Syrian advance raises fear of race for Raqqa

Financial Times reports: An advance by Syrian troops into Raqqa province has raised the prospect of a race to the Isis stronghold between the US-backed opposition and regime forces supported by Moscow.

Supported by Russian air power, Syrian government troops have moved to within 65km to the south-west of the city after clashes with Isis fighters that began over the weekend, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The fighting comes two weeks after US-backed opposition forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began an offensive north of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Isis in Syria, which has also been the centre of its self-styled caliphate since 2014.

Isis now finds itself battling on four different fronts at once: to the north and south-west of Raqqa; around Manbij near the Turkish border with Syria; and in Fallujah in Iraq, where government forces and allied militia are attempting to retake the city. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military special forces pictured aiding Kurdish fighters in Syria

The Guardian reports: Elite US military forces have been photographed for the first time in Syria as they join largely Kurdish forces on an advance toward, Raqqa, the Islamic State terror group’s capital.

A photographer with Agence France-Presse captured US special operations forces with Kurdish forces known as the YPG, part of the US-mentored Syrian Democratic Forces, in a rural village less than 40 miles from Raqqa. Some US troops wear the insignia of the YPG in an apparent show of support.

Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, resisted commenting on the photographs and would only describe the US special operations forces’ mission in generic terms.

“Our special operations forces in the past have, yes, worn insignias and other identifying marks with their partner forces,” Cook told reporters on Thursday. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: Turkey has hit out at the US over images said to show US special forces in Syria wearing insignia of Kurdish militia, during joint operations against so-called Islamic State (IS).

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the US “two-faced” and said the practice was “unacceptable”.

The images appear to show a US special forces soldier wearing the patch of the YPJ – a Kurdish militia group.

A Pentagon spokesman said troops often blended in with partners for safety. [Continue reading…]

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Behind the barricades of Turkey’s hidden war against the Kurds

The New York Times reports: On the morning of Oct. 29, 2014, a long convoy of armored vehicles and trucks rolled northward in the shadow of Iraq’s Zagros Mountains and crossed a bridge over the Khabur River, which marks the border with Turkey. As the convoy rumbled past the border gate, the road for miles ahead was lined with thousands of ecstatic Kurds, who clapped, cheered and waved the Kurdish flag. Many had tears in their eyes. Some even kissed the tanks and trucks as they passed. The soldiers, Iraqi Kurds, were on their way through Turkey to help defend Kobani, a Syrian border city, against ISIS. Their route that day traced an arc from northern Iraq through southeastern Turkey and onward into northern Syria: the historical heartland of the Kurdish people. For the bystanders who cheered them on under a hazy autumn sky, the date was deliciously symbolic. It was Turkey’s Republic Day. What had long been a grim annual reminder of Turkish rule over the Kurds was transformed into rapture, as they watched Kurdish soldiers parade through three countries where they have long dreamed of founding their own republic.

Some who stood on the roadside that day have told me it changed their lives. The battle against the Islamic State had made the downtrodden Kurds into heroes. In the weeks and months that followed, the Kurds watched in amazement as fighters aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K. — long branded a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States — became the central protagonists in the defense of Kobani. The P.K.K.’s Syrian affiliate worked closely with the American military, identifying ISIS targets for airstrikes.

By the time ISIS withdrew from Kobani in January 2015, the Kurdish militants had paid a heavy price in blood. But they gained admirers all over the world. The Pentagon, impressed by their skill at guerrilla warfare, saw an essential new ally against ISIS. There was renewed talk in Europe of removing the P.K.K. from terrorism lists, often in news articles accompanied by images of beautiful female Kurdish soldiers in combat gear. For many Turkish Kurds, the lesson was unmistakable: Their time had come. I met a 27-year-old P.K.K. activist in Turkey, who asked not to be named, fearing reprisals from the government, and who first went to Kobani in 2012, when the Kurds began carving out a state for themselves in Syria called Rojava. “I remember talking to P.K.K. fighters, and I thought, They’re crazy to think they can do this,” she said. “Now I look back and think, If they can do it there, we can do it here.”

