Are Rojava Kurds collaborating with Assad?
The notion that Syria's Rojava Kurds are collaborating with Russia—and, by extension, the genocidal Bashar Assad regime—is fast gaining currency. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was the latest to make the charge, telling Parliament: "What we have seen over the last weeks is very disturbing evidence of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian air force which are making us distinctly uneasy about the Kurds' role in all of this." (The Telegraph, Feb. 20) The regime is openly boasting of an alliance with the Kurds' Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Speaking of recent YPG advances against Islamist factions, Bouthaina Shaaban, the regime's top propagandist, said: "The YPG Kurdish units, the armed group of PYD, are cooperating with the Syrian army and Russian air forces to clear northern Syria of terrorism." (Middle East Observer, Feb. 20) The regime UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari said: "So the victory, achieved by the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian army in northern parts of Syria is a joint victory for all Syrians." These comments were of course avidly reported in the Turkish press. (Anadolu Agency, Yeni Safak, Feb. 17)
What has not been so widely reported is that the Kurds have denied these claims! Nesrin Abdullah of the YPG's Public Relations Office repudiated the regime's support: "Officials from the Syrian regime have begun claiming that YPG and YPJ [Women's Protection Units] have links with the Syrian army. They are attempting to distort the reality of our forces... [F]or their political interests, they intend to exploit our achievements... Through this statement I answer the claims Shaaban made. Up until now, the Syrian regime has not acknowledged the YPG. How are they now saying the YPG is part of the [Syrian army]?" (Rudaw, YPG Public Relations Office Facebook page, Feb. 21)
But Abdullah's statement said nothing about Russia. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition's Local Coordination Committes asserted on their Facebook page that a meeting was held between YPG commanders and Russian military advisors in Afrin, the westernmost of the Rojava autonomous cantons (now under siege by Islamist factions).
Parsing the bias of media sources is not difficult. Russia Today fairly gloats that Obama said he is "concerned" about Kurdish gains in a White House statement that "urgently called for a halt to actions that heighten tensions with Turkey and with moderate opposition forces in northern Syria." The headline from Al Masdar News (which purports to be independent but has a clear pro-Russia slant) reads: "Russian airstrikes propel the Syrian Democratic Forces to capture several sites inside Aleppo City." The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a broader coalition led by the YPG that includes anti-Islamist Arab militias.
Hezbollah's Al Manar likewise hails the Kurds as allies against the rebels, writing: "Syria insurgents are facing collapse in Aleppo countryside as the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) advance in the area; with the allied forces fully control a key Takfiri bastion." (Use of the word takfiri—a popular Shi'ite pejorative for Sunni militants—is a clear tip-off that this is Hezbollah propaganda.)
On the other side of the coin, Syria Direct, which supports the rebels and eagerly trumpets any claims against the Kurds, again raises the charge of ethnic cleansing: "Tens of thousands of residents in Islamic State territory in the southern Al-Hasakah countryside have fled south towards neighboring Deir e-Zor in the wake of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) lightning advances towards the former’s last stronghold in Syria's far northeastern province. Residents are reportedly heading south, deeper into IS-controlled areas, rather than north, east or west into territory currently controlled by the Kurdish-majority SDF because they say they are afraid of arrests, expulsions and revenge killings." Abdullah al-Ahmad, an activist in Hasakah city, is quoted saying: "The crimes that civilians witnessed the Kurdish militias commit in neighboring villages, such as expelling them [from their homes], along with arrests, killings and pillaging, is driving them toward IS despite people's hatred of them."
Portraying ISIS as lesser evil to the YPG is surely a new low. And as we have noted in response to such claims before: Arab residents of liberated towns and villages who had collaborated with ISIS and benefited from the jihadists' cleansing of the area's Kurds by grabbing houses and property might have every reason to fabricate reprisals.
Website El Dorar Al Shamia, even more militantly in the camp of the Islamist factions, reports that an FSA-aligned Kurdish militia, Ahfad Saladin, issued a statement accusing the PYD of being part of the regime's "Satanic alliance."
Syrian opposition voices have portrayed the PYD as actually "co-existing" with regime forces in Qamishli, capital of the autonomous Kurdish canton of Jazira. We aren't sure what this means, as this is the area most firmly under the PYD's autonomous administration. And it appears that remnant regime institutions there are being taken over forces loyal to the PYD administration. The PYD-linked Rojava Youth Union (YCR) announced this month that it had "liberated" a youth center in the city that had been run by Assad's Baath Party. Read the statement: "YCR members said they aim to liberate all areas in Rojava from the Baath regime." (ANHA, Feb. 14)
Whatever may be happening on the battlefield, it is pretty telling that both the regime's and the opposition's propaganda partisans are simply ignoring all the countervailing evidence as they push the theory of an Assad-PYD alliance.
