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.