Nineteen months after that convoy passed, the feelings it inspired have helped to start a renewed war between Turkey and its Kurdish rebels. Turkish tanks are now blasting the ancient cities of the Kurdish southeast, where young P.K.K.-supported rebels have built barricades and declared “liberated zones.” More than a thousand people have been killed and as many as 350,000 displaced, according to figures from the International Crisis Group. The fighting, which intensified last fall, has spread to Ankara, the Turkish capital, where two suicide bombings by Kurdish militants in February and March killed 66 people. Another sharp escalation came in mid-May, when P.K.K. supporters released a video online seeming to show one of the group’s fighters bringing down a Turkish attack helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile, a weapon to which the Kurds have rarely had access. Yet much of the violence has been hidden from public view by state censorship and military “curfews” — a government word that scarcely conveys the reality of tanks encircling a Kurdish town and drilling it with shellfire for weeks or months on end.

The conflict has revived and in some ways exceeded the worst days of the P.K.K.’s war with the Turkish state in the 1990s. The fighting then was brutal, but it was mostly confined to remote mountains and villages. Now it is devastating cities as well and threatening to cripple an economy already burdened by ISIS bombings and waves of refugees from Syria. In Diyarbakir, the capital of a largely Kurdish province, artillery and bombs have destroyed much of the historic district, which contains Unesco world heritage sites. Churches, mosques and khans that have stood for centuries lie in ruins. Tourism has collapsed. Images of shattered houses and dead children are stirring outrage in other countries where Kurds live: Iraq, Syria and Iran. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-backed offensive in Syria targets ISIS’s capital

The Washington Post reports: A Kurdish-led force backed by U.S. airstrikes launched an offensive on Tuesday to seize territory around the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the first ground attack to directly challenge the Islamic State’s control of its self-proclaimed capital.

Although the operation appears to have relatively limited goals, it will serve as an early test of a coalition being forged with U.S. help between local Arab fighters and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to take on the militant group in its most symbolically significant stronghold.

A few thousand Kurdish and Arab fighters — grouped under the umbrella of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes — began moving south from the existing front line about 30 miles north of Raqqa, according to a statement from the SDF and the U.S. military.

The operation aims to secure control of a stretch of territory in the mostly desert terrain north of Raqqa, said Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. military, speaking by telephone from Baghdad. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish tensions undermine the war against ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: Amnesty International has in seven months issued two major reports highlighting allegations of war crimes by rebel and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The two reports are related to a secondary conflict brewing between Arabs and Kurds from Hasakah to Qamashli to Aleppo, which could easily spin out of control and add to the many conflicts that already plague the country.

The United States has an unintentional hand in this new conflict, and de-escalation hinges largely on whether Washington is willing to review its strategy in northern Syria, which sometimes privileges the appearance of success in the battle against ISIL over sustainable policies.

On Friday, Amnesty published a damning new report accusing rebel factions in Aleppo, organised under the Army of Conquest, of committing acts that may amount to war crimes. The rights group said it gathered strong evidence of indiscriminate attacks that killed at least 83 civilians, including 30 children, in the Kurdish-dominated Sheikh Maqsoud between February and April.

On October 13 last year, Amnesty issued a report, Forced Displacement and Demolitions in Northern Syria, accusing the Kurdish political party PYD, the Democratic Union Party, of carrying out a wave of forced displacement and home demolitions that it also said may amount to war crimes. The shelling of civilians by rebel forces cannot be justified, and perpetrators must be punished and restrained by their regional backers. The attacks on Sheikh Maqsoud were encouraged by some supporters of the opposition living abroad, after the PYD’s military wing, the YPG, attacked the rebels in February. Worse, such calls continue to be heard and more indiscriminate attacks can be expected. [Continue reading…]

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Syria peace talks — democracy left out in the cold

Saleh M. Mohamed writes: This week, United Nations talks meant to chart a path toward a peaceful, democratic future for Syria are set to resume in Geneva. But, in an absurd twist, the legitimate representatives of a large, democratically governed area in the country will not be invited to attend.

This area is called Rojava, in the northern part of Syria, and despite its frequent description as “Kurdish,” it is governed inclusively by Kurds, Arabs, and the area’s other ethnic groups. Furthermore, its self-defense forces are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States that have advanced toward Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State’s power in Syria.

Both in strategic and moral terms, Rojava’s existence is a rare bright spot in this conflict. So the exclusion of its representatives from the U.N. process is not only unfair, but makes no sense if the aim of the talks is to establish a viable path to democracy in Syria.

The primary reason for this injustice is that Turkey opposes Rojava’s military force, the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., claiming it is one and the same with the P.K.K., a Kurdish group with a long history of armed conflict with the Turkish government.

This is not true. Both groups are Kurdish, but the Syrian Kurds, with their Arab allies and international support, are locked in a difficult, but thus far successful, battle against the Islamic State. The Y.P.G.’s fight is about Syria, not Turkey. Its role is to defend the institutions of self-government in Northern Syria (the party of which I am co-president, the Democratic Union Party, is part of this political coalition, along with other parties and civil society organizations).

