vehicles and personnel rolled into the Kurdish-majority border town of Qamishli on Saturday, resident Ivan Abu Zeid and his neighbors took to the streets.
Abu Zeid and his fellow residents didn’t go to protest the line of armored vehicles in their city. Instead, they went to welcome them.
“I’ll tell you—it was like a wedding was going on,” Abu Zeid tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim. “People were thrilled, clapping and waving at the American soldiers.”
Though the US maintains a presence in Rojava—the Kurdish-majority region of northern Syria run by the autonomous Self-Administration—it had been limited to operating several military bases in the region, training local fighters and assisting Kurdish forces on the front lines with the Islamic State.
Last Saturday marked the first time convoys had entered Kurdish cities and greeted residents.
The heightened visibility of US forces in Kurdish territory follows intense clashes along the Syrian-Turkish border between the Turkish army and the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units) that broke out last week.
The YPG is the leading militia in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed, Kurdish-led coalition currently fighting the Islamic State for control of Raqqa city, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
Relations between the Turkish army and Kurdish militias continue to deteriorate after Turkish airstrikes targeted YPG and other Kurdish military positions in northern Syria in recent weeks.
On April 25, Turkish airstrikes and missile attacks struck YPG positions near the town of Derik—five kilometers from the Turkish border—in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province. The attack killed 20 YPG fighters and injured 18 others.
“After the Turkish strikes, people became worried, nervous and confused,” says Masoum Muhammad, a resident of the Syrian border town of Amouda.
“The American military presence is a message to the people that they can rest easy…and, of course, it’s a message to Turkey.”
Ivan Abu Zeid, a citizen journalist from Qamishli in Hasakah province who greeted the American armored column when they passed through the city on April 29.
Q: What do you think about the presence of American forces on the border between Syria and Turkey?
I feel truly happy, and that’s a feeling that’s spread among people in an unprecedented manner. After Qurat Jokh was bombed, and after the airstrikes on the edges of Amouda and Darbasiya, people started to fear Turkish bombings on cities.
[Ed.: Turkish airstrikes struck YPG positions in the Kurdish-majority village of Qurat Jokh on April 28. Other airstrikes have repeatedly targeted the outskirts of major Kurdish population centers along the Turkish-Syrian border in recent weeks, a-Sharq al-Awsat reported last week.]
Most police stations and institutions belonging to the Self-Administration are in residential areas, and airstrikes on them would come at a great human cost.
Another point to consider, and another reason people are happy about recent developments, is that if infighting ever started between Kurdish factions in the future, the United States would have a positive role to play, as both Kurdish sides [the Self-Administration in northern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan] are allies of the United States.
Q: Describe the atmosphere among people during the entry of American forces. How did American soldiers react?
People were very happy, I’ll tell you—it was like a wedding was going on. People were clapping and waving at them, and the soldiers were throwing up victory signs. There were people getting out of their cars and saluting them, watching the vehicles as they passed.
Q: Is there any fear that after the battle against the Islamic State ends, the US might just abandon the Kurds?
There is a conflict between the Russians and Americans in the region, but our area is a whole different world.
[Ed.: The Kurdish-majority region of northern Syria is largely autonomous, governed by the Kurdish Self-Administration.]
We are neighbors to Iraqi Kurdistan, an ally of the Americans, and aside from all of this, America was looking for an excuse to place its hand in the region.
The area has become American, not Russian, and there are military bases and airports for American forces, and people reject [the idea that the US will abandon them].
We have been asking which nation our country would go with: America or Russia. Now, everyone has the answer. They’re happy that the Americans will be active in the region, not Russia.
Masoum Muhammad, a citizen journalist in the city of Amouda in northern Syria, rushed to greet the American troops passing through his city on April 29. He held a sign that read “Washington: Amouda is with you until death!”
Q: What are your thoughts on the presence of the American military along the Turkish-Syrian border? What about the armored vehicles inside Kurdish cities?
After Turkish strikes on a number of military positions, people started to get worried, nervous and confused. People became afraid that intense airstrikes could fall on cities, or that they could be attacked. Then, American armored vehicles came into the picture, and there was talk that they’d establish several checkpoints along the border.
When this happened, people relaxed. They now feel that Turkey can’t do anything more. In other words, the presence of the American military inside the cities is a message to the people that they can rest easy, and, of course, a message to Turkey.
Q: How did American soldiers react when they passed through the city streets and found people welcoming them?
I was there, and I saw them waving at people and greeting them. They were also throwing up victory signs, and I can tell you that they created a strong feeling of safety among people.
Q: Many people went out into the streets to greet the American army. Did people do this at request of the Self-Administration? If not, how did they know?
People went out into the streets on their own, without it being requested of them. They knew from social media and via journalists monitoring the armored vehicles. We were in contact with them, and they came into the city during rush hour, when many people were out in the markets.
Masoum Muhammad holds a sign reading “Washington: Amouda is with you until death!” Photo courtesy of Masoum Muhammad.
Q: You went out into the streets holding up a sign that said “Washington: Amouda is with you until death!” What did you mean?
This is a humorous and powerful slogan originating from the beginning of the Syrian revolution. The sign I held was meant to be funny, and I wanted to let them know that as they stood with us, we will stand with them.
[Ed.: During the beginning of the Syrian revolution, protestors often held signs showing solidarity with other Syrian cities. Muhammad’s sign makes a reference to these early revolutionary slogans.]