It is also not difficult to see the hand of Turkey behind much of the propaganda push against the Kurds. Istanbul's Daily Sabah headlines: "Footage shows PYD/YPG declaring war on Turkey." Instead, what the video footage actally shows is a YPG commander in the border town of Amude proclaiming: "Our people are the same, we don't recognize any borders or boundaries. Amude is Nusaybin, Cizre, Diyarbakır. We will abolish the rotten borders." Not mentioned is that this statement comes as Turkey's Kurdish-majority eastern cities of Nusaybin, Cizre and Diyarbakır are under military attack from the Turkish state. (Of course the account doesn't fail to repeatedly refer to the YPG as "terrorists.")
For all our caveats about dishonest propaganda, however, the Kurdish tilt to Russia does appear real. Earlier this month, the PYD opened its first official mission abroad—in Moscow. In December, Selahattin Demirtaş, head of Turkey's Kurdish-led People's Democratic Party (HDP), visited Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
This is an extremely problematic alignment at a time when Russia is committing massive war crimes in Syria. Russia's penchant for air-strikes on hospitals has now become so blatant that hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria are refusing to share GPS coordinates with Russian and Syrian authorities—believing that they are being intentionally targeted. Doctors Without Borders president Joanne Liu said: "Healthcare in Syria is in the crosshair of bombs and missiles. It has collapsed... Let me be clear: attacks on civilians and hospitals must stop. The normalization of such attacks is intolerable." (The Guardian, Feb. 18)
But the pressures that have driven Rojava into the Russian camp must be acknowledged. The open fighting between the YPG and FSA-aligned factions seems to have been sparked when the Islamist militia Ahrar al-Sham, in alliance with the Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, advanced on Afrin late last year, prompting YPG and SDF forces to the west to come to its aid. This meant attacking the strip in Aleppo governorate controlled by Ahrar al-Sham and other factions that separates Afrin from the two Kurdish cantons to the west. And this strip is Arab-majority territory—which is why the Kurdish forces had not previously attempted to take it. Given Ahrar al-Sham's closeness to Ankara, it is hard to believe that its menacing of Afrin was not part of a conscious Turkish design to spark a general Arab-Kurdish war in Syria.
And Turkey is openly aiding Ahrar al-Sham in the battle for Azaz, the principal town in the contested strip—and not only by shelling Kurdish forces from across the border. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that 500 Islamist fighters have crossed the Turkish border into Azaz. "Trusted sources confirmed to the observatory that the fighters' crossing was conducted under the supervision of Turkish authorities." (ANF, Feb. 18)
Amid all this, pro-opposition media (e.g. The Syrian Observer) continue to obfuscate the involvement of Ahrar al-Sham in the battle for Azaz, referring vaguely to "Syrian opposition factions." In fact, it is a particular Turkish-backed Islamist faction that holds the town.
These are extremely grim developments. Even if the Arab-v-Kurdish divide-and-rule strategy has succeeded to the degree that few Arab partisans of the Syrian Revolution seem to care about Turkey's brutal counterinsurgency against Kurds within its own territory, it should be clear that Turkey is a dubious ally for the revolution—at best. Amnesty International this week reported that Turkey has denied entry to many injured Syrian refugees attempting to cross its border ahead of the regime advance on Aleppo's besieged capital. Tirana Hassan, crisis response director at AI, stated: "People we spoke to painted a tragic picture of the desperate situation for the civilians who remain trapped between daily air-strikes and dire humanitarian conditions. Turkey's highly selective practice is appalling—only severely injured people are allowed entry to seek medical treatment while everyone else fleeing the violence is left unprotected." (Jurist, Feb. 20)
It should be equally clear to the Kurds that Russia, as the patron of Assad's Arab-chauvinist regime, is fundamentally no ally of theirs either. Just this month, the same regime envoy Bashar Jaafari who now boasts of his supposed alliance with Kurds, flatly rejected a federalist model for post-war Syria—meaning no more autonomy for Rojava if Assad manages to follow through on his promise to retake "the whole country."
And all this comes as Washington is now openly broaching the partition of Syria. John Kerry said this week: "Assad himself is going to have to make some real decisions about the formation of a transitional government process that is real…there are certainly plan B options being considered... It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer." (The Guardian, Feb. 23)
"Plan B" is clearly a balkanization of Syria—with the hideous implication of forced population transfers, ethnic war and interminable border disputes.
Let's try to avoid that, shall we?