Revolutionaries, pawns, liberators, or mercenaries? Meet the Kurdish fighters participating in Turkey’s Afrin offensive

AMMAN: As a Turkish-led assault on a northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave begins its third week, Kurdish members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are among the belligerents bombing and battling on the ground.

Kurdish FSA fighters say they are battling to free Afrin from what they consider the “tyranny and dictatorship” of the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the YPG. The YPG in Afrin considers those same fighters to be turncoats, “people without conviction.”

Since Ankara launched what it calls “Operation Olive Branch” against Afrin more than two weeks ago on January 20, Turkish military and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have pounded the isolated Kurdish enclave in northwestern Aleppo with aerial and artillery bombardment.

Turkey claims that so far, Ankara’s troops and their allies in the FSA captured dozens of towns and strategic hills from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, punching into Afrin at several points along the border.

During the first weeks of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, Syria Direct spoke to six Kurdish members of the FSA about their motivations.

The Kurdish fighters’ participation in a Turkish-led campaign against an isolated Kurdish enclave in Aleppo—where some of those interviewed say they have friends and family members—troubles simplistic narratives about what is happening in Syria’s far northwestern corner. It also highlights divisions among Syrian Kurds themselves.

“This isn’t a battle of Kurds against Kurds, or Arabs and Turks against Kurds,” Samou al-Halabi, a Kurdish FSA commander told Syria Direct. “It is a battle against a terrorist organization.”

A man stands amid debris in an Afrin area town on January 24. Photo by Ahmad Shafia Bilal/AFP.

It is difficult to independently verify just how many Kurdish FSA fighters are participating in military operations against Afrin. After speaking with half a dozen current and former Kurdish FSA members, Syria Direct heard claims ranging from “dozens” to 700.

Turkey and the FSA brigades that Ankara supports have a stake in inflating the number of Kurds friendly to their cause to deflect claims of ethnically motivated hatred. At the same time, the YPG has an incentive to do the opposite: to show that only a handful of Kurds are participating.  

‘Sons of Afrin’

Kurdish fighters and brigades have participated in Ankara-backed military operations since the establishment of the Turkish-backed Hawar Kilis operations room comprised of FSA brigades in northern Syria in 2016.

Kurdish FSA groups took part in Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, fighting the Islamic State and SDF forces in northern Aleppo between August 2016 and March 2017.

Today, five Kurdish brigades—Liwa Mashaal Temo, al-Jabha al-Kurdiya, Qamishli Shield, Afrin Shield and Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin—are reportedly participating in Operation Olive Branch, in addition to individual fighters and spokesmen scattered throughout other Turkish-backed factions.

“We, sons of Afrin, want to return and liberate our land,” FSA fighters stated in a brief video statement posted online in Kurdish with Arabic subtitles in the first week of Operation Olive Branch. The grainy video shows six men in military dress, carrying weapons and standing in front of a Syrian revolutionary flag.

Most, if not all, of the Kurdish components of the FSA share a deep distrust of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD leads the Self-Administration that governs large swathes of land just south of the Syrian border with Turkey.

“This operation is against the terrorist PYD organization,” Haithem Hamou, a Kurdish spokesman for a Turkish-backed FSA faction told Syria Direct, adding that the battle was against what he called “repressive and dictatorial PYD policies” in Afrin.  

Hamou’s statement directly parallels the official Turkish line, that operation Olive Branch is against a terror group. Ankara views the PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

Critics of the PYD—and by extension, the Self-Administration and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—say that the party rules with an iron fist in the territories that it controls. Syria Direct previously reported the restriction of the activities of opposition parties, property confiscation and forced conscription in Self-Administration territories.

However, not all the initial Kurdish members of Euphrates Shield are participating in the current battles. In July 2017, the then-commander of Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin, Mahmoud Khalou, posted a statement on his Facebook page announcing that the FSA faction would not participate in any military action against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. In response to Khalou’s declaration, other FSA factions stormed the Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin headquarters and seized weapons and vehicles, while Khalou himself was arrested, tortured and detained for weeks.

Kurdish FSA fighters in a video statement about Operation Olive Branch in January. Image courtesy of STEP News.

At the time, the commander told Syria Direct that, for him, Afrin was “a red line” and he feared “massacres and revenge attacks” should a military operation take place.

However, just days after Khalou’s initial statement, a separate post on the Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin Facebook page disavowed any “individual statements or decisions” and reaffirmed that the group would support the FSA “in any decision to fight the…terrorist PYD party wherever they are, whether inside Afrin or outside of it.”

Six months later, Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin is taking part in Operation Olive Branch, two current members told Syria Direct.

The strength and significance of Kurdish forces participating in Turkish-backed battles against Afrin is not immediately clear. Muhammad Salaheddin, one Kurdish FSA commander, told Syria Direct that while Kurdish forces are participating, “they do not have any weight on the field or decision-making power.”

All of the Kurdish fighters participating in Olive Branch who spoke to Syria Direct in recent days drew a line between what they described as a battle against the PYD and an attack on civilians.

“We all have family in Afrin, and people who have been displaced to there,” Masoud Ibo of Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin told Syria Direct. Ibo is originally from the al-Bab countryside in eastern Aleppo, but says that his family owned land in Afrin that has been seized by the PYD because of his opposition to the party. “We always try to avoid civilians,” he said.

In the first week of Operation Olive Branch, the UK-based monitor Airwars identified “multiple credible reports of civilian harm,” the group said last week, with 41-55 civilian deaths likely caused by Turkish-backed forces, and 10-15 by Kurdish counterfire.

“In war, civilians die,” said Ahmad Mistou, a Kurdish FSA fighter. Mistou accused local PYD authorities of preventing civilians from leaving Afrin for neighboring government- or rebel-held territories. Syria Direct could not independently confirm Mistou’s claim.

Jan Egeland, Senior Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria told members of the press in Geneva on February 1 that the UN had received reports that local PYD authorities “make it hard for people to flee the Afrin area.”

According to the United Nations, at least 15,000 people have been internally displaced within the Afrin region out of a total population of 300,000 since Turkey’s operation began on January 20. Nearly half of Afrin’s population is comprised of previously displaced people from other parts of Syria.

Biwar Mustafa, a former Kurdish FSA fighter who laid down arms three years ago, said he believes “the Turkish army is positioning Kurdish groups so it can show the world that ‘there are Kurds with us.’”

Turkey’s military says that “utmost care” is being taken to avoid civilian casualties and that its aim is to “establish security and stability along Turkish borders.”

Even so, commander Salaheddin said that while he and other Syrian Kurds are participating in the battles, “we do have concerns about FSA factions committing acts of revenge against civilians,” said the commander.

‘Mercenaries’

“Those who claim they are Kurds but stand by Erdogan’s side have set aside their principles, language, culture and convictions,” Nouri Mahmoud, the spokesman for the YPG in Afrin told Syria Direct. “Now, as people without conviction, they cannot live except at the side of a master who exploits them for brutal ends.”

He accused the Kurdish FSA forces participating in the attack of allowing themselves to become political cover for Ankara, turning into “a tool in the hands of their masters, even against their own kinsmen.”

“The FSA [fighters] attacking Afrin right now are mercenaries,” said former FSA fighter Biwar Mustafa.

Mustafa says he worries that the operation is “creating discord” between Arabs and Kurds that could persist into the future.

“We are entering a great spiral,” he said.  “Both sides are going to lose.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.