LONDON — The leading Syrian Kurdish rebel group said it intends to form a government in Kurdish-dominated northeast Syria, where it has been operating as the de facto government since last year. Jamie Dettmer was recently in Qamishli, about 650 kilometers northeast of Damascus, where he experienced just how dominant the Kurds have become in this corner of Syria. Now, safely back in southeast Turkey, tells about his experience of being the cause of a tense standoff between the Kurdish militia and Syrian military.
JAMIE: What happened is that someone in the street, when the Syrians tried to seize me and I refused to go with the Syrians, ran to about two streets away to where there was an YPG Kurdish police station and alerted them that the Syrians were trying to capture a Western journalist. So they came out armed and there was a standoff between about a dozen or so Kurdish militiamen, and as time went on, as more Syrian reinforcements came, I suppose about 14 or 15 Syrian soldiers.
Q: And were you out on the street?
JAMIE: I had refused to move. They tried to get my backpack; I had handed over my passport, but I wouldn’t move. Various Kurds were trying to negotiate with the Syrians. And I was just sitting on the street trying to remain as calm and as polite as possible.
Q: Did it escalate on a very physical level?
JAMIE: No, but what we did have on both sides - on the Kurdish side and the Syrian side - armed men toting their weapons. No one had tried to physically manhandle me except at the beginning when the Syrians tried to push me to get into their vehicle. The Kurds had tried to form a semicircle of their militiamen around me. I had my back to a shop window to try to make sure there wasn't an attempt immediately to nab me. And then there was just a negotiation, would be one way of putting it, between the Syrians and Kurds, which at the beginning was very angry and there was a lot of shouting. They then moved away from me, the main leaders who were negotiating what was going on. And as the negotiation went on, as the confrontation went on, I was getting less nervous. I could see in the faces of the Kurds that they were not going to hand me over to the Syrians. I suppose after a while my worry was that I had a lot of armed men around me in confrontation trying to decide my fate and that things could slip out of hand.
Q: At what point did you realize that it was turning around in your favor? What made you realize?
JAMIE: I think determination and the confidence in the faces of the Kurds made me feel a lot calmer because I could see that they weren’t going to surrender me. And then, at a certain point the Syrian soldiers started being much more friendly facially towards me. One or two of them I was talking to were Alawite - some from Homs, some from Damascus and some from Tartus - started to ask me questions - general questions about America - where I came from and at one point they were saying, “We love Americans, but we hate Obama.” And, I did not feel I was in a position facing armed men to disagree with that position.
Q: So right at the end, after the hour was over, what happened? Did you just follow the Kurds back?
JAMIE: The Syrian leaders came over, gave me back my passport, apologized for harassing me, saying they were great friends of the Kurds. There were lots of smiles and back-slapping at that point, although the Kurds remained tense. And then I went with the Kurds back to their military barracks where it was there that various military commanders told me they had heard Syrians were aware that there was at least one American journalist in Qamishli and they were intent on seizing him. One of the worries subsequently was that they wouldn’t try again to seize me in terms of men in uniform, but there might be an attempt to kidnap me by plainclothes people - shabiha and other organizations they use. So they remained the rest the day, while I was working interviewing people, I had an armed guard for the rest of the day while I was in Qamishli.
Q: So now that you are in southeastern Turkey, tell me your thoughts on what this says about the stronghold of Kurds in that part of Syria.
JAMIE: What is very interesting is that they are: one, wanting to avoid an armed confrontation with the Syrians because, for example, they don't want Qamishli, their capital, to end up looking like Aleppo, bombed, bombarded and wrecked. So what they're trying to do is to create their own government structures, their own police structures and just ignore the Syrians. They control - the Kurds - about 80 percent of Qamishli; the Syrians about 20 percent, the Syrians have the airport road and pockets of the center. Most of the rest of Syrian Kurdistan is very much under Kurdish control. They have a very strong sense of direction where they want to go. They want to be a semi-autonomous country within Syria after all of this. What I found fascinating was this determination to try to sidestep the Syrian regime, avoid confrontation if they can, but be prepared to defend their geography - their area - whether it be the Syrians or whether it be from al-Qaida. And they had a series in the last two weeks of victories over al-Qaida, pushing them out of their villages and their towns, although al-Qaida is maintaining pressure on them and is launching car bomb attacks on them. So, I found it very interesting that they were trying to balance this and have their own way. But, if they can avoid fighting people, but (at the same time) be prepared to if they have to.