Another battle begins: Shifting power relations on Syria's battlefield

Another battle begins: Shifting power relations on Syria's battlefield
Comment: Robin Yassin-Kassab takes a closer look at the alliances on the Syrian battlefield, as ethnic-nationalist conflict between Turks, Kurds and Arabs threatens to spiral out of control.
6 min read
31 Aug, 2016
PYD ground tactics aim at linking up the cantons and establishing a Kurdish state [Anadolu]

On August 9, Turkish President Erdogan visited Russian President Putin in Saint Petersburg. The two leaders cleared the air after a period of mutual hostility during which Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter jet and Russia had bombed Turkish aid convoys heading to Syria.

Clearly some kind of deal was struck at the meeting. Turkey now feels able to engage in robust interventions in northern Syria against both IS and the Democratic Union Party, or PYD - a Kurdish party-militia closely linked to the PKK - a group at war with the Turkish state. Except for the public recognition that Moscow is more relevant than Washington, it isn't clear what Turkey has given Russia in return. Turkey has after all just supported the rebel push to break the siege of Aleppo.

Perhaps the earliest sign of the new reality was the Assad regime's aerial bombardment of PYD-controlled territory in Hassakeh. The PYD closed Aleppo's Castello road to regime traffic in response.

A ceasefire was quickly agreed, but the clash was still a surprising turnaround. Assad had never bombed the PYD before. In fact the two had sometimes collaborated, not as a result of ideological proximity or fraternal feeling, but out of a ruthless pragmatism.

The regime withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight in June 2012. The PYD inherited the security installations in these three cantons - now called Rojava, or western Kurdistan - and Assadist forces were freed up to fight the revolution elsewhere.

Kurds can now educate their children in their own language and participate in government through the local councils known as communes. The communes have a 40 percent quota for women.

Yet the admirable democratic potential of the commune system is choked by the dominance of the PYD's single party-militia which monopolises control of money and arms, represses other parties, and sometimes shoots at protestors. Those western leftists who fetishise Rojava while scorning other areas of revolutionary Syria tend to ignore these dictatorial tendencies, and fail to consider the traumatising effects of continual regime bombardment on liberated territories beyond Rojava.

IS often strikes Kurdish targets in Turkey in order to provoke more Kurdish anger - and PKK violence - against the Turkish state

Even under barrel bombs and a starvation siege, Daraya in the Damascus suburbs built a democratic and self-organised community free of the dominance of any party or militia. But Daraya was largely ignored.

From the start, relations between Assad and the PYD soured relations between the PYD and the rebellion. But there was fault on all sides. Jihadists, most notably IS (which is an enemy of the rebellion), but also Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, sometimes shelled Kurdish civilians.

The opposition's elites in the Syrian National Coalition, meanwhile, failed to recognise explicitly and wholeheartedly the Kurdish right to self-determination. In addition, rebel militias wanted to keep on the right side of Turkey, their most important ally but also a historical oppressor of Turkish Kurds. These factors added to Kurdish alienation, which in turn helped the PYD establish its dominance in Rojava.

The PYD allied with the United States in the fight against IS. At the same time it allied with Russia in the fight against mainstream rebels in northern Aleppo's Azaz corridor, and here its relations with the revolution soured irreparably.

The PYD (more precisely its armed wing – the YPG) invaded and occupied Arab-majority towns like Tel Rifaat, destroying their councils and expelling their Free Army defenders. It attacked Marea at the same time as an IS assault on the town. It even helped impose the siege on free Aleppo. At the time, YPG commanders had friendly photos taken alongside Iranian occupation troops.

The PYD produces an attractive rhetoric concerning "democratic confederalism", a model of communal autonomy without states and borders which seems ideally suited to Syrian Kurdish communities, since their cantons are territorially non-contiguous.

Where they are a majority, Kurds have a right to self-determination

PYD actions, however, show that the real aim is to link up the cantons and make a state. In March the "Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava" was declared. This was not an act of popular self-determination but a top-down directive from the PYD.

In August, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - a US-backed and PYD-dominated coalition - liberated the city of Manbij from IS. Before the foreign jihadists took over, Manbij had its own revolutionary council and boasted Syria's first independent trades union. Today the revolutionary council wants to return, but the PYD has imposed a council of its own choosing without coordinating with local activists.

"We really appreciate everything the SDF fighters did in order to push ISIS out of Manbij," activist Hassan Hamidi told Haid Haid. "But it seems that we are moving from one dictator to another."

Here Turkish and Syrian opposition interests coincide. Most Arabs and Turkmen (and some Kurds too) resent the imposition of PYD state power, while Turkey fears a Kurdish state in Syria would boost Kurdish nationalism within its own borders.

Since the last ceasefire broke, war between the PKK and the Turkish state has killed 1,800 people, mostly Kurds, and destroyed several Kurdish villages. The PKK has repeatedly bombed Turkish military and police targets.

So Turkish tanks and Syrian rebel infantry moved into northern Aleppo province. The first target was IS, which has stolen so many Syrian lives and towns, and perpetrated a string of atrocities in Turkey, including at Istanbul's international airport, culminating in the suicide bomb killing 50 guests at a Gaziantep wedding.

Recent events once again demonstrate the inflammatory results of US policy

IS often strikes Kurdish targets in Turkey in order to provoke more Kurdish anger - and PKK violence - against the Turkish state.

Jarablus was liberated quickly. This served the conspiracy theorists who hold - absurdly - that Turkey and IS are allies. IS retreated to fortify al-Bab, a much larger town. Their retreat was also strategic, because they wanted their two enemies - the PYD and the Turkish-backed rebels - to expend their energy fighting each other.

PYD propagandists and their western followers describe the rebel fighters as jihadists indistinguishable from IS. They used the same racist demonisation to justify the PYD's assault on the Azaz corridor. In fact Jabhat al-Nusra (rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), ideologically opposed to working with Turkey, withdrew from northern Aleppo long ago. The Jarablus operation even disrupted plans for a grand merger of Nusra with other northern rebels.

The PYD has assured the United States that it will withdraw from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates. It is to be hoped that this promise is quickly fulfilled. If not, Turkey and the rebels should take back the Arab-majority areas, but stay out of the three Rojava cantons. Where they are a majority, Kurds have a right to self-determination. It's for them to decide what that means in practical terms.

Recent events once again demonstrate the inflammatory results of US policy, both the failure to work with rebel groups in the Sunni Arab communities most immediately concerned by the anti-IS fight, and the refusal to focus on the main cause of Syria's trauma - the depredations of the Assad regime.

They also threaten spiralling ethnic-nationalist conflict between Turks and Kurds, and Arabs and Kurds, to add to growing sectarian and regional tensions. Assad's repression of Syria's freedom movement, compounded by the aggressions and appeasements of foreign states, has sparked an endlessly proliferating series of wars.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is co-author, with Leila al-Shami, of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, and author of The Road From Damascus, a novel. 

Books he has contributed to include Syria Speaks, Shifting Sands, and Beta-Life: Stories from an A-Life Future. His book reviews and commentary have appeared in the Guardian, the National, Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast and others, and he often comments on Syria on TV and radio.

He blogs at and

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.