Over the last six weeks the regime of Bashar al-Assad—which by this point means in most areas Iranian-run ground forces and Russian air power—have made territorial gains in northern Syria that threaten the existence of the armed opposition in the area. This threat has been compounded by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and allies, which have also drawn on Russian airstrikes to attack the rebellion in the same areas. The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) has made the PYD its main proxy inside Syria—the only force that can call in coalition airstrikes. This policy was obviously flawed given the view of the PYD by necessary anti-ISIS allies like Turkey and the demographic realities of ISIS, which require Sunni Arabs to be able to police their area, and ensure that ISIS begins to look like a protector of Sunnis if Kurds occupy Arab areas; the PYD now attacking the crucial anti-ISIS demographic in alliance with the regime underlines that fact.
The Rebellion Surrounded in Aleppo
On January 12, Salma, an important rebel stronghold in north-eastern Latakia, on the Syrian coast, fell to an ideologically diverse pro-Assad coalition: the Syrian Arab Army, the National Defence Force (the largely-Alawite, Iran-built sectarian militia that has overshadowed the SAA), Mihrac Ural’s al-Muqawama as-Suriya (ostensibly Communist), the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (the irredentist outfit descended from, as its party symbol attests, European fascism), and Iraqi Shiite jihadists under the control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Latakia offensive was heavily directed by Russian military advisers and possibly included Russian troops. The offensive was carried into Aleppo, where the IRGC-led pro-Assad forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, set their sights on the narrow corridor in the north of the province around Marea and Azaz that kept supplies coming in from Turkey to the rebel enclave in eastern Aleppo city that rules over more than half-a-million people.
The rebels had been struggling to hold the Azaz corridor since the second week of Russia’s intervention, which began on September 30, when Moscow killed hundreds of rebels in Aleppo, clearing the way for ISIS to sweep into areas the rebels had held them out of for years. ISIS’s territorial advances in Aleppo in October 2015 were the largest since their capture of Ramadi and Palmyra five months earlier. This brought the pro-Assad and ISIS frontlines into contact; they made no move against one-another as the Assadists advanced on Azaz.
Meanwhile, the PYD was bearing down on the rebellion from the east. On January 2, the PYD pushed the rebels out of Tanab, a demarcation point between the PYD-held Efrin canton and the rebel-held corridor. The PYD claimed to have defeated Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria). The rebels were in fact al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (The Levant Front), Ahrar al-Sham, and three Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded groups: The First Regiment, Division 13, and Division 16. The PYD would often use the Nusra pretext when attacking rebels, where they didn’t outright deny their involvement and claim it was an intra-Arab dispute between PYD-aligned Arab militias like Jaysh al-Thuwar and jihadist-Salafists.
A Deniable Ally
Jaysh al-Thuwar has been flagged as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an American-orchestrated conglomeration into which the PYD folded its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG was to give the PYD some deniability—originally the YPG was intended to be a broad-based armed formation of all Kurdish factions—but the PYD is undoubtedly still the leader of the YPG and now the SDF, both of which are “front groups for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK,” which has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. That the PYD—in any of its iterations—is synonymous with the PKK is currently being denied by both the naïve and those with an agenda to push because the PKK is a registered terrorist organization.
Those with an agenda include the U.S. State Department. After saving the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria went from non-strategic to imperative in the space of two weeks in October 2014, the U.S. fell into an alliance with the PYD, which became the only force in Syria able to call in U.S. airstrikes. By the summer of 2015, the Obama administration preferred the PYD over its own trained rebel groups. The terrorism laws thus have to be circumvented—in this case, by flat denial. Just last week, the State Department said it remains “very firm” in opposing the PKK, but continues to regard the PYD as an asset.
Despite the denials, the PYD/YPG’s own fighters don’t make a secret of their organization’s subservience to the PKK’s command structure. When the U.S.’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, journeyed to Kobani he met with one of the PYD’s founders, Polat Can, who just happens to be a veteran officer of the PKK. In late January 2016, with Turkey and the PKK back at war, an English-speaking foreign fighter for the YPG was featured in a video calling for more foreign volunteers to either join the YPG or at least carry out terrorist attacks against Turkey. The YPG does not just take orders from the PKK’s leadership in the Qandil Mountains, however. The extent of the PKK’s dominance over the YPG can be seen in the YPG’s self-reported casualty figures: between January 2013 and January 2016, half of the Kurds killed fighting for the YPG came from Turkey.
