New front is last thing opposition forces want in Syrian conflict
5 November 2012 / ABDULLAH AYASUN, İSTANBUL – Zaman – The outbreak of new clashes between Kurdish militants and Syrian opposition forces in war-torn Aleppo over the past week presented another hurdle to the overstrained opposition fighters, who have been reluctant to fight on a new front when they already face a stalemate in their battle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
After a week of clashes, Kurdish militants linked with the separatist Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the opposition fighters have agreed upon a tenuous truce, but an incendiary tension still grips the two groups, between which mistrust runs deep. The lull has yet to calm fears of an escalation in the fighting but will give both sides time to contemplate and review their delicate situation in the divided city at a time when no clear end to the war raging across the country is in sight.
The war has divided Syria’s largest city along ethnic lines, and military gains on the ground mean a constant redrawing of city maps. While opposition forces control large swathes of the northern province of Aleppo in rural areas, they face formidable and potent military forces in the provincial capital, where Assad’s troops enjoy superior firepower. Since the outbreak of clashes in Aleppo in mid-July, no side in this war of attrition has been triumphant. The coming winter will add to the agony of civilians as well as complicate the dire situation of the ammunition-hungry opposition fighters.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) — the most prominent of several armed groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad — and the PYD clashed in the Kurdish-controlled areas of Ashrafieh and Sheikh Maksoud in Aleppo late on Oct. 26, leaving 30 people dead.
This latest fighting has added a new twist to the saga of the opposition forces as it means a new front on which they are reluctant to fight.
Ebu Mohammed Suleiman, commander of the Turkmen Sultan Abdulhamid Han Brigade operating under the general command of the FSA, had told Sunday’s Zaman before he was killed in a battle in early September that the opposition fighters want to win the support of the Kurds against their common enemy. “If they don’t act with us against the Assad regime, it is critical we ensure they do not turn against us during the raging battles,” he said, defining the delicate situation on ground.
Unaligned Syrian Kurdish militants now control and administer several towns in Aleppo province and maintain neutrality in the prolonged war. They have to strike a delicate balance as they avoid forming a direct alliance with either the regime or anti-government forces. Syrian Kurds have been trying frantically to assuage the demands of the Assad regime and dispel the anxiety of the opposition forces in a complicated power game in which everyone is at war with everyone else, whether militarily or politically. “Our fight is not with other religious or ethnic groups in Syria but with Bashar al-Assad’s system. We don’t want to see a Kurd-Arab war,” said Malik al-Kurdi, a senior commander in the FSA who currently heads several operations against the Syrian military in Aleppo. Al-Kurdi told Sunday’s Zaman that opposition forces are negotiating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is affiliated with the PYD and has forces in Syria, through third parties to bring an end to the fighting. “Assad is trying to drag us into an inter-communal fight by using the Kurdish card,” he said.
“Some of the PKK commanders are aware of this and resist being drawn into a new war. Both opposition forces and Kurdish militants have some conditions [that must be met] to reach a compromise,” he said, adding that the fighting between the two groups has ceased for the moment.“We want no bloodshed. Assad has made some plans and preparations to sow division between groups and trigger fighting between ethnicities. Assad acts with the idea that a small fight could spark a big fire,” he said.
In a recent interview with Sunday’s Zaman, FSA military council chief Mustafa al-Sheikh stated the recent clashes in Aleppo between the FSA and PYD are the work of the Syrian regime, which aims to sway Kurds against the Syrian opposition through the PYD.
Al-Sheikh stated that Assad’s regime was pushed into a corner when the FSA seized control of a large part of Aleppo and some parts of Damascus. “The regime wants to scare the Kurds and provoke them into an armed struggle with the FSA. This time the regime is using the Kurdish card to halt the revolution,” said al-Sheikh.
“Assad tells the Kurds that ‘after the fall of my regime, your turn will come and the FSA, together with Turkey, will attack Kurds’,” he said, emphasizing that the regime is acting as if it is protecting the Kurds.Clashes between Assad’s forces and the opposition have now spread to the countryside, within a few kilometers of the Turkish border. An opposition fighter from Aleppo who wished to remain unnamed told Sunday’s Zaman that clashes between the PKK and opposition fighters have continued in the northwestern city of Azaz for six days. He said the root cause of the clashes lies in an incident in which opposition forces raided a police station in the Kurdish district of Ashrafieh in Aleppo city last week and pushed regime loyalists back. Syrian air forces then responded by shelling the areas, creating Kurdish resistance against the FSA.
He asserted that the PKK is making a strategic mistake by fighting with opposition forces. “After the flare-up of clashes in Aleppo city, fierce fighting between the PKK-PYD and the FSA also erupted in several areas of the northern town of Azaz and mountainous areas to the northwest of Aleppo city. What are they [the PYD] trying to do? In the west, Idlib is controlled by the FSA — there are experienced and well-armed opposition fighters. In the south, the PKK and PYD are surrounded by opposition forces. In Azaz, there are Turkmen fighters, and in the north there is Turkey. When a real fight erupts, how long can they endure and to which place do they think they can escape?” he asked.The conflict continues to stoke fears of regional volatility as Turkey becomes increasingly uneasy with the growing autonomous Kurdish region run by the PKK in northern Syria.
Opposition forces pin their hopes on next US president
Al-Kurdi said he believes any outcome in the upcoming US presidential election will likely serve the cause of the opposition, regardless of which candidate wins.
“If Barack Obama is re-elected, this will be good for us because he will not be concerned with a subsequent [presidential] term. … He could give us support. The other candidate, Mitt Romney, pledged to provide direct support to opposition forces in remarks he made during his election campaign,” al-Kurdi said.In commenting on the recent situation in Aleppo, al-Kurdi stated that the use of airpower by the regime has added new hurdles to opposition fighters, who do not have any form of air defense system. Opposition forces need to constantly change their positions to avoid becoming targets for the air forces, and this complicates efforts to make military gains on ground, he noted. He argued that the deployment of reinforcement units by the Syrian army in several parts of Aleppo city have actually made their military goals easier to achieve. “With their armored vehicles, they have become easy targets for us, and we are able to turn this into an advantage.”