By Michael Karadjis
(An abridged version of this article appeared in ‘The New Arab’ under the title ‘Tensions tried and loyalties tested in northern Syria’, at https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/9/2/tensions-tried-and-loyalties-tested-in-northern-syria).
One week the United States rushed to the defence of its Kurdish allies, People’s Protection Units (YPG), when the Assad regime bombed them in Hasake; the following week many pro-YPG voices were accusing the same US of betrayal, for supporting Turkey’s intervention into Syria, with up to 5000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops, to expel ISIS from the border town of Jarabulus.
However, fickleness would not be a useful explanation of US behaviour. Rather, both events suggest that the outlines of a regional understanding on a reactionary solution to the Syrian crisis may be in the making. If this sounds conspiratorial, let me stress at the outset that none of it is set in concrete, much could change, and many of the players may be only half-pleased; nevertheless, the fact that states that appear at odds with each other conduct behind-the-scenes negotiations is hardly a huge revelation.
And above all, it is always important to keep in mind that when capitalist states half-back revolutions for their own geopolitical or other reasons, the aim is some kind of pressure or manoeuvre; it has always been the ultimate aim of all regional and global powers for the magnificent people’s uprising in Syria to be defeated, one way or another, even if via different routes.
Turkey: the AKP’s diplomatic back-flips
Some of this relates to the recent diplomatic back-flips of the Turkish government of Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a decisive supporter of the Syrian rebels. This includes Turkey’s widely publicised reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have been forming a very close alliance over the last year, with countless high-level visits between Putin and Netanyahu); the further strengthening of its relations with Iran (which have always remained strong despite backing opposite sides in Syria); and the declaration by prime minister Binali Yildarim (who recently replaced Ahmet Davutoglu) that Turkey is no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a “transitional” government consisting of elements of the regime and opposition, a position bringing Turkey into line with the position of the United States and in conflict with that of the Syrian opposition. Yildarim also recently stated that Turkey’s ties to Syria will “return to normal.”
US imposes first No Fly Zone in Syria: To defend Rojava
As is widely known, the YPG – connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – and the Assad regime have had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact, which sometimes breaks into minor conflict, and at other times leads to collaboration – including aiding in the recent siege of rebel Aleppo.
However, the ferocity of the latest clash in Hasaka was new; this was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG; the airforce is normally dedicated to slaughtering the civilian population of rebel-held areas.
This may have been a message from Assad to Turkey, a response to Turkey’s own feelers. A senior AKP official recently noted that while Assad is a killer, “he does not support Kurdish autonomy … we’re backing the same policy.” This is true; despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy. And given the current rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran, the prominent Turkish-Iranian meetings are most certainly anti-Kurdish in content; Iran may be acting as a link between Erdogan and Assad.
Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. From the outset of the Russian invasion last September, the PYD/YPG declared in favour of Russia bombing “jihadists” (even though in practice it mostly bombed mainstream rebels and very rarely ISIS). In return, Russian air strikes were employed to aid the Afrin YPG against the rebels in February, helping it seize a number of rebel-held, Arab-majority towns in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat, an iconic centre of resistance to both Assad and ISIS. But Putin’s high-level reconciliation with Erdogan, while being Assad’s main backer even as he attacks the YPG, suggests Russia has dropped the YPG like a hot potato.
The US alliance with the YPG, however, is far more fundamental. The US has been the permanent air force for all anti-ISIS operations led by the YPG, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance it leads which includes small non-Kurdish components, for two years now. The US has also fielded “special forces” to work with the YPG, and has set up its first military base in Syria in the eastern part of Rojava.
With so much invested in its SDF alliance, the US imposed its first No Fly Zone (NFZ) in Syria, over eastern Rojava. After Syrian SU-24 attack planes bombed the area on August 18, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis warned that regime aircraft “would be well-advised not to do things that place them at risk,” as US warplanes intercepted regime jets. US Coalition aircraft confronted regime warplanes again the next day, which “encouraged” them “to depart the airspace without further incident,” Davis said.
As an aside, the ease with which the US effected this NFZ belies all the talk about an NFZ to protect civilians from Assad’s genocidal bombing leading to WWIII. Of course, most of the world won’t notice the imposition of this NFZ, as long as it is imposed by the US to protect US forces, or the YPG; it will certainly not be seen as any kind of “US intervention” by the western “anti-war movement,” any more than two years of bombing , with hundreds of civilian casualties, has been seen as such; a huge uproar against “US intervention” will only occur if the US, in some parallel universe, uses the forces already intervening in Syria to protect hospitals and schools from being blasted to bits in rebel-controlled areas.
But then again, the irrelevance of the dinosaur which calls itself an “anti-war movement” even while, in large part, shilling for one of the most brutal wars on civilians in modern history, is hardly new information. Its irrelevance to world politics today is richly deserved indeed.
Beyond ‘New Cold War’ nonsense: Regional alliance for counterrevolution
Recent discussion of an alleged “Russia-Turkey-Iran” understanding on Syria usually claims that Erdogan’s new tilt to Moscow was caused by the reticent support the US gave to Turkey’s government against the recent coup attempt, the US refusal to hand over Gulen, who Turkey blames for the coup, and the large-scale support the US gave the YPG/SDF in helping them expel ISIS from Manbij in northern Syria, not far south of the Turkish border.
However, the discourse that Turkey was thereby “moving towards Russia and away from the US on Syria” is based on the idea that the “Cold War” still exists. In Syria at least, the US and Russia see the Syrian conflict “fundamentally very similarly” as US Secretary of State John Kerry has made clear. While this does not exclude minor rivalry or tactical differences, in reality Turkey’s new position that Assad can remain “temporarily” means that Turkey has now reached the US position via coming half-way towards the Russian position.
This “Cold War” discourse fails to explain the prominent US-Russian negotiations to engage in joint bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra, which would almost inevitably mean bombing non-Nusra rebels as well, given the actual geography of the uprising. Indeed, there were even reports of the US-led Coalition bombing rebels in Aleppo during the recent siege.
In fact, the “Russia-Turkey-Iran” understanding is better seen as a “Russia-Turkey-Iran-US-Assad” understanding, with, of course, points of difference.
Part of this understanding is anti-Kurdish, though, as we saw in Hasake, this will be only partial in the US case, especially as it still wants to use the YPG for the potentially suicidal task of taking on ISIS in its capital Raqqa, due south of Kobani.
Another part of this understanding is anti-rebel, but this is only partial in Turkey’s case. Turkey allowed arms to flow to the rebels as they fought to successfully break Assad’s recent total siege of 300,000 people in Aleppo, which if unbroken would have led to catastrophe. This aspect does not entail aiding the regime in the impossible task of totally crushing the rebels, but rather in restricting them to current areas, forcing them to stop fighting the regime while using them only to fight ISIS or even Nusra, and pushing them into a deal with the regime that includes Assad “temporarily.”
This was the model the US has enforced on the politically moderate, but militarily tenacious, FSA Southern Front. The US held it back from advancing towards Damascus, thereby helping the regime force the surrender of the revolutionary town of Darraya. Thus, while outside the scope of this article, the surrender and ethnic cleansing of Darraya, and now a number of other small revolutionary centres, appears to be part of this same counterrevolutionary “tidying up” process.
The Turkish intervention in Jarabulus: Between liberation and slaughter
It was in this context that the US – while guaranteeing for now YPD-SDF rule over the territory it controls east of the Euphrates River (ie, from Kobani through to Hasake and Qamishle) – sought to “balance” between its Turkish and SDF allies by providing air support to Turkey’s direct intervention into Syria, along with 5000 FSA fighters from the Azaz-Mare and Idlib regions, to evict ISIS from the border town of Jarabulus.
The Turkish regime, of course, has its own aims in this operation, which may coincide at times with, but are distinct from, the aims of the Syrian rebels. And there are indications that FSA fighters are not unaware of the dangers of being entrapped by interests different to their own. However, it must be emphasised that these north Aleppo-based rebels, who have fought ISIS for years, acted in their own interests in liberating the Arab-majority town of Jarabulus.
Squeezed into the Azaz-Mare pocket in northern Aleppo since the Russian-Assad-YPG offensive in February which cut them off from Aleppo city, these rebels needed to expand their area of operation. Unnoticed by the world, they had just liberated – largely on their own – the important town of al-Rai on the Turkish border the previous week, in an offensive from Azaz eastward. By now seizing Jarabulus, they aim to link back to al-Rai and thereby Azaz, gaining full control of this section of the border from ISIS.
