“Deal with your friends as if they will become your enemies tomorrow, and deal with your enemies as if they will become your friends tomorrow.” It's a proverb passed along through Kurdish generations – and a telling pretext to the Kurdish strategy in today’s conflict in Syria. In recent weeks, this once dormant player has awoken from its slumber, and may just provide Syria’s desperate rebels with a much needed boost to break their deadlock with the Assad regime.
Reports indicate that YPG militiamen and Syrian rebels have agreed to share control of the strategic Sheikh Maqsoud District of northern Aleppo, cutting off regime supply routes to a hospital, prison, and other key positions. Rebel fighters entered the district largely unopposed on March 31. On April 6, the Syrian military bombarded Kurdish neighborhoods in northern Aleppo, killing 15 people in a likely response to this new arrangment. The following day, Kurdish militiamen attacked a Syrian military checkpoint in the city, killing five troops.
Further east, Syrian military units attacked a checkpoint manned by Kurdish militiamen in the northeastern city of Qamishli on April 4. Hours later, militiamen from the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) attacked two Syrian military positions on the outskirts of Qamishli. The attacks resulted in a number of deaths on both sides and marked the first such incident to occur in the predominantly Kurdish Hasakah Province since the Syrian military withdrew from the region’s urban centers in the summer of 2012.
Ethnic Kurds comprise approximately 10% of Syria’s population, dwelling in the country’s northeastern and northern provinces. Apart from several sporadic clashes with extremist rebels, Kurdish factions have largely refrained from taking sides since the outset of the conflict.
Increasing violence between Kurdish militias and the Syrian military indicates a notable shift in the policy of the Syrian Kurdish leaderships policy of neutrality. The rebel capture of Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud area on March 31 was coordinated and facilitated by local Kurdish militias, effectively ending that district’s neutral status in battle for control of the city. Subsequent aerial bombardments of the district indicate that the Syrian military now views Kurdish militias in the region as a hostile entity.
The Syrian Kurdish leadership has likely been influenced by ceasefire developments taking place between its PKK counterparts and the Turkish government. Since October 2012, the Turkish government has conducted negotiations for a draw-down of PKK fighters from Turkey with Abdullah Ocalan, a currently imprisoned, through highly influential Kurdish leader. During the Nevruz holiday in late March 2013, the PKK agreed to a ceasefire with the Turkish military and an Ocalan-approved timetable for withdrawal. In early April 2013, Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) leader Salih Muslim stated that his constituents support ceasefire efforts being conducted between the Turkish government and Kurdish PKK separatists.
Subsequent statements of support by Syrian Kurdish leaders for the talks have been followed by increasing coordination of Kurdish militias with Syrian rebels, including the March 31 withdrawal from Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud.
Despite the current shift of support to the rebels, Syrian Kurds still prioritize the protection and independence of their communities above nationalist-revolutionary aspirations of the country’s Arab Sunnis. Any agreement with the Syrian opposition is thus likely to remain fragile and subject to change.
In the near term, the stance of the Syrian Kurdish leadership regarding cooperation with the rebels is likely to be heavily influenced by Turkish policies. Reports indicate that the Syrian Kurdish leadership expects Turkey to begin negotiating directly with PYD in a similar manner to the PKK. Until recently, Turkey had refused any contact with the PYD over fears of setting a precedent for recognition of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria.
In addition, the PYD reportedly expects Turkey to reduce its support for extremist Syrian rebels, including those who have clashed with the group in the past. Furthermore, any breakdown of the draw-down process with the PKK would likely hinder Kurdish-rebel cooperation in Syria, and an increase in hostility from the PYD toward the Turkish government. Lastly, attacks by jihadist Syrian rebel elements against Kurdish communities could also bring an end to cooperation mixed cities and regions in northern Syria, threatening to derail the rebel effort to end the standoff in Aleppo.
In the long term, the maintaining of Kurdish-rebel coordination could result in considerable setbacks for the Syrian military, particularly impacting efforts to maintain control over outlying areas. Continued bombardments by the Syrian military against Kurdish populations are likely to result in an increase of reprisal attacks against Syrian military troops stationed in the area, who are already impacted a breakdown in resupply routes. In Aleppo, Kurdish-rebel cooperation would further pressure regime forces, by enabling for additional staging grounds for rebel offensives against the remaining southwest districts held by the Syrian military.
As far back as World War One, the Kurdish people have been cast as the historic losers to the spoils of conflict in the Middle East. In a region which is no stranger to ironic twists, it should come as no surprise that this long-persecuted ethnic group has emerged as a kingmaker in a battle which will undoubtedly shape the face of the region for years to come.
Daniel Nisman is the Middle East and North Africa section intelligence director at Max Security Solutions, a geo-political and security risk consulting firm.