Peace Talks as Cover for a Military Escalation
On February 3, the pro-Assad coalition succeeded in cutting the rebels’ supply line into Turkey, severing it south of Tel Rifaat, and connecting up with the pro-regime villages of Nubl and Zahra, which had been under incomplete sieges by insurgents essentially since the regime was forced out of northern Rif Aleppo in July 2012. As the Iranian-led pro-Assad coalition moved toward tightening a siege on eastern Aleppo city on the ground, Russia bombarded it from the air. Within days, 70,000 people had fled from Aleppo, many toward Turkey.
In a masterly piece of maskirovka, the Russians announced their agreement to a ceasefire on Friday, which contained a loophole for continued strikes on terrorists big enough to permit Russia to bomb anyone they liked and claim to be adhering to the ceasefire, and which would allow Russia a week of internationally-sanctioned time to make its gains in Aleppo and then blame the rebels for breaking the ceasefire when they refused to be bound by the lines Russia would try to freeze in place after its aggression.
The proximate cause of this catastrophe was the Geneva III negotiations. It was obvious before the negotiations started that the Assad regime was too strong for negotiations to be meaningful and that swiftly the U.S. was going to be faced with the choice of allowing the collapse of a process it was invested in, or forcing its own side to accept the edicts of the other side.
The U.S. gave a strong indication of which track it was taking when it deliberately weakened the rebel hand in the run-up to these talks—stopping the shipment of TOW anti-tank missiles, among other things—ostensibly on the premise that it would make peace more likely. But—even on the best reading, where the intention was not to help defeat the rebels altogether—this was folly. The U.S. cannot calibrate something like this with any delicacy: it either means to supply enough pressure to force Assad out, or it doesn’t. But more than that: a strategy of weakening what is purportedly your own side would rely on the patrons of the other side doing the same, and they didn’t and never claimed they would. To the contrary: they saw an opening and took it—obviating the need for talks at all, if they succeed. As one Western diplomat put it: “It’ll be easy to get a ceasefire soon because the opposition will all be dead.”
One view is that this is bad negotiating; another view—already prevalent in Syria—is that this is deliberate. If the U.S. allows the destruction of the moderate rebels and lets the pro-Assad coalition make this a binary choice—the dictator or the terrorists—as they have wanted to all along, it won’t matter if the U.S. deliberately ran out the clock on those it claimed to be supporting or is engaged in post-facto rationalization. Everyone saw the U.S.’s pro-Iran tilt, symbolized most acutely by not punishing Assad for the chemical weapons attack, and every Sunni will believe it was a conspiracy—as ISIS has continuously told them.
The pro-regime coalition crushing the rebels in Aleppo City—either killing them or driving them from the battlefield—will not just be a propaganda (i.e. recruitment) victory for ISIS, but will open an immediate military opportunity. The spearheading of the offensive by foreign Shi’i militias strongly indicates that the regime’s chronic shortage of manpower is getting no better, so while an aerially-delivered and ground-supported round of massacre and expulsion is possible, actually holding new terrain is likely to prove impossible. If the pro-regime forces clear the rebels from Aleppo, it will be ISIS that fills the vacuum.
The Kurdish Attack
Grim as this was looking for the rebellion, it was looking a lot worse once the PYD started its own offensive—also supported by Russian airstrikes. The villages of Meranaz and Deir Jamal, south-west of Tel Rifaat, fell to the PYD around midnight February 8/9. The PYD overran the Mannagh airbase on February 10, infamously captured by the rebels in August 2013 after ISIS provided them two suicide bombers to finally break the regime’s resistance after months of siege. Turkey began shelling PYD positions at Mannagh and near Azaz, which is just five miles from the Turkish border, on Saturday. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu vowed to reverse “every step” of the PYD’s aggression. But it did no good. The PYD took the village of Kafr Kashir and the town of Ayn Daqna on Sunday, attempting to isolate Tel Rifaat, which the PYD was attacking before the day was out. On Monday morning, the pro-regime forces handed the PYD the town of Kafr Naya and by the afternoon Tel Rifaat had fallen to the PYD.