In both Manbij and Jarablus, video evidence showed the populations were relieved to be rid of ISIS tyranny (and in Manbij, of US bombing which had claimed hundreds of lives), despite the two different liberators.
Turkey has long said it would not allow the YPG to move west of the Euphrates river. To the east of the Euphrates is the iconic Kurdish town Kobani, which resisted a furious ISIS siege in late 2014, and the PYD/YPG/SDF controls the entire Turkish border from there to Hasake and Qamishle in the northeast (ie, the Kobani and Jazirah cantons of ‘Rojava’). Kobani itself, and much of the Hasake-Qamishle region, is majority Kurdish, and the Kurds have exercised their rightful autonomous rule there for a number of years, carrying out their own revolutionary process.
However, the Tal Abyad region in between Kobani and Hasake, which the SDF and US airforce liberated from ISIS in 2015, is majority-Arab; the defection just days ago of the main Tal Abyad-based FSA component of that operation, Liwa al-Tahrir, from the SDF, suggests the driving back of ISIS may reduce the need of FSA-connected rebels east of the Euphrates to remain under YPG domination.
The Arab-majority town of Jarabulus is opposite Kobani on the west side of the Euphrates. Arab-majority Manbij is also 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 ISIS from Manbij, on the condition that the YPG then returned east once Manbij was secured. This was understood to mean leaving Manbij to the Arab, non-YPG components of the SDF, in particular, to the ‘Manbij Military Council’.
After liberating Manbij, SDF forces called the ‘Jarabulus Military Council’ moved north and seized a number of villages from ISIS, with the ultimate aim of taking Jarabulus. Turkish and FSA troops pre-empted this, however, by seizing Jarabulus first. As a strategic Arab-majority border town, the fact that the FSA received direct support from Turkey in expelling ISIS is no different fundamentally to the SDF receiving direct support from the US in expelling ISIS from Manbij.
However, what happened next was much more concerning. While information is scarce on the ethnic composition of these small villages south of Jarabulus, and of the local people’s relationship to the SDF liberators, these are issues that need to be worked out by local Syrian forces – the FSA and the SDF – on their own, without the Turkish military playing a role. However, when the FSA began fighting these SDF forces south of Jarabulus, Turkey took a direct role. This almost immediately degenerated further, as the Turkish airforce began bombing these SDF-held villages, leading, as may be expected, to war crimes, such as the slaughter of 28 civilians in Amarinah on August 27.
It is crimes such as these that further drive wedges between Arabic and Kurdish civilians, and between liberation movements among both peoples, just as the far larger-scale YPG collaboration with the Russian Luftwaffe in February, in seizing non-Kurdish territory from the rebels, had already done. While the current clashes are not on that order, any participation by the Syrian rebels in a possible Turkish drive to seize Manbij would certainly reach the heights of the Tal Rifaat disaster (though the US appears to also oppose such a move).
Turkey claims it is fighting YPG fighters, who haven’t gone east; Kurdish leaders such as PYD official Nawaf Xelil have publicly agreed that moving east was the understanding, and claim they have done so, so Turkey is fighting the local SDF; whereas others have charged the US with “betrayal,” and YPG spokesman Redur Xelil rejected the demand to move east and denied leaving Manbij. Meanwhile US Vice president Biden, on a state visit to Turkey at the time, sought to please his Turkish hosts, warning the YPG that it would lose US support if it stayed west of the Euphrates.
Some of this appears to be sabre-rattling, for public consumption, or to test the waters; both Turkey and the PYD have ambitions beyond the agreed-upon terms. Turkish leaders talk about clearing “all terrorists” – ISIS and YPG – from the region, and many critics of the Turkish operation claim that Turkey’s real aim is to destroy ‘Rojava’. Any Turkish adventure to attack actual ‘Rojava’ – ie, the SDF-run, Kurdish-majority regions east of the Euphrates – should indeed be condemned, but is unlikely to occur on any scale (despite some border clashes around Kobani) because it will be strongly opposed by the US.
Indeed, as the SDF was pushed south of the Sajoor river separating the Jarablus and Manbij regions, Pentagon spokespeople demanded the fighting stop, calling it “unacceptable,” called on Turkey to focus on ISIS, and stressed their continued support for the SDF.
This re-focus appears to have occurred; on September 3, more Turkish tanks crossed over in to al-Rai, to aid the rebels who have captured about a dozen more villages from ISIS in the region, hoping to close the gap with Jarabulus. [And since the time of writing, Turkey and the FSA have linked al-Rai to Jarabulus and completely expelled ISIS from the border, an unquestionably positive thing].
The YPG’s plans to “link” to Afrin: A catastrophe well-avoided
The SDF had already alienated rebel supporters with its unilateral imposition of its system in Manbij, by scrapping the popularly-elected Manbij council which governed the city before ISIS seized Manbij in 2014. As reporter Haid Haid explains:, quoting Hassan Hamidi, an activist from Manbij:
“We really appreciate everything the SDF fighters did in order to push ISIS out of Manbij. But it seems that we are moving from one dictator to another. Manbij’s local council, which was elected to run the city, was uprooted by ISIS before and now it is dissolved by the SDF.”
Haid also quotes Mustafa al-Nifi, a local resident from Manbij:
“We were really hoping that the SDF would be able to share power with locals and allow them to govern themselves. However, it seems that it was a trick. Everything has been planned long in advance. They appointed people, who we do not know, to run the city. They also gave Manij a Kurdish name, which is ‘Mabuk’, and imposed a federal system on us. There is nothing left for us to decide.”
Haid notes that the PYD denies such accusations. “We are not imposing anything on anyone. We created a new local council and appointed people to run it temporarily, as it is difficult to organize elections in Manbij now,” said Kadar Biri, a member of the PYD party from Afrin. However, according to Haid, “although the creation of a local council was a positive step, imposing membership of the PYD’s choosing without coordinating with local notables, activists and members of the previous council has sent the wrong signals about the PYD’s commitment to inclusiveness and power-sharing with non-Kurdish communities in northern Syria.”
Further, according to leading spokesman on Kurdish issues, who is close to the PYD, Mutlu Civiroglu, the primary aim after taking Manbij was to “link” up with Kurdish Afrin in northwest Syria, by seizing the region in between (the PYD has been openly stating this was their goal for some time, eg, PYD co-chair Salih Muslim on July 3, PYD senior official Polat Can some months earlier). Indeed, some of the talk of US “betrayal” is simply sour grapes that Turkey’s intervention has blocked this “linking” project; and many of the assertions that Turkey is “destroying Rojava” or denying the right of “the Kurds” to have their united autonomous region are based on the disruption of this link.
However, most of the border region from Jarabulus to Azaz is ethnically non-Kurdish, mostly Arab and Turkmen, and the claim that the entire north is all ‘Rojava’ appears to be based on nothing more than the fact that the PYD has declared it to be so. In fact, the area unilaterally claimed as the ‘Rojava/North Syria Federation’ is triple the size of Kurdish majority regions, and double the size of the areas even where Kurds exist as minorities. This region has no ethnic, historic, geographic or cultural validity as a separate region.
To conquer these thousands of square kilometres of ethnically mixed, largely non-Kurdish, territory would be impossible without the support of either US or Russian air power. Both have decided, wisely, to avoid this, and there is zero validity in complaints about such an adventurous scheme not being supported. Indeed, if either imperialist power were to force through such an operation, it would lead to catastrophic loss of life, and an enormous new refugee outflux.
While Turkey’s own aims in preventing such a unified PYD-run state are of course anti-Kurdish and connected to its brutal war against its own Kurdish minority in southeast Turkey, it also just happens to coincide with the justifiable desire of the largely Arab and Turkmen rebels to liberate areas which are their natural support base.
On the other hand, the situation is not without its dangers. There are Kurdish minorities in this mixed region, in particular in some rural areas further away from the Turkish border strip (see the demographic map linked to above). If Turkey does not rapidly withdraw, or if the FSA fighters become too closely connected to the intervening Turkish forces, they could risk being drawn into conflict with their Kurdish brethren at the behest of an outside power.
US, Russia, Iran, Assad: Why it became OK, for now, to allow an FSA operation
Like the US, both Russia and Iran appear to have greenlighted the Jarabulus operation. While Russia has merely expressed “concern,” Iran initially remained “conspicuously silent,” while later suggesting that Turkey needs to move more quickly to complete its “anti-terrorist” actions in order to withdraw. Iranian sources have claimed that Turkey and Assad are coordinating through Iran.
