Robin Yassin-Kassab

Another War Opens

with 8 comments


Jerablus residents returning home

This was first published at the New Arab.

On August 9th, Turkish President Erdogan visited Russian President Putin in Saint Petersburg. The two leaders cleared the air after a period of mutual hostility during which Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter jet and Russia had bombed Turkish aid convoys heading to Syria.

Clearly some kind of deal was struck at the meeting. Turkey now feels able to engage in robust interventions in northern Syria against both ISIS and the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Kurdish party-militia closely linked to the PKK, a group at war with the Turkish state. Except for the public recognition that Moscow is more relevant than Washington, it isn’t clear what Turkey has given Russia in return. Turkey has after all just supported the rebel push to break the siege of Aleppo.

Perhaps the earliest sign of the new reality was the Assad regime’s aerial bombardment of  PYD-controlled territory in Hasakeh. The PYD closed Aleppo’s Castello road to regime traffic in response.

A ceasefire was quickly agreed, but the clash was still a surprising turnaround. Assad had never bombed the PYD before. In fact the two had sometimes collaborated, not as a result of ideological proximity or fraternal feeling, but out of a ruthless pragmatism. The regime withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas without a fight in June 2012. The PYD inherited the security installations in these three cantons – now called Rojava, or western Kurdistan – and Assadist forces were freed up to fight the revolution elsewhere.

Kurds can now educate their children in their own language and participate in government through the local councils known as communes. The communes have a 40% quota for women.

Yet the admirable democratic potential of the commune system is choked by the dominance of the PYD’s single party-militia which monopolises control of money and arms, represses other parties, and sometimes shoots at protestors. Those Western leftists who fetishise Rojava while scorning other areas of revolutionary Syria tend to ignore these dictatorial tendencies, and fail to consider the traumatising effects of continual regime bombardment on liberated territories beyond Rojava. Even under barrel bombs and a starvation siege, Daraya in the Damascus suburbs built a democratic and self-organised community free of the dominance of any party or militia. But Daraya was largely ignored.

From the start, relations between Assad and the PYD soured relations between the PYD and the rebellion. But there was fault on all sides. Jihadists, most notably ISIS (which is an enemy of the rebellion), but also Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, sometimes shelled Kurdish civilians. The opposition’s elites in the Syrian National Coalition, meanwhile, failed to recognise explicitly and wholeheartedly the Kurdish right to self-determination. In addition, rebel militias wanted to keep on the right side of Turkey, their most important ally but also a hisorical oppressor of Turkish Kurds. These factors added to Kurdish alienation, which in turn helped the PYD establish its dominance in Rojava.

The PYD allied with the United Sates in the fight against ISIS. At the same time it allied with Russia in the fight against mainstream rebels in northern Aleppo’s Azaz corridor, and here its relations with the revolution soured irreparably. The PYD (more precisely its armed wing – the YPG) invaded and occupied Arab-majority towns like Tel Rifaat, destroying their councils and expelling their Free Army defenders. It attacked Marea at the same time as an ISIS assault on the town. It even helped impose the siege on free Aleppo. At the time, YPG commanders had friendly photos taken alongside Iranian occupation troops.

The PYD produces an attractive rhetoric concerning ‘democratic confederalism’, a model of communal autonomy without states and borders which seems ideally suited to Syrian Kurdish communities, since their cantons are territorially non-contiguous.

PYD actions, however, show that the real aim is to link up the cantons and make a state. In March the ‘Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava’ was declared. This was not an act of popular self-determination but a top-down directive from the PYD.

In August, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a US-backed and PYD-dominated coalition – liberated the city of Manbij from ISIS. Before the foreign jihadists took over, Manbij had its own revolutionary council and boasted Syria’s first independent trades union. Today the revolutionary council wants to return, but the PYD has imposed a council of its own choosing without coordinating with local activists.

“We really appreciate everything the SDF fighters did in order to push ISIS out of Manbij,” activist Hassan Hamidi told Haid Haid. “But it seems that we are moving from one dictator to another.”

Here Turkish and Syrian opposition interests coincide. Most Arabs and Turkmen (and some Kurds too) resent the imposition of PYD state power, while Turkey fears a Kurdish state in Syria would boost Kurdish nationalism within its own borders. Since the last ceasefire broke, war between the PKK and the Turkish state has killed 1,800 people, mostly Kurds, and destroyed several Kurdish villages. The PKK has repeatedly bombed Turkish military and police targets.

So Turkish tanks and Syrian rebel infantry moved into northern Aleppo province. The first target was ISIS, which has stolen so many Syrian lives and towns, and perpetrated a string of atrocities in Turkey, including at Istanbul’s international airport, culminating in the suicide bomb killing 50 guests at a Gaziantep wedding. ISIS often strikes Kurdish targets in Turkey in order to provoke more Kurdish anger – and PKK violence – against the Turkish state.

Jarablus was liberated quickly. This served the conspiracy theorists who hold – absurdly – that Turkey and ISIS are allies. ISIS retreated to fortify al-Bab, a much larger town. Their retreat was also strategic, because they wanted their two enemies – the PYD and the Turkish-backed rebels – to expend their energy fighting each other.

PYD propagandists and their Western followers describe the rebel fighters as jihadists indistinguishable from ISIS. They used the same racist demonisation to justify the PYD’s assault on the Azaz corridor. In fact Jabhat al-Nusra (rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), ideologically opposed to working with Turkey, withdrew from northern Aleppo long ago. The Jarablus operation even disrupted plans for a grand merger of Nusra with other northern rebels.

