For nearly a month, fighters from the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have kept Islamic State (IS) forces at bay outside Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) in northern Syria. Regional and international actors have remained reluctant to support the YPG, demanding that the group first relinquishes its independent identity and becomes part of the mainly Arab Free Syrian Army (FSA). I was in Kobani from late August into September – as it turned out, I was the last international journalist to visit before the final onslaught began – and witnessed YPG and FSA units side-by-side on the front lines to defend Kobani. So why is the YPG still reluctant to come under the FSA banner, and what is behind the world’s reluctance to support the Syrian Kurds in their stand at Kobani?
Ultimately, it comes down to shifting perceptions of “extremists” and “moderates.”
The YPG took control of Kobani in the summer of 2012 as Syrian regime forces withdrew from the area. A year later, the enclave – hard up against the Turkish border to the North – came under attack from various jihadist and FSA groups, and fighting has continued ever since. Earlier this year, IS fighters wrested control from their former FSA allies of all of the Syrian territory surrounding the enclave. The siege of Kobani gradually worsened as IS forces cut off the town’s electricity and water supply and the smuggling of food and other goods into Kobani became increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, Turkey has mainly kept its border closed, sealing off the enclave from the outside world. After repeated attempts to capture Kobani during the spring and summer, in mid-September IS forces launched what has been their most successful attack to date, and at the time of writing, they had entered parts of the town itself.
Civilians in a period of relative quiet before the latest attack by the Islamic State. Photo by Carl Drott
Despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the Syrian Kurds in the autonomous “Kobani canton” have managed to build a well-functioning civilian administration over the past two years. The Kurdish police force, the Asayish, has kept the streets safe, and a sense of normality has prevailed despite the siege and constant attacks. A constitution drafted last year guarantees gender equality, human rights and secularism, while a sprawling civil society has given rise to organizations for women, youth, language, music and theater. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has largely been calling the shots, but some former rivals have recently joined the administration as well. Hoping to resolve bitter disputes over power sharing, the canton’s “prime minister,” Anwar Muslim, has promised elections for later this year.
These would all seem positive developments. However, one clear reason international players have kept the PYD at arms length is its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, an armed movement striving for Kurdish rights listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. Although the PYD itself claims to have only ideological links with the PKK, the latter’s leadership is undoubtedly influential across the border in Syrian Kurdish enclaves. However, Turkish fears of Kurdish militants coming down from “the mountains” to establish a base in Kobani for cross-border operations into Turkey has precious little to do with reality. Instead, the demonstrated priority for the PYD has been to build a decentralized secular democracy, while the armed forces of YPG have tried to protect the area and its people from outside attacks. Although the political experiment in Kobani is being watched carefully by the Kurdish movement in Turkey, the PYD’s agenda appears to be highly local.
Kobani has a cement factory, and new construction continued frenetically through much of the war. Photo by Carl Drott
Photo by Carl Drott
Another reason for the absence of international support is that YPG has been reluctant to take on the remaining Assad regime enclaves in the Jazira region in Syria’s extreme northeast. While local Kurdish politicians claim they simply want to avoid regime retaliation – the regime has dropped deadly “barrel bombs” in attacks on other civilian areas – the de facto ceasefire has raised suspicions of a secret alliance between the Syrian Kurds and the regime. In fact, there have been numerous clashes between YPG and Syrian regime forces in Aleppo, Qamishli and Hasakah. The historical record gives strong support for the PYD’s insistence that it has tried to forge a “third way” in the prolonged Syrian civil war. In its contacts with both FSA and regime forces, the PYD has built truces when and where it’s been able to, and fought when and where it’s had to. Meanwhile, while the stated policy has been to only take over and defend its “own” regions, ethnically mixed areas have presented complications.
From the very start, the project for “democratic autonomy” was met with strong criticism from some rival Kurdish parties, which demanded that the PYD and YPG accept the authority of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which is the main body of the “moderate” Syrian opposition and related to FSA. Turkey and the United States have made similar demands. Why are PYD and YPG then so unwilling to comply? Could they not simply join the “moderate” rebels in exchange for international support against the Islamic State and Assad? A closer look at the “moderates” might explain their reluctance.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the SNC has refused to recognize minority rights for the Kurds and other non-Arab minorities in a future state, which the SNC insists should continue to be called the Syrian Arab Republic. The SNC has also actively supported FSA factions fighting against the YPG on the side of jihadists. As recently as January, the SNC called for a “closing of ranks” against the YPG in Tel Hamis – at a time when the main groups in the area were IS, the al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra and the salafist group Ahrar al-Sham. The fight against the YPG has often taken priority even over the fight against the Syrian regime. Additionally, the SNC has referred to PYD as an “extremist” group that is “anti-revolution.”
