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Kurds, ISIS fight turf wars as northeast up for grabs

December 12, 2013 By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Mohammed Rabie This […]

12 December 2013

December 12, 2013

By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Mohammed Rabie

This is the first installment in a two-part series exploring the wild card that has emerged in Syria’s far northeast: the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which one month ago today announced intentions to administer a large swath of northern Syria. The most popular political party among Syria’s three million Kurds, the PYD has put forth a self-rule agenda amidst widespread perceptions that the Syrian opposition has mismanaged the power vacuum left by the regime’s withdrawal. Standing in the way of that autonomy is a new enemy – the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham, which is fighting hard for a slice of Syria’s desert bordering Iraq and Turkey.

AMMAN: Last month, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) announced the creation of an interim administration over a swath of northern Syria following a string of battlefield victories in which Kurdish militias increasingly confronted Islamist rebel groups.

One month later, what began as an ambitious plan to establish a form of autonomy in Kurdish-dominated regions amounts to a microcosm of the Syrian conflict: pockets of areas under non-regime control that are surrounded by enemies, led by Al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham).

In this case, it is the PYD, which while successfully staving off ISIS from Kurdish cities and towns, has been unable to extend its influence beyond Kurdish strongholds into the heart of Syria’s north and northeast.

The majority of Syria’s three million Kurds live in this region, extending horizontally for 550km across northern Syria along the Turkish border.  At this stage of the war, regime forces are largely absent from the region, with the exception of military bases scattered throughout, still disputed as fighting for control of them continues.

In far northeastern Syria, a PYD-affiliated militia – known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – retains the Yarubiyeh border crossing between Syria and Iraq, holds the city of Hasakeh (the capital of majority-Kurdish al-Hasakeh province), and has partial control over Qamishli, al-Hasakeh’s largest city, where the Syrian regime maintains a headquarters of its National Defense Forces. Meanwhile, ISIS retains a firm grip on Qamishli’s suburbs and much of the anarchic inland desert. 

Now, the PYD and its militias seek to create a contiguous region out of their dispersed pockets of power and administer the area. This effort is pitting them directly against ISIS, resulting in open confrontations and overt jostling to fill the void left by the regime last year.


The Kurdish PYD envisions an autonomous region throughout northern Syria.
Photo courtesy of pydinfo.net.

In announcing an interim administration, PYD spokesperson Ibrahim Ibrahim said the Kurdish group seeks to provide all Syrians a reprieve from rebel mismanagement – he labeled the Free Syrian Army “the national Arab Turkish Army” – and the devastating impact of extremist groups.

“We are trying to isolate our people from this devastating war, from the crimes, from the thefts, from the oil thefts, from the thefts of homes, from the murder of people,” he said.

Now, the YPG finds itself “fighting three fronts,” Ibrahim told Syria Direct, including “salafists, takfiri extremist groups and the regime,” creating a battleground extending from Syria’s eastern border with Iraq to the majority-Kurdish town of Afrin, northeast of Aleppo.

In November and early December, an unsteady ceasefire between the YPG and rebel groups, most prominently ISIS, has been replaced by back and-forth clashes from Qamishli to Afrin, as neither side gains ground while ISIS more explicitly targets Kurdish citizens.  

In the Hasakeh town of Tel Abyad, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Wednesday, ISIS had forcibly evicted 15 Kurdish families, accusing them of PYD support.

Roughly 450 kilometers west, ISIS has blockaded the northwestern Aleppo province village of Afrin for nearly two weeks after the YPG rebuffed several ISIS attempts to advance into the majority-Kurdish town.

In a public announcement, ISIS said it would “confiscate any trade or trucks…coming or going into Afrin,” which it referred to as under the control of the PKK, the Turkish-Kurdish separatist group closely affiliated with the PYD. 

ISIS afrin blockade

ISIS announced on December 2nd it would blockade the majority-Kurdish, YPG-controlled town of Afrin in northeastern Aleppo province.

The YPG has consolidated its control of Kurdish towns near Syria’s northern border with Turkey, but remain vulnerable to escalating attacks from ISIS fighters controlling nearby villages and Syria’s anarchic inland desert. The YPG also finds itself increasingly isolated from the mainstream armed opposition, particularly amidst accusations that is working with the regime, a charge the PYD denies.   

YPG military victories over ISIS, also rumored to be working with the regime, are slow but substantial. The YPG consolidated control over Ras al-Ein on the Turkish border, which it has contested with ISIS since July, and moved west into the majority Kurdish town of Ein al-Arab, which Kurds refer to as Kobane, last month.

Sixty kilometers southeast and a few weeks later, ISIS kidnapped at least 51 Kurdish citizens in Menbej on December 2nd, in what PYD member and Syrian Kurd Mustafa Bali said was a response to the YPG victory in Ein Al-Arab.

“This kidnapping was done to put pressure on the PYD in majority-Kurdish Ein al-Arab,” said Bali. “The PYD has a civil democratic project expressing the desires of the Syrian people, which conflicts with the goals of ISIS to build an Islamic emirate in northern Syria.”

Amidst the continued political fracturing of the Syrian opposition, the decline in influence of more mainstream rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army and the YPG’s attempt to assert itself with its expanding military might, the sidebar war between the YPG and ISIS shows no signs of abating.

“All Kurdish areas are a target for ISIS,” said Ibrahim Ibrahim, the PYD spokesman.


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