The PYD has assured the United States that it will withdraw from Manbij to east of the Euphrates. It is to be hoped that this promise is quickly fulfilled. If not, Turkey and the rebels should take back the Arab-majority areas, but stay out of the three Rojava cantons. Where they are a majority, Kurds have a right to self-determination. It’s for them to decide what that means in practical terms.

Recent events once again demonstrate the inflammatory results of US policy, both the failure to work with rebel groups in the Sunni Arab communities most immediately concerned by the anti-ISIS fight, and the refusal to focus on the main cause of Syria’s trauma – the depredations of the Assad regime.

They also threaten spiralling ethnic-nationalist conflict between Turks and Kurds, and Arabs and Kurds, to add to growing sectarian and regional tensions. Assad’s repression of Syria’s freedom movement, compounded by the aggressions and appeasements of foreign states, has sparked an endlessly proliferating series of wars.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 31, 2016 at 6:53 pm

Posted in Kurds, Syria

Tagged with , , ,

8 Responses

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  1. If rebs are diferent of Daesh why women in Jarablus are wearing burka after liberation ? Why rebs are dull of beheaders? Vicious assassin’s? Pet liberated by rebels are fleeing to Rojava. SDF have arabs turkonem Assyrians and other minority. If Turkey do now cooperate with Daesh, why more them 50.000 people crossed Turkey border to join Daesh? Why Daesh attacked Kobane from Turkey territory?

    Joao carlos

    September 1, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    • Look at the picture with the article. It shows women not wearing burkas returning to Jarablus after its liberation. Some Jarablus women wear it, most don’t.
      Your next sentences are just slanders.
      I agree that Turkey was terribly wrong to not police its border properly. Part of this was because they wanted foreign Islamists to keep the PYD busy. Stupid and criminal, but not an alliance with ISIS. Now Turkey is paying the price, and knows it.
      Yes, SDF does contain a few Arab and other militias, but as I said in the article, it is heavily dominated by the PYD. In any case, in recent days most of the Arab troops have defected from the PYD (and SDF) back to the FSA. It was obvious they would do so as soon as they had a real choice.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      September 1, 2016 at 12:53 pm

  2. Reblogged this on YALLA SOURIYA.


    September 1, 2016 at 12:10 pm

  3. Hardly anyone seems to realize that Turkey has established a de facto no-fly/no-go zone over Jarablus for Russian/SAA aircraft. This is a development of enormous importance.


    September 1, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    • A spot on observation. The HIRI-S bluff has now been called. A first and very big No Bomb Zone is now a reality. Note that the US just chased the Assad air force out of the north as well. None of this territoy is coming back under the Assad tyranny! The Turkish tanks keap coming so they are nt going to stop with Euphrates Shield but this will go over to Operation Euphrates sword! That means that Daesh is going to be wound back and that Assad’s footprint will north of Aleppo but up against more anti Assad FSA backed by US, Turks Saudi’s etc and French, Germans, Brits etc. Assad will thus lose Aleppo in the long run and the enclave war will evolve. This is the best developments for quite some time.


      September 13, 2016 at 7:38 am

      • Erdogan may sell Aleppo to Assad and Putin in exchange for rebel/FSA control over Raqqa. You severely underestimate the regime’s military advantage in and around Aleppo city. Many of the rebels participating in the Turkish-backed Jarablus operation means 2,000-5,000 men diverted from the Aleppo front where the regime has been able to re-impose a siege on the eastern half of the city.


        September 15, 2016 at 3:20 pm

      • A year later we can see very big changes but none of the territory that the Turks/FSA liberated from Daesh or any the Kurd/SDF/US have, has or will be handed back to the terror regime that is now really the HIRISE cow. Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, Iraq (essentially Shia militia) Syrians (Assad base) and the Egyptian tyranny now own this terrorist gangster regime and their own people more often than not would want rid of them and their policies of support for such undemocratic filth! There is a long term feedback loop from this.

        The masses want islamo fascism fought but they want democratic revolution and a vote that actually matters. They voted for the conservative MB in Egypt and have had the fascist military coup imposed, so they are left with no choice but to support the more militant that go down the road of armed rebellion and that unfortunately lets loose the islamo fascists that they don’t support as well. Draining this swamp of a region of the tyrannies that make or keep it that swamp is a huge undertaking; but no matter how complex and protracted and it is both, that revolution is under-weigh. Once GWB ended the realist policies of blocking the democratic revolution the game changed. Russia can’t replace the US that for those 60 years blocked the democratic developments. The US harvested 9/11. Draining the swamp was the only realistic strategic response to that. Liberating the Iraqi people and starting the whole Arab Spring copy cat struggle for elections that actually matter was the big game changer.

        2 years after Russia jumped in to terror bomb the masses in their homes killing thousands creating more rubblestan and driving the survivors out of Syria as refugees the enclaves have changed quite a bit. But the revolution will go on and this applies to the whole region. The SDF backed by US cow is not going to let the monster across the Euphrates and in a couple of weeks time after Raqqah is fully liberated from Daesh the rest of the territory all the way to the Iraq border will be contested. Push is coming to shove. HIRISE clearly want it but the people in this territory do not want the HIRISE. Russians, shia militia from Iraq and Iran will not be able to hold down the masses that actually live there. That is why they have had to drive then off in other parts of Syria.

        The protracted revolution will grind down the tyrannies that prop up the Assad tyranny. Revolution is already brewing in Iran and Egypt!


        September 16, 2017 at 3:41 am

  4. Do you think there is any chance of reconciliation between Syrian Arabs and Kurds? Are there any significant Kurdish groups in opposition to the PYD that could broker this?


    September 14, 2016 at 3:43 pm

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