While most reporting is over-reliant on the brief statements issued by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the situation on the ground, like most in Syria these days, is more complicated than pitting one homogeneous group – in ethnic, religious and other terms – against another.
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Significant as the recent conflict intensification is, it does not come out of the blue, as international reporting might have us believe, but rather reflects the convergence of several existing dynamics across the region.
Firstly, there is something of a pre-history of some Free Syrian Army-associated groups propagating a negative identification of Kurdish people based on perceived positions of some of the Kurdish political parties, in particular the Democratic Union Party, which is associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. Known by its Kurdish acronym (PYD), the Democratic Union Party is considered by many in the Arab opposition – political, as well as armed – to be a passive benefactor, if not active collaborator, of the Assad regime.
Back in February of this year, the tendency to conflate an entire ethnic population with the perceived crimes of one political group led to the targeting and looting of Kurdish houses during the war in Serê Kaniyê. Indeed, this town (Ras al-Ayn by its Arabic name) has over recent months been the site of tensely negotiated relations and intermittent clashes between elements of the FSA, the Islamist Nusra Front and the PYD’s armed wing, Yekinînên Paristîna Gel (YPG).
The most recent bout of fighting, which began on July 16, caught international headlines as it departed from its epicenter in Serê Kaniyê. According to local lawyer Hesen Biro, when YPG forces pushed Nusra to withdraw from the town on July 17, they left behind a “devastated infrastructure, without electricity and water.” Nonetheless, continued Biro, just two days after this expulsion, “Serê Kaniyê [was] suffering under the bombs and locally made rockets of Nusra, from 4 km away in the raised, southern villages of Tel Halaf, Asfar Najjar and al-Mishrafa, and unfortunately they are falling on the heads of our civilians.”
Meanwhile, other elements of the expelled Islamist groups increased their engagement in the eastern oil-rich area of Remailan in the heartland of Hassaka governorate. Competition over resources has occurred in the region and across Syria in general (as evidenced by a struggle for control of oil fields in Deir Ezzor), though this is often expressed through other, more identity-based narratives (be it tribal rivalry in Deir Ezzor or anti-PYD/PKK sentiment in Hassaka).
However, the location of most intense clashes in recent days has been to the west of Serê Kaniyê, in Tel Abyad. This town, also on the Turkish border, was liberated from regime control in autumn 2012 and has since been dominated by more than 100 (rebel) armed groups, mostly seeking to benefit from trade and smuggling by controlling the crossing.
Recent months have witnessed growing resentment of secular actors of what they view as the imposition of Islamist views on the local population. In particular, Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), which many in the town consider synonymous with the former, have sought to regulate the behavior of civilians (with Nusra issuing statements chastising shops for opening during prayer time), and ISIS raiding the National Coalition’s relief supplies in the town, as well as arresting and threatening members of the local council.
After the Islamist groups were forced out of Serê Kaniyê, tensions in Tel Abyad developed into a more ethnically motivated assault. The town’s location is also of strategic importance given that it constitutes a potential connector between the Kurdish areas of Hassaka in the east of Syria and that of Kobanî and Efrin in the west. Tel Abyad’s fate is therefore integral to determining the form and extent of self-determination Syria’s Kurdish people can expect in the future. However, the town also features in alternate conceptions of geographical space, identified in ISIS’s reported ambition to establish an Islamic wilayat (district) and the tribal confederations that extend into Hasska and Deir Ezzor governorates.
A local Kurdish activist from Tel Abyad suggests that concerns over the PYD’s attempt to establish a “temporary” transitional government may have triggered Islamists who had been humiliated in Serê Kaniyê to retaliate by punishing Kurdish villages to the west of Tel Abyad. The PYD Foreign Affairs and Relations Office has described this as “an act of ethnic cleansing,” and the sentiment has been widely supported by other (even anti-PYD) Kurdish groups.
The desire for Kurds to increase their own level of regional administration should be viewed more favorably when considering that their areas have benefited little from the international community’s funds provided to the National Coalition. While PYD’s administration plans heighten sensitivities and increase tensions, conflict in Tel Abyad was triggered, according to both local activists and an ISIS statement, when YPG forces took hold of the ISIS leader, Emir Abu Musab, in al-Yabisa. The statement describes that ISIS “continued to pursue the PKK [sic] into nearby towns as they fled” and asserts that “the problem is purely with separatists of PKK, and not with the Kurdish people, as stated in the media.”
The standard narratives of Kurds (or even the PYK/PKK) against the rebels (including Islamist ones) are particularly complicated by the role played by Jubhat al-Akrad (the Kurdish Front) in Tel Abyad. Technically this majority Kurdish group belongs to the FSA, yet they fought alongside the YPG to defend Kurdish civilians from attacks and refused to swear allegiance to ISIS like numerous other FSA-affiliated brigades in the area. This demonstrates the pragmatic approach of Kurds, who – though mostly Sunni Muslim – are strongly secular and consider their way of life incompatible with the strictures of Islamist legislation.
While the situation is difficult at present, some hope that the current clashes may be impetus for a moderation of internal Kurdish dynamics. According to Egid Yusuf, a Kurdish activist based in Qamishli, “We need YPG to defend us, but I think it is not the final answer to our problems, and in fact I anticipate this may lead to many more clashes with Islamists. However, I am hopeful that this will pressure the PYD to cooperate better with other Kurdish groups on the ground, and may lead to a more unified Kurdish response with the deployment and incorporation of Syrian Kurdish peshmerga forces currently based in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the moment, they are just waiting and not serving the people in any way.”
While the actions of rebels and Islamists increasingly depart from their rhetorical distinction between “good Kurds” and those they claim to be supporting the regime and seeking to divide Syria, Kurdish political activist Chamseddin Hamo stresses that “there is no problem between Kurdish civilians and Arab civilians. All the problems come from armed groups.”
He continues that it appears “that we are victims of a Western strategy to have all those it considers dangerous terrorists collecting together in order that they focus on destroying one another in Syria. If this is the case, the West should at least increase asylum for the civilians displaced as a result of this practice.”