Michael Weiss

The Latest Sideshow: the PYD v. al-Qaeda

Kurds rally in Syria. Recent fighting among Kurdish factions has killed dozens

In recent months, the Syria crisis has begun to transform itself from a fairly intelligible civil war of rebel versus regime into a series of belligerent sideshows that do little but vitiate the overall struggle against the Assad regime. The latest of these really is the crowning achievement of Bashar’s long-term strategy to sow chaos and confusion among his enemies since the belligerents this time are none other than two of his former proxies: al-Qaeda and the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD) or the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union to be a terrorist organization.


Since around mid-February, the city of Ras al-Ain in Hasakah has been divided into two sectors, one controlled by the People’s Defense Units (YPG), which are the militias beholden to the PYD, and the other controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as al-Nusra’s latest partner in Bin Ladenist misery, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This has been an uneasy division interrupted by sporadic fighting between sides, though this fighting reached a climax on July 16 when Jabhat al-Nusra attacked a YPG Women’s Defense Unit and captured a YPG militant in Ras al-Ain, an ethnically diverse city in Hasakah. The YPG responded just as fiercely, killing a number of al-Nusra fighters and freeing its captured comrade. In the process, the militia also managed to overtake Ras al-Ain and rout al-Nusra from the former Syrian Political Security branch and Ba’ath party headquarters, which were under the latter’s control. (Pro-PYD media would later parade confiscated passports of alleged al-Nusra jihadists showing that many, if not the majority of them, were foreigners from Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and even the United States.)  


On July 17, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Salafist brigade Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and Jaysh al-Tawhid, all conducted a joint operation to take the oil-rich city of Rumeylan in Hasakah from the PYD. The YPG’s success continued as it then seized control of the valuable Ras al-Ain border crossing with Turkey, effectively pushing al-Qaeda back into the outlying villages of Tal Half, Asfar, and Najar, and scaring the hell out of the Turks, who, whatever peace process is currently underway with PKK high command, certainly doesn’t want Abdullah Ocalan’s militants manning any border crossing. On July 18, the YPG also seized the al-Sweidiya oil district and detained around 30 Islamists fighters, although al-Nusra and the Islamic State managed to kidnap 19 Kurdish university students along the Tal Tamer-al-Hasakah road.  


On July 19, al-Nusra waged suicide bombings at PYD headquarters in the al-Jwadiya suburb and in Asayish, where it killed PYD leader Walid Abu Hanzalah. Meanwhile, the town of Tel Abyad, in adjoining Raqqa province, began to succumb to similar Islamist-Kurd tensions, leading local tribal leaders to try and negotiate an agreement to prevent further internecine warfare. That agreement evidently failed. The following day, July 20, Abu Musa’b, the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Tel Abyad, was reported captured by the YPG. Al-Nusra would later deny this, but on July 21, the non-captured emir was somehow “released” by the YPG in exchange for 400 Kurdish civilians who had been taken by al-Qaeda in Tel Abyad. 


In yet another round of mutual recrimination and misinformation, Alaa Ismail Shayku, a ceasefire negotiator aligned with Jabhat al-Akrad, a Kurdish FSA brigade, was said to have been beheaded by al-Qaeda militants and his house blown up, a rumor which a Kurdish journalist later debunked as mere jihadist scaremongering. In all, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that around 70 jihadists have been killed in a week of fighting, and al-Qaeda has been put on the backfoot, being knocked out of the villages of Yabseh, Kandal, and Jalbeh by a formidable PYD.


The backdrop for all this, unsurprisingly, is economic: al-Qaeda and the PYD have each made rival declarations of territorial ownership in an oil-abundant region of Syria and each intend to see those declarations to completion. Al-Nusra and the Islamic States' suggestion that it wants to establish an Islamic “emirate” in the north counters reports that the PYD will declare an autonomous zone in what it calls Western Kurdistan, first by forming an interim government in the next three months, then by holding parliamentary elections and a referendum on a draft constitution in the next six. This would be in line with what the Kurds of Iraq have had for two decades, and also what Ocalan has articulated as the “confederalist” model for establishing Kurdish regional governments in other countries with sizable Kurdish minorities, namely Turkey, Syria, and Iran. The trouble with the PYD’s preemptive plan is that it is not shared by other Kurdish parties. The Kurdish National Council, the umbrella organization representing over a dozen moderate Kurdish groups, has rejected it.


Two weeks ago, PYD representatives met with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the two main parties that control the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq to try and resolve the longstanding rivalry between the PYD and the KNC. The so-called Hawler Agreement, signed last year in Erbil as a precaution against an intramural crack-up in regime-abandoned parts of Kurdish Syria, established a nominal power-sharing body known as the Supreme Kurdish Council, which was meant to handle local governance and maintain security within the Kurdish regions of Syria. This is all well and good except that Hawler was a stillborn initiative; the PYD, being the most organized, best armed, and most Kurdish dictatorial group in Hasakah and Aleppo provinces, continues to dominate all military and political institutions. It has also serially blocked the importation of Syrian Kurdish militias trained by Massoud Barzani’s peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq. In May, the PYD even arrested Barzanist forces trying to cross back into Syria resulting in the KDP’s temporary closure of its border with Syria. Salih Muslim, the head of the PYD, continues to reject any KDP-trained Kurdish militia in Syria.


