Al-Qaeda battles Kurds in Syria

Jerusalem Post, 16/8.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, threatened this week to send forces into northern Syria, to defend beleaguered Kurds there. In the statement, issued on August 10, the Kurdish leader said that he had instructed his representatives to enter Syria in order to investigate media claims that the ‘terrorists of al-Qaeda are attacking the civilian population and slaughtering innocent Kurdish women and children.”

If the reports are true, the statement continued, then ‘Iraq’s Kurdistan region will make use of all of its capabilities to defend women and children and innocent citizens.”

No details were offered as to the form the intervention would take. But Barzani’s statement indicates the growing gravity of the situation in north east Syria.

Since July 17th, the al-Qaida linked jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra organizations have been engaged in a series of attacks on outlying areas of Kurdish population and control. Their intention, ultimately, appears to be to secure a contiguous corridor under their rule stretching from the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor area in eastern Syria through Raqqa province to the border with Turkey. Demographic and geographical realities mean that such a corridor would inevitably run through an area of Kurdish population.

The existence of small Kurdish enclaves within their desired area is an obvious irritant from the jihadis’ point of view. They are thus seeking to isolate and over-run all such points of Kurdish control. This is not yet a generalized challenge to the Kurdish controlled area in the north east. Rather, it is an attempt at localized ethnic cleansing of a type familiar from other conflicts.

Kurdish and humanitarian concerns currently center on the towns of Tel Aran and Tel Hassel, 30 km west of the city of Aleppo. These Kurdish towns, with a joint population of around 40,000, were attacked and occupied by ISIS and al-Nusra forces on July 29th. Kurdish sources report that between 30-40 civilians have been killed by the jihadis, and hundreds more wounded. Around 250 civilians from Tel Aran, meanwhile, have been captured by the jihadis and are currently in captivity.

The Kurdish fighters of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia, are committed to the defense of these pockets of Kurdish population, which are situated to the west of the main autonomous zone in the north east of the country. The YPG is controlled by the PYD, the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish movement which dominates the Kurdish controlled areas.

But the battle is not solely between al-Qaeda and the Kurds. Non-jihadi rebels have joined forces with the former, giving the situation the increasing appearance of an ethnic clash between Arabs and Kurds. Elements of both the Tawhid and Farouk Brigades, associated with the ‘mainstream’ rebels of the western-supported Supreme Military Council, have also joined forces against the YPG.

The Arab rebels want to preserve the territorial unity of Syria, and suspect the Kurds of separatist ambitions. The jihadis within rebel ranks want an Islamic emirate in northern Syria. The Kurds, for their part, deny separatist ambitions. But they have sought since the start of the civil war in Syria to maintain control of their own areas, supporting neither regime nor rebels. It appears that this approach is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

The Arab rebels also suspect the YPG of collaboration with the forces of the Assad regime. Following the recent capture by the rebels of the strategic Minigh air base outside Aleppo city, 200 members of the fleeing regime garrison sought and were granted sanctuary in an area controlled by the YPG. From the point of view of the Arab rebels, this confirmed Kurdish links to the regime. Kurdish officials, meanwhile, say that they will offer safe passage to forces of either side (while privately admitting that the events following the Miigh capture would have been better avoided.)

So far, the military results have been mixed. The YPG fighters are better trained and organized than those of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. But the Kurdish areas are cut off from one another. The Kurds succeeded in driving the jihadis out of the contested Ras-al Ain (Sere Kaniyeh) area on the Turkish border. Tel Abyad, further west, remains contested. The fighting continues.

There are also, inevitably, a jumble of outside powers engaged in this situation. The PYD accuses Turkey of aiding the jihadis. They maintain that al-Qaeda fighters were permitted to enter from Turkey. There have also been claims of Turkish artillery support for the jihadis in the Tel Abyad battles.

Russian and Iranian senior officials and media, meanwhile, have issued statements in recent days expressing support for the Kurds. In a strange coda to the events on the ground, both the Iranian Press TV and the Russia Today government channel have noted an Iranian TV report alleging that al-Qaeda forces massacred 450 Kurdish civilians in Tel Abyad. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his ‘shock’ at the revelations.

But senior Kurdish officials say that no such massacre took place.

PYD leader Salah Muslim visited Iran in recent days. He later told reporters that the Iranian regime has agreed to the Kurdish self government project in northern Syria.

Amid all the various competing forces, there is one that is conspicuously absent.

US State Department Deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf in a statement to reporters this week urged KRG President Massoud Barzani to reconsider his plans to intervene in Syria if it transpires that al-Qaeda is indeed carrying out massacres against the Kurdish population there.

So at a time when it has become clear to all regional players that the borders separating Syria from Iraq and Lebanon are today mainly a fiction, the United States apparently considers that maintaining this fiction is more important than the fight against al-Qaeda. No-one would expect that the US itself would take up this fight in Syria. But Washington seems to want to prevent anyone else from doing so either. The inhabitants of Tel Hassel and Tel Aran, meanwhile, remain under siege

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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