Among local Kurds, FSA fighters are often more feared and hated even than the Syrian regime. “Their crimes are uncountable,” a 50-year old car dealer, Juma Chawish, told me. He fled to Kobani last summer after a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign was initiated in Tel Abyad, his hometown, by Jabhat al-Nusra, IS and various rebel groups affiliated with the FSA. Civilian Kurds like Juma were forced out without their belongings, while hundreds of others were taken hostage and threatened with execution. Several were killed or went missing, including Juma’s brother, who was unable to flee because of a recent surgery. Stories like this are rampant throughout northern Syria.
Brothers from the start?
Early this year, groups of fighters from the FSA attempted to expel IS from several towns in the Raqqa and Aleppo governorates that were under shared control. Facing harder-than-expected resistance, they were soon themselves forced to flee to the nearest safe area, which was the YPG-controlled Kobani enclave. Despite abuses committed by at least some of these fighters, Kurdish authorities allowed them to stay, and since the Spring they have been fighting side by side with the YPG against the Islamic State.
Two uniformed YPG fighters sing and play a traditional Kurdish frame drum, with a fighter from Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa. Photo by Carl Drott
In late August, I visited the Arab village of Jadah, located by the Euphrates River southeast of Kobani, where the YPG shared a frontline base with the FSA group Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa (”Revolutionaries of Raqqa Brigade”). Two-thirds of the village had recently been captured from IS, which held onto the remaining part. The villagers in the IS area called on the YPG and FSA fighters for help, and since Jadah was being used as a staging point for attacks against YPG and FSA positions, they were happy to comply.
”We always said that IS are criminals,” said the local commander, Abu Abdelrahman al-Jawlani. His group previously fought against IS in Raqqa, but claim to be ready to fight them anywhere. “We hope we can defeat IS together with the YPG,” al-Jawlani continued. ”We are happy for this cooperation between Kurds and Arabs. There is no difference between us.” Although his group had been reduced to a fraction of its previous strength, and along with other rebel groups has lost nearly all influence in this part of Syria, he tried to sound an optimistic note. ”Really, this hurricane will pass,” he said of the Islamic State’s recent gains.
Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa flies the FSA flag and would certainly be seen as “moderate” by local standards, but it is somewhat unclear what it is fighting for. Asked about his vision for the future, al-Jawlani offered up only “co-existence and happiness,” and neither he nor his fighters gave a clear answer when asked whether they wanted a secular or religious state. Indicative of their ambivalence, some of them shifted between the “secular” V-for-Victory hand sign and the “Islamic” index finger when posing for pictures.
When asked about apparent disparities between their past and present views of the YPG and the Kurds generally, they all expressed warm emotions. “We have been brothers from the start,” claimed a fighter calling himself Abu Saddam al-Raqqawi, who had been in the unit for two and a half years. “It is fitna [sedition] when people say bad things about the Kurds.”
A bearded Arab fighter raised eyebrows when he pulled out a long knife. “This is just for clearing mines,” he said, eliciting skeptical looks from Kurdish fighters, who know full well there are no land mines in the area and are generally uncomfortable in the company of bearded men with knives.
“We convinced two of them to join YPG instead,” said one of the Kurdish fighters a few days later when I bumped into him in the headquarters of the Revolutionary Youth Movement in Kobani. ”We do not trust the others.”
Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) near the front line. Photo by Carl Drott
His suspicions were certainly not unfounded, considering that Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa used to be formally affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra (according to a report by the Syria analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi). Fighters from Liwa Thuwwar al-Raqqa are also said to have abducted Kurds at checkpoints in Raqqa, participated in looting in the same city, and fought against Kurdish forces in Tel Abyad (according to several sources in the Kurdish administration).
A cautious alliance
Still, cooperation between FSA forces and the YPG has inched closer recently towards a formal alliance. Only days before the latest IS attack commenced, an on-line video showed the declaration of a joint YPG-FSA command center for the wider area around Kobani. In one of the more awkward moments of the Syrian civil war, a bearded FSA commander is seen on camera shouting “Takbir!” and his fighters responding “Allahu Akhbar!” – while Kurdish female fighters respond with a slogan in support of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
The FSA fighters in this area are, in essence, between a rock and a hard place, their only choices being to fight alongside the YPG, join the Islamic State or abandon the fight. Although suspicions run high, the Kurdish political and military leadership has displayed a remarkable readiness to let bygones be bygones and build a cautious alliance with its former enemies. If democratic and pluralistic currents among the FSA factions can be strengthened, the cooperation could even evolve into a political project to jointly govern ethnically mixed areas.
Ultimately, the situation in Kobani is incongruous and somewhat confounding. While FSA factions have never been called to account for building alliances with jihadists and cutting a path of violence and destruction through northern Syria, the YPG is left twisting in the wind for its unwillingness to join them. The Kurdish “extremists” in Kobani face the same ultimatum today as two years ago: abandon their project for decentralized secular democracy and join under the banner and command of Arab “moderates,” or be left to face the Islamic State alone.
Carl Drott is a Swedish freelance journalist who has covered the conflict in Syria for Le Monde diplomatique, Haaretz, Syria Comment, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stockholm Journal of International Affairs, among others. This is his first piece for Warscapes.