While the Assad regime formally denounced a violation of its alleged “sovereignty,” Turkey claims to have informed it beforehand, with the deputy prime minister noting that “we believe Damascus is also bothered by what was happening in and around Manbij. They recently hit PYD targets.” Yildarim also suggested that Damascus understands that the PYD “has started to become a threat.” In the midst of the Jarabulus operation, Yildarim declared on September 2 “We have normalised our relations with Russia and Israel. Now, God willing, Turkey has taken a serious initiative to normalise relations with Egypt and Syria.”
However, the implication here that Assad may be secretly approving the Turkish operation, due to joint hostility to a Kurdish entity, has some holes in it. Most obviously, the fact that Turkey is working with the FSA, who are the very forces trying to overthrow his regime, regardless of his opposition to Kurdish autonomy.
Furthermore, the US support for this operation also comes with a question mark (and not only because Turkey apparently acted unilaterally at the last moment and upstaged US plans to exercise more control over the operation). To date, the central condition for US support to any rebels to fight ISIS has been the demand that they drop the fight against Assad – this was the case both with the ill-fated Division 30 in the north (indeed, the reason its numbers were so pathetically tiny), and the New Syrian Army in the southeast; while of course the SDF, the US’ favoured anti-ISIS force, mostly doesn’t fight Assad by definition. By contrast, while the Azaz-Mare-Tal Rifaat rebels have confronted ISIS in that region for years, they have never before received any substantial US support against ISIS (in fact, they normally get bombed by Assad whenever they fight ISIS in northern Aleppo).
Thus Erdogan’s push for a “safe zone” in northern Syria last year met out-of-hand US rejection, because the Syrian rebel groups who Erdogan wanted to let control it would have used it as a base to fight the regime. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner stressed “we’ve been pretty clear from the podium and elsewhere saying there’s no zone, no safe haven, we’re not talking about that here,” insisting it could only support an “ISIS-free zone” but not any kind of safe zone and certainly not one patrolled by the rebels.
But something important changed in February this year. By bombing the YPG/SDF into Tal Rifaat and other Arab-populated northern Aleppo regions, Russia cut the rebels in the Azaz-Mare pocket off from Aleppo city and thus effectively cut them off from the front against Assad. So now even though they want to fight Assad, and hardly any have made the pledge to drop that fight, effectively they can’t. So backing them to take over the Jarabulus-Azaz border strip became “safe” from the American point of view – and safer than previously from Assad’s view as well. How ironic that it was the YPG’s own eviction of the rebels in Tal Rifaat that has enabled US support for the Turkish operation that has blocked the YPG’s “linking” scheme!
Then there is a final reason why Assad may be grudgingly approving of Turkey launching an FSA-led operation against ISIS in the north: aside from the fighters from Azaz-Mare, the operation has also meant fighters from Idlib moving to a distant theatre rather than the key battleground of southern Aleppo. By early September, in the midst of the northern operation, the regime began a new determined attempt to re-impose the total siege that was broken several weeks ago in the truly magnificent operation by some 30 rebel groups working together [Update: since the time of writing, the full encirclement has been re-imposed]. This again raises theory popular among some pro-revolution circles: Assad allows Turkey to stop YPG in return for Turkey abandoning Aleppo rebels to Assad. Conspiracy theory? Perhaps. But not out of the question. And if true, catastrophic in its implications.
Changes in internal Turkish politics in relation to the safe zone
Turkey is overwhelmed by some 3 million Syrian refugees; the basis for much of the AKP’s opposition to Assad has been the need to remove the source of this massive instability, alongside the solidarity felt by much of the AKP’s moderate-‘Islamist’ base with these Syrian Arab refugees and their struggle – the same base which propelled the AKP to break Turkey’s decades of alliance with Israel and take up a pro-Palestine position. Ironically given the resurgence of the Kurdish war since 2015, this same moderate ‘Islamism’ had allowed the AKP to reach out to the Kurds in a way that the Kemalist Turkish-nationalist regimes had not done in 80 years, instituting important language and cultural reforms for the Kurdish minority and beginning a ‘peace process’ involving the PKK. Palestinians, Syrian Arab refugees and Kurds were all ‘Muslims’ after all, during the decade in which ‘Islam’ was temporarily elevated above ‘Turkishness’ as part of carrying out important changes in capitalist class rule in Turkey.
Erdogan’s regime needed to consolidate the new position in the state of the traditionalist Anatolian bourgeoisie that the AKP represented, after decades of playing second-fiddle to the big ‘secular’ Kemalist bourgeoisie. But once this new unwritten power-sharing arrangement was complete, the reconstitution of the Kemalist regime, albeit with slightly more ‘Islamist’ coloration, was on the order of the day. The contention that Erdogan’s increasingly repressive moves, since re-launching the war against the PKK and the Kurds in mid-2015, is part of setting up an ‘Islamic state’ is wide of the mark, and the contention that it is related to a new ‘Ottoman Empire’ is just Orientalism. The Kemalist Turkish national state is the vehicle through which the Turkish bourgeoisie rules.
In this context, Turkey can have its “safe zone” in northern Syria, that both prevents ‘Rojava’ from linking right across its southern border, and also allows a space for Turkey to transfer a section of its massive Syrian refugee population back into Syria. Indeed, Turkey aims to build whole “refugee cities” in the safe zone. Both aims allow for Erdogan to strengthen his new alliance with the opposition moderate (CHP) and right-wing (MHP) Turkish nationalists, both of whom despise Syrian refugees as much as they are hostile to the Kurdish struggle, and who have opposed Erdogan’s Syria policy from a pro-Assad angle; both support the current operation, as they can drive out refugees without the same “danger” of supporting the struggle against Assad as last year’s proposed zone entailed.
Yildarim’s statements on reconciliation with Syria since he replaced Davutoglu correspond closely with this general direction, as do Turkey’s increasing restrictions on the entry of Syrian refugees, which has led to a number of previously unthinkable brutal killings by Turkish border guards this year, and even the building of border walls.
Moreover, the strong ethnic Turkmen presence in this region also allows Turkey to attempt to control the safe zone via proxy ‘national’ forces, which gives Turkish nationalists an extra reason for intervening in this particular region. The relatively recent appearance of occasional pro-MHP fighters in Turkmen regions is connected to this new focus, following years of MHP opposition to the AKP’s anti-Assad policy.
Which rebel brigades are involved in the operation?
However, it remains a big question whether or not this will succeed. While the general analysis here indicates that the Assad regime may be, behind the scenes, generally part of this new consensus, this is only grudging, and Assad would also have reason to be nervous. Even if the analysis is correct that Turkey aims to hold the rebels in check within this zone, there is no guarantee that it will be able to control the significant rebel coalition now in operation in the region. The big majority of the FSA and rebel forces involved are neither ethnically Turkmen forces, nor specifically proxy forces in any other way. Most are genuine representatives of the Syrian revolutionary forces in the region. According to Charles Lister, who is someone who certainly knows what he is talking about, the groups involved in this Jarablus operation are:
- Sultan Murad (ethnic Turkmen FSA brigade, now thought to be heavily infiltrated by Turkish nationalists)
- Faylaq al-Sham (MB-aligned, very moderate; in Idlib it had been a member of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, but split away rejecting Nusra’s heavy influence in it)
- Jabhat al-Shamiya (the ‘Levant Front’, a very moderate-Islamist coalition, which generally takes the FSA label, includes many former fighters from Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaysh al-Mujahideen etc; those who think there can only be moderate Christians but certainly not Muslims could look at this video made by them)
- Nour al-Din al-Zinki (independent soft-Islamist, though recently roguish behaviour seems to have increased)
- FSA 13th Division (who have led the multi-month fight against Nusra in Idlib that erupted during the mass demonstrations during the ceasefire earlier this year)
- Suqor al-Jebel (FSA brigade from Idlib, formerly part of Syrian Revolutionaries Front, then the 5th Brigade)
- Jaish al-Tahrir (ie, just defected from SDF, FSA from Tel Abyad)
- Hamza Division (FSA coalition of 5 groups, set up in Mare to fight ISIS)
- Jaish al-Nasr (FSA coalition of 16 groups, mostly in Hama and Idlib)
- Mutassim Brigade (well-armed by US, includes some of the former Division 30 fighters who the US armed to fight ISIS only; this appears to be the only of these FSA brigades known to have accepted this US diktat to drop the fight against Assad)
- Ahrar Tel Rifaat (ie, FSA fighters expelled by the Russian-YPG conquest of Tal Rifaat in February)
- Liwa al-Fateh (Islamist, formerly part of Liwa al-Tawhid)
Meanwhile, the latest news is that they have now been joined by fighters from:
- Jabhat al-Haq
- Syrian Revolutionaries Front
- Harakat Hazm
These last two were large FSA coalitions destroyed by Nusra in Idlib and Aleppo in late 2014-early 2015, some of whose commanders then took refuge in Turkey.
