In northern Syria, outside powers have exploited Arab-Kurdish tensions to consolidate counter-revolutionary interests

Michael Karadjis writes: A week after the United States rushed to defend its Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), against the Assad regime in Hassakeh, Washington supported the intervention of the Kurds’ Turkish nemesis to expel IS from the border town of Jarabulus.

These events suggest the outlines of a regional understanding over a reactionary solution in northern Syria.

It follows the recent diplomatic back-flips by Turkey’s Erdogan government – including Ankara’s reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have formed a very close alliance over the past year), the further strengthening of relations with Iran (which have remained strong despite Tehran’s backing of Assad), and the declaration by Prime Minister Yildirim that Turkey was no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a “transitional” government consisting of elements drawn from both the regime and opposition.

The YPG – connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – has had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact with Assad, sometimes leading to minor conflict, while at other times collaborating more closely – including during the recent siege of rebel-held Aleppo.

However, Hassakeh was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG, possibly in response to Turkey’s feelers. An official from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently noted that Assad “does not support Kurdish autonomy… we’re backing the same policy”. Despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy, while the rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran suggests recent Turkish-Iranian meetings are likely anti-Kurdish in content.

Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. Russian airstrikes helped the Afrin YPG in February seize Arab-majority towns from the rebels in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat. But Putin’s reconciliation with Erdogan suggests that Russia has dropped the YPG. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s intervention in Syria, with tacit Russian backing, has raised tensions with Washington

The Daily Beast reports: Russia and Iran have raised no serious objections to Turkey’s intervention. The Political Directorate of the Syrian Arab Army now speaks of the Kurdish guerrilla force [the YPG] as the “PKK.”

As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center observes, “Over the past five years, Damascus has more often referred to the pro-PKK factions in Syria by simply using their official names (such as YPG, Asayish, and so on) or by some quaintly patriotic workaround, such as ‘loyal Kurdish citizens.’ It is rare for them to employ the ‘PKK’ term and even rarer to blast it across state media.” The shift is obviously meant as much for Turkish ears as for Syrian ones.

Also remarkable is how Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet Sputnik has unblinkingly about-faced on who’s who in this war.

This week, it took the unprecedented step of referring to the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army as having “liberated” villages in Aleppo from “terrorists,” citing the Turkish General Staff’s press release. As for the terrorists, Sputnik left it an open question as to whether or not these were ISIS militants or the YPG.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to have been outflanked. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the U.S. and Turkey had been discussing a joint intervention in Syria but that President Obama had delayed approving Pentagon plans.[Continue reading…]

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Kurds carve out a home in Syria, testing U.S. ties with Turkey

The Wall Street Journal reports: Amid the chaos of Syria’s war, the Kurds have carved out a semiautonomous region called Rojava that is home to about four million people, is as big as Belgium and stretches nearly the full length of the 565-mile border between Syria and Turkey.

The emergence of Rojava also has added complexity to a region in turmoil, bringing resistance from outside and dissent from within.

Rojava’s continuing territorial expansion has alarmed Turkey, which is battling Kurdish separatists within its own borders and has pushed deeper into Syria to attack Islamic State forces and rein in the Syrian Kurds. The U.S. is stuck uncomfortably in the middle because it relies on Syrian Kurds to fight Islamic State yet considers Turkey a crucial ally.

And as Rojava gets mightier and realizes long-held ambitions of self-rule for Kurds, some of its own people feel alienated by what they claim are heavy-handed tactics that feel reminiscent of the Syrian regime.

Instead of helping Jude Hamo finish his junior year of college, his parents sold the family car and borrowed money to smuggle the 23-year-old to Germany so he wouldn’t be drafted into the Kurdish armed forces fighting Islamic State. “We chose the lesser of two evils,” says Jude’s father, Radwan.

Since late 2014, at least 6,000 young Syrian Kurds have been compelled to serve in the military, according to the regional administration’s military ministry. More than two dozen died in battle. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s military advance into Syria

The New York Times reports: Turkey sent tanks, warplanes and special operations forces into northern Syria on Wednesday in its biggest plunge yet into the Syrian conflict, enabling Syrian rebels to take control of an important Islamic State stronghold within hours.

The operation, assisted by American airstrikes, is a significant escalation of Turkey’s role in the fight against the Islamic State, the militant extremist group ensconced in parts of Syria and Iraq that has increasingly been targeting Turkey.

By evening, Syrian rebels backed by the United States and Turkey declared that they had seized the town of Jarabulus and its surroundings, which had been the Islamic State’s last major redoubt near the Turkish border. Numerous fighters posted photographs and videos of themselves online with the green, black and white flag adopted by the Syrian opposition as they walked through empty streets where the black flag of Islamic State still flew; it appeared that most of the militants had fled without a fight. [Continue reading…]

Michael Weiss writes: Turkey’s main motivation for invading Syria is to stop the YPG from connecting two Kurdish cantons Kobane and Afrin, which its political leadership refers to as the contiguous region of Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan.

