AMMAN: An investigation into an ongoing turf war between the newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces and rival FSA and Islamist factions in northwest Aleppo province reveals an arena where a tangled web of conflicting agendas is crashing into aspirations for the Kurdish region of Rojava.
A smattering of villages west of the town of Azaz, just south of the Turkish border, have witnessed days of fierce battles between the two-week-old Aleppo branch of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces on one side, and a collection of FSA-affiliated and Islamist rebels on the other. Dozens of fighters on both sides have been killed, injured and captured.
Why are they fighting? It depends on who you ask. Arab SDF member Jaish al-Thuwar says the past week and a half of fighting began when Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham fighters attacked their positions southwest of Azaz early last week.
Nusra and Ahrar have not commented, but the commander of an SDF rival, the FSA-affiliated Marea Operations Room currently fighting in northern Aleppo,said that Jaish al-Thuwar fighters started the wave of fighting by firing on his men and cutting the nearby Aleppo-Gaziantep highway, a main supply road for rebel forces in northern Aleppo.
But what these battles really appear to be about is a culmination of tensions following the formation of this regional branch of the US-backed, mostly-Kurdish SDF coalition in the northern Aleppo countryside last month.
SDF fighters listen to a speech at a funeral on Sunday for four of their colleagues killed near Azaz. Photo courtesy of Jaish al-Thuwar.
Jaish al-Thuwar, a coalition of mostly FSA rebel brigades formed this past May, joined the new branch of the SDF alongside at least 13 other Kurdish and Arab factions to fight “terrorism represented by the Islamic State, its sister [organizations] and the criminal Baath regime,” as it said in a statement two weeks ago.
The repercussions of Jaish al-Thuwar joining the SDF are now being played out after initial threats, accusations and ultimatums aimed at its main Sunni Arab component have escalated in recent days into outright bloodshed.
Fighters in the mostly-FSA Marea and Fatah Halab operations rooms as well as Ahrar a-Sham and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra have pushed back SDF advances, reopened the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway, and continue to battle Kurdish and Arab SDF forces on multiple fronts as both sides trade accusations of massacres and forced displacement of villagers.
But the question of what is driving the northwest Aleppo fighting goes beyond the strategic importance of the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway and a few villages west of Azaz.
Rather, it is a question of deep mutual mistrust between the non-SDF Arab brigades in northwest Aleppo and the SDF in Aleppo. Jaish al-Thuwar, by openly aligning itself with the Kurdish-led SDF, has inherited this enmity, thereby inflaming pre-existing tensions with rebel brigades such as Jabhat a-Nusra.
Those Kurdish forces in the SDF are the People’s Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units (YPG/J) based in Afrin, the main pocket of Kurdish-controlled territory in Aleppo, nestled in its far northwest corner.
Even before this latest spate of fighting, the Sunni Arab brigades in the Aleppo countryside have watched with trepidation as Kurdish forces consolidate their hold on a swathe of territory running east to west along nearly the entire Syrian border with Turkey.
Kurdish groups call their band of de facto autonomous territory Rojava, describe its founding as a revolution and maintain in it a civil administration, security forces and schools. Rojava’s five administrative cantons are ruled by a joint administration dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) ideologically aligned with Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK party in Turkey, and protected by the YPG/J, the armed wing of the PYD.
The establishment and expansion of these territories has often intersected with a fight against the Islamic State, but has been dogged by accusations of YPG abuses, encroaching on Arab land, appropriating and demolishing homes and conscripting young men and women in the areas they control.
The YPG has denied many claims of abuses.
Then there is the matter of the YPG’s stated territorial goals to close the 140km gap between the Afrin and Kobani cantons in the north along the Turkish border.
“We in the YPG have a strategic goal, to link Afrin with Kobani,” Polat Can, a senior YPG official told US-based McClatchy late this past October. “We will do everything we can to achieve it.”
Asserting that SDF-aligned Jaish al-Thuwar forces instigated the last 10 days of fighting, FSA and Islamist rebel factions in northern Aleppo have framed recent battles as necessary step to combat aggression by Kurdish forces and their allies.
“Jaish al-Thuwar and Kurdish forces are trying to advance and take control of areas in the northern countryside,” an officer from Fatah Halab told Syria Direct on Monday, requesting anonymity. “We are taking these battles seriously,” he added, “to preserve the supply route of our forces battling the Islamic State.”
Fighters from the Marea Operations Room (MOR) offered Jaish al-Thuwar fighters an out from their alliance with the YPG.
A group of rebels from the MOR called on “our brothers in Jaish al-Thuwar to stop their support and their connections to the PKK,” in a video posted online Monday. “You are true revolutionaries and heroes. We call on you to break your ties with the PKK and help us fight the regime and IS.”
When Kurds look towards the battleground of villages in the eastern border of Afrin they see an existential threat to the weakest, most isolated canton in Rojava and an attempt to wipe out the new SDF forces by what they claim are “terrorist groups” backed by Turkey.
“The opposition forces aim to take control of Afrin,” Akram Saleh, a Kurdish journalist embedded with the YPG in Tel Abyad, told Syria Direct earlier this week. “Afrin has been chosen to attack because it is the weakest point in comparison with the other areas under Kurdish control,” mostly encircled by opposition factions with IS positions 20km to the east.
