Maya Gebeily

Yaaroubiyah and beyond

A fighter of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) stands behind sand bags as he holds a position on the front line on October 19, 2013 in Syria’s Hasakah province, where Kurdish fighters have been battling al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

On October 26, Kurdish armed factions inside Syria did what Arab Syrian rebels have been unable to do: They handed yet another military defeat to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), linked to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), defeated the al-Qaeda faction in Yaaroubiyah, along the Syrian-Iraqi border. The hard-won victory has repercussions not just on Syria’s battlefield, but on the complex political arena in which the YPG and PYD operate.


Fighting between Islamist forces, specifically ISIS, and Kurdish militias has been ongoing since the battle of Ras al-Ain in July of this year. There, the YPG expelled jihadist elements from both the flashpoint town and the border crossing along the Turkish-Syrian border. Since then, various Syrian provinces have served as battlefields for this front, including Hasakah, Aleppo, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor “The fighting that takes place varies from region to region,” Kurdish analyst Sirwan Kajjo told NOW. “Sometimes it’s for territorial control, and sometimes it’s for survival.”


In Yaaroubiyah – which Kajjo described as a territorial, not existential, battle – the three-day fighting ended with another YPG victory. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, said that the YPG launched its offensive in direct retaliation to a joint ISIS-Jabhat al-Nusra suicide attack in al-Qahtaniyah, in Syria’s Hasakah province on the Syrian-Turkish border. Details on the actual fighting in the town and border checkpoint remain scarce. The YPG’s takeover of Yaaroubiyah might have been aided by Iraqi air support, said Kajjo, although NOW was not able to verify this. There were other unconfirmed reports that the YPG tried to take over the same area in September but was unsuccessful.


A series of battlefield victories constituted an important military lead-up to the takeover of Yaaroubiyeh. The YPG had been making “slow progress” in Hasakah, said Wilgenburg, though they had been losing out in other areas like Aleppo and Raqqa. Kurdish activist Resho Bistuyek* told NOW that consecutive clashes with ISIS in the oil-rich area of Rumeylan ended in a string of victories for YPG, which then fully turned its attention to the Yaaroubiyah, which it had been eyeing for “some time.”


Just as influential were the political developments taking shape at the time. Salih Muslim, co-chair of the PYD, entered Syria from Iraqi Kurdistan in October to attend funeral services for his son, who had been killed by al-Qaeda factions in recent fighting in Syria. According to Bistuyek, Muslim was expecting to head back into Iraqi Kurdistan via the Semalka border crossing then fly out to Washington, D.C. for a series of political meetings. On October 17, while Muslim was still in Syria, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) closed the Semalka crossing, leaving Muslim stranded inside. Days later, the KRG explained its move by accusing Muslim and the PYD of “serv[ing] the interests of the Assad regime.” Bistuyek, Wilgenburg, and Kajjo all agree: The YPG launched the attack on Yaaroubiyah, in part, in order to secure a border crossing over which they would have complete jurisdiction.


It succeeded. Now that the YPG has secured a border crossing with central Iraq, it can circumvent the closed border with the KRG at Semalka. Kajjo believes the takeover sends KRG President Massoud Barzani an important message. “I think it was a way to show the KRG that they [the PYD/YPG] have an alternative,” he said. The result could be a closer relationship between the PYD and the central Iraqi government, which has yet to unequivocally pull political support for the embattled Syrian president.


Kurdish internal politics will also determine the political ramifications of the YPG’s growing territorial gains. Kajjo pointed specifically to the PYD and YPG’s reputation within Syrian Kurdish areas, where the party and the armed units have been regarded as “regime puppets” by some since 2003. Indeed, some have accused the PYD of enjoying ongoing security arrangements with the Assad regime over public demonstrations and oil fields. The Syrian Arab Army’s relatively quiet withdrawal from Kurdish areas last year did nothing to dispel these rumors.


There are no indications as to whether ISIS will launch an attack to regain control over Yaaroubiyah, though analysts told NOW it could be likely. Asked whether Kurdish forces would build on this momentum to take over other ISIS-dominated areas, Kajjo was cautious. “I don’t think the PYD or the YPG will go beyond this border point,” he said. “As a Kurdish force, they can’t fight in non-Kurdish areas.” Wilgenburg, too, doubted that the YPG would try to take over other installments along the border. “Maybe they will only try to take over the border crossing in Tal Abyad, but that’s difficult,” he told NOW. Clashes between the YPG and ISIS had already taken place in Tal Abyad, which lies along the Turkish-Syrian border in Syria’s Raqqa province. “This would connect the Kurdish areas of Hasakah to those in Jarabulus and Kobani (Ain al-Arab).”


In regards to the increasingly violent front between ISIS and Kurdish militias, analysts told NOW that there is no end in sight anytime soon. “The fighting between ISIS and YPG will continue,” Kajjo said.


“This is just the beginning.”


*The activist is known by his pseudonym, Resho Bistuyek. 

The Kurdish YPG successfully fought back against ISIS alongside the Iraqi-Syrian border, and their sights might turn to other border points. (AFP Photo/Fabio Bucchiarelli)

"The YPG launched the attack on Yaaroubiyah, in part, in order to secure a border crossing over which they would have complete jurisdiction."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Unlike the Syrian "Arabs" and Islamists who are strictly motivated by religion, the Kurds are winning because they have a true cause: a unified Kurdistan. What they are doing in Syria is consistent with what the Iraqi Kurds have done, namely to secure an autonomous self-ruling territory that is today the nucleus of an independent Kurdistan. For far too long, and since the end of World War I (almost 100 years ago), the Kurds have been denied their legitimate right to self-determination and a sovereign country. Instead, they - because they were poor mountain people with no lobbyists at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 - were sold out to Arabs, Turks and Iranians when the Middle East was born out of the collapsed Ottoman Empire, and their territory split among these other repressive entities that are intolerant of the very minorities they forcibly rule over. It would behoove the world - particularly Turkey and Iran - to come to terms with the fact that the Kurds are a distinct nation with a continuous territory and a language of their own, and that they deserve to finally be unified into one sovereign nation. After Iraq, it is the turn of the Syrian Kurds to liberate themselves. It is a long road ahead, but one day the Kurds of Turkey and Iran will join their fellow Kurds in the country of Kurdistan. As the poet Abul-Qassem Ash-shaabi said, "idha as-shaa3bu yaouman araad al-hayaat, fala budda ann yastajiba al-qadar."

    November 2, 2013