The YPG has made no secret of its plans to carve out a semiautonomous statelet in Syria’s north in line with a century-old ambition of eventually linking this territory to other Kurdistan regions in southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran.

The problem is that the YPG’s political branch, the Democratic Union Party, is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a U.S.- and Turkish-designated terror organization.

Turkey therefore sees such a breakaway project as a graver national security threat than it does ISIS and its resentment toward America’s connivance in exacerbating that threat through fire and steel has been palpable, not to mention dangerous.

In the past, Turkish artillery has shelled YPG positions when the paramilitaries got too close to the border or moved too far west of the Euphrates River—deemed by Ankara to be a “red line” for Kurdish advancement. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration will cut all U.S. support for its Syrian Kurdish allies, considered the most competent rebel force fighting the Islamic State, if they do not comply with Turkish demands that they withdraw to the east of the Euphrates River, Vice President Biden said here Wednesday.

Biden said the Kurds, who Turkey claims intend to establish a separate state along a border corridor in conjunction with Turkey’s own Kurdish population, “cannot, will not, and under no circumstances will get American support if they do not keep” what he said was a commitment to return to the east.

The primary goal of Biden’s day-long visit here was to convince Turkey that the United States had no role in, and did not condone, a July 15 coup attempt that has sent the country into a whirlwind of conspiracy theories, mass arrests and estrangement from Washington at a key moment in the campaign against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Deadly hatred fractures anti-ISIS alliance in Iraq

Christoph Reuter reports: For over a year, the US has been pushing for the launch of an offensive on IS-held Mosul and has been bombing the city almost daily. But despite repeated announcements that an attack was imminent, very little has happened on the ground aside from the recapture of a handful of surrounding towns and villages. Nevertheless, Iraqi commanders have already made competing claims on the expected spoils.

“Nothing and nobody will stop us from marching into Mosul,” says Hadi al-Ameri, the top commander of a conglomerate of Shiite militias that are officially called the Popular Mobilization Units but which are widely known as Hashd.

“All areas of Mosul east of the Tigris belong to Kurdistan,” counters Brigadier Halgord Hikmat, spokesman of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, which controls the Kurdish fighting force. “We aren’t demanding any more than that, and the river is a clear border.”

What’s more, the Sunni ex-governor of Mosul — together with several thousand fighters and the support of 1,200 Turkish troops whose presence in Iraq is tolerated by the Kurds — is planning to invade the city from the north. Under Sunni leadership.

The government in Baghdad, under the leadership of the respectable yet weak Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has mostly stayed out of it — despite the fact that the Iraqi army would seem best positioned to prevent a fight among the allies over the spoils of Mosul. But Abadi has been fighting for political survival ever since followers of the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the government quarter in Baghdad a short time ago, the second such incident in a month. Instead of recapturing Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city, the military has now been tasked with first liberating Fallujah, the much smaller IS stronghold west of Baghdad.

Right in the middle, located at the halfway point between Baghdad and Mosul, is Tuz Khurmatu — the harbinger of Iraq’s future. It is a place where those groups fighting together to defeat IS are killing each other away from the front lines. [Continue reading…]

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What happens after ISIS?

The Daily Beast reports: Troops fighting ISIS appeared to on the verge of another victory over the self-proclaimed Islamic State Wednesday, as they moved into a city that has served as the main thoroughfare for ISIS foreign fighters and weapons. But the potential seizure of the Syrian city of Manbij by U.S.-backed forces is only likely to set off a new battle for control — this time pitting Arabs against Kurds.

The battle Wednesday reflected a growing problem for the U.S. and its push to train local fighters, even as those forces take territory from ISIS. Who exactly will govern those towns now? Will it be the Kurds who have led the fight against ISIS? Or will it be what some in the Pentagon have privately called the “token Arabs” trained by the U.S. to accompany them?

Two defense officials told The Daily Beast Wednesday they don’t know. They believe the Arabs would be in charge. But even these officials admit that asking the 5,000-or-so newly-trained Arab fighters to control three or more formerly ISIS-controlled areas — and at the same time move into the ISIS capital of Raqqa — would be difficult.

On the other hand, some worry that a Kurdish controlled Manbij could be ethnically cleansed, creating the kind of Sunni disenfranchisement that led to the rise of ISIS. The fall of Manbij into Kurdish hands, however, would give the Kurds a contiguous region in northern Syria. Moreover, a Kurdish controlled Manbij could draw the ire of U.S.-allied Turkey, which rejects a Kurdish controlled region on its border.

The question “what happens after ISIS?” looms increasingly over the U.S.-led effort. Indeed, defense officials said how the governance question is answered in Manbij could foreshadow the strategy for Raqqa, ISIS’s capital. Local U.S.-backed forces, accompanied by U.S. forces, have moved within 18 miles of the city in the last week. Over the Memorial Day weekend, one U.S. service member was injured while supporting the local fighters. [Continue reading…]

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Elite U.S. soldiers and Kurdish troops moving on ISIS near Mosul

Florian Neuhof reports: The operation is the largest by the Kurds in Iraq since they took Sinjar from the Islamic State last November. Intent on driving ISIS out of nine villages facing them at the Khazir front, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) threw 4,700 men into the offensive, according to Arif Tayfor, the sector commander at Khazir.