But what’s interesting is how al-Qaeda has managed to unite the KNC and the PYD when it comes to keeping al-Qaeda out of Syrian Kurdistan. Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar, former secretary-general of the KNC, who not long ago accused the PYD of kidnapping or executing members of KNC-affiliated Kurdish parties in Syria, has come out defending the YPG against al-Nusra and the Islamic State in a recent interview with al-Arabiya. And Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Supreme Military Command of the FSA, has tried to a walk a fine line between advocating that his forces stay completely out of any Arab-Kurd skirmishing while also not so subtly implicating the PYD as a still-active proxy of Damascus looking to carve out a new independent statelet for itself. “The main goal of the PYD is to found their own state, ‘Western Kurdistan,’” Idris told Turkish television this week. “They are receiving support from the Syrian regime and Kurdish militants based in Iraq and Iran, and the PKK.”


It seems that this conflict between the YPG and Islamic State/al-Nusra is turning more and more into an Arab-Kurdish conflict if you look to discourse of the Kurdish political parties and anti-Assad Arab opposition Facebook groups,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurd expert to whom I’m indebted for so closely tracking these events. “Even Kurdish rivals of the PYD support them now.” Van Wilgenburg also wonders if the more moderate Islamist al-Farouq Brigades, which have clashed fiercely with Jabhat al-Nusra in the past, are now sending personnel into Hasakah from the far more exigent battlefield of Homs to help fortify al-Qaeda against the PYD. If so, then this is further indication of how Assad’s carefully pursued sectarian conflict has led to strange (and temporary) bedfellows within the Syrian Arab opposition.


According to veteran oppositionist Fawaz Tello, al-Qaeda and the PYD are still being manipulated by the regime, even if only indirectly. True, the PYD’s militias have in the last few months clashed with the Syrian army and the mukhabarat, but Tello refers to them as the “shabiha of the Kurds,” allowed free reign only so long as they continue to suppress the youthful Kurdish protest movement, the real hero of which was Mishal Tammo, whose assassination in 2011 many Kurds blame on the PYD. For instance, on June 27, the YPG opened fire on an anti-PYD demonstration in the city of Amude, killing at least six Kurds. (Al-Nusra would later ridiculously claim that its war with the YPG was being waged in reprisal for these Kurdish “martyrs.”)  “The PYD is used by Bashar to threaten Turkey and divide Syria,” Tello said, adding that a number of the Arabs now fighting in Ras al-Ain were former regime functionaries who defected to either the FSA or to Jabhat al-Nusra once they realized that Assad had abandoned them to Kurdish autonomy.


One really does have to hand it to the human ferret this time. A central pillar of Assad’s strategy has been to cultivate so many competing nemeses within Syrian society that a united national opposition to destroy him could never emerge. He released al-Qaeda jihadists from Syrian prisons in 2011 because he knew that the very agents his military intelligence apparatus once dispatched into Iraq to blow up American soldiers would soon conduct suicide bombings and play at takfiri unpleasantness inside Syria  a kind of willed “blowback.” This would then give the impression that he was engaged in the very same global war on terror as the superpower he once helped terrorize. (As far as propagandistic jujitsu is concerned, this performance has lately had the sought-after discombobulating effect on U.S. policymaking toward Syria, which wasn’t all that coherent to begin with). The same strategy also impelled Assad’s decision, in July of last year, to withdraw his forces from large swaths of Syrian Kurdistan, knowing that the inheritors of the resulting security vacuum would be yet another former handmaid: the PYD. Now these ex-friends are enemies. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, the Syrian Army and Revolutionary Guard’s Shia militias burn through and ethnically cleanse Homs. 

Kurds rally in Syria. Recent fighting among Kurdish factions has killed dozens. (Image via AFP)

"One really does have to hand it to the human ferret this time."

  • Steve-0

    Little curious where "old Man Grumpy" aka John McCain is now? Soooo, who do you want to arm again?

    July 30, 2013

  • TylerDurden

    This article is so funny and so typical of the widening blind-spot in a fracturing belief system. All those 'you-tube consumers' of the western view cannot rationalise what is happening. You didn't want to accept that maybe .. just maybe the so-called revolution was hijacked within the first week of the uprising in Daraa by armed insurgents (how else could 7 policemen be shot by 'unarmed protester's?) and you have been turning a blind eye to the glaring fact that this insurgency is foreign sponsored with insidious islamic overtones FROM THE BEGINNING. Moreover you turned to look the other way as these jihadist's were making ground against he Regime despite the massacres and beheading's etc. You jumped on the US/UK chemical weapons bandwagon farce and you even ignored NATO's own on-the-ground report from activists and aid workers IN THE CONFLICT AREAS with delivered the damning statement: "That most Syrian's do not want this war to continue and prefer Assad to the alternative" And now that this direction-less revolution is fracturing, losing support from the people as well witnessing a flood of foreign islamic extremists flooding in across the border, you want to paint a different story to fit your narrative that Now you want to say its Assad's plan to break up Syria into a sectarian war. Despite the fact that most of his army is Sunni, half his administration is Sunni AND EVEN HIS OWN WIFE IS SUNNI which makes HIS OWN CHILDREN SUNNI. This article is a joke. The author is a joke and the readers who believe this live in la la land.

    July 25, 2013