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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Midnight market abuzz in Syria's divided Hasakeh

A detente between government forces and Kurdish units has improved security in the northeastern Syrian city

Women and children choose ornaments at a market in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on June 11, 2018. For the first time in years, the market of Hasakeh is open past dusk ahead of the Eid al-Fitr feast. For some, the resurgent holiday spirit is a sign that the tensions between the Syrian army and Kurdish forces that ruined the festive occasion in previous years are being worked out. Ayham al-Mohammad / AFP
Women and children choose ornaments at a market in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on June 11, 2018. For the first time in years, the market of Hasakeh is open past dusk ahead of the Eid al-Fitr feast. For some, the resurgent holiday spirit is a sign that the tensions between the Syrian army and Kurdish forces that ruined the festive occasion in previous years are being worked out. Ayham al-Mohammad / AFP

Khaled beams at two late-night customers entering his sweet shop in Syria's Hasakeh. For the first time in years, the market is open past dusk ahead of the Eid Al Fitr feast.

For some, the resurgent holiday spirit is a sign that the tensions between the Syrian army and Kurdish forces that ruined the festive occasion in previous years are being worked out.

"In the past, we didn't have anything close to what you'd call a nighttime souk," says Khaled, standing behind a counter overflowing with bright, individually-wrapped nougats and nuts.

"But tonight, it's the opposite – the souk has flourished," says the owner, his hair slicked back and wearing a clean-pressed checkered shirt.

The difference, shopkeepers and customers say, is a major improvement in security in the northeastern Syrian city.

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Hasakeh is split between Syrian regime forces, which hold roughly a quarter of the city, and the rival Kurdish security forces known as Asayish, which control the rest.

The main souk running along Palestine Street was the site of frequent clashes between the groups in recent years, forcing traders to shutter storefronts before nightfall.

That crushed sales during the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslims break a day-long fast at dusk and then set off to shop and socialise, and which ends with the Eid Al Fitr holiday later this week.

"This market is between two firepowers: the Asayish on one side and the Syrian army on the other," says Anas Al Abbas.

Behind him are shelves of the mascara tubes, glittery watches, and dangly faux silver earrings he sells.

"In the past, before Eid, there would be skirmishes between the two sides, but this year the situation is good," he says.

Outside, shoppers of all ages – including young men in military camouflage – stroll down the main thoroughfare, pausing to peer into toy stores or examine perfume bottles.

Mediation efforts

A general view shows an outdoors coffee shop in Hafez al-Assad square, named after the late Syrian president and the father of the current ruler, in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on June 11, 2018 Ayham Al Mohammad / AFP
A general view shows an outdoors coffee shop in Hafez al-Assad square, named after the late Syrian president and the father of the current ruler, in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on June 11, 2018 Ayham Al Mohammad / AFP

The street is lit by glaring fluorescent bulbs, strings of coloured lights hung on trees and the headlights of yellow taxis in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Just meters from each other are the two-star Syrian government flag and a portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The bustling market now stays open until well after midnight, and sometimes until suhoor – the pre-dawn meal before fasting begins again.

Some shoppers and traders say the newfound stability is thanks to an attempted rapprochement between government forces and Kurdish units.

A year after Syria's war erupted in 2011, government troops withdrew from many Kurdish-majority areas and local authorities set up their own autonomous institutions.

As the regime regains its footing across the war-torn country, it has come to see these areas as a challenge to its authority.

President Bashar Al Assad warned last month he could use force against Kurdish units if he was not able to re-take their territory through talks.

Since then, mediation efforts appear to have begun and the political arm of a powerful Kurdish-led militia has said it is ready for unconditional talks with the government.

Abu Khaled, a 45-year-old athletic coach, says the difference is palpable.

"We're hearing of close negotiations between the Syrian army and Kurdish People's Protection Units [YPG], and we hope they reach a solution," he tells AFP as he shops for sunglasses on Palestine Street.

The hazel-eyed trainer says he is more willing to come to the market knowing that tensions were no longer simmering.

"This land is for everyone. Our brothers in the YPG are Syrians and this is their land, too," he says.

'Things have changed'

Sami Al Saleh has wandered into Khaled's store and is perusing the plastic containers of candies.

"Over the past few days, we've felt like things have changed in Hasakeh. The souk is open at night, there's clearly economic activity," says the 38-year-old.

"We hope there's a political solution [to the tensions], because the country can't handle things anymore considering the difficulties they lived in the past."

Syria's conflict has left more than 350,000 people dead and forced more than 11 million from their homes, nearly half of whom have left the country entirely.

Years of fighting have ravaged Syria's economy and torn at its social fabric.

Ahmad Antar, a 58-year-old Kurdish perfume peddler, hopes the detente in Hasakeh means he can finally find love.

"My cousins are married to Arabs. I'll marry an Arab too," the shop owner says with a smile.

"We want a political solution for the area. That's better and easier, because the military solution means destruction. There is no winner."