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'Maybe my friends will kill me': Inside a Syrian city split between rival militias

Danny Gold

Young male and female fighters in the Kurdish militia known as the Popular Protection Units line up in formation in front of supporters in Ras Al Ayn, Syria. Some see the border city as indicative of what could come if the Assad regime falls, where rebel groups with competing agendas attempt to fill the vacuum of power.

RAS AL AYN, Syria -- Yilmaz fears a visit to his cousins and friends on the other side of town will end with him assassinated by a sniper's bullet.

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's forces were forced out of this divided border city months ago. Despite a tenuous cease-fire, the presence of different rebel groups who previously clashed and now coexist side by side has left many on the edge, fearing another breakout of war.

Yilmaz ran afoul of the Popular Protection Units (YPG), the country's most powerful Kurdish militia, when he became affiliated with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Some of his friends and relatives call him a traitor for siding with the FSA.

During the last phase of fighting, one of his cousins who, like him, had been an FSA activist, was killed by a YPG sniper. He knows the killer could be someone he spent his childhood with, or sees at family functions.

"Maybe my friends will kill me," the Kurdish former peace activist says. "Maybe one from them killed my cousin. It's complicated."

Some see this city as indicative of what could come if the Assad regime falls, where rebel groups with competing agendas attempt to fill the vacuum of power.

Danny Gold

A young rebel mans a checkpoint on a road leading to Ras Al Ayn, Syria.

Ras Al Ayn lies at the edge of Kurdish territory in the northeastern province of Hasakah near the border with Turkey. Though it is a majority Kurdish city, is it home to Christians, Chechens, Armenians and Arabs, and was once celebrated for its diversity and tolerance. It was one of the province's first city's to protest for the revolution.

Accounts differ on how the fighting started in Ras Al Ayn. In November, the FSA along with Islamist rebel groups like Jabhat Al Nusra and Ghuraba Al Sham attacked regime soldiers, eventually forcing them out. That coalition then clashed with the YPG.

A truce was eventually established, but quickly broken as the YPG and FSA again fought battles all over the city. After roughly two weeks of fighting, Syrian Christian dissident Michel Kilo arranged a cease-fire that has now held for nearly two months.

The city has still not recovered. Many residents fled during different phases of the fighting. While some semblance of normal life has returned, buildings still lay in ruins, many pockmarked with bullet holes. There is rarely electricity and water is scarce. Schools and hospitals have been ransacked and closed for months. Graffiti touting the different groups is spray-painted everywhere, and armed men from the rival factions are a constant presence.

Danny Gold

Weeks of fighting between rival factions have left homes and businesses in the Syrian city of Ras Al Ayn damaged, many beyond repair.

For some civilians caught in the crossfire, it's hard to draw a distinction. Alongside a road near where some of the most intense fighting took place, a group of Syrian-born Chechens relay stories of looting. "The Free Army and the YPG, they steal everything. We did not see freedom fighters, only thieves," said Tamer, a 47-year-old undertaker. "There isn't a difference between all these groups."

Outside a small cluster of shops near where a Syrian regime airstrike hit months ago, a butcher named Ahmed Shaabi laments that he has not been able to work for five days due to a lack of electricity. "This city has gone back a century," he said.

Rashid Abdullah, a construction worker sitting with Shaabi, thought the fighting in Ras Al Ayn played right into the hands of Assad. "It's wrong, it's all wrong. Our fight is with the regime," he said.

The Kurds make up roughly 10 percent of the Syrian population. The most powerful Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has sought to keep the war from encroaching in its territory, leading to a de facto truce of sorts with the regime.

This has drawn the ire of many rebel groups. They accuse the YPG, which is often seen as the political party's military wing, as being agents of the Assad regime. The YPG in turn accuses the FSA of being agents of Turkey and overrun with Islamists.

In Ras Al Ayn, this distrust resulted in months of conflict and nearly 300 deaths. 

Complicating things even further is the presence of a small brigade of Jabhat Al Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group that is thought to be the most powerful jihadi faction. While JAN and the FSA often fight as allies, they've also clashed. The YPG claim to make no distinction between the Islamists and the FSA. 

Danny Gold

Photos of Kurdish rebels killed in battles line the walls at a house of martyrs in Ras Al Ayn, Syria.

On the YPG-controlled side of town in late March, a small crowd has come out for the opening of a house of martyrs, a community office dedicated to those killed in the fighting. Giant posters of slain fighters line the walls. Politicians and military commanders give speeches as a group of 20 young fighters, some who barely look out of high school, line up in formation clutching rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. When the ribbon is cut, the families of the deceased line up and greet the soldiers.

Not far away, a group of Free Syrian Army fighters known as the Mashaal Tammo brigade occupy a large house. One of the only mixed Arab and Kurdish fighting groups, the brigade is made up mostly of onetime peaceful protesters who, unlike the PYD, wanted to join the revolution early on. They eventually turned to the FSA.

"We took up arms and the reason was the PYD," says Marwan, a Kurd from Qamishli who fights with the brigade. "The PYD didn't give the people aid or anything, they pushed the people around."

The PYD has faced accusations of kidnapping and assassinating Kurds from opposing parties, including Kurdish activist and political leader Mashaal Tammo, for whom the brigade is named. Some Kurds see them as another authoritarian force trying to take control. They see the FSA as the only true proponents of the revolution.

Yilmaz is still focused on the revolution, but he's seen the toll it's taken on his city and grown weary. His only hope now is that the factions will focus their attacks on the regime.

"I hate what's happened in Ras Al Ayn," Yilmaz says. "The people, the civilians, so many of them have been killed. It's not the FSA's fault, it's not the YPG's fault, it's war. Just let peace stay in Ras Al Ayn."

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A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

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