By no means can this collection be brushed aside as a “Turkish proxy force” (and as an aside, the commonly stated claim that Turkey backs Nusra is shown as obvious nonsense by the composition of this list). The very different reactions to Turkey’s intervention from revolution supporters reflect the fact that the final outcome will depend on the relationship of forces on the ground, regardless of varying motivations; the situation is fluid and contradictory.
Even the fact that they are unable to fight Assad due to being cut off, as explained above, is a factor that can change. In particular, the fate of the very next big prize in the region – al-Bab, which is the last ISIS-controlled town in eastern Aleppo, away from the border, south of rebel-controlled al-Rai, west of SDF-controlled Manbij – is of critical importance. Both the rebel coalition and the SDF have indicated it is their next target; ISIS may try to hold onto it; and the regime may also try to take it, being just north of regime-controlled Aleppo. A catastrophic four-way contest is not out of the question.
Al-Bab’s fate probably depends on who the US and Russia will allow or facilitate to take it. Keeping the Turkish-backed rebels and the regime apart, which this analysis suggests is the plan, would require either ISIS remaining, or the SDF being allowed to take it, and thus establishing their “link” via occupied Tal Rifaat, but not on the Turkish border. But the momentum set in motion by Turkey’s action may make that unfeasible; and even if an ‘Assad-Erdogan Aleppo for Kurds’ deal is behind the events, it may not be easy for Turkey to hold back rebels who would be even more determined to take al-Bab, to pressure the regime from behind, if Assad’s full encirclement of Aleppo is re-imposed.
Conclusion: Necessity of people’s unity beyond ethnicity and sect
Of course, this is all very volatile, because no side comes out fully happy. But my conclusion remains that Turkey wants to cut an anti-Kurdish deal with Assad and Iran, with Russian backing, to include a Turkish-influenced ‘slice’ of the north; the US is in on it partly but won’t completely abandon the YPG, as long as it knows who is boss; and Turkey on its side won’t completely abandon the rebels, again, as long as they know who is boss.
The conflicts between Arab and Kurdish rebels, or between the FSA and its allies, and the YPG and its allies, and their pragmatic foreign connections, may not be responsible for this unwritten new reactionary alliance, but they most certainly facilitate it. Neither side is innocent in this regard – a long story in itself – but as a general statement, the current state of affairs underlines the necessity of finding a more cooperative relationship between forces fighting for liberation on the ground, of a more serious drive on all sides for Arab-Kurdish, and non-sectarian, unity in the struggle against tyranny and oppression in Syria.
18 thoughts on “Turkey, Rebels, Kurds & Assad in northern Syria: Contradictions in moves towards regional counterrevolutionary alliance”
Reblogged this on heaven-storming.
Reblogged this on The Eternal Spring and commented:
Brilliant piece on recent FSA-SDF clashes.
1. A no fly zone wasn’t enforced over Hasakah, this was a rumour, US SOF for the most part fled from Hasakah, and scrambled jets were in response to SyAAF bombing of areas close to where SOF were stationed.
2. Relations with the PYD and Russia date back to 2012 and are primarily diplomatic/political as compared to the US military relationship of convenience since 2015(in 2014 airstrikes in Kobane all communication was indirect and through PUK operation rooms in Slemani).
3. To think the Jarablus Euphrates Shield operation or the Hasakah conflict started by tribal forces within NDF- mainly local but also with large contingents from Deir ez-Zor with historical grudges against Kurds (with the notable exception of the Shammar tribe whose Al-Sanadid forces are allied to YPG; see 2004 incident)- shows abandonment of PYD by Russia shows incredible ignorance of internal affairs. I.E. Days before you posted this there was a meeting mediated by Russia between the Syrian government and officials from Rojava in Latakia which revisited proposals made in May(which at the time were rejected by Baathists) of accepting to change the nations name to the Syrian Republic and recognising Rojava-North Syria-Beth Nahrin autonomy.
4. A white Westerner supporting Turkmen Azari in North Syria and deeming criticism of the AKPs Otto-Fascist dreams as orientalist is the epitome of irony. Have you not seen the attempts to replace the local councils with Turkmen not local to the area leading to fitna with residents and FSA exiting Jarablus? The Grey Wolf presence? The newly established Turkmen dominated Liwa Sultan Süleyman Şah police force? Power linkage between Antep and Jarablus? How shallow is your understanding of both Turkish and Syrian politics that you can shamelessly make such an idiotic claim to your ignorant, Western audience? You published a map of demographics of North Syria without noting that vast amounts of border land were stolen from Kurds and then redistributed to Arabs (the Arab belt) and then you subsequently proclaimed PYD chauvinist. Anyone who understands Kurdish politics knows that every other party was pushing for the expropriation of settler land. This lack of understanding of the historical and societal context and instead referring to immaterial and incontextual ‘ethnic conflict'(ignoring of course the prevalence of tribalism) is the definition of orientalism.
5. In regards to YPG claims of betrayal of US, you are citing supporters of and not the PYD official line, which hasn’t deemed it as betrayal. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of KCK knows that they form short term relationships of convenience when it aligns with their interests(start reading at 1979) then later abandon them when interests conflict (in contrast to KDP tactics; strategy)
6. all YPG//YPJ attacks against the Islamist ‘revolutionaries’ were responses to Islamist attacks against their positions, whether it b the conjoined ISIS/Nusra/’FSA’ assault on Rojava in 2013, the attacks on Ezidi villages in the Kurd Dagh and subsequent breaking of a ceasefire 18 hr after being signed by Mare operations room, or the shelling of Sheikh Maqsoud that lead to YPG cooperation with SAA and Liwa al-Quds to capture Shuqaif Industrial District the following day.
as for your manipulative claims such as al-Zinki being a “soft-Islamist group gone rogue” you and I both know this is bullshit, we both know what they have done and continue to do. I hope the Euphrates Shield rebels that continue to ethnically cleanse Kurdish villages in al-Bab countryside alongside the TSK enjoy their new US supplied MANPADS
lastly your orientalist comments about AKP reaching out to ‘Kurds’ with ‘moderate Islamism’ is completely void of even the semblance of a class analysis. Yes, the land barons, rent collecting former feudal master reactionary tribes whose interests have always resided in those of the state as Korucular have been even more graciously accommodated by the AKP, as PKK has always-and continues-to threaten their class interests. e.g. the recent assassinations of AKP ‘officials’ in Bakure have all been because they were korucular, both Jirki and Özalp, not because they are AKP
Forgot to add: subnote to 5: Exception(with exemptions) to long running Assad Sr.-PKK relations and relations non-state allies such as MLKP, Dawronoye etc
I wish to elaborate on the ottoman expansionism issue. Yes the situation is not as simple and a lot more complex than basic neo-Ottomanism, but to deny Turkish expansionism in the region whilst it is simultaneously being justified and triumphed through neo-Ottoman propaganda is to deny what is happening in KDP controlled areas of the KRI, most notably in the province of Duhok; is to remain completely oblivious and ignorant of the daily headlines of Erdogans mouthpieces(Yeni Şafak, Star are two of the more prominent outlets you may wish to start with) in the press and the statements of clerics and AKP politicians.
And before you try and correct me, yes, I am aware KCK was only formed in 2007 replacing Koma Komalên Kurdistan, but the umbrella term encapsulates all 4 active, armed movements so I deemed it most appropriate.
i promise this is last before I stop responding until you’ve stopped tweeting. According to my sources there is big changes in internal relations which will become evident soon. Can’t say anymore.
Thank you for your comments. As you have many, I may just answer some at a time, so it doesn’t too long for you to get some responses.
1. “A no fly zone wasn’t enforced over Hasakah, this was a rumour, US SOF for the most part fled from Hasakah, and scrambled jets were in response to SyAAF bombing of areas close to where SOF were stationed.”
MK: So what we know is that the Assad Airforce (AAF) began bombing, a US military leader issued a pretty clear warning for them to back off (referenced fact), and when they next approached with their warplanes they turned back. The contentious part seems to be that the US jets scrambled to confront the AAF, causing them to turn back. I gave some links that said this. You claim otherwise but give no links. So you might be right, but you’ve given me no reason to believe so. I’ll stick with my story.