By Monday afternoon, seven of those nine villages had been taken.

The Kurds, without question, benefitted from some hands-on U.S. support. A few miles from Mufti, on the road leading directly to Mosul, I came across a U.S. special operations commando shoveling empty machine-gun cartridge cases out of the turret of an armored car.

These camera-shy elite soldiers usually refrain from engaging the enemy directly, instead gathering intelligence and directing air strikes. But at Khazir, U.S. ammunition clearly was expended.

It is not the first time American special operations forces have tangled with ISIS on the Kurdish front lines in Iraq. Early in May, U.S. Navy Seal Charlie Keating was killed when a group of Seals helped contain an ISIS attack on Telskuf, an abandoned Christian town near Mosul.

The Khazir operation’s immediate aim is to relieve the pressure on the nearby frontline town of Gwer and push ISIS further away from Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region that is barely an hour’s car ride away.

The long-term goal is to carve out a greater Kurdistan from the crumbling caliphate and a disintegrating Iraq. The villages at Khazir are part of the disputed territories, areas claimed by both the KRG and the central government in Baghdad. [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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Kurdish militants reportedly shoot down Turkish security forces helicopter

The Washington Post reports: They were used to stalk Russian helicopters in Afghanistan, and the United States has worked hard to keep them out of chaotic Syria. But now Kurdish guerrillas battling Turkey’s security forces may now have shoulder-fired missiles — an acquisition analysts say will seriously challenge Turkish air power and potentially intensify fighting in the region.

On Saturday, media affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a leftist militant group battling the Turkish state, posted a video purporting to show a fighter downing a Cobra attack helicopter with a man-portable air-defense system — or MANPADS — in the mountains of southeastern Turkey on Friday morning. Arms observers said this is the first time they have seen PKK fighters successfully using MANPADS in their four-decade fight against the Turks.

About four minutes into the video, the fighter, clad in camouflage fatigues, crouches on a verdant hillside with the weapons system on his shoulder. When the launcher locks on its target — a helicopter whirring noisily on the horizon — the fighter stands to fire. The heat-seeking missile swoops through the air and strikes the Cobra’s tail, sending the aircraft spinning and eventually crashing into the mountainside. [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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In remote corner of Iraq, an unlikely alliance forms against ISIS

Reuters reports: They share little more than an enemy and struggle to communicate on the battlefield, but together two relatively obscure groups have opened up a new front against Islamic State militants in a remote corner of Iraq.

The unlikely alliance between an offshoot of a leftist Kurdish organization and an Arab tribal militia in northern Iraq is a measure of the extent to which Islamic State has upended the regional order.

Across Iraq and Syria, new groups have emerged where old powers have waned, competing to claim fragments of territory from Islamic State and complicating the outlook when they win.

“Chaos sometimes produces unexpected things,” said the head of the Arab tribal force, Abdulkhaleq al-Jarba. “After Daesh (Islamic State), the political map of the region has changed. There is a new reality and we are part of it.”

In Nineveh province, this “new reality” was born in 2014 when official security forces failed to defend the Sinjar area against the Sunni Islamic State militants who purged its Yazidi population.

A Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) came to the rescue, which won the gratitude of Yazidis, and another local franchise called the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) was set up.

The mainly Kurdish secular group, which includes Yazidis, controls a pocket of territory in Sinjar and recently formed an alliance with a Sunni Arab militia drawn from the powerful Shammar tribe.

“In the beginning we were unsure (about them),” said a wiry older member of the Arab force, which was assembled over the past three months and is now more than 400-strong. “We thought they were Kurdish occupiers.”

Their cooperation is all the more unusual because many Yazidis accuse their Sunni Muslim neighbors of complicity in atrocities committed against them by Islamic State, and say they cannot live together again. [Continue reading…]

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Mosul: Suspicion and hostility cloud fight to recapture Iraqi city from ISIS

The Guardian reports: At the bottom of a hill near the frontline with Islamic State fighters, the Iraqi army had been digging in. Their white tents stood near the brown earth gouged by the armoured trucks that had carried them there – the closest point to Mosul they had reached before an assault on Iraq’s second largest city.

For a few days early last month, the offensive looked like it already might be under way. But that soon changed when the Iraqis, trained by US forces, were quickly ousted from al-Nasr, the first town they had seized. There were about 25 more small towns and villages, all occupied by Isis, between them and Mosul. And 60 miles to go.

Behind the Iraqis, the Kurdish peshmerga remained dug into positions near the city of Makhmour that had marked the frontline since not long after Mosul was seized in June 2014. The war had been theirs until the national army arrived. The new partnership is not going well.

On both sides, there is a belief that what happens on the road to Mosul will not only define the course of the war but also shape the future of Iraq. And, despite the high stakes, planning for how to take things from here is increasingly clouded by suspicion and enmity. [Continue reading…]

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