Video LoadingVideo UnavailableClick to playTap to playThe video will auto-play soon8CancelPlay now

Get our daily coronavirus email newsletter with all the news you need to know direct to your inbox

Sign upWhen you subscribe we will use the information you provide to send you these newsletters. Sometimes they’ll include recommendations for other related newsletters or services we offer. OurPrivacy Noticeexplains more about how we use your data, and your rights. You can unsubscribe at any time.Thank you for subscribingWe have more newslettersShow meSee ourprivacy noticeInvalid Email

Through war-ravaged streets Syrian life ebbs and flows with a veneer of normality – but danger and threat are never far away.

In North East Syria the largely Kurdish statelet of Rojava had briefly carved out a semi-autonomous peace after western-backed forces drove out Islamic State.

But spitefully in 2019, the now disgraced and outgoing US President Donald Trump forced the Kurds to turn to Russia and the feared Syrian regime for protection from Turkish invaders.

His sudden withdrawal of US troops from north east Syria green-lit Turkish forces to roll over the border, forcing Kurds to accept help.

Turkey displaced hundreds of thousands of Syrians, killed hundreds and now the region fears a further incursion as Turkey seeks to buffer its territory against the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The bustling alleyways and bazaars of Qamshili are bursting with shoppers
(Image: Rowan Griffiths)

The Trump-led betrayal after the SDF had fought so hard against ISIS on behalf of the west smashed years of campaigning to put this region on the road to recovery.

Now, a further push by Turkey could threaten this struggling community, which is desperate for help from the retreating west.

And as the World awaits how global tensions will change under the new Biden administration few communities are more concerned than in the town of Qamshili, the main hub in Rojava, to which the west, Britain more than many, owes a huge debt.

Kurdish and western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces ended Islamic State's stranglehold on the region, ousting them from Raqqa, which had become “terror central” and from where many European attacks were plotted.

They all hope the US will now re-plug the security gap here and urgently undo the damage done by Trump's cruel move, by reasserting western presence here.

All those years of British and US troops training the SDF who are still courageously battling Islamic State sleepers are now largely undone thanks to Trump.

Chris Hughes meets Syria. Dr Abdulkarim Omar, chairman of foreign affairs
(Image: Rowan Griffiths)

Read More
Related Articles


  • The Mirror joins the fight for a global ban on the use of landmines in war

Read More
Related Articles


  • Brave Brits dig up ISIS bombs in Syria war zone where wrong step will 'vaporise' them

His move has allowed ISIS to resurge amid further fears Turkey will further overrun much of Rojava, swallowing up Qamshili.

But years of bloody conflict and the world's most evil terror network have taught locals a resilience that defies nine years of brutal violence.

The bustling alleyways and bazaars of Qamshili are bursting with shoppers and traders desperately trying to survive.

But covert enemies are everywhere.

Sleeper cells from Islamic State, the Assad regime and Turkey have turned many communities into cities of spies.

We are told at night local Syrian Democratic Forces smash down doors and raid the cells, seizing or killing the undercover threat.

In the past week resurging Islamic State fighters have in Syria emerged from the shadows and murdered as many as 70 people, including soldiers and civilians.

But when we meet locals in Rojava's main city, close to the Turkish border, they are out shopping and trading, socialising in cafes, awaiting the next onslaught.

Locals are still recovering after nine years of brutal violence
(Image: Rowan Griffiths)

Read More
Related Articles


  • Russian scientists suspected of 'doomsday weapons' project involving deadly Ebola virus

Read More
Related Articles


  • RAF commanders deliver Christmas cheer to Spitfire pilot, 98, targeted by thieves

Everything is on sale in the bazaar, imitation sportswear, shoes, clothes, spices, bread – even antique artefacts several thousand years old.

Men smoke and play cards solemnly, families shop for food as security men finger AK47 rifles eyeing us as we try to chat to locals, waving us on, irritated by our presence.

Driving into Qamshili we pass a large Russian military troop convoy. In the far distance a Russian Alligator attack helicopter is flying in support of an MI8 chopper troop carrier.

Our driver carefully picks a route bypassing Assad regime checkpoints, muttering that if we are caught our feet might not touch the ground until we reach a Damascus jail.