2. “Relations with the PYD and Russia date back to 2012 and are primarily diplomatic/political as compared to the US military relationship of convenience since 2015 (in 2014 airstrikes in Kobane all communication was indirect and through PUK operation rooms in Slemani).”
MK: Yeh, so? Are you saying you’re proud of the relationship with the main imperialist power slaughtering Syrian civilians and Syrian civilian infrastructure on a massive scale? Point unclear. And of course “political and diplomatic” later became military, didn’t it? Especially the disgusting collaboration in the conquest of northern districts of Free Aleppo in February. But I assume you have a different view. As for the US relationship “of convenience”, well it began that way, but even if the initial communication was via the PUK, that soon changed, right? I don’t think any objective observer would deny that the YPG/SDF is the only armed force in Syria that can call US air strikes, that they share intelligence, that they work with US special forces on the ground, that it has provided the US with military bases, and that its offensives have been absolutely coordinated with US air strikes to a ‘t’ ever since.
3. “To think the Jarablus Euphrates Shield operation or the Hasakah conflict started by tribal forces within NDF- mainly local but also with large contingents from Deir ez-Zor with historical grudges against Kurds (with the notable exception of the Shammar tribe whose Al-Sanadid forces are allied to YPG; see 2004 incident)- shows abandonment of PYD by Russia shows incredible ignorance of internal affairs. I.E. Days before you posted this there was a meeting mediated by Russia between the Syrian government and officials from Rojava in Latakia which revisited proposals made in May(which at the time were rejected by Baathists) of accepting to change the nations name to the Syrian Republic and recognising Rojava-North Syria-Beth Nahrin autonomy.”
MK: Yes, I am well aware of the PYD’s meetings with the two genocidal regimes obliterating the Syrian population. It certainly is a profound case of cognitive dissonance that a movement that talks about “liberation” etc collaborates with the genocide regime and its imperialist ally invading Syria; clearly, concepts of solidarity with the people being massacred is comprehensively absent from the PYD’s world view. But of course as you say agreement wasn’t reached. The Assad Airforce bombed the YPG (as it has occasionally done before), and I don’t remember any objection from Russia. Now of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that Mother Russia will completely abandon the YPG forever; obviously we all agree that such relations (whether US, Russia, Turkey, Iran etc) are all opportunist. But I assume also that you didn’t miss the series of high-level, extremely friendly meetings between the Russian and Turkish governments leading up to Euphrates Volcano; the absence of Russian condemnation (indeed, even a certain amount of *commendation* of the Turkish operation in the Russian media); the statements by Turkish and Russian leaders of how much they love each other etc.
So, let me get to points 4,5,6 and your 2 extra bits the next day or so.
4. “A white Westerner supporting Turkmen Azari in North Syria and deeming criticism of the AKPs Otto-Fascist dreams as orientalist is the epitome of irony. Have you not seen the attempts to replace the local councils with Turkmen not local to the area leading to fitna with residents and FSA exiting Jarablus? The Grey Wolf presence? The newly established Turkmen dominated Liwa Sultan Süleyman Şah police force? Power linkage between Antep and Jarablus? How shallow is your understanding of both Turkish and Syrian politics that you can shamelessly make such an idiotic claim to your ignorant, Western audience?”
You (a) seem confused about my point about “Ottoman empire”, (b) are utterly confusd about my position to the point that it appears you didn’t actually read my article, (c) are the epitome of irony yourself, by referring to my views as idiotic and ignorant (ie, look in the mirror), and (d) are unsuccessful in your attempt to “panther” me about my whiteness, as I’ll explain below.
First, do I support “Turkmen Azari” in northern Syria? Slightly sweeping. The Turkmen are part of the Syrian population who, like Kurds and Arabs, are entitled to their rights and to control their own regions. I’m not even sure what you are referring to here, so I can only assume you mean my reference to the fact that the border strip recently re-taken by the FSA with Turkish help is heavily populated by Arabs and Turkmen and is therefore not “Rojava” and is not an area that the PYD has any God-given right to rule over. Just like Kobani, Afrin etc are Kurdish populated, and so they shouldn’t be ruled by the Sultan Murad brigade, for example. It is that self-determination thingy, you know.
As for “deeming criticism of the AKPs Otto-Fascist dreams as orientalist”, well of course I didn’t deem criticism of the AKP as orientalist at all, since, after all, my article was full of criticism; and regardless of whether Erdogan or others have “dreams”, my point remains that analysing the AKP’s policies in the region as part of a plan to “restore the Ottoman Empire” is indeed rank orientalism, and rank Turkophobia (something that, as I’m sure you’re aware, the PKK/PYD is far from immune to). That does not mean one should support the AKP’s actions and plans, of course. What I did was simply put forward the case that the AKP’s more recent moves, from the re-starting of the war against the Kurds in Turkey, to its current rapproachment with Russia, Israel and Assad, as well as many political changes inside Turkey, are better understood as precisely the opposite: as the reconstitution, on a slightly reformed basis, of the *Kemalist state.* Now, you don’t have to agree with that analysis of course, but don’t confuse that analysis with support for the AKP. I do not use the term “Kemalism” as a compliment, and even if it is true that the PKK/PYD today have a secular-fundamentalist fetish quite similar to that of Kemalism, surely a PKK supporter would have to agree that in 80 years of Kemalism all the Kurds got was endless war, terror, oppression and denial that they even existed. So, no, it was not a compliment.
What are the manifestations of the rebuilding of the “Ottoman Empire”? That’s right, nothing. Turkey has conquered nothing to its “empire.” Oh, the Turkish bourgeois state seeks regional hegemonic status? Seeks to influence, manipulate, dominate etc? Really? Maybe because that is what all other medium-sized bourgeois states do. Simply nothing to do with the Ottomans.
Of course, while Kemalism restricted Turkey mostly to ethnic Turkey, except for the Kurds who it decided were Mountain Turks, there have been some conquests by Turkey. The most notable one of course is Northern Cyprus, occupied since 1974, with the unilateral declaration of Turkey-occupied, colonised by settlers, and ethnically cleansed region as an “independent state” essentially a form of annexation. OK, so was that the beginning of the “new Ottoman Empire”? Most people think the invasion was carried out by a deeply Kemalist state. Indeed the leader of the invasion was none other than Bulent Ecevit, ultra-Turkish chauvinist of the badly misnamed “Democratic Left’ centre-right Kemalist party. Kemalism could justify it on the basis that Turks lived there.
This is somewhat of interest to me because my “white” ancestry is actually Greek Cypriot. Now of course, Greek and Greek Cypriot fascists and chauvinists had as much, if not more, to do with the original problem than Turkish and Turkish Cypriot fascists and chauvinists, but as we know, just as the week-long Greek Cypriot junta was overthrown by democratic forces in Cyprus, Turkey invaded, took 37% of the island (Turkish Cypriots were 18% of the population), and ethnically cleansed 200,000 Greek Cypriots, and remained ever since 1974. So I’m just trying to point out to you that my particular kind of “whiteness” is not one that would naturally praise the Turkish regime, but quite the opposite. What I think about Erdogan and the AKP is simply that, for the first decade or so, it was better than the Kemalist state on democracy in Turkey, on the military, on Kurdish rights, on Cyprus, on Palestine, and from 2011, on Syria. Just better, that’s all, not “good”; limited on all these positive points, while neoliberal on the economic front. And its liberal ‘Islamism’ wasn’t exactly the imposition of a jihadist state; freeing the mass of working class and peasant women of compulsory unveiling of they wanted an education or a job in the public sector was a great achievement.
But as I explained in my article, this period came to an end, as the reconstituted Turkish bourgeoisie needed to reconstitute its Turkish nationalist state.
Incidentally, the other part of my whiteness is Australian. And there are few things more basic to reactionary Australian nationalism than the grand myth of our “anzacs” fighting “the Turk” when our leaders sent our young men and boys to invade Turkey on behalf of the British Empire in 1915 (and get massacred by the defenders).
But getting back to Syria today, you ask “Have you not seen the attempts to replace the local councils with Turkmen not local to the area leading to fitna with residents and FSA exiting Jarablus? The Grey Wolf presence? The newly established Turkmen dominated Liwa Sultan Süleyman Şah police force? Power linkage between Antep and Jarablus?”
