Kurdish Rivalries in Syria

by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi – The American Spectator – November 8, 2012

Amid claims of major advances for anti-regime forces in Aleppo, news emerged that rebels in the city had moved into the Kurdish neighborhood of Ashrafiya, which has been under the control of the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD). Throughout the Syrian uprising and subsequent civil war, the PYD has maintained a policy of neutrality, attacking both rebel and regime forces who might impinge on their zones of control.Later, a video emerged on YouTube that purported to show rebel fighters firing on an anti-rebel demonstration in Ashrafiya. These fighters were identified as operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Clashes between rebels and militiamen from the PYD-aligned Popular Protection Committees (YPD) culminated in the expulsion of rebels from Ashrafiya.

While this skirmish can be interpreted as signs of escalating Arab-Kurdish tensions in Syria and a desire on the part of Arab rebels to impose their will on the Kurds, a report last week in Lebanon’s Daily Star purports to give a more complex picture.

Citing the PYD’s Foreign Relations Committee head — Zuhat Kobani — and Arab opposition sources, it is alleged that at least some of the rebels who entered Ashrafiya were members of the predominantly Kurdish Salaheddin Brigade.

The Salaheddin Brigade generally consists of strongly anti-PYD and anti-PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) Kurds. Their own backgrounds vary: some are members of the Azadi (Freedom) party that is part of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), others are — in the words of the Daily Star report — “disgruntled former PKK members.” It should be noted that the KNC reached a nominal accord with the PYD in the summer that was mediated by Massoud Barzani, who is the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Yet tensions remain deep, as the KNC perceives that the PYD is monopolizing control of Kurdish areas with its affiliated militias that are by far the most powerful among the various Kurdish factions in Syria. Meanwhile, PYD members have accused elements of the KNC of being stooges for Turkey. As Wladimir van Wilgenburg noted in a report for the Kurdish outlet Rudaw, these allegations prompted the PYD’s arrest of the leader of the Azadi party — Mustafa Jama — at the end of June, although he was later released.

In the context of such tension, it is not so implausible that members of the Salaheddin Brigade might cooperate with Arab rebels. Therefore, what we may have here in Ashrafiya is a case of intra-Kurdish partisan politics.

Members of the Salaheddin Brigade apparently saw their chance to dislodge the PYD from its stronghold in Aleppo and in an attempt to achieve this goal they allegedly collaborated with the hardline Arab jihadist al-Nusra (according to the Daily Star report), whose firepower they believed they could exploit to take on the PYD.

However, objections could be raised to this account. Specifically, the Salaheddin Brigade denies moving into Ashrafiya, and the only Kurdish sources cited in the Beirut-based newspaper’s report are a PYD official and a Kurdish analyst based in the United States. In addition, despite the presence of Azadi members in the battalion, the Salaheddin Brigade does not have formal links with any Kurdish parties.

It might also strike the observer as an odd calculation on the part of members of the Salaheddin Brigade that they should work with al-Nusra in the apparent expectation that the Islamist militants would subsequently leave them alone.

On the other hand, perhaps those elements of the Salaheddin Brigade thought they would have the popular support of the Kurdish residents of Ashrafiya and as such they could ward off any potential threat from al-Nusra.

Whether the Salaheddin Brigade was actually involved in this rebel move into Ashrafiya cannot be definitely proven and will require further evidence, but in any case, the whole affair is a clear propaganda victory for the PYD.

The YouTube video of rebels firing on Kurdish protesters in Ashrafiya can be easily be held up as damning enough evidence of rebel unpopularity among Kurdish residents, and be used to uphold the PYD’s image as protector of Syrian Kurds and their neutrality in the conflict between regime and rebels.

This perception of the PYD among Kurds can now be strengthened by news of an attack by rebels of the Northern Storm Brigade on Kurds (including Yezidis) in villages to the north of Aleppo. Since the perpetrators of these assaults are almost certainly of an Islamist orientation, any notion of Salaheddin-Nusra collaboration is only likely to stir up anger on the part of ordinary Kurds towards the Salaheddin Brigade and by implication (however tenuous) the KNC.

Further, the PYD has now negotiated a formal truce with the FSA to stop the fighting and end the Northern Storm Brigade’s attacks on Kurds, further enhancing its image as protector and representative of Kurdish interests in Syria.

In short, the PYD still appears to have the upper-hand over its rivals for influence among Kurds in Syria, and that advantage now seems to be reinforced by this recent debacle over Ashrafiya. It is probable that the PYD’s dominance will continue to be the status quo vis-à-vis the Kurdish situation in Syria for quite some time, mainly owing to its superior militia affiliates. The tensions between the PYD and other Kurdish factions are very much apparent but one should not automatically conclude that there will be an intra-Kurdish civil war, for all groups are undoubtedly mindful and wary of the experience in Iraqi Kurdistan after the region gained autonomy, when thousands died in a civil war between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (the latter backed by the PKK). A more likely outcome is brinkmanship from time to time, with much mediation between factions on the part of the KRG.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.