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Karim Traboulsi

Who and what are the Kurds fighting for?

The secular Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) boasts many women fighters in its ranks [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 December, 2015

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As fighting erupted this week between pro-Kurdish forces and Syrian Islamist rebels, some accused Kurdish factions of siding with Russia and the regime. But the reality is much more complex.
There are multiple Kurdish factions fighting in the Syrian civil war, mostly in Kurdish-dominated regions across northern Syria, which the Kurds call Rojava.

Most are secular, or "moderate", to use the language in vogue.

In truth, the Kurdish forces, which have fought regularly against Islamists in Syria, have been touted as a formidable challenge to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, not least thanks to their victory against IS in Kobane.

The Kurdish forces are also part of the 70,000 "army" UK Prime Minister David Cameron has adduced in making his case for British intervention in Syria.

But like all factions embroiled in the Syrian conflict, their alliances and allegiances remain a complicated affair.

Enter the YPG

The relationship between the Syrian regime and some Kurdish factions like the People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), is of particular significance.

To begin with, Syria had long supported the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- to which the YPG and PYD are allegedly affiliated -- in its separatist war with Turkey, at the height of pre-Erdogan Syrian-Turkish rivalry.

However, the forced Arabisation policies of the Baath regime meant that there was never any love lost between the regime and many Syrian Kurds.

Kurdish self-determination and rights inside Syria were not something the staunchly pan-Arabist Baath was willing to consider.

Meanwhile, no Syrian Kurd can forget the brutal regime crackdown in the wake of the riots in Qamishli in 2004.

In truth, the YPG and other Kurdish formations fought battles with the Syrian regime, as recently as June 2015, for example in Qamishli, al-Hasakah, Kobane, Afrin as well as Aleppo.

Despite this, the PYD did not join the Syrian rebellion against Bashar al-Assad.

The PYD, which dominates the de facto semi-autonmous Kurdish administration in Rojava, is primarily interested in cultural and political rights and self-determination for Kurds.

This is the benchmark by which all its policies and actions should be assessed.

Other smaller Kurdish-dominated factions that are more embedded with the Syian rebel groups, including Islamist factions, are fighting in the conflict, but do not seem to have a separate pro-Kurdish agenda.

Stabbing the revolution in the back

There have been recent accusations that the YPG and allied factions within the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), are collaborating with the Syrian regime and ally Russia against other Syrian rebels.

The SDF is a recently created rebel group supported by Washington as an anti-IS coalition, and spearheaded by Kurdish fighting units.

This was on the back of fighting between SDF sub-faction Jaysh al-Thuwar, a Free Syrian Army-affiliate with sizeable Kurdish components, and Islamist rebels Ahrar al-Sham and allegedly al-Qaeda-affiliate Nusra Front near Azaz, northern Aleppo.

Rebels and activists have alleged that Russia has been aiding a YPG offensive on Azaz, which happens to lie on a key rebel supply line running from Turkey southward to Aleppo city.

However, at the time, the YPG strenuously denied taking part in the fighting.

It is not clear who initiated the fighting, each side blaming the other for the hostilities.

Jaysh al-Thuwar's opponents in northern Aleppo have accused the group of fighting on behalf and alongside the YPG, while the coalition insists it is defending itself against "barbaric attacks" perpetrated by al-Nusra.


The Marea operations room -- a collection of Free Syrian Army-aligned factions -- says that Nusra has no presence in the area, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported the involvement of the al-Qaeda affiliate in fighting with Jaysh al-Thuwar.

Fierce fighting between the two sides continued at least through Tuesday morning, while activist media outlets reiterated the claim that Russian airstrikes are backing the pro-Kurdish coalition.

Syria's main battlegrounds on July 1, 2015
[Click to enlarge]



Emergency in Afrin

The fighting prompted the de-facto autonomous Kurdish region in northwest Syria to declare a state of emergency, claiming that the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham were threatening the area's residents.

The Afrin Canton's Executive Council gathered Tuesday for a crisis meeting during which the co-president of the body, Hevy Mustafa, "advised all authorities, directorates and institutions to announce a state of emergency."

Situated in the northwest of the Aleppo province along Turkey's border, the Afrin Canton is isolated from the other two cantons -- Cizire and Kobane -- that Kurdish authorities declared autonomous in January 2014.

"The goal of the attack the Afrin Canton is being subjected to by the forces of terrorism -- al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, which are supported by the Turkish state -- is to break the will of the Canton's people," a statement issued by the Afrin government said.

The Afrin canton reiterated its support for Jaysh al-Thuwar in its Tuesday declaration, stressing the closeness of the YPG's alliance with the rebel group.

"The terrorist groups have found that the project to build a democratic Syria starts from the Afrin Canton, therefore they have directly attacked Jaysh al-Thuwar," the Afrin co-leader said.

"Attacking Jaysh al-Thuwar means attacking the Canton and striking democratic forces," it added.

Although the YPG late last week stressed it was not involved in the fighting between Jaysh al-Thuwar and factions around Azaz, the Afrin statement seem to have confirmed the YPG had entered the rolling battles.

'Anti-Turkish alliance'

Turkey has consistently said it would not allow a Kurdish state along its borders.

In truth, media outlets close to the Turkish government accused Moscow of aiding a purported Kurdish campaign to seize a swathe of territory in northern Syria, which would challenge Turkey's planned "safe zone" in the region, a week after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet.


Sabah - a daily close to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) - claimed Monday that Russia was shipping weapons to a YPG training camp in the Kurds' Afrin canton.

Balancing all sides

In all cases, the main Kurdish factions in Syria, which command thousands of fighters in Syria, have emerged as a key player in the conflict, and it would be hard to ignore their demands even by Turkey.



For one thing, they will be crucial in any drive to defeat IS in its Syria stronghold of Raqqa, not far from the Kurdish-dominated areas.

This is not to mention their cross-border ties to their Kurdish brethren in Iraqi Kurdistan, another vital player in the war with IS.


For their part, the Kurdish factions will have to be on good terms with all sides -- bar IS and perhaps the Nusra Front.

They will therefore welcome any support from the US, Russia and others to achieve all or some of their goals.

This includes working with both Syrian rebels, which they have done albeit on their own terms, and the Syrian regime.

In July 2015, PYD leader Salih Muslim announced that the YPG was willing to join the Syrian army to "expel extremists," if the government committed to official decentralization of powers.

Assad quickly took notice. In September he announced that Syria was open to decentralisation proposals after the conflict between the government and opposition groups was over.

PYD officials then reportedly held talks with representatives of the Syrian government and the Russian military in Damascus and Latakia about a joint effort against IS.

But naturally, there will be limits to how much Kurdish power in Syria can expand.

The population outside Kurdish-dominated areas have often accused Kurdish factions like the YPG of "ethnic cleansing" of non-Kurds, including in the wake of YPG's capture of Tal al-Abyad.

These accusations were corroborated by some local and international rights groups.

As recently as Thursday, thousands of people held protests in the northern Raqqa countryside against the YPG, which have controlled part of the province since July.

According to local activist Anwar al-Kattaf, who spoke to al-Araby al-Jadeed, the protesters asked to be allowed to return to their town of Saluk.

The YPG allegedly expelled 25,000 people from the town and surrounding areas, many of whom went to Turkey, after driving out IS forces with the help of coalition airstrikes.

Meanwhile, the fighting with Turkish-backed rebel factions in Azaz, which seems to be backed by Russian air cover, should be seen as part of the efforts by virtually all sides in the Syrian conflict to consolidate their positions while thwarting their opponents', ahead of further rounds of peace talks.

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