This leaves the rebels in northern Rif Aleppo intensely vulnerable. The PYD could attack Azaz, though it has to expect that Turkey would make good on its threats that the PYD would not be allowed to hold a major town that close to the Turkish frontier. Damascus claimed, even before Tel Rifaat had fallen, that Turkish troops had entered Syria to fortify Azaz, where “all who can carry arms” were called on to mobilize to resist the PKK on Sunday night, and it certainly was true that Turkey was allowing its territory to be used for rebel reinforcements to get around the Assadist-PYD line in Efrin to the Azaz corridor.
It was always likeliest that the next PYD target would be Marea, a Homs-like symbol of the revolution, the first town in Aleppo to rebel and the hometown of Abdul Qader Saleh, the charismatic military leader of Liwa al-Tawhid, the most powerful rebel group in Aleppo Province until the regime killed Saleh in November 2013. Already by Monday evening, the PYD—via Jaysh al-Thuwar—was signalling its intent to move on Marea, demanding the withdrawal of Nusra, despite Nusra having no presence in Marea, though the reports on Tuesday morning that the PYD had taken Marea proved premature. If PYD takes Marea, it will be face-to-face with ISIS. There are also reports that in the early hours of Wednesday morning the PYD cut off Castello Road, which would mean the rebel-held eastern Aleppo City was completely besieged; this does not help counter the rebel claims that the PYD is an extension of the regime’s militias.
A Bad Bet
More than one analyst noted during the contest for Tel Rifaat that the town has a special significance in Syria’s recent history, as the base of Samir al-Khlifawi, better known as Haji Bakr, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s deputy, who planned and orchestrated the formation of ISIS’s statelet. Al-Khlifawi did not live to see his plan come to fruition with the caliphate declaration in June 2014: he was killed by Syrian rebels when they went on the offensive against ISIS in January 2014. That it was the rebels who eliminated the strategic head of ISIS was very telling.
In six weeks, the rebels pushed ISIS from positions in seven provinces, clearing them entirely from Idlib and Latakia—which remain ISIS-free to this day—and most of Aleppo, leaving ISIS holding a sliver of eastern Aleppo. Rooted in the local populations, the rebels—with no support from the U.S.-led coalition—were able to sustainably defeat ISIS. But that second, massive revolt cost the rebels dearly and their pleas for support went unheeded, allowing ISIS to use resources looted from Iraq to conquer all of Deir Ezzor, consolidate in Raqqa and southern Hasaka, and begin pushing further west in Aleppo.
Still, contrast this with the PKK, which in nearly a year-and-a-half, backed by extensive U.S. airstrikes, has been able to expel ISIS from less than one province-worth of territory—they held Kobani and took parts of southern Hasaka and Sinjar (after fifteen months). These are Kurdish zones, peripheral to ISIS. The PYD’s ethno-territorial limitation is not unreasonable: they have little interest in expending blood outside Kurdish areas and will be regarded as sectarian occupiers, opening space for ISIS, if they try.
This is why the PYD/PKK’s major anti-ISIS victory, in northern Raqqa, proved so problematic: this is not Kurdish-majority territory and its conquest led to mistreatment of Arab residents. While one motivation was defeating ISIS and politically gaining Western credit for doing so, the capture of Tel Abyad by the PYD/PKK was at least as much about its State-building project, linking the Jazira and Kobani cantons. The PYD has clearly-expressed irredentist aims that go beyond simply reversing the “Arabization” of the Ba’ath regime. The Turks held off on establishing an “ISIS-free zone”—designed also to be a PYD/PKK-free zone—on its border inside Syria for a U.S. promise to keep the PYD/PKK west of the Euphrates. The PYD/PKK violated that accord last November, assisted by Russia, and the U.S. did nothing. This U.S. de facto support for Kurdish maximalism is already helping ISIS and al-Qaeda.
The PYD repeatedly claimed it was fighting jihadist-Salafists in the Azaz corridor. At one point the PYD paraded a Nusra commander they had captured. In fact it was Ismail al-Naddaf, commander of Liwa al-Fatah, a nationalist group unconnected to Nusra. One of Nusra’s own fighters eventually admitted that Nusra was uninvolved in the clashes with the PYD—Nusra withdrew from this area last summer. Nusra has, as a strategic policy, wound itself into the military opposition, offering specialist military capabilities and tried to make rebels reliant on it. Nusra also tries to foster co-dependency with rebel-sympathetic populations. This gives Nusra a longevity ISIS does not have, and makes preventing Nusra embedding itself within opposition dynamics one of the coalition’s most urgent tