Assad vs The Kurds: The Syrian war's latest battle-line

Assad vs The Kurds: The Syrian war's latest battle-line
6 min read
27 Apr, 2016
Comment: Damascus is stoking the fires of ethnic hatred to keep Kurdish fighters from turning their weapons on Assad's troops, writes Yvo Fitzherbert.
The regime has tried to sow sectarian conflict between Kurds and Arabs [AFP]

On Sunday, a ceasefire was agreed between the Assad regime and Kurdish forces in north-eastern Syria, after clashes between Kurdish security forces, the Asayish, and pro-Assad militia groups.

Such violence marked the most significant escalation of fighting between pro-government forces and the Kurds since the uprising began, with many fearing it may lead to a new dynamic opening up in the multifaceted Syrian civil war.

Last Wednesday, a pro-government Arab militia shot at local Kurdish security forces at a checkpoint in downtown Qamishli, with fighting quickly spreading across the city.

The Syrian army retaliated by firing artillery into Kurdish neighbourhoods, killing more than a dozen civilians. The Kurdish security police announced that 31 regime fighters were killed, with 102 captured, while the Kurds lost 13 fighters.

In 2012, the Syrian regime withdrew the vast majority of its troops from the Kurdish-controlled region in north-eastern Syria, marking the beginning of an informal agreement between Assad and the PYD, the Kurdish political party governing the region.

Since then, the PYD and its military wing, the YPG, have enjoyed complete autonomy and relative stability as they focused their efforts on fighting the Islamic State group.

Such an agreement has appeared to pay dividends. The Kurdish forces gained international recognition during the YPG's defence of the Kurdish city of Kobane, a siege that lasted five months and led to international support in the form of the US-led coalition's airstrikes.

The Kurds have recently also declared their own federal system; a system which they believe can become a blueprint model of Syria's future. Despite their non-participation in the peace talks in Geneva, the PYD has opened up a series of diplomatic offices across Europe, as they seek to expand their political recognition.

Ceasefire terms

According to the ceasefire terms, "each side will keep the territory under its control", meaning that the territory Kurdish forces seized from pro-government forces will stay under the control of the Kurdish authorities.

The agreement... is a major victory for the Syrian Kurds

This includes the symbolic Alaya prison - a symbol of Assad's tyrannical oppression. Furthermore, the agreement stipulated that employees of the Syrian state must not be deprived of their salaries or recruited into joining "local protection units that belong to the regime".

Lastly, the presence of the pro-government NDF militia will be reduced. The NDF controls Qamishli airport and small pockets of regime-held areas in the area, alongside the regular Syrian army.

Such an agreement, which followed an informal truce that was declared on Friday, is a major victory for the Syrian Kurds.

"The regime understood the real power of the Kurds," said Mutlu Çiviroğlu, a Kurdish affairs analyst who specialises in Syria. "The agreement clearly reflects that Kurdish demands have been accepted."

After the truce was accepted on Friday, regime warplanes bombed the YPG-controlled Kurdish neighbourhood of Sheikh Maqsoud in Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that such airstrikes killed 10 civilians, including one child.

"Why do they attack us? The shelling was not enough, now the regime also attacks," a girl shouted in a YouTube video. "The regime attacks, the FSA attacks, all have gathered against us."

The strikes on Aleppo appeared to shows Damascus' willingness to target the YPG where it is most vulnerable. "The regime quickly realised they couldn't fight YPG militarily in Qamishli," Mutlu Çiviroğlu explained over the phone. "The bombing of civilians is another tactic of Assad to force the YPG to accept their demands."

Arab-Kurdish tensions and the road to Raqqa

According to Çiviroğlu, the regime has tried to sow sectarian conflict between Kurds and Arabs in the form of the NDF militia. A reduced NDF presence, as stipulated in the ceasefire deal, will lead to a strengthening of the Kurds' position in the city, with pro-Assad forces losing out.

Since the beginning of the Syrian war, a primary Assad tactic has been to position himself as the only credible alternative to an array of Islamist forces which continues to dominate much of the Syrian opposition.

Last month's capture of Palmyra from IS helped to underscore such an image, and Assad will have his eye on Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State group's "caliphate". Taking Raqqa would be a major prestige victory for Assad's regime, and will likely bolster his image immensely.

However, Assad is not alone in having his eyes on Raqqa.

The Syrian Defence Force (SDF) is a coalition of different forces which includes both Arabs and Kurds, with a large YPG presence. With its multi-ethnic, secular agenda, the SDF is also the US' main ally on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State group.

Assad certainly looks at the SDF as a threat to his attempts to establish himself as the sole answer to Islamic extremism in Syria.

The conflict between Kurds and Assad is a sleeping giant that can wake at any moment

By starting such clashes, Assad is hoping to heighten Kurdish-Arab tensions in Qamishli, which will damage the Kurdish authorities' attempts to include an array of different ethnicities in the administration.

"There is a clear attempt to provoke an Arab-Kurdish conflict in Syria by the regime," Mutlu Çiviroğlu said from Washington. "Anything with a multi-ethnic identity is a threat to Assad, and the Kurds are well aware of this and will try everything to prevent ethnic tensions from escalating."

Kurdish anger over Assad

Despite the ceasefire, many Kurds in Qamishli expressed doubts that the deal would mark the end of hostilities.

"We are not sure if this truce could last for long," Heval Dilgesh, a Kurdish fighter, told ARA News from Qamishli. "We want to kick out the regime because the people of Qamishli are unhappy after we had martyrs. We have had enough of suppression."

The Kurds have negotiated carefully with Assad since the Syrian war began, knowing full well that Assad has the power to wreak havoc on Kurdish cities as he has on much of Syria.

Assad may well, however, pursue small-scale escalations in an attempt to sow discord between Arab and Kurdish communities. The recent ceasefire, and the likely diminished influence of the pro-government NDF militia, is a clear victory for the YPG - but they must tread carefully to avoid sectarian escalations.

The violence over the past week certainly questions the long-held view by critics of the Kurdish administration that the Kurds are de-facto allies of Assad's regime.

"The Kurds of Syria know the regime is not with them and has never supported Kurdish rights," Çiviroğlu concluded. "The conflict between Kurds and Assad is a sleeping giant that can wake at any moment."

It remains to be seen how long this ceasefire will prevent the sleeping giant from awakening.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.