YPG and Assad: Pragmatic allies but unwilling bedfellows?

YPG and Assad: Pragmatic allies but unwilling bedfellows?
Comment: The Syrian regime and Kurdish militants have become unlikely allies, but what will the recent attack on Hassakeh mean for the future of YPG-regime relations? asks Sam Hamad.
7 min read
26 Aug, 2016
Kurdish YPG fighters put their flag on the central prison in Hassakeh [Getty]
As the People's Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which rules the statelet that has been carved out in Kurdish areas of Syria, referred to as Rojava, surrounds Assad regime forces in the city of Hassakeh, regime bombers have for the first time hit YPG-held territory.  

Over 50 people, including more than 20 civilians, have died due to the clashes, making this by far the worst confrontation between the YPG and pro-regime forces since the conflict began. 

But one might be jumping the gun to imagine that this means that a full on conflict will break out between the YPG and the regime. 

On the surface of things, these two forces ought to have no truck with each other  the regime has always oppressed Kurds in all manner of racist ways, stemming from its fascistic Baathist ideology.

However, since the Syrian revolution began, the YPG and Assad have become unlikely allies. The PYD is the Syrian wing of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with both advocating "democratic confederalism", the ideology of PKK leader Abudllah Ocalan. 

In this respect, much like pre-existing armed jihadi groups with state-building ambitions that drifted into Syria from Iraq as the revolution developed into a civil war, the PYD with its military wing was extremely well placed to fill the vacuum left by the weakening Baathist state as the rebellion spread.

In over five years of war the regime, until a few days ago, never once dropped a single barrel bomb or missile on any area of Rojava

But while it might be easy for western commentators and analysts  keen to look for something they can identify with amid the Syrian war, which is often erroneously and squalidly presented as a war between two equal evils  to get carried away in the romance of secularism that is Rojava, the fact is that it could not exist in its current form without some kind of alliance with Assad.

One might ask why the explicitly anti-Kurdish Assad regime might not have ever launched an offensive to capture the strategically important areas of Rojava from the PYD?

The answer lies in the fact that the Assad regime never lost them - in 2012, once the PYD had consolidated its grip among diverse Kurdish political forces, the Syrian Army simply withdrew from Kurdish areas, only maintaining a moderate presence in Hassakeh and Qamishli, but allowing the PYD to assume the role of governors and military protectors of the cantons that comprise Rojava. 

While areas of Syria that have been liberated by the rebels are reduced to rubble and its people incinerated and maimed by Assad's air force, in over five years of war the regime, until a few days ago, never once dropped a single barrel bomb or missile on any area of Rojava.  

In these circumstances, consolidating power and building a statelet has been a relatively easy task for the PYD. 

As noted earlier, this relationship of mutual non-confrontation arises not from the PYD being stooges of the regime, as some supporters of the Syrian revolution would have it, or from the racist Assad dynasty suddenly having a Damascene conversion to the cause of Kurdish autonomy, but rather due to unadulterated pragmatism on the part of both sides. 

As stated in the International Crisis Group's (ICG) report Flight of Icarus: The PYD's Precarious Rise in Syria:

"[T]here is little doubt that the PYD is engaging the regime in a conciliatory rather than confrontational manner and has pursued a modus vivendi that serves both… Its initially rapid advance was dependent on Damascus's June 2012 withdrawal from Kurdish areas; this was mutually beneficial, as it freed regime forces to concentrate elsewhere… while the PYD denied Kurdish areas to the armed opposition."

The agreement was one where the regime would be allowed to concentrate its forces fully against the rebels and their will to overthrow Assad, allowing the PYD to build its essentially one-party statelet free from regime barrel bombs and death squads, as long as the PYD never aided the rebellion in any decisive manner. 

But there's another element to this relationship too. While the Assad regime withdrew most of its military from Rojava, it has maintained its funding of the state apparatuses within the territory, including paying the salaries of employees of such apparatuses now under the control of the PYD, including teachers and civil servants.

While the Assad regime withdrew most of its military from Rojava, it has maintained its funding of the state apparatuses within the territory

As the ICG report notes, "Damascus pulled back most of its security personnel but kept government services under its charge… it continues to pay government salaries and run administrative offices." 

This might not sound like much, but it's precisely these things that make any state building enterprise possible. As one teacher in Qamishli told the ICG, "If the regime… cuts these salaries… I don't see how the PYD project could continue in Syria."

As the ICG report further notes about the relationship: "The PYD did not liberate Kurdish areas of Syria: it moved in where the regime receded; most often, it took over the latter's governance structures and simply relabelled them, rather than generating its own unique model as it claims… Rojava… is an instrument that enables the regime to control Kurdish areas."

It has been for these reasons, as well as the rebels' own pragmatic necessity to maintain good relations with the hysterically anti-PYD Turkish government, that we've seen over the course of the war the complete disintegration of a functional rebel-PYD relationship, while the regime and it have grown closer militarily. 

This is one reason why the current conflict has been a surprise  it was only a few weeks ago that the YPG aided the regime, under the cover of Russian airstrikes against rebel held areas, in securing the Castello Road and thus enabling the besiegement of Aleppo. 

Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the YPG's strategy of securing its interests  it has always attempted to appeal to what might be called big power. 

We've seen this throughout the conflict. In the early days of the war when the rebellion was on the ascendency and there was still the idea of a no-fly zone being enforced on behalf of the rebels, the YPG moved to improve relations with the rebels. 

However, as the rebels' fortunes diminished, with their allies abandoning them due to the rise of IS and Iran and Russia increasing their intervention, these potential modes of rebel-YPG cooperation declined, with the YPG welcoming the intervention of Russia on behalf of Assad against the rebels and becoming the primary recipient of US military intervention. 

While the YPG can rely on the US in its fight against IS, it relies on its close relationship Russia in its fight against the Syrian rebels

In this respect, the YPG perhaps doesn't need the Assad regime anymore.

After all, it enjoys, the support of the USA, both in the form of its coordination with the US Air Force, as well as the US Special Forces that fight alongside it and the arms and funds that the US provides it with. Perhaps that is why it feels bold enough to attempt to chase the regime out of Hassakeh? 

More likely, I think this is a local dispute that occurred for reasons that are not yet entirely clear, one that risks escalating into a new phase of hostility between the regime and the YPG, but I very much doubt this will occur. 

While the YPG can rely on the US in its fight against IS, it relies on its close relationship Russia in its fight against the Syrian rebels.

In this respect, as we've already seen, Russia will most likely ensure that the dispute is resolved without the total burning of bridges, but it is a sharp reminder that the YPG and the regime, while pragmatic allies, are not willing bedfellows. 

Though what's occurring is currently a local dispute between allies, it perhaps hints at the possibility of a larger conflict yet to come. One wider lesson it does perhaps teach us is that if the Syrian revolution is to be defeated, pragmatism will perhaps have been the final nail in its coffin. 

Turkey, a key ally of the Syrian rebels, has reacted to the current fighting by reversing its support for the rebel demand that Assad must go, with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announcing that Assad could remain in a "transitional government" and that its airbase in Incirlik could be used by Russia. 

One must never forget that this was and is a Syrian revolution – not an Arab one. At the beginning of the uprising, Kurds and Arabs held massive demos against Assad  the Kurdish struggle was an organic part of with the wider Syrian struggle.

Beyond all the betrayals, alliances and conflicting foreign interests, the reality has always been that Syrians who strive for freedom, whether Arab or Kurdish, ultimately have the same enemies and interests. It's a tragedy that is not yet realised. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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.