The Kurdish Factor in the Syrian Rebellion


Syrian rebels reportedly entered the Kurdish districts of Ashrafiyeh and Sheikh Maqsud in northern Aleppo for the first time Oct. 25, after which the Syrian government responded by shelling the districts. The Ashrafiyeh region is critical to Syrian government and rebel forces because it offers a strategic vantage point over Aleppo and sits at the crossroads of the city’s main central and northern routes. Whoever controls Ashrafiyeh would enjoy a considerable advantage in efforts to cut its opponents’ supply lines.

The Syrian rebels’ move into these Kurdish districts, however, is meeting considerable resistance from local Kurds. Kurds protested against the Free Syrian Army on Oct. 26 for the previous day’s killings, with clashes breaking out between Kurdish rebels and Syrian rebels. While some Kurdish factions are focused on defeating Syrian President Bashar al Assad and are willing to align with the rebels, others evidently are not pleased with having the Free Syrian Army intrude on their turf and are willing to fight the rebels. This dynamic serves the al Assad regime well, giving it divisions within the rebellion to exploit. The dynamic also suits Turkish interests, though it is fraught with risk. Turkey wants a fortified Syrian rebellion to force the al Assad clan from power, but Ankara’s immediate interest is in containing a rising wave of Kurdish separatism in the region.

Turkey understands that Kurds throughout the region see a unique opportunity with Baghdad and Damascus facing major internal distractions and with Ankara facing significant constraints in trying to manage this threat. Turkey is thus likely to use its relationship with the Syrian rebels to form a bulwark against an emboldened Kurdish presence in Syria before Syrian Kurds establish ties with Kurdish groups beyond Syrian borders, potentially creating a regional Kurdish threat to Ankara.