It’s a fair question to ask what kind of democracy this is. Its central philosophy is that people should govern themselves from the bottom up, and so as much decision making as possible is left to local assemblies. These assemblies, furthermore, are designed to ensure a voice for non-Kurdish minorities and for women. This is real and genuinely inclusive democracy, and it deserves to be supported, not ignored. [Continue reading…]

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Is the Kurdish plan foolhardy or first-rate?

Hassan Hassan writes: The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, made history last week when it announced a federal system in northern Syria. The declaration is both symbolic and catalytic, and there are reasons to believe it is not as foolhardy as many think. Although Syrian and Iraqi Kurds differ on many issues, the move has linked the adjoining territories controlled by Kurds, who prevail over a combined territory the size of Sri Lanka.

In Syria, the PYD controls approximately 10,000 square miles, roughly two-thirds of the territory ruled by Iraqi Kurds. In October, the party seized more territory after gains against ISIL in northern Syria. Since then, the group’s military wing, the YPG, drove out ISIL from southern Hasaka. This has galvanised Kurdish activists who dream of statehood for “the world’s largest stateless nation”.

On the other hand, the news agitated almost everyone else involved in the conflict in Syria, including putative Kurdish allies such as Haitham Mannaa, a Syrian opposition figure who has distanced himself from mainstream rebels. The US too stated it would not recognise the federacy. Turkey, unsurprisingly, rejected it.

Local populations in northeastern Syria also fear the YPG’s nationalist project, particularly after incidents, documented by Amnesty International, of home demolition and forced displacement by the Kurdish militia against Arab families.

From the outside, the project appears to be a fool’s errand. In Iraq, Kurds carved out a semi-autonomous region after the US-led coalition forces declared a safe haven inside Iraq in 1991. In Syria, the Kurds are outnumbered and surrounded by hostile Arab demographics and armed groups, not to mention Turkey. Kurdish-majority areas are also scattered throughout northern Syria. [Continue reading…]

Shiar Neyo writes: I do support the right of Kurds and other minorities in Syria to self-determination, and I do believe that federalism is better than a centralist state. However, federalism by definition requires all concerned units or parts to agree to this system of governance because they believe it is better for all of them.

Not only were other parts of Syria and other Syrian political and military forces not consulted and not involved, even people and political parties within the so-called self-administration areas were not involved in the process.

There should have been a long process of consultation and negotiation followed by a general referendum, which are clearly not possible at the moment, rather than a hasty two-day conference clearly dominated by the PYD to ‘discuss’ and agree an equally badly written and quite confused founding document deciding important issues that affect all Syrians. It was clearly a politically motivated move.

The declaration came soon after the PYD forces attacked Syrian opposition factions and took over some areas in north Syria with the support of Russian air strikes and Iranian-led ground assaults. It is indeed telling that the founding document dedicates a whole section to the “historical development of the societal problems in the Middle East and Syria and the current situation,” tracing them back to Mesopotamia. (!) Yet it does not even mention the ongoing Syrian revolution. It only talks about war and Islamist forces backed by regional powers. [Continue reading…]

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Kurd turns on Kurd as Turkey and U.S. back new faction in Syria

Middle East Eye reports: Turkey is backing a new Kurdish faction within the Free Syrian Army to take back territory from the Islamic State (IS) group and stop the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from seizing further ground along the Turkish border.

The group, known as the Grandsons of Salahadin after the famed 12th-century Muslim Kurdish leader, has already captured several villages in the IS-controlled border region between Jarabulus and Azaz following Turkish artillery attacks and missile strikes. In response, IS hit the Turkish town of Kilis earlier this month, killing two civilians.

But threats to attack the YPG unless it withdraws from territory seized from opposition rebels during an advance by pro-government forces in northern Syria last month have stoked concerns of a possible “Kurdish civil war”.

Mahmoud Abu Hamza, a Grandsons of Salahadin commander based in Turkey, told Middle East Eye that the group was backed by both the US and Turkey and considered itself part of the international coalition fighting IS.

“Turkey doesn’t support us with arms. Our arms are American,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Who owns the Syrian revolution?

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Naila Bozo writes: I recognized the importance of Syria in my life through my separation from it. The hours before going to the airport made me feel weak. The departure from Syria was a small but recurring trauma. I was not merely putting kilometers between Syria and myself; I felt I had travelled for centuries, travelled through galaxies as soon as I landed in Europe. Only a few hours after leaving the country, Syria felt like nothing but a hazy memory.