So, why don’t you read? Yes, my article specifically mentioned the Grey Wolf presence (“pro-MHP militias”); no, it didn’t have the information about the attempt to stuff the Jarablus council with Turkmen because that happened a week or so after my article was finished. But of course it fitted precisely with the line of my article, which was, of course, deeply critical of the Turkish action and its broader motivations, while defending the right of the local FSA – ie, the local forces from this region and from Azaz-Mare etc – to drive out Daesh and receive Turkish aid in doing so (or I suppose it is bad to get Turkish aid but good to get bucket-loads of massive US and Russian airpower aid). And so here I’ll just quote myself (just after my reference to the reconstitution of the Kemalist state rather than “Ottoman Empire” being the issue):
“In this context, Turkey can have its “safe zone” in northern Syria, that both prevents ‘Rojava’ from linking right across its southern border, and also allows a space for Turkey to transfer a section of its massive Syrian refugee population back into Syria. Indeed, Turkey aims to build whole “refugee cities” in the safe zone. Both aims allow for Erdogan to strengthen his new alliance with the opposition moderate (CHP) and right-wing (MHP) Turkish nationalists, both of whom despise Syrian refugees as much as they are hostile to the Kurdish struggle, and who have opposed Erdogan’s Syria policy from a pro-Assad angle; both support the current operation, as they can drive out refugees without the same “danger” of supporting the struggle against Assad as last year’s proposed zone entailed.
“Yildarim’s statements on reconciliation with Syria since he replaced Davutoglu correspond closely with this general direction, as do Turkey’s increasing restrictions on the entry of Syrian refugees, which has led to a number of previously unthinkable brutal killings by Turkish border guards this year, and even the building of border walls.
“Moreover, the strong ethnic Turkmen presence in this region also allows Turkey to attempt to control the safe zone via proxy ‘national’ forces, which gives Turkish nationalists an extra reason for intervening in this particular region. The relatively recent appearance of occasional pro-MHP fighters in Turkmen regions is connected to this new focus, following years of MHP opposition to the AKP’s anti-Assad policy.”
Hope this is all clear enough. Anyway, next installment soon.
Reblogged this on YALLA SOURIYA.
4. (continued) “You published a map of demographics of North Syria without noting that vast amounts of border land were stolen from Kurds and then redistributed to Arabs (the Arab belt) and then you subsequently proclaimed PYD chauvinist. Anyone who understands Kurdish politics knows that every other party was pushing for the expropriation of settler land. This lack of understanding of the historical and societal context and instead referring to immaterial and incontextual ‘ethnic conflict'(ignoring of course the prevalence of tribalism) is the definition of orientalism.”
Sorry but youre making stuff up here. If you accuse someone of “ethnic conflict” discourse, then quote them. You knew even as you wrote this that “ethnic conflict” has zero to do with any of my analysis. The maximalist, unilateral and chauvinist politics of the PYD/YPG, especially the now (happily) ill-fated “linking” project is a *political* issue, not an “ethnic” one, just as is their total reliance on either US or Russian air power to advance anywhere in Syria.
As for the demographics and the ‘Arab belt.’ Yes, the Assad regime colonised parts of Kurdish territory with Arabs, in the 1960s and 1970s, Arabs have now lived there some 50 years with children and grandchildren (like the Turkish colonists in Cyprus who btw I do *not* call to be uprooted). Even PYD leaders say they should not be uprooted (although some, like Salih Muslim, seem to speak out of different sides of their mouths at different times).
But be all that as it may, it simply has nothing to do with the irridentist “linking” project. It could perhaps be used to justify the YPG’s US-backed seizure of Arab regions of Tal Abyad last year, “linking” Kobani and Cezire (though it does not justify the ethnic crimes against local Arabs there as well-documented by Amnesty). Because, yes, these eastern regions were where this ‘Arab belt’ was established.
By contrast, the heavily Arab- and Turkmen-populated Azaz-Jarablus region never had many Kurds. As we said, Assad’s ethnic colonisation program began in the 1960s. Well, here is a French mandate demographic map of Syria in *1935*: http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Syria_Ethnic_1935_lg.png. Showing pretty conclusively that the region between Kurdish Afrin and Kurdish Kobani was … Arab and Turkmen in population! Case closed, sorry.
One final point: do I ignore the prevalence of tribalism? It simply didn’t come into the picture in my article, but that is not to deny it. Rather, what uncritical Rojava-Firsters often do is “ignore the prevalence of tribalism” when talking about the support of “Arabs” in the northeast. Of course, more honest observers understand that the PYD has manoevured well to gain the support of some tribal groups or leaders, who are in conflict with others. Nothing wrong with doing so, to strengthen your position in such an environment, just that it may have a lot more to do with such deft manoevures than the imaginary groundswell of “Arab” support for the Rojava project.
5. “In regards to YPG claims of betrayal of US, you are citing supporters of and not the PYD official line, which hasn’t deemed it as betrayal. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of KCK knows that they form short term relationships of convenience when it aligns with their interests (start reading at 1979) then later abandon them when interests conflict (in contrast to KDP tactics; strategy). (Forgot to add: subnote to 5: Exception(with exemptions) to long running Assad Sr.-PKK relations and relations non-state allies such as MLKP, Dawronoye etc)”
Your point here is unclear. I pointed out a number of different views from PYD sources. I quoted PYD official Nawaf Xelil publicly agreeing with US statements that moving east after Manjib was exactly the understanding, and claiming they have done so, and that only non-YPG SDF cadres remained; in other words, this rejects the discourse of some YPG cadres or supporters that the “demand” to move east was “US betrayal.” Hell, the US had just bombed the YPG/SDF into the largely Arab-populated Manjib in a several-month long operation resulting in over 200 civilian deaths. So I certainly don’t think the US betrayed the YPG, and I agree that cooler heads in the PYD/YPG wouldn’t think so either.
It is only those PYD/YPG cadre who perhaps think they have a God-given right to conquer thousands of square kilometres of non-Kurdish territory and also believe the US or Russia have a responsibility to use their airforces to support the YPG even in its most adventurist and irresponsible ventures who could accuse them of “betrayal”, a position I said had no validity whatsoever.
Now a long one:
6. “all YPG//YPJ attacks against the Islamist ‘revolutionaries’ were responses to Islamist attacks against their positions, whether it be the conjoined ISIS/Nusra/’FSA’ assault on Rojava in 2013, the attacks on Ezidi villages in the Kurd Dagh and subsequent breaking of a ceasefire 18 hr after being signed by Mare operations room, or the shelling of Sheikh Maqsoud that lead to YPG cooperation with SAA and Liwa al-Quds to capture Shuqaif Industrial District the following day.”
That is the story, and that is what it is, a story. The YPG attacks on both “Islamic revolutionaries” *and* on the FSA since October 2015 were the YPG’s responsibility. Of course, in the attacks and counter-attacks since then, there has also been plenty of responsibility on the part of the rebels. Neither side has clean hands in my opinion, and this constant repetition of YPG angelic innocence versus furious attacks by “Islamists” is a self-serving story with no basis in reality. Let’s deal with it in two parts, first, the 2012-13 events; and second, the separate, in space and in time, clashes since around October 2015.
The first attacks on the Kurds in northeast Syria I am aware of were in late 2012, by Nusra and Ghuraba al-Sham (another Islamist organisation, some called it “FSA” but this was explicitly denied by Riad Asaad, the then FSA leader, who denounced the attacks). In early 2013, the YPG and FSA made a peace agreement, and for the first half of 2013 there were no clashes. Even Nusra was calm, and in fact the YPG and Nusra even carried out joint patrols guarding Ras al-Ayn.
In July, Nusra in that town kidnapped a YPG patrol. The YPG successfully got the kidnapees back, and no one was harmed. Of course, Nusra was a piece of shit to do this, but the outcome ought to make clear that Nusra has to be seen very, very differently to ISIS. Nevertheless, the YPG made the decision then to drive Nusra out completely. Now, while it was Nusra that broke the ceasefire, driving them out of town, in a mixed Arab-Kurdish town, had a number of implications. Whether or not we like Nusra, in much of the northeast it was becoming a home for many Arab revolutionaries due to its relative strength in arms, money, organisation etc compared to the FSA (*especially* in the northeast), and not necessarily ideology. These facts have been widely analysed. So driving them out had the effect of driving an important part of the armed Arab rebel forces out of a mixed town. But it did more than that: the Sunni Arab population was also expelled from the town. Further, being a border town, through which some arms or funds came to rebels via Turkey (who would be unlikely to send it through the YPG), the act had other implications as well: local Arab militias, whether allied to Nusra or not, would try to re-take it due to its significance.