YPG forces in the SDF did not participate in initial clashes between Jaish al-Thuwar and non-SDF rebel groups when the fighting was limited to the area immediately west and southwest of Azaz. Rather, they joined in when non-SDF counter-advances threatened villages such as Maryamin at the eastern edge of Afrin, just 5.5km northeast of the canton’s eponymous capital.
YPG allegations of Turkish backing for rebel groups in Aleppo is not new, as Turkey’s government views the prospect of a contiguous Kurdish autonomous region along its border with northern Syria essentially ruled by the PYD, a party with close ties to the PKK, as “a threat.”
“All they [the Kurds] want is to seize northern Syria entirely,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech last month. “This constitutes a threat for us, and it is not possible for us as Turkey to say ‘yes’ to this threat.”
This position seems to make Turkey a natural ally for rebel brigades with similar objections to a potential expansion of Kurdish territories along the border, fueling Kurdish accusations of a conspiracy.
Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham, among others, “are attacking the Kurdish forces to prevent them from establishing any Kurdish entity, in keeping with Turkey’s recent statements,” the YPG-embedded journalist Saleh told Syria Direct. Ongoing battles with YPG forces and their allies “do not accomplish any strategic goal for the opposition in its war against the Assad regime or IS.”
The YPG, likely deliberately, is conflating Nusra and Ahrar with the Islamic State, painting recent fighting as purely for self-defense and survival.
“Turkey supports terrorist groups in Syria in order to hit the SDF,” Jamal Alo, a Kurdish SDF commander in Afrin told Kurdish ARA News Monday. The attacks, he says, are “an attempt to impede the efforts of the SDF in building a democratic pluralistic state.”
“Groups of mercenaries are using fighting Jaish al-Thuwar as a cover to launch attacks on Afrin canton,” Furat Khalil, a YPG commander in Afrin told Kurdish Welati network last Sunday.
Despite the variety of hardline Islamist and FSA groups currently fighting the SDF in northern Aleppo, SDF and pro-SDF media sources have consistently referred to those they are fighting as “mercenaries” from Jabhat a-Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham and IS, although the latter’s closest positions lie dozens of kilometers away to the east.
“All the military factions in the areas of Azaz and the northern Aleppo countryside are extremist and have a relationship with IS,” Rojar Mamou, a YPG fighter told ARA News Sunday. “The presence of these factions” near SDF-held territories “poses a danger.”
Jaish al-Thuwar doubled down on those claims this past Monday, posting a video in which a fighter named Abdullah al-Obeid captured in Maryamin supposedly confesses that his brigade is led by the Islamic, which Jaish al-Thuwar claims “proves” IS participation in the battles.
Identifying himself as a fighter in a small battalion fighting alongside Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham, al-Obeid answers questions fired off by a Jaish al-Thuwar fighter in the 30-second clip. He says that his faction, Katibat al-Sahaba, has funding “from Turkey,” and says its leadership is “from IS,” and adds that he alongside Nusra and IS fighters had attacked Maryamin “under the guise of the FSA.”
The civilian administration of Afrin canton also views recent fighting as an existential threat. “Groups claiming to be moderate” had “systematically encircled” Afrin, a statement posted online Sunday by the joint presidency of Afrin’s executive council read, while expressing confidence in the SDF to fend off an attack.
Marea Operations Room fighters call on Jaish al-Thuwar to cut ties with the YPG on Monday. Photo courtesy of Khaled Alale.
This past week, Turkey has gone on the offensive, charging Russia, aware of Ankara’s discomfort with the SDF along its border with Syria and eager to lash out at Turkish interests after the downing of a Russian warplane last week, has carried out air strikes in support of the YPG.
“Russia is providing air support for the PYD, the Syrian affiliate of the terrorist PKK organization,” Turkey’s Anadolu agency alleged on Monday.
Turkish state media has published three reports in the past week of what it calls Russian air support for Kurdish SDF forces in northern Aleppo.
In a report on Friday, Anadolu cited reports by unnamed “local sources” to bolster its claim that “PYD has reportedly begun its rapprochement with Russia.”
Russian state media has not mentioned airstrikes near Azaz or deepening relations with the PYD.
At least one pro-regime Syrian media source reported Russian airstrikes on several northern Aleppo villages last Sunday, “amidst violent clashes between the Kurds and the so-called FSA.”
Even if the airstrikes were carried out, the overlapping of Russian and SDF operations in northern Aleppo does not necessarily translate into direct coordination, but rather each taking advantage of the other’s actions for the sake of its own objectives: Russia to trouble Turkey, the SDF to protect Afrin.
Meanwhile, the US-led international coalition has reported four airstrikes in Aleppo province since the beginning of clashes between the SDF and opposition forces in northern Aleppo, but all reportedly on IS targets near Marea, 16km southeast of Azaz.
One Kurdish journalist and frequent Syria Direct contributor who was on the ground during for the battle to drive the Islamic State from Kobani, reports potential future US-led coalition air support for SDF forces near Afrin, citing confidential sources.
“A decision has been made to protect Afrin… from the air,” Mustafa Ebdi, who is currently in Turkey near the border with Afrin posted on social media, citing “private sources” and claiming “air operations are fully coordinated with SDF forces.”