A Westerner being lifted from these streets by Assad's troops or intelligence agencies would be scooped up and whisked to a Damascus jail, possibly never to be seen again.

One American war tourist last year took a wrong turn here and suffered months of torture in Assad's prisons before being released. Reaching the main bazaar we talk to locals.

Barber Mohammed Mizah and son Alan discuss their nervous wait
(Image: Rowan Griffiths)

Two busloads of Assad regime military intelligence officers drive past, eying shoppers from behind curtained windows a smartly-dressed barber summed it all up, as we duck into an alleyway.

Shop owner Mohammed Mirzah, 76, says: “The threat to here is simple – first it comes from Turkey, then Islamic State and then the regime. All of us are very nervous of what will happen next.

“There are so many flags here it is terrifying- Russian troops, Syrian regime and Islamic State of course is never far away from us, even though they were supposed to be beaten.

“We just want to get on with our lives.”

Most of Mohammed's nine children have fled for Europe, leaving him with just his youngest, Alan, who is 19 to help with the struggling hair-dresser business.

The tension here is palpable. Islamic State car bombs blew up these streets just a year ago, killing and injuring many, their craters and blasted walls still on display.

President Assad regime checkpoint in the city of Qamishli
(Image: Rowan Griffiths)

Some locals are horribly injured, bearing the scars of war, hands, arms, legs missing, faces horribly scarred. One crippled man painfully negotiates the traffic, pushing his wheelchair backwards.

People ignore him in collective denial about this community's grim recent past and uncertain future.

Khaled Sheikhmuss, 50, a kiddies' toy shop owner says: “We are desperate as the economy is bad and the security situation is not good either, as you can see.

“Nobody knows for sure what will happen to us next. We have to keep surviving.”

The almost overt presence of many nation's intelligence agencies all vying for leverage here makes Qamshili similar to a post World War Two Vienna, an international hub for spies.

We learn that we can no longer visit a mixed grill restaurant that was popular with journalists last year as it is too full of intelligence officers lying to each other, swapping information and trading back-channelled threats, desperately seeking leverage.

Now the venue's customers are from the Turkish MIT intelligence agency.

Russia's feared military intelligence wing the GRU, who launched the Salisbury Novichok attack and Assad's army spooks. Added to the mix are local mafia bosses who are also trying to get in on the turf war and underhand carve-up of the region.

In Qamshili Rojava's Foreign Minister Dr Abdulkarim Omar's office is within site of the Turkish border.

He is desperately worried about the future for Rojava's five million strong population and stresses that Turkey used Islamic State and other jihadi groups as proxies to hit Rojava's mostly Kurdish forces.

Blaming Britain and America – whose special forces troops have largely withdrawn south away from the Turkish border as a result of Trump's decision, – he tells us: “This is entirely the fault of the coalition and Trump's decision, which he announced on twitter.

A Russian convoy in the region of Rojava
(Image: Rowan Griffiths)

“Everybody here is waiting to see how things will play out, if a new administration might improve the situation.

“We have played a major role in this region in defeating Islamic State but there are many ISIS sleeper cells here.

“As you know they capable of getting into the UK as well.

“The UK needs to coordinate with us to find a solution together. If this region is not made stable ISIS will uprise again.

“This region needs to have a place at the meetings the United Nations holds in Geneva to discuss its future.”

Further south Islamic State has already uprisen, launching daily bomb and assassinations on Syrian Democratic Forces trying to push them back.

In the city of Deir ez-Zor, Islamic State murdered an SDF General just days ago, walking up to him and shooting him dead at close quarters.

Car bombs happen on a daily basis and the Kurdish-led SDF – who were trained to beat Islamic State by British and American troops in secret camps, feel abandoned.

They are all nervously awaiting Trump's next move to see if he will completely withdraw troops from the region, leaving Rojava to turn entirely to Russia and the regime for help against Turkey.

One SDF commander told us: “Our special forces are attacking Islamic State, Turkish and regime sleeper cells every night, trying to hold them back.

“But as you can see, we also have to accept the open presence of the regime to keep Turkey at bay. We are pulled in every direction and yet we still have to fight Islamic State.

“We are the frontline against Daesh – if we were not, they would be all over European places like Britain even more than they are now.

“Tell people in Britain what is happening here. We are not just fighting for ourselves. It matters to you too.”