First Published: 2012-11-10

 

Will Syria’s Rebels Face a Kurdish Front?

 

With Assad’s enemies now struggling to liberate areas from his tanks, fresh fighting between Kurdish militias and Syrian rebels around Aleppo threatens a second front for the already bruised Syrian opposition, notes Daniel Brode.

 

Middle East Online

Four decades of unabated Assad rule are testament to the Syrian regime’s mastery of sectarianism in the Middle East. Once again, the Assads have utilized this talent to throw another wrench into the Sunni-Western campaign to oust them from Damascus. The regime recognizes the historic tensions between Arabs and Kurds, the incompatibility of pan-Islamism and Kurdish nationalism, in addition to Turkey’s escalating ongoing conflict with Kurdish separatists. This enabled Bashar al-Assad to manipulate these realities for his strategic advantage. By withdrawing from the mainly Kurdish northeast this past summer, the regime opened the gates for a Kurdish escalation. With Assad’s enemies now struggling to liberate areas from his tanks, fresh fighting between Kurdish militias and Syrian rebels around Aleppo threatens a second front for the already bruised Syrian opposition.

That fighting serves as a reminder of the Kurds’ long standing aspirations for further rights and autonomy, a quest almost always opposed by their sectarian rivals throughout the region. While the Assads - much like Saddam Hussein - have suppressed Kurds with decades of 'Arabization, 'Bashar calculated early on that his Kurdish subjects, as a whole, were unlikely to fight alongside the opposition. Not out of any loyalty, but for historic and strategic reasons.

So far, Assad’s gambit has paid off. Kurdish interests vary but often contradict those of their ethnic neighbors. We may call them Syrian or Iraqi Kurds, but their interests are anything but Syrian or Iraqi. That, however, did not stop the opposition from seeking Kurdish fighters to join their ranks. Unfortunately for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian National Council (SNC), these negotiations failed. The Kurds were reluctant to shed blood for a mainly Arab-Islamist opposition that was unable to offer autonomy in post-bellum Syria. Since then, Syrian Kurds are charting their own course.

Not surprisingly, Assad has manipulated Kurdish neutrality for his own benefit. His army's coordinated withdrawal from Kurdish areas last summer was a serious development. That redeployment purposefully left hard-line Kurdish militias in control, thereby posing serious strategic problems not only for Syrian rebels, but for Assad's new Turkish enemy to the north. Turkey as a rule is opposed to any Kurdish gains in Syria given concerns over its own restive Kurdish population.

The problems for Syria’s rebels are as follows: the far-leftist Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has barred Sunni Arab fighters from Kurdish areas and periodically cooperated with Assad’s forces in and around Aleppo, all the while expanding its control over strategic checkpoints and smuggling routes near the vital Turkish border. Over time, these actions and Kurdish neutrality have not only discredited the opposition’s narrative as a country united against Assad, they have put both sides on a collision course.

That collision took place on October 26. Heavy fighting erupted between the Peoples’ Defense Unit (YPG), a PYD militia and Syrian rebels in Aleppo’s Kurdish neighborhood of Ashrafieh. Sunni Arab gunmen from the Tawhid Brigade entered the neighborhood as a show of strength before the Muslim holiday of Eid. Unfortunately for them, Kurdish militias were not so keen on their presence. After dozens of rebel fighters lay dead, they withdrew but not before they abducted, and then executed, the local leader of the PYD - who happened to be a woman.

Hours after the fighting in Ashrafieh, additional clashes between Kurds and Arabs broke out over checkpoints in the vicinity of the Turkish border. As reports of the fighting emerged, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s arch enemy and PYD ally, consequently threatened to intervene against Syria’s rebels. While fighting remains largely localized, the PKK threat could be a game changer.

Both the rebels and PYD for the most part would like to avoid a Kurdish war at this time. A new front could jeopardize what is perceived to be a historic opportunity for Kurdish nation building in Syria. The rebels moreover, can hardly afford to fight the Kurds, especially if the battle-tested PKK becomes involved. Still, the Kurds and the rebels remain highly decentralized, with many rebel units operating pursuant to their own agenda – often to further the Arab-Islamist cause in the Middle East. While both sides are talking ceasefire, tensions and diverging goals could complicate those efforts over the long run.

Kurdish Syria is above all a highly strategic region. Straddling Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, numerous players have an interest in thwarting Kurdish gains here. Such interests coupled with tensions on the ground will make further Kurdish-rebel fighting a real possibility. Beyond Syria, the PKK also has an interest in using Syria as a launching pad for operations against Turkey. This is not a remote possibility, as it is already being reported that PKK gunmen, in addition to their PYD allies, are already stationed along the Turkish-Syrian border.

That presence ultimately contributes to the rebels’ struggle to take Aleppo. This along with diverging interests and a history of Arab-Kurdish fighting could lead to a second sectarian war in Syria. In the end this works best for Assad. The regime recognized that Kurdish nationalism and pan-Islamism are two largely incompatible ideologies. The opposition’s inability to promise the Kurds autonomy was the ultimate deciding factor. As a result, Assad has simply laid the groundwork for a second front in the Syrian civil war. It remains to be seen if the rebels will take the bait.

Daniel Brode is an intelligence manager at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm in Israel. He specializes in Middle East and North Africa affairs.

 

French Foreign Minister steps down with criticism of US role in Syria

UAE names women state ministers in major government shake-up

Turkey, US split deepens over support for Syria Kurds

Unstable dam affecting Mosul recapture

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince in India: String of trade, security deals expected

Egypt hires UK firm to review Sharm security

Tunisia makes $500 million from assets of ousted president

Turkey dismisses pressure to open borders as 'hypocritical'

Efforts to form Libya unity government stumble over defence portfolio

Iran blames failure of Syria peace talks on participation of ‘terrorists’

Syria opposition hopes for end of sieges

Germany hopes Syria talks in Munich will agree to provide aid

Syrian Kurdish separatists open Moscow representation

Jordan rejects France extradition request for 1982 terror attack suspects

Libya parliament extends deadline for formation of new unity government

Herzog wants Israel to begin separation from Palestinian areas

Khomeini grandson loses appeal against exclusion from Iran elections

EU tells members to accelerate refugee relocation

Syria regime's Aleppo offensive kills more than 500

Ex-Israeli PM’s prison sentence extended

Turkey summons US envoy over Syria Kurds row

Jihadist attacks bring Egypt's tourist industry to its knees

‘Hell’ falling on Aleppo

Enormous challenges emerge after full liberation of Ramadi

Hamas fighter dies in latest tunnel collapse

Aleppo siege spells trouble for the West

Egypt policeman jailed for beating vet to death

How many civilians are living under 'surrender or starve' sieges in Syria?

NATO to consider policing refugee crisis

Iran deal will delay bomb up to 15 years

Top spy warns homegrown extremists pose biggest danger to US

UN to Turkey: Open borders to stranded Syria refugees

From Muslim Chechnya to ISIS: Spies collect intelligence to help Russia

Kurdish leader accuses Ankara of 'massacre' over Cizre operation

Kremlin rebukes Merkel over criticism of Russia air strikes in Syria

Nine killed in Damascus car bomb attack

Approval of reformists raises potential for change in Iran

Saudi Patriot missile shoots down Scud fired from Yemen

Syria artists find inspiration in haunting ruins of Homs

Pentagon chief seeks anti-IS support in Europe

Border camps full as Syria families escape regime offensive

Iraq military advance reopens Ramadi-Baghdad road

IEA holds OPEC responsible for oil supply glut

Iraqi woman charged over US hostage death

Mubarak era ‘reappears’ five years after his ouster