Tensions tried and loyalties tested in northern Syria
A week after the United States rushed to defend its Kurdish allies, the People's Protection Units (YPG), against the Assad regime in Hassakeh, Washington supported the intervention of the Kurds' Turkish nemesis to expel IS from the border town of Jarabulus.
These events suggest the outlines of a regional understanding over a reactionary solution in northern Syria.
It follows the recent diplomatic back-flips by Turkey's Erdogan government - including Ankara's reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have formed a very close alliance over the past year), the further strengthening of relations with Iran (which have remained strong despite Tehran's backing of Assad), and the declaration by Prime Minister Yildirim that Turkey was no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a "transitional" government consisting of elements drawn from both the regime and opposition.
The YPG - connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - has had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact with Assad, sometimes leading to minor conflict, while at other times collaborating more closely - including during the recent siege of rebel-held Aleppo.
However, Hassakeh was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG, possibly in response to Turkey's feelers. An official from Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently noted that Assad "does not support Kurdish autonomy… we're backing the same policy". Despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy, while the rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran suggests recent Turkish-Iranian meetings are likely anti-Kurdish in content.
Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. Russian airstrikes helped the Afrin YPG in February seize Arab-majority towns from the rebels in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat. But Putin's reconciliation with Erdogan suggests that Russia has dropped the YPG.
US air power has for two years provided cover for anti-IS operations led by the YPG, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance it heads alongside small non-Kurdish components. The US has also fielded "special forces" working with the YPG, and set up a first military base in Rojava.
With so much invested in this alliance, the US imposed its first No-Fly Zone (NFZ) in Syria after Syrian jets bombed Hassakeh on August 18. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis warned regime aircraft "not to do things that place them at risk", as US aircraft intercepted regime jets. US and regime warplanes faced off again the next day, encouraging them "to depart the airspace without further incident".
|Putin's reconciliation with Erdogan suggests that Russia has dropped the YPG|
Recent discussion of a "Russia-Turkey-Iran" understanding over Syria often uses a "Cold War" discourse, suggesting that Erdogan's tilt to Moscow is an anti-US move in response to large-scale US support of the YPG.
However, this misses the fact that the US and Russia see the Syrian conflict "fundamentally very similarly", as US Defence Minister John Kerry stated. US-Russian negotiations to engage in joint bombing of the Nusra Front is one such example. In fact, Turkey's official position on Assad remaining in place has reached the US position by coming half-way towards the Russian position.
A "Russia-Turkey-Iran-US-Assad understanding" is a better description of the moment. This is partly anti-Kurdish, though this is only partial for the US; the anti-rebel aspect is only partial for Turkey, which allowed arms to flow to the rebels to break Assad's siege of Aleppo. If left unbroken, this would have led to catastrophe; the anti-rebel aspect does not entail totally crushing the rebels, but using them only to fight IS or Nusra, and pushing them into a deal with the regime.
This was the model the US enforced on the powerful FSA Southern Front, holding it back from advancing towards Damascus, thereby helping the regime to force the surrender of the revolutionary town of Daraya.
In this context, the US sought "balance" between its Turkish and SDF allies by providing air support to Turkey's intervention into Syria, along with 5,000 FSA fighters from the Azaz region, to evict IS from Jarabulus.
|Turkish leaders talk about clearing 'all terrorists' -meaning IS and the YPG alike - from the region|
While aware of the dangers of becoming proxies for Turkey, the rebels, who have fought IS for years, acted in their own interests in liberating an Arab town. They had liberated the border town of al-Rai the previous week; by seizing Jarabulus they aim to "link" to al-Rai and thereby to Azaz, gaining full control of this section of the border.
In both Manbij and Jarabulus, video evidence showed the populations were relieved to be rid of IS tyranny (and in Manbij, of US bombing which had claimed hundreds of lives).