What followed was the largest-scale wave of attacks on the Kurds in the northeast in the war, where ISIS, Nusra (the two only just starting to emerge as different entities, with the full extent of ISIS horror only gradually becoming apparent), and Ahrar al-Sham attacking the YPG. A number of massacres occurred, although the YPG led victory after victory against the jihadist forces in the last few months of 2013, consolidating its control of the region. In fact, the first time the YPG was defeated was in January 2014, when it attempted to take control of the *Arab* towns Tel Brak and Tel Hamis. In Tel Hamis, the YPG gave up the fight when Nusra and Ahrar turned on ISIS and drive it out, but the YPG later (in Feb) captured Tel Brak from ISIS. It was in this region and this period that the first reports of YPG massacres of local Arabs took place.
A number of tiny, local FSA units joined the battles against the YPG in later 2013, although a proper study is hard to come by, and this was probably motivated mainly by local issues, fear of YPG monopolising the border, being connected to the dispossessed Arab population etc, rather than being an ideological position. Throughout Syria, the FSA was already at war with ISIS in exactly the same period, so accusing it of collaborating with ISIS, in any general sense, would be a nonsense. In Raqqa, ISIS had already expelled the FSA, and in the locality, the FSA 11th Division declared war on ISIS in August. You might say, “today they are part of the SDF”, which is true, as long as you acknowledge the extremely shaky nature of that relationship, and the fact that it only exists because in that region there is *only* ISIS and SDF to choose from; but that also ignores the fact that at that time, for the next 8 months, the RRB actually dissolved itself into the local Nusra, in fact it *was* the local “Nusra,” once again challenging sweeping statements about “jihadists” etc. Meanwhile, none of this is related to the region of Aleppo we are talking about now, because in that region, it was the FSA Northern Storm Brigade that led the resistance to ISIS for months, and in doing so it thereby was *defending*, in practice, Kurdish Afrin. Likewise, following the ISIS murder of an FSA leader in Idlib on July 28, the FSA as a whole declared war on ISIS. Also worth noting that in this period, where ISIS and FSA were clashing in Jarablus, ISIS there tolerated the YPG presence.
And while ISIS eventually captured Azaz from Northern Storm, in January 2014 the FSA, Islamic Front and other rebel formations (eg Jaysh Mujahideen in Alepo etc) drove out ISIS root and branch from Idlib, Aleppo, and all of western Syria, and even from Deir Ezzor (and briefly even from Raqqa).
So, yes, there were big attacks in the *northeast*, which certainly have impacted the historical memory. And yes, to the extent that some local FSA units sided with the jihadists, despite my qualifications about this above, I agree that on the whole they played a role in the breaking of Arab-Kurdish unity, and there would certainly be much to condemn about much of this activity.
However, in terms of the PYD discourse that’s says that “jihadists” and the FSA have besieged *Afrin* or Sheikh Maqsud in the *north-west* “for 2 years” or “3 years” or any figure you want, this survey shows that until the end of 2013, that had not occurred, *on the contrary*, FSA Northern Storm had effectively defended Afrin.
But so now that the FSA and allied rebels had driven ISIS from the region in question (ie, the *northwest*) in January 2014, did they then turn around and begin this “multi-year” siege of Afrin? Well no, it turns out they didn’t, at least according to every PYD and pro-PYD source I have surveyed for the whole of 2014 and the first half of 2015. If it had been happening, they would have reported on it. Sorry, it never happened. I can’t rule out some occasional small incidents (quite possibly from either side), as I said, I don’t think anyone in this struggle is a saint, but no, there was essentially no conflict, no siege etc.
In fact, if you read this report from Azaz from early 2015, we see large-scale cooperation between Northern Storm (now part of Shamiya Front) in Azaz and the YPG in Afrin (http://www.aymennjawad.org/15865/special-report-northern-storm-and-the-situation); they even signed a detailed agreement for cooperation in a number of spheres. The report notes that the local Nusra was not in favour, but not that ti tried to do anything about it, because, despite YPG propaganda, most know that Nusra’s role in Azaz was very minimal (they controlled a mosque).
So, that brings us to the second stage, the confrontations that began about a year ago. The very first clash I read about in the various pro-PYD archives, after such a long period of zero clashes, sieges etc, occurred in late May 2015. The issue was peripheral; rebels alleged that YPG cadre in Sheikh Maqsud had harassed some local women wearing veils. The clash was brief and resolved with agreement, but perhaps contributed to mistrust.
We the note some relatively brief and occasional clashes. As I am only using pro-PYD sources, to avoid any anti-PYD bias, of course the articles put the blame on rebels (nearly always Nusra at this stage), but unless I also go to pro-rebel sites I am unable to verify this; but there was simply nothing major.
The first major clash involving an alliance of rebel factions v the YPG in Sheikh Maqsud occurred in late September 2015. According to pro-PYD sources, “jihadists” (now tending to list Ahrar al-Sham alongside Nusra) decided to attack Sheikh Maqsud. However, according to pro-rebel sources, the issue was that the YPG, from the elevated ground it occupies in Sheikh Maqsud, was attempting to close the Castello Rd, the only exit from Aleppo to the north, shelling and killing civilians using the road, and concurrently re-opening its borders to the regime – in other words, the YPG was making a move to abandon its semi-official position as allied to the rebels (only in SM) and instead become allied to the regime.
How feasible is this? I do not know, and I am not in a position to absolutely judge. However, there are a number of points here.
First, the timing. Late September was the time when the Russian build-up was taking place, launching into open aggression by the end of the month. The PYD already had relations with Russia, and from the outset, top PYD leaders expressed support for the Russian invasion, using Russia’s lying talking points that it was there to “fight terrorism,” expressed support not only for the very occasional Russian bombing of Daesh, but also for Russian bombing of Nusra *and even of Ahrar al-Sham,* declaring them to be essentially the same as Daesh (all notwithstanding the fact that Russia was in fact *mostly* bombing the FSA).
So, clearly the PYD was opportunistically positioning itself to allow Russia to use it as a proxy force against the rebels, aiming to gain from this collaboration. In particular, top PYD leaders claimed they would carry out their irredentist “linking” project by seizing the entire Afrin to Kobani region. And so, orienting to such a powerful new backer, the opportunistic PYD would both see it as in their interests, and now see it as a realistic option with greater backing, to shift position from quasi-rebel to regime-ally. Moves to close the Castello Road and to re-open to regime-held Aleppo would make sense.
Second, the outcome. The YPG and the Mare Operations Room (consisting of FSA, Shamiya Front, Ahrar and others) signed a ceasefire agreement after clashes. In this agreement, the rebels basically agreed to move their forces out of SM (where they had had a long-standing agreement for sharing security with the YPG), while the YPG agreed to keep Castello Road open and keep the gates closed to the regime. What this showed was that cool heads could prevail, and the Mare Ops Room was not on some great jihad against the YPG as often depicted.
The next major clashes erupted in late November/early December, this time clearly started by Jaysh al-Thuwar, the YPG’s ally in the new SDF coalition. Jaysh al-Thuwar appears to be little more than a degenerate form of Jabat al-Akrad, the “Kurdish FSA”, combined with a handful of vengeful fighters from the defeated Hazm or SRF forces (but *not* the majority or the leaders of these groups). JaT seized four villages between Afrin and Azaz controlled by the rebels, at a time when the Russian invaders were bombing the rebels in this region. This flagrant collaboration with the imperial Russian Blitzkrieg forces to conquer rebel territory signalled the complete collapse of all trust. Actually, initially the YPG, to its credit, claimed to be uninvolved, but as the battle heated up, it got involved. Then some time in December, the YPG and the Mare Ops Room signed a ceasefire agreement, which stipulated that JaT withdraw from these villages. However, JaT decided to “out-YPG the YPG” and rejected the agreement! A couple of weeks of further fighting forced JaT to agree to the terms, but then according to the FSA, JaT immediately reneged. So when you refer to the breaking of a ceasefire 18 hours after being signed by Mare Ops Room, I’m not sure which one you are referring to; if this one, my information is the opposite to yours as to who broke it.
These events were followed closely by the YPG’s ultimate betrayal, its collaboration with the Russian airforce to conquer much of rebel-held, Arab majority northern Aleppo, including the iconic revolutionary town of Tel Rifaat, in February. This isn’t just conquest and ethnic cleansing, and collaboration with invading, murderous imperialists, but also massacre, keep in mind.
After all this, yes, there were the terrible attacks on SM by various rebel brigades in April (though no chemical attack, that was just a fiction), which many other rebel sources, and the opposition leadership, condemned. Jaysh al-Islam even condemned its own local forces for using grad rockets against civilian targets.