I do not know if I can put a claim to Syria as my home but that sunbaked, dusty country with the coincidental palm trees scattered by the roads, with the empty red bags of potato chips blowing in the gutter and the sound of Umm Kulthum owns me. I can still conjure the warmth of the yellow taxis’ leather seats under my fingers.

The claim to a home has grown more complex with the war in Syria. On one hand, there is a wish to be united with all Syrians against the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad but on the other hand, one cannot ignore the Syrian armed and political opposition’s dubious alliance with Turkey, a state that has violated Kurdish rights for decades and recently intensified its crackdown upon Kurdish civilians and fighters. Today, the mutual mistrust between Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters has intensified due to the former being a loose coalition that includes several formations within the so-called moderate Free Syrian Army that have varying degrees of affiliations with groups like Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra while the latter is being accused of carrying out an expansionist agenda facilitated by U.S. and Russian airstrikes. [Continue reading…]

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In the fight against ISIS, the effectiveness of the YPG gets overstated

Hassan Hassan writes: A week after ISIL was reportedly expelled from its last stronghold in Hasaka, it launched an assault in Tal Abyad in northern Raqqa in the early hours of Saturday.

The militant group clashed with Kurdish militias affiliated to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who drove ISIL from this border city in June last year. The attack on Saturday was ISIL’s second infiltration of the city since its defeat there.

During the clashes, ISIL fighters reportedly stormed the house of a tribal sheikh from Deir Ezzor living in Tal Abyad and beheaded him. Khaled Dahham Al Bashir – from the Baggara tribal confederation, one of the largest in Syria – was said to have been working with the YPG as part of the tribal component in the Syrian Democratic Forces, and was therefore an obvious target for ISIL. The ISIL assault on several different locations seemed carefully planned with specific targets.

Of particular significance was the fact that the YPG had to immediately call in US air strikes to repel the attack. The episode reveals a fault line in the way that the United States, the main backer of the YPG, fights ISIL in Syria.

The YPG’s victories against ISIL – in Kobani, Tal Abyad and southern Hasaka – were made possible largely because of intensive US firepower. According to military sources, the YPG lacks the capacity to defeat ISIL without close US air support. One source said that American air strikes account for “more than 90 per cent” of the ISIL defeats in those battles.

This is important if one contrasts the YPG with other forces in northern Syria that have defeated ISIL or repulsed its assaults for more than two years without any air support. Those forces would typically be fighting on two fronts at the same time. Rebel forces in Idlib, for instance, have kept the province free from ISIL despite repeated attempts to infiltrate it since 2014 – including at the peak of ISIL’s strength and morale after it defeated the Iraqi army in Mosul. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish ‘democratic confederalism’ or counter-revolution in Syria?

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: The first fact is this: the Kurds have suffered a terrible historical injustice. The Arabs were rightly enraged when Britain and France carved bilad al-Sham (the Levant) into mini-states, then gave one of them to Zionism.

But the post-Ottoman dispensation allowed the Kurds no state at all – and this in an age when the Middle East was ill with nationalist fever. Everywhere the Kurds became minorities in hyper-nationalist states.

Over the years an estimated 40,000 people have been killed in Turkish-Kurdish fighting, most of them Kurds.

In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign murdered somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 Iraqi Kurds.

In Syria, where Kurds formed about 10 percent of the population – or around two million people – it was illegal to teach in the Kurdish language.

Approximately 300,000 Kurds (by 2011) were denied citizenship by the state, and were therefore excluded from education and health care, barred from owning land or setting up businesses.

While oppressing Kurds at home, President Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father) cultivated good relations with Kurdish groups abroad. This fitted into his regional strategy of backing spoilers and irritants as pawns against his rivals. [Continue reading…]

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Syria Kurds say they will respect ceasefire

AFP reports: Kurdish forces in Syria, where they have been targeted by Turkish artillery, said Thursday they would respect a ceasefire due to start this weekend but retain the right to “retaliate” if attacked.

“We, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), give great importance to the process of cessation of hostilities announced by the United States and Russia and we will respect it, while retaining the right to retaliate… if we are attacked,” YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said on his Facebook page.

A Russian and US-brokered ceasefire between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and non-jihadist rebels is due to go into effect at 2200 GMT on Friday, as part of efforts to resume peace talks to end five years of war.

The YPG leads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters that on Thursday welcomed the truce on the same terms. [Continue reading…]

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