Turkey has long said it would not allow the YPG to move west of the Euphrates River. Manbij is west of the Euphrates, but not on the border; several months ago Turkey accepted the large-scale US air support to the YPG/SDF offensive to expel IS from Manbij, provided the YPG then returned east. This was understood to mean leaving Manbij to the Arab components of the SDF.
After liberating Manbij, the SDF moved north and seized many villages from IS, aiming to take Jarabulus. After Turkish and FSA troops seized Jarabulus first, they began fighting these SDF forces south of Jarabulus. The Turkish airforce even bombed SDF-held villages, leading to the slaughter of 28 civilians in Amarinah on August 27.
Turkey claims it is targeting YPG fighters, who haven't gone east; Kurdish leaders such as PYD official Nawaf Xelil agreed that moving east was the understanding - and claim they have done so - so Turkey is fighting the local SDF; whereas YPG spokesman Redur Xelil rejected the demand and denied leaving Manbij.
Meanwhile, US Vice-President Biden sought to please his Turkish hosts, warning the YPG that it would lose US support if it stayed west.
|To conquer this huge chunk of ethnically mixed territory would necessitate US or Russian air support|
As both Turkey and the PYD have ambitions beyond the agreed-upon terms, much of the rhetoric may be to test the waters.
Turkish leaders talk about clearing "all terrorists" - meaning IS and the YPG alike - from the region, but any Turkish adventure to attack Kurdish-majority regions east of the Euphrates will be opposed by the US. As the SDF was pushed south of the Sajoor River separating Jarabulus and Manbij, Pentagon spokespeople demanded the fighting stop.
The SDF had already alienated rebel supporters by scrapping the popularly elected Manbij council which governed the city before IS seized Manbij in 2014. Further, according to a PYD spokesman, Mutlu Civiroglu, the primary aim after taking Manbij was to "link" up with Kurdish Afrin in northwest Syria, by seizing the region in between.
However, most of the border region from Jarabulus to Azaz is ethnically non-Kurdish, and is apparently "Rojava" merely because the PYD has decided so.
To conquer this huge chunk of ethnically mixed territory would necessitate US or Russian air support, but neither appears forthcoming. While Turkey's aims in preventing a "linked" Kurdish-led statelet are connected to its brutal war against its own Kurds, it coincides with the justifiable desire of the Syrian rebels to liberate their natural support base.
While Russia has merely expressed "concern", Iranian sources have claimed that Turkey and Assad are coordinating via Iran. While the Assad regime formally denounced a violation of its "sovereignty", Turkey claims to have informed it beforehand, Yildirim suggesting Damascus understands that the PYD "has started to become a threat".
Assad can hardly be happy with Turkey aiding the FSA, and US support also comes with a question mark. The basis of US support to any rebels against IS - Division 30, the New Syrian Army - is that they drop the fight against Assad, while the SDF by definition doesn't fight Assad.
Erdogan's push for a "safe zone" in northern Syria last year met with US rejection, because the Syrian rebel groups who would control it would use it to fight the regime.
However, the YPG conquest of Tal Rifaat in February cut off the rebels in the Azaz-Mare pocket from the front against Assad: They cannot fight Assad even though they want to. So backing them to take the Jarabulus-Azaz strip is "safe" from the American and Assadist point of view. How ironic that the YPG's action rebounded on them.
Turkey is overwhelmed by three million Syrian refugees; a northern "safe zone" will both prevent a unified Rojava and allow Turkey to transfer some of the refugee population back into Syria. The strong ethnic Turkmen presence in the region also allows Turkey to attempt to work with proxy "national" forces.
The conflicts between Arab and Kurdish rebels, and their pragmatic dependence on outside powers, facilitate this regional counter-revolutionary understanding. Neither side is innocent in this, but the current situation underlines the necessity of finding a more cooperative relationship between forces fighting for liberation on the ground.
Michael Karadjis is an independent Australian writer and lecturer at the University of Western Sydney. He recently contributed to the volume Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution. He has written extensively on Syria and blogs at Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis.
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.