Now the YPG takes part in Assad’s criminal siege of Aleppo, and further, its illegal occupation of Tel Rifaat obstructs the rebels in the north, backed by Turkey, from helping out their comrades in Aleppo, by blocking confrontation with the regime (in this sense, the YPG occupation of Tel Rifaat and the Daesh occupation of al-Bab are similar, since both Daesh and YPG are neutral between regime and rebels; the Euphrates FSA needs to *seize both*.
“As for your manipulative claims such as al-Zinki being a “soft-Islamist group gone rogue” you and I both know this is bullshit, we both know what they have done and continue to do. I hope the Euphrates Shield rebels that continue to ethnically cleanse Kurdish villages in al-Bab countryside alongside the TSK enjoy their new US supplied MANPADS.”
What a load of arrogant bullshit. “Manipulative” is your head. 1. My description of Zinki is correct. Their ideology is very soft/moderate “Islamist.” The three times it has been a member of a coalition – first with Liwa al-Tawhid, then with the Authenticity Front, then with Jaysh Mujahideen (when it arose and drove ISIS from Aleppo) – it was always with markedly soft-Islamist coalitions. You make a number of BS assumptions here. Coming from a pro-PYD position, an Islamophobic understanding is to be expected, of course; so, if a group like Zinki “goes rogue”, then it can’t be “soft” Islamist or secular; by definition it must be “jihadist,” the PYD’s favourite word for everyone they disagree with. Since I’m mostly a supporter of the FSA, this might actually suit me, but I prefer facts. Facts are that the tendency to do “rogue” stuff in a civil war can apply to hard-line jihadists, soft-Islamists, secular FSA, and YPG nationalists. The second assumption is that one particularly monstrous recent crime committed by Zinki members indicates that the entire Zinki is now a criminal enterprise. There is no evidence for that, but that doesn’t matter for PYD supporters, who have shamelessly used that one incident not only to slam the whole of Zinki as child-beheaders, but to apply these kinds of labels to the rebels as a whole, in the most sickeningly essentialist style. Zinki has also been accused of some cases of torture in an Amnesty report (whose contents was overwhelmingly about Nusra, in fact), not unlike the YPG, for example. It is a war, and war is brutalising. There are no saints. Only you guys pretend that your nationalist mob are saints. They are anything but. Of course, all that said, I have no special brief for Zinki; probably the reason they could never remain in any of those soft-Islamist coalitions was due to some kind of group-parochialism.
“Euphrates Shield rebels that continue to ethnically cleanse Kurdish villages in al-Bab countryside.” If you want to make grand statements, give some evidence. I’ve seen no evidence for that. Till now they haven’t even been in the “al-Bab countryside”, as Erdogan has obviously been doing Putin’s bidding in holding the rebels back from the necessary task of seizing al-Bab, the only way (plus Tel Rifaat) they can confront the regime and aid Aleppo. But in any case, since you seem to be able to read, I assume you read where I explicitly warned that one of the dangers for the FSA in acting alongside a directly intervening Turkish army is that there are many Kurdish civilians in the rural regions here, and the FSA needs to ensure that it does not become a tool for Turkish anti-Kurdish activity (as opposed to the essential task of driving the YPG occupation forces from Arab Tel Rifaat).
“enjoy their new US supplied MANPADS.” You’re a certified idiot. Your YPG has been provided the entire fucking US air force to use at its disposal (when it’s not using the Russian airforce), US special forces (who ride around with YPG flags), US bases, and the only time the Assad airforce ever bombed them was the only time the US ever imposed a NFZ to protect them, yet the rebels, who have been confronted by Assadist air power for 5 years have been denied the only weapons capable of fighting such airpower, by the US, and now with the Aleppo genocide in full swing, the US still ensures the rebels get none, and here are you, you measly privileged hypocrite, claiming the US is supplying them, and implying that would be a bad thing. The PYD/YPG are the Kurds’ worst enemies in some cases, because of the sheer number of cadres in them that think like you. They need lessons in solidarity, a word the PYD/YPG leaders, like yourself, have never heard of
“Lastly your orientalist comments about AKP reaching out to ‘Kurds’ with ‘moderate Islamism’ is completely void of even the semblance of a class analysis. Yes, the land barons, rent collecting former feudal master reactionary tribes whose interests have always resided in those of the state as Korucular have been even more graciously accommodated by the AKP, as PKK has always-and continues-to threaten their class interests. e.g. the recent assassinations of AKP ‘officials’ in Bakure have all been because they were korucular, both Jirki and Özalp, not because they are AKP.”
Finally bringing in the issue of class is actually a welcome change from all the above, a rather uncritical defense of a nationalist project even when allied to the two great imperialist powers bombing shit out of Syria. So congratulations on that. However, from your comments, I’m not sure you understood what I was talking about (and the word “orientalist” coming from a PYD supporters rings a bit like the word “racist” coming from a Zionist). You can always rip some comments of mine from context and imply I was praising the AKP for “reaching out” to the Kurds with “moderate Islamism”, but I believe a more honest reading of what I wrote will show it has no contradiction with your point that the Kurds the AKP is best connected to are local ruling class Kurds.
Let’s quote the entire section, bit by bit:
“Turkey is overwhelmed by some 3 million Syrian refugees; the basis for much of the AKP’s opposition to Assad has been the need to remove the source of this massive instability, alongside the solidarity felt by much of the AKP’s moderate-‘Islamist’ base with these Syrian Arab refugees and their struggle – the same base which propelled the AKP to break Turkey’s decades of alliance with Israel and take up a pro-Palestine position.”
Any problem so far? This is only discussing the views of the “base” of the AKP, and suggesting the views of the base were one pressure on the regime, alongside the *actual* problem of being confronted with what to do about 3 million refugees (in the latter sense, Turkey is not unlike the Arab “front-line” states full of Palestinian refugees – regardless of their class nature, it was hard to be openly pro-Israel). Anyway, let’s continue:
“Ironically given the resurgence of the Kurdish war since 2015, this same moderate ‘Islamism’ had allowed the AKP to reach out to the Kurds in a way that the Kemalist Turkish-nationalist regimes had not done in 80 years, instituting important language and cultural reforms for the Kurdish minority and beginning a ‘peace process’ involving the PKK.”
OK, you find that part objectionable. But if the AKP regime’s (temporary) rapproachment with the Kurds was *only* with the Kurdish ruling class, then we would have to explain how it involved a “peace process” with the PKK, that the PKK took part in; we would also have to be in denial about the fact that there were *actual* language and cultural reforms as I noted, which certainly were in advance of any Kemalist regime.
“But, the AKP betrayed the peace process with the PKK, it never went very deep anyway, and the reforms were only the most superficial” etc etc, you say. Yes, precisely, class comes into it, as I explain when you keep reading:
“Palestinians, Syrian Arab refugees and Kurds were all ‘Muslims’ after all, during the decade in which ‘Islam’ was temporarily elevated above ‘Turkishness’ as part of carrying out important changes in capitalist class rule in Turkey.
“Erdogan’s regime needed to consolidate the new position in the state of the traditionalist Anatolian bourgeoisie that the AKP represented, after decades of playing second-fiddle to the big ‘secular’ Kemalist bourgeoisie. But once this new unwritten power-sharing arrangement was complete, the reconstitution of the Kemalist regime, albeit with slightly more ‘Islamist’ coloration, was on the order of the day. The contention that Erdogan’s increasingly repressive moves, since re-launching the war against the PKK and the Kurds in mid-2015, is part of setting up an ‘Islamic state’ is wide of the mark, and the contention that it is related to a new ‘Ottoman Empire’ is just Orientalism. The Kemalist Turkish national state is the vehicle through which the Turkish bourgeoisie rules.”
Now, you can disagree with my analysis of the class forces in motion, but that is different to claiming I ignore the class content of the AKP reformist period. What I write here is completely consistent with your point about the AKP’s connection to Kurdish ruling class elements, similar in some ways to the AKP’s class base among the “Anatolian bourgeoisie.” Bringing elements of the Kurdish bourgeoisie into the unofficial “ruling class coalition” necessitated some degree of reform on the Kurdish issue, but was never going to liberate the Kurds, just as bringing the Turkish Anatolian bourgeoisie in this unofficial “coalition” necessitated some degree of cultural “Islamism,” but was never going to bring about the social liberation of the more plebeian elements of the AKP base.
It is possible that I am not expressing myself perfectly, but I think the way I am trying to put it is streets ahead of your cut and dried orientalist ravings about feudalism and the Ottoman Empire.