AMMAN: The Syrian Democratic Forces are taking advantage of recent regime advances into northern Aleppo to snatch up rebel-held territory there in what pro-opposition journalists fear is an attempt to link up Kurdish-held areas in Afrin and Kobani cantons and “exterminate the revolution.”
The SDF captured the Minagh military airport Wednesday night, part of a belt of rebel territory stretching 25km from Nubl and Zahraa north to Azaz on the Turkish border. Ahrar a-Sham and FSA-affiliated al-Jabha a-Shamiya had held the military airport, which lies 5.5km south of Azaz.
Azaz is the main target of the SDF's latest campaign, Mohammed Najem a-Din, correspondent for pro-opposition Smart News, told Syria Direct Wednesday.
“The SDF wants to take control of Azaz because it's close to the Bab al-Salama border,” said Najem a-Din. “That’s a goal for everyone.”
Russian warplanes, which have been essential to the Syrian regime's progress in the north, bombed rebel positions around the Minagh airport Wednesday as battles raged between the SDF and rebels, reported pro-opposition Aleppo News Network Wednesday. A war journalist present at the airport front confirmed to Syria Direct that Russian planes had carried out 16 airstrikes Wednesday on rebel positions there.
On Tuesday, the SDF took control of two villages and a military base on the outskirts of the Minagh military airport.
The SDF is a coalition made up primarily of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), but in Aleppo also includes Jaish al-Thuwwar, formerly an FSA brigade. Its stated goal is to fight the Islamic State, and has been backed in its anti-IS operations in Hasakah province by American-led air strikes and weapons deliveries.
While the SDF's Jaish al-Thuwwar claims to be a rebel group, pro-opposition journalists and rebels in Aleppo view the outfit as a Kurdish proxy force due to its alliance with the YPG. Because of the YPG's coexistence with the regime in Hasakah province, rebels further accuse the SDF of tacit cooperation with the regime there and in Aleppo. Such assertions are bolstered by evidence of Russian airstrikes assisting SDF/Jaish al-Thuwwar advances in Aleppo.
“Jaish al-Thuwwar is clearly cooperating with the Syrian regime, despite the fact that they were some of the first rebels in Syria,” Osama Mohammed, a citizen journalist in the northern Aleppo countryside, told Syria Direct Wednesday.
Jaish al-Thuwwar consistently maintains that it is part of the Syrian revolution, with a spokesman expressing his brigade's “willingness to unite” with FSA-affiliated rebels in a statement to pro-opposition Smart News on Wednesday.
Why would the SDF wade into a raging battleground in north Aleppo? The YPG has not commented on its current operations there, but has stated its intention to close the 140km gap between the Afrin and Kobani cantons.
“We in the YPG have a strategic goal, to link Afrin with Kobani,” Polat Can, a senior YPG official told US-based McClatchy last October. “We will do everything we can to achieve it.”
The SDF's ongoing advance in the north has raised “the fear that Jaish al-Thuwwar [the Arab component of the SDF] is being used to take control of the entire northern countryside in Aleppo, that they will then attach it to the [PYD] Self-Administration in the future,” Osama Mohammed, a citizen journalist in the northern countryside, told Syria Direct Wednesday.
Pro-opposition journalists expressed a conviction, widespread among rebels on the ground, to Syria Direct Wednesday that the SDF and regime are playing for the same side in an attempt to “exterminate the revolution” in Aleppo province.
“The SDF's new campaign, represented by Jaish al-Thuwwar, is a clear message that they're trying, in concert with the regime, to exterminate the revolution,” Baha al-Halabi, citizen journalist in the northern Aleppo countryside, told Syria Direct Wednesday.
Clashing agendas in the north
Fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces, formed in November of last year, and rebels in Aleppo province is not new. In December, Syria Direct reported on what the rebel Marea Operations room, composed of al-Jabha a-Shamiya and other FSA-affilated brigades, characterized as an SDF attempt, spearheaded by Jaish al-Thuwwar, to capture positions on the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway that is a main supply line for rebels in Aleppo city.
The SDF described that campaign as defensive; directed against attempts by “mercenaries” from Jabhat a-Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham and the Islamic State to launch attacks into Afrin canton.
Whatever the cause of December's hostilities, rebels and the SDF in northern Aleppo since signed a truce stipulating that “the FSA would not move towards Kurdish-controlled areas and vice-versa,” Samir Dahduh, citizen journalist in the northern countryside, told Syria Direct Wednesday.
This week’s incursion into rebel-held areas in northern Aleppo is the fourth truce violation between them and the Marea Operations Room, Mohammed Najem a-Din, correspondent with pro-opposition Smart News, told Syria Direct Wednesday.
“The SDF and Jaish al-Thuwwar have taken advantage of rebels being busy fighting the regime on Nubl and Zahraa” in order to make gains into their territory, said Najem a-Din.