By Balint Szlanko – @balintszlanko – For Syria Comment, December 16. 2013
The Kurds of Syria have been in the news lately. Fighting—and beating—Al Qaeda-allied groups and other rebel militias in their struggle for Syria’s northeast, in the past year they have in effect set up their own ministate inside the country. Here is why they are winning.
1. Unified command and control structures. Unlike the rebel militias, the Kurdish armed group, the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units) or YPG, is controlled by a single general command. This allows it to effectively operate on a frontline more than 120 miles long by transferring people and other assets relatively easily to where the need arises and to coordinate operations effectively. Contrast this with its enemies, the mainly Arab rebels: they are splintered into at least six major groups (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham, the Kurdish Islamic Front, the Tawheed Brigade, and the Free Syrian Army, itself an umbrella organisation of smaller groups) that have a patchy record of coordination. Indeed, some of the rebel groups that fight together against the Kurds have often fought each other elsewhere.
2. Superior tactical skills and discipline. It’s hard to be entirely sure of this because YPG commanders provide journalists with only limited access to their operations. That said, the YPG frontline positions and checkpoints I have seen tended to look well-organised with properly dug trenches and positions for machine-guns, snipers and spotters. Their checkpoints tend to have sandbags for protection, rather than blocks of cement, which are easier to transport and set up but give less protection against gunfire because they tend to splinter upon the bullet’s impact. There is also evidence that the YPG receives training from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that has decades of experience fighting the Turkish state. I met one PKK trainer in a town under YPG control who said he was teaching the YPG battlefield tactics.
3. Wide popular backing. The YPG’s political master, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, is not without its share of controversies and has plenty of detractors among the Kurds. But with only the YPG standing between the Islamists and the Kurdish towns, the militia is currently receiving plenty of genuine support from the population. This includes not only Kurds but Arabs and Christians, too, many of whom have much to fear from the rebels. The Kurdish areas are full of pictures of the YPG’s fallen, and funerals often turn into big celebrations that are not staged (though certainly encouraged). Contrast this with the enemy’s position: some of the rebel groups are feared, despised or even hated in the areas they control, partly because of the insecurity and corruption that have often followed them, and because the oppression some of the more extreme groups have instigated.
4. A powerful ideology. The YPG subscribes to a secular nationalism that has historically been highly effective as a force for mobilisation and war. Kurdish nationalism, which has so far been denied its own state, has a huge number of followers in the area and is less controversial than the ideology many rebels have subscribed to, political Islam. The Kurds’ ideology is also effective in that it doesn’t work to the exclusion of others: relations with the region’s minorities, Sunni Arabs and Christians, have so far been mostly good, thanks to the common enemy. Nationalism, of course, can easily turn into paranoid xenophobia, but so far there is not much evidence that this is happening.
5. A relatively open political system. The PYD has been often accused of cracking down on its political opponents and there is evidence that this has indeed been the case. That said, the political structure of the Kurdish autonomy is the most open in Syria right now, giving positions not just to the dominant PYD, but to its main political rival, the Kurdish National Council (itself an umbrella group of parties). In the recently announced temporary administration not just Kurds but also Christians have taken up positions. This helps ensure that representation—and therefore legitimacy and mobilisation—are on a far more solid ground than under the stifling dictatorship of the regime areas and the chaos of the rebel-controlled towns.
6. A good road network. The geographical shape of the Kurdish autonomy is in some sense unfortunate, being very wide and with a depth of only a few miles in places. Yet this also a source of luck, as there is a good paved road along the entire length of the area. This allows easy transport of troops and other assets from one part of the war zone to another. The entire of length of the autonomy can be travelled in half a day.
7. Access to fuel. Hasakah province is said to contain about 60 per cent of Syria’s (meagre) oil wealth. Not all of this is in Kurdish hands and most of the oil rigs are not working at the moment. That said, there is some refining going on, which provides the YPG with a reliable source of fuel for its trucks.
8. A safe and intact home front. The Kurds have so far avoided a clash with the government, which means they haven’t had to worry about airstrikes and artillery shelling. Many of Syria’s rebel-controlled cities, towns and villages have been reduced to rubble with little or no electricity and little food. These shortages always effect the civilians more than the fighters, but they still make it much harder to fight a war. They also tend to cause corruption and infighting, which the Kurds have so far been able to avoid.
9. Clever strategy. Many of the factors mentioned above stem from this. The Kurds have simple and clearly defined war aims—protecting and governing their own territories—and are focusing on the essentials to achieve this: running a single, well-organised security force, keeping hostiles—the Islamists and the FSA—out and compromising with those—the government—who present no immediate danger. They have also avoided looting and terrorising their own towns, unlike their opponents.
To be sure, the Kurds still face an uphill struggle. They are under embargo from all sides: the border crossings into Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan are closed, and until they can figure out the politics with their neighbours they will remain closed. This puts huge pressure on them economically and militarily. It is unclear where the YPG gets its weapons from but being under lockdown can’t be good. In this context, the recent capture of the Yaroubiya crossing into Iraq proper is a big success, because for the first time it gives them access to a non-hostile state.
The Kurds also face a well-supplied and dedicated—indeed fanatical—enemy that is unlikely to give up easily, though the recent government offensives in the west might refocus the rebels’ attention. The Kurds also have an odd relationship with the Syrian government, based essentially on a common enemy, the rebels. But this is not a real allience and could easily tip over. With the Syrian government still in control of an airfield and an artillery base in the middle of the Kurdish autonomy, things could quickly get ugly if that relationship breaks down.
Balint Szlanko is a freelance journalist who has covered Syria since early 2012 and has recently completed two trips to the Kurdish areas.