ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the March 11 suicide bombings that killed nine civilians in the city of Qamishli, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish regions of Syria. The al-Qaeda offshoot asserted in a statement released March 12, “The Islamic State announces its responsibility for the commando raid operation that targeted one of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] apostates' bases in the town of Qamishli in northern al-Baraka province."
The suicide bombings targeted the Al-Hadaya hotel, which was used for municipal services. Unconfirmed reports suggested that a meeting between high-ranking officials of the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) had been held in the hotel. The dead were buried March 12 with thousands of Kurds in attendance in Qamishli.
According to ISIS, "The commando raiders of the al-Baraka operation targeted the Al-Hadaya hotel, on Al-Wahda street, which was used as a PKK apostates' leadership base after they seized it. Two lions of the Islamic State carried out the commando raid of the al-Baraka operation: Abu Mohammed al-Ansari [a Syrian] and Jarij al-Jazrawi [a Saudi], may God Almighty accept them. The two commando raiders assaulted the base, carried out a sweeping operation of its two floors, and then detonated their belts to kill all those on the base.”
In addition, the ISIS accused the PKK of hiding the deaths of military personnel among the nine people killed to “lessen the pressure of the misfortune on their supporters." Contradicting ISIS, Faysal Naso, a Qamishli resident and member of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S), a PYD rival, told Al-Monitor that only civilians had been killed in the attack. He also offered, “Dec. 12 is the tenth anniversary of the Kurdish uprising against the Syrian government. That’s the reason they attacked.”
Meanwhile, Asayish, the Kurdish security police, announced in a March 11 news conference that the bombings had been carried out by a group of seven individuals from Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia and that three of them had been arrested. Asayish member Etan Futat said during the conference, "A brutal terrorist attack killed four suicide bombers and cost seven civilians their lives, mostly women, and wounded a number of other civilians,” as quoted by Hawar News.
The PKK leadership blamed Turkey for the attacks and declared that the Syrian Kurds would respond to them by “establishing their own system of democratic self-rule and defending the Free Kurdistan at all costs.” The PKK also proclaimed, “Our people and our movement in the four parts of Kurdistan will support the Rojava revolution [of Syrian Kurds]. Our peoples in Rojava are not alone.”
The Hadaya suicide attacks were not an isolated incident. The ISIS statement mentions that the group had carried out operations east of Tel Ebyad and against a "PKK military base" two days prior in al-Qahtaniya, east of Qamishli. The group claimed, “Up to this time, the Islamic State has carried out nine martyrdom operations in Qamishli area since August 29, 2013, eight of them targeting PKK apostates."
Heavy fighting had erupted between the People's Protection Units (YPG), the largest armed Kurdish group in Syria, and the jihadist groups and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Hassakeh, Raqqa and Aleppo provinces after the PYD announced plans in mid-2013 to form an interim administration.
After fighting that broke out between the ISIS and other Islamist groups in northern Syria in January, the ISIS gained the upper hand against the PKK in Hassakeh, and there were signs that Kurdish armed groups had begun to cooperate with ISIS rivals in Aleppo to push it from the region.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a UK-based expert on Syrian jihadist groups, told Al-Monitor, “They [ISIS] have been leading the rebel offensives on these areas since last year, and since January they are pretty much the only tangible driving force [in Hassakeh]. Other rebel groups were either subjugated and forced to give bay'ah [pledge of loyalty] (e.g., Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham) or support ISIS anyway (e.g., Liwa Ansar al-Khilafa).”
Clashes erupted on Dec. 26 between the YPG and ISIS over control of the Arab-populated areas of Tel Hamis and Tel Brak. The ISIS had accused the YPG of mistreating the local Arab populations. On Feb. 17, an ISIS video from Tel Hamis announced the mobilization of Arab al-Tay and Jibour tribes against the PKK and the Shammar tribe in the Qamishli area.
"We swear by God Almighty that we — the sons of the Arab tribe — will form one line before the PKK," a tribal member said in the presence of two ISIS fighters on the video. An ISIS member stated, "The oath is to protect all Muslims. Support for God's religion. Descendants of Omar, descendants of Khalid.” Moreover, the ISIS members announced that they would strike the PKK in Qamishli. "PKK, oh Jews, the army of Muhammad will return," ISIS supporters shouted.
On Feb. 27, the ISIS briefly captured the Kurdish village of Tel Maruf and blew up a religious shrine of the Kurdish cleric Mashuq Khaznawi. The YPG retook the village the following day.
Mustafa Cummaa, leader of the Kurdish Freedom Party, told Al-Monitor that the ISIS wants to show the PYD that it can easily enter Qamishli city. He explained, “They want to convince people it’s not safe there.” He also said that the Kurdish parties respect the Arabs and their beliefs, “But the ISIS wants to ruin the situation and abuses the name of Islam. They are against the Syrian and Kurdish revolution, and we suspect that they work for Assad.”
It is likely that the fighting between the ISIS and Kurdish combatants will continue because their ideological goals are incompatible. While ISIS seeks to build a global Islamic caliphate, the Kurdish parties are hoping to build autonomous administrations in three Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria.
*Translation assistance provided by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi