How Syrian Kurds view attacks on opposition areas

There is disagreement among Kurds whether recent military gains were strategically necessary or unwise provocations against Arab neighbors – Now Media Beirut 25 March 2016

Last month the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish led coalition supported by the US to fight against ISIS, attacked other groups fighting against ISIS in northern Syria. The SDF benefited from Russian airstrikes and seized a dozen of villages in a matter of days from other opposition groups, some of which also receive weapons from the US. Little attention has been paid to the increasing tensions between Arabs and Kurds, which is partly due to the impact of foreign influence on the local dynamics of the conflict in Syria. Another factor is the role of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a dominant Syrian Kurdish group affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has carried out a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey. The PYD is one of the most important Kurdish opposition parties in Syria and has been portrayed as the main representative of Syrian Kurds. However, this designation ignores the increasing tensions that also exist among the Kurdish populace.

These dangers that are being ignored not only point to the likely renewal of fighting, but also the possibility that the conflict could become an ethnic one. The foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict — particularly the US, Turkey and recently Russia — are fueling tensions by focusing on their own interests while ignoring the impact of their interventions on the local dynamics of the conflict. The Syrian official opposition bodies have also contributed to the tension by failing to address the Syrian Kurds’ concerns in a productive way, and by not addressing the violations committed against them by extremist groups.The recent clashes that broke out between rebel groups and the SDF, a Kurdish led coalition, in Aleppo province have caused a break in Arab-Kurdish relations in the area. The SDF took advantage of Russian and regime airstrikes on opposition areas to advance on rebel strongholds along the Turkish border. While the SDF allegedly entered some areas without facing any resistance and some rebel groups joined them for protection, others fought to stop them from seizing their towns.

The SDF justified the seizures by citing the need defend the areas from the Syrian regime. However, the opposition widely perceived the Kurds’ actions as a betrayal. This is not the first time that clashes broke out between the SDF and other rebel groups in southern Aleppo, however the timing and consequences of the latest round of fighting are significant. According to Ahmed, a Syrian activist in Azaz, “the SDF’s attack is a big service for the regime as it puts extra pressure on the opposition groups and allows the regime to advance [in the area]. If they (the SDF) were there to help us, why would they attack us instead of attacking the regime militias?”

Although the clashes were widely reported, there has been hardly any in-depth coverage on how the fighting was perceived by Kurds themselves. Mustafa, a Kurdish activist affiliated with the PYD, supports the SDF move as a necessary step to connect the two autonomous Kurdish cantons in Aleppo, Afrin and Kobane. He argues: “Afrin was besieged more than once by Al-Nusra Front and other groups based in Azaz after they failed to occupy it. Therefore, our only hope is to connect Afrin to other Kurdish areas so they cannot besiege us in the future.”

Although other Kurds share Mustafa’s concerns regarding the threat from extremist groups, they disagree with him on how to overcome that insecurity. Aziz, a Kurdish activist from Afrin, believes that Kurds will only feel safe when they have healthy relations with other communities in Syria. “I don’t think that we will be safe if we counter the discrimination we shared with other Syrians under Assad’s rule with another discrimination against other communities who are fighting for the same cause,” the activist said. “I will only feel safe when I know that my neighbor has my back and he sees me as a friend, not as an enemy.” Those who share these views disagree with SDF attacks on opposition, arguing that securing those areas will prove more difficult than seizing them, which could lead to a drawn-out conflict with Arab armed groups.

Moreover, other Kurdish activists blamed the PYD for the current situation. Zara, a Kurdish human rights activist, referred to the alleged agreement between the PYD and the Syrian regime that allowed the former to control Kurdish areas in order to prevent them from joining the revolution against the regime. “The PYD’s affiliation with the Syrian regime made opposition groups suspicious of Kurdish intentions, which allowed opportunists to take advantage of that suspicion to attack Kurdish areas,” Zara argued. It is also not clear for Zara what the U.S. is trying to achieve by supporting groups inside Syria and allowing them to fight each other instead of focusing on fighting ISIS. “I don’t understand the US strategy in Syria,” the human right activist stated. “They arm the SDF and other opposition groups to fight ISIS. Nevertheless, when these groups start fighting each other, the US does nothing to stop them, which makes things worse.”

In a recent fact-finding mission in northern Syria, Amnesty International uncovered a wave of forced displacements and home demolitions, which the group says amount to war crimes, carried out by the PYD in areas where Arabs are the majority. However, Hivin, an activist from Amoda, talked about the terror and repression also carried out against fellow Kurds. People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have allegedly been using excessive force against Kurdish anti-PYD opponents, as well as torture and arbitrary detention; “I want the world and especially other Syrians to know that the PYD uses similar tactics to Assad regime against their political opponents in order to eliminate them and rule alone. Therefore, it’s important for those who are suffering from its violations to differentiate between the party and other Kurds, the same way we should differentiate between Daesh [ISIS] and Sunnis.”

All Kurdish activists quoted in this article emphasized the importance of keeping the Kurds out of the ongoing proxy war in Syria. The temporary gains might prove tempting in the short term, but the conflict will prove bloody in the long-term, especially if tensions and mistrust between the SDF and other opposition groups continue to increase. “We will only feel free and safe when we achieve a democratic regime that protects all Syrians,” Mustafa said.

*All names were changed for the safety of those quoted