Michael Weiss

The impending Syrian-Kurdish conflict

Kurdish activists guard a checkpoint

This week’s violence between the PYD (the Syrian branch of the proscribed Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK) and Free Syrian Army in Aleppo has prompted fears that not only will a “new front” in the Syrian conflict be opened up—this one between predominantly Arab rebels and Syrian Kurdish separatists—but that its emergence will severely inhibit the rebels’ ability to wage war on the Assad regime. Although well grounded, these concerns tend to obscure the more complicated and contradictory nature of PYD-FSA relationship up until now. More significantly, they also elide much the greater threat of an impending internal Syrian-Kurdish conflict.

The PYD-FSA fighting broke out on Friday in the Aleppo district of Ashrafieh. According to the PYD, it followed the Syrian regime’s shelling of the area and the FSA’s subsequent attempt to seize the road that runs from Ashrafieh to the Sheikh Maksud district of Aleppo. More than 40 were killed and hundreds more captured on both sides. Syrian rebels have characterized the confrontation as a “misunderstanding that was created by a regime plot,” emphasizing that “Our Kurdish brothers are comrades in our nation.”

The PYD was less magnanimous in the aftermath, with one activist telling CNN that the FSA had fired on a demonstration in Ashrafieh of people demanding that the rebels withdraw from this Kurdish-majority neighborhood. Another PYD activist claimed that the FSA had violated a prior agreement not to enter these areas with any weapons, then attempted to establish its own checkpoints in Ashrafieh. The Kurdish Taakhi Coordination Committee posted to Facebook on Sunday that all 120 Kurds detained by the FSA were released and that cease-fire discussions were ongoing. Although conditions appear to have relaxed since the weekend, on Wednesday, PYD fighters reportedly ambushed rebels at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing, killing at least one.

This episode, which certainly raises questions about the future balkanization of Syria along sectarian lines, should not be taken in isolation. Three analysts—Ilhan Tanir, Omar Hossino and Wladimir van Wilgenburg—have examined in detail Syrian-Kurdish dynamics in a new report which I was fortune enough to edit. They’ve found that, while mutually suspicious of each other, the PYD and FSA are not yet sworn enemies, owing to the fact that both groups haven’t managed to fully consolidate their gains in northern Syria or, what is more crucial, win over the support of the people they now effectively govern. For Syrian Kurds, the looming threat isn’t a war with Arabs, but rather a war with themselves.

The PYD, which has long been hosted and patronized by the Assad family, benefited enormously from the regime’s withdrawal from Kurdish areas in Aleppo and Hasakah provinces in mid-July. As the only Kurdish party in Syria with its own militias, the PYD was quickly able to establish unilateral control over the cities of Afrin, Amude, Derik as well as large swaths of Qamishli, the capital of Syrian Kurdistan. By the end of July, the regime was completely absent from 14 Kurdish cities in total, indicating that either its forces had been redeployed out of necessity to hotter conflict zones in the country, or that Assad had cleverly calculated that his absence would automatically mean the PYD’s takeover—a development he likely knew would enervate the FSA but terrify its patron, Turkey, which has been at war with the PKK for decades. (Since the Syrian uprising began, that war has reached heights of violence not seen since the 1990s.)

The PYD views the FSA as Ankara’s hireling army, seeking to impose an Arab Islamist agenda in a post-Assad state. Meanwhile, the FSA sees the PYD as an Assadist sleeper proxy, easily switched on and off again depending on the needs of Damascus. One 20 year-old FSA fighter wounded in another weekend battle in Yazi Bah, a Kurdish village close to the Turkish border, told AFP: “The enemy now is the PKK because they’re Assad’s dogs.”

Fighting first erupted in Afrin between the two sides between June 29 and July 3, leading to the deaths of two FSA supporters and one ex-PYD member. Meanwhile, an exclusively Kurdish FSA brigade called Salah-ad Din Eyubi, headquartered in Afrin, has warned the PYD against heavy-handedness, urging pan-Kurdish unity (about which more in a moment).

Throughout the summer, the PYD serially blocked FSA movements and even prohibited the rebels from erecting their own checkpoint in Robarliq, a Kurdish village in Aleppo in early August. Relations between the two groups are poorest in Hasakah province, where the Kurdish presence is highest. The FSA formed a military council in Qamishli in mid-August and a Martyrs Battalion of Al Zahra, which likely carried out the bombing of the regime’s intelligence headquarters there. A Unified Qamishli Brigade of the FSA was announced on September 9 on YouTube, further challenging exclusive PYD control of the city.

