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Haid Haid

The emerging conflict between Arabs and Kurds in Syria

While Western media focuses on ISIS, ominous clashes continue to break out between recently allied opposition groups

Three Syrians on a bike stop at a checkpoint monitored by a member of the internal Kurdish security forces, on the outskirts of Al-Hawl in Hasakah Governorate on 19 November 2015. The town’s capture was a strategic victory for the new SDF coalition. (AFP/Delil Souleiman)

Little attention has been paid to tensions increasing between Arabs and Kurds due the impact of foreign influence on the local dynamics of the conflict in Syria. Even the recent clashes that broke out between a number of Arab and Kurdish groups in Aleppo Governorate were not given enough coverage, as they are perceived to be less important than ISIS-related news. The danger being ignored here is not only related to another fight that will most likely break out again soon, but also the possibility of the conflict becoming an ethnic one, not only between armed groups but also between communities. The foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict — particularly the US, Turkey and recently Russia — are fuelling this tension by focusing on their own interests while ignoring the impact of their interventions on the local dynamics of the conflict.

 

The details are still not clear about the recent clashes, which broke out close to the town of Azaz, south of the Turkish border, due to conflicting narratives by the disputed parties. However, what’s clear so far is that a fierce fight took place between Jaysh al-Thuwar, a group allied with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and Ahrar al-Sham to control a nearby highway; a main supply road for rebel forces in northern Aleppo. The fight intensified when allies of these two groups joined in, which then spread to a number of villages along the highway. Despite the importance of the highway, the timing of the fight might give us better insight into the local dynamics of the conflict.

 

The fight started two weeks after the SDF announced its local branches on 17 November in the Afrin region, a Kurdish-majority area close to Azaz and isolated from the rest of the other Kurdish cantons, which were declared autonomous in January 2014. The SDF is a new Kurdish-led alliance with some Arab and Assyrian fighting groups, supported and funded by the US-led coalition. However, the SDF is being perceived as a Kurdish pretext to take advantage of US support in order to expand their territories in areas where Arabs are a majority. Therefore, Ahrar al-Sham and its allies framed their recent fight as a necessity to stop the Kurds and their allies from taking over 140 km so as to connect Afrin to the canton of Kobani, north the Turkish border. Moreover, the Marea Operations Room (MOR) offered Jaysh al-Thuwar fighters an out from their alliance with the YPG by breaking their ties with the PKK and helping to fight the regime and ISIS.

 

The US has continued to support the SDF despite an increase in reports accusing the YPG of committing violations against Arab communities, especially during their June attack on Tal Abyad and in November on Al-Hawl in rural Hasakah, where Arabs are the majority. These alleged violations range from confiscation and looting of private property, detention, torture and murder to the forcible displacement of entire villages. In a recent fact-finding mission in northern Syria, Amnesty International uncovered a wave of forced displacements and home demolitions amounting to war crimes carried out by the YPG controlling the area. The reported violations have increased tensions between Kurds and Arabs and led to mistrust in the Kurdish led SDF alliance.

 

Moreover, Turkish media reported Russian support to the SDF in their fight against Ahrar al-Sham and its allies as a way of getting back at Turkey for downing a Russian fighting jet. While these reports have not yet been verified, they have increased mistrust between Kurdish groups and other armed groups in Azaz — especially Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, perceived by Kurdish groups as an existential threat due to their affiliation with Turkey. Turkey’s government views the prospect of a contiguous, autonomous Kurdish region along its border with northern Syria — essentially one ruled by the PYD, a party with close ties to the PKK — as a threat. There is also mistrust from some other Kurdish groups as they are being seen as pro-Assad sympathizers since regime forces peacefully withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in 2012, and the Kurds were accused of helping the two besieged pro-Assad towns, Nubl and Al-Zahraa, in rural Aleppo.

 

Although the recent fighting in Azaz has stopped after a ceasefire was reached on Thursday last week, it’s unlikely that it will hold for long, as the reasons behind the tension and mistrust between the SDF and other groups have not thus far been addressed. Regional and international actors must carefully study the long-term impact of their interventions in Syria on the local dynamics of the conflict in order to avoid creating future conflicts. Addressing the violations and grievances of both groups and building a genuine alliance between them based on shared values and equal rights between all Syrian communities is the only way build an inclusive country for all Syrians, both Arabs and Kurds.

 

Haid Haid is a program manager at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s office in Beirut. He tweets @HaidHaid22

Three Syrians on a bike stop at a checkpoint monitored by a member of the internal Kurdish security forces, on the outskirts of Al-Hawl in Hasakah Governorate on 19 November 2015. The town’s capture was a strategic victory for the new SDF coalition. (AFP/Delil Souleiman)

The US has continued to support the SDF despite an increase in reports accusing the YPG of committing violations against Arab communities, especially during their June attack on Tal Abyad and in November on Al-Hawl in rural Hasakah, where Arabs are the majority."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Syrian Kurds should secede from Syria, just as their Iraqi brethren have seceded from Iraq, and together they should continue reclaiming the independent Kurdistan they were denied after World War I. Kurds are not Arabs, and should not be forced to be part of any Arab country. Arabs often complain about what the West did to them after World War I, yet they do not mind stealing Kurdish territories and occupying and colonizing the Kurdish people. The Arab, Iranian, and Turkish occupations of various parts of Kurdistan should cease. Western colonialism has ended long time ago. When is Arab colonialism going to follow suit?

    December 8, 2015