Erbil, Iraq – Dozens of civilians were killed in the shelling of Aleppo’s Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud by Syrian rebels on Tuesday, leading the Syrian opposition bloc to condemn their fellow rebels for bombing Kurds. The attack also furthered threatened the stability of the February 27 truce between Syrian rebels and the regime.
Idris Nassan, a former Kurdish official based in Kobane, said that the rebel groups killed many civilians in their attempts to seize control the Kurdish-held neighborhood.
“Early this morning (Tuesday), rebels began fiercely and randomly bombarding the neighborhood, causing 67 civilian victims, 14 of whom were killed. There are seven women and 21 children among the victims,” he told NOW.
“Turkey and other supporters of the groups are freely sending them supplies because the cessation of hostilities observed by the US and Russia doesn’t cover the neighborhood,” he added.
The rebel groups launched counterattacks on the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud after the Kurdish People’s Protections Units (YPG) attempted to seize control of Castello Highway on February 16, which is the only road between Aleppo and the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Moreover, the YPG, backed by Russian airstrikes, also threatened to take Maraa, the historic epicenter of the Syrian rebellion.
Also known as "Death Road," the Castello Highway spans the northern edges of Aleppo. Since regime forces cut off rebel supply lines leading southward into the city from Turkey, the dangerous thoroughfare has served as the only supply line into its rebel-held western sectors.
“They are more than one million people living in Aleppo. Castello is the only road in and out of the city,” Abu Saeed al-Holandi, a member of the Nusra Front, told NOW. Holandi also denied that Nusra was playing any role in the recent rebel-Kurish fighting.
“If this [road] is cut off, you will risk another Madaya,” he said, referring to the besiegement by the regime of the rebel-held town of Madaya, where many civilians died of starvation in January of this year.
“The exact catalyst of the clashes is not certain but it may have to do with SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) attempts to cut off a rebel supply route and expand west of Afrin,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a US think tank.
In the most recent round of violence, Kurdish civilians have become the main victim of the conflict.
“Multiple sources in Aleppo reported earlier today many casualties and injuries among civilians as a result of shelling carried out by armed groups in the area surrounding positions of the YPG militias in Aleppo,” the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main opposition umbrella organization, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The Coalition reaffirmed its condemnation of any attacks on civilians, stressing that all sides have a responsibility to protect civilians,” the SNC said.
Although the Syrian opposition condemned the attacks, most of the rebel groups involved in the clashes belong to the group. “Most of these Islamist groups belong to the Syrian opposition, such as Ahrar as-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam. Another reason behind the fighting is that [rebel groups] always view the PYD (Democratic Union Party, the main Kurdish political party in Syria) as cooperating with the regime,” said Zara Salih.
Salih is a member of the Kurdish Unity Party, a rival of the PYD. The Kurdish Unity Party is also a member of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and is part of the opposition delegation taking part in UN-backed peace talks in Geneva, unlike the PYD.
“Of course the KNC is against Islamist factions such as Al-Nusra and other jihadists groups. KNC officially condemns these attacks because they killed civilians, with most of the neighborhood being Kurdish. They (rebel groups) have also broken the ceasefire following Geneva agreement,” Salih told NOW. “There is no different between these groups and the Syrian regime in that regard.”
PYD officials blame both the Syrian opposition and the KNC for the attacks, suggesting that Jaysh al-Islam is a major combatant in the clashes. Jaysh al-Islam is playing a leading role in the negotiations in Geneva, with its chief Mohammed Alloush acting as one of the lead negotiators for the opposition.
“The attacks in Sheikh Maqsoud were also carried out by Mohammed Alloush’s group. In a video you can hear the Syrian opposition claiming responsibility for the attacks,” Nawaf Xelil, a member of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), told NOW.
“These factions are moving under the command of Turkey. They did not stop the war on the Kurds, and have violated the truce, and they have killed Kurds,” said Zuhat Kobane, another member of the PYD. “All these factions signed and agreed to the truce declared by the international envoy (UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura),” he added.
The attacks by ostensibly moderate rebel groups on civilians are also problematic for the United States.
“The turf battle over Sheikh Maqsoud is highly problematic for US policymakers because the Arab FSA groups that fight the YPG there also fire artillery into the district, killing and wounding innocent civilians. For US policy purposes, the battle over Sheikh Maqsoud does not cover the FSA in glory,” Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher, told NOW.
“The Arab groups are convinced that the YPG is working in conspiracy with the Assad regime to prevent a rebel victory in Aleppo. This conspiracy theory concerning the YPG is not unique to the context of Sheikh Maqsoud and is used against the YPG throughout Syria,” he added.
“This Arab armed opposition narrative against the Kurds in Sheikh Maqsoud implies that the YPG is a cancer that threatens the health of the revolution in Aleppo, a most strategic and vital city for the rebels to win.”
However, for the United States, only the battle against the Islamic State is important, while the Sheikh Maqsoud conflict is ignored.
“In many ways, the conflict in Sheikh Maqsoud is exactly the type of highly localized, Lebanese Civil War-style turf war that US policymakers do not want to bother with because it distracts from the larger campaign against ISIS,” Heras added.
A group of Kurdish activists and journalists on Wednesday also called for an end to the attacks.
“We call on the international community, human rights organizations in charge of action to stop these practices, which rise to the level of war crimes, in the light of the prevailing silence among the opposition political parties about these inhuman practices,” they said.
So far, it seems the clashes between the YPG and rebel groups will continue. The YPG said in a statement on Wednesday that killed 36 rebel fighters and injured 70 of them in another round of fighting.