And yet, FSA-PYD relations have also been strangely cooperative, couched in what Sheikh Tawfik Abu Suleiman, the rural commander of the FSA’s formidable Tawheed Brigade, classifies as a “cold peace.” As ever, any alliance of convenience here has been the product of the regime’s stupidity. When Syrian security forces fired on a PYD convoy to Aleppo, the PYD shot back, killing six regime personnel. FSA fighters have successfully traveled from Aleppo to PYD-held Afrin to mourn the deaths of 21 people from the village who were killed in the intense battle for Salaheddine, the Stalingrad of the Aleppo siege. On August 7, the PYD even allowed the FSA to attack regime forces in Ashrafieh, which may be one reason why the FSA was quick to downplay this week’s escalation as a “misunderstanding.”

In fact, the PYD faces a greater problem than the FSA in the shape of opposing Syrian Kurdish parties that are the preferred interlocutors for Irbil, Washington and Ankara. In July, Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, shepherded into being the Irbil Agreement in order to unite the PYD and moderate Kurdish parties represented by the umbrella organization the Kurdish National Council (KNC).

The unwritten purpose of the Irbil Agreement was to consolidate all the newly regime-vacated territories of Syrian Kurdistan under the banner of pan-Kurdish unity. But the three express purposes were to create a foreign relations apparatus so that Syrian Kurds could negotiate with the international community independently of Arab-majority opposition groups (such as the now-irrelevant Syrian National Council), provide social services, and establish a joint security force to maintain law and order in liberated Kurdish districts.

However, the problem of where this joint security force would be trained was never codified. Barzani clearly intended to have Kurdish conscripts professionalized in Iraqi Kurdistan. In July, his zerevani—the military police that operate within the Kurdish peshmerga paramilitary forces—trained between 600 and 3,000 recruits in northern Iraq. But the PYD wanted all training to take place under the supervision of its own People’s Defense Units inside Syria. It has already blocked the return of KRG-trained Kurdish defectors from the Assad regime. Barzani, too, has come under fire from the PYD for being seen to have strengthened the KRG’s relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, acquiescing in Turkey’s bombardment of PKK strongholds in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq, for instance.

Tensions between the PYD and the KNC have been far worse than those between the PYD and the FSA. Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar, the former head of the KNC, has accused the PYD of assassinating Nasiradeen Pior, a senior figure in the Kurdish Azadi Party, and of complicity in the regime’s assassination in October 2011 of Mishal Tammo, a popular Kurdish political figure and one of the few Kurds to have joined the Syrian National Council. In June, Mustafa Jumu’ah, the vice president of the KNC, was kidnapped by the PYD for suggesting that the group had made $200 million through smuggling, an accusation the PYD denied. On September 20, PYD militias raided three KNC party offices close to Qamishli. In late August, the KNC’s local committee in Amude suspended its membership in the Irbil Agreement because, it alleged, the PYD had engaged in extortion. In retaliation, the PYD arrested three KNC activists in Amude, who were only released on September 2 after the 10-member executive guiding the Irbil Agreement intervened. Overall, Tanir, Hossino and van Wilgenburg conclude the PYD has used the Irbil Agreement as a pretext to wage a unilateral power seizure in Aleppo and Hasakah. Perhaps the most interesting report to emerge from the Ashrafieh skirmish was the Daily Star’s claim that the FSA unit mainly responsible was the Kurdish-majority Salaheddine Battalion, which consists of “disgruntled former PKK members and anti-Assad Kurdish locals, alongside Arab Islamists.” Even if the fighters themselves were predominantly Arab, that they have aligned themselves with a Kurdish militia against the PYD is extremely revealing.

The KNC must walk a knife’s edge. On the one hand, it needs credible partners and patrons to offset the PYD’s rising power, yet in order to grow its own constituency, it needs to prioritize Kurdish autonomy. This paradox was best embodied in the hot-cold prescriptions of Mustafa Jumu’ah, the kidnapped Azadi Party member who first advocated a partnership between the FSA and moderate Syrian Kurds, but then appeared to retract it by affirming that the FSA had no place inside Kurdish areas of Syria.

Though it would be crude to read in the PYD-KNC divide an exact extenuation of the Syrian-Turkish one, the recriminations and accusations coming from either side do suggest that these relationships now broadly run parallel with each other. So while the West awakens to the prospect of an Arab-Kurdish sideshow in Syria, what it hasn’t fully appreciated is the likelihood of an even more protracted and geopolitically fraught Kurdish civil war in Syria, one that would certainly be exploited by Damascus and almost certainly eventually ensnare Turkey and Iraq.

Kurdish activists guard a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kurdish village in northern Syria. (AFP photo)

The PYD faces a greater problem than the FSA in the shape of opposing Syrian Kurdish parties that are the preferred interlocutors for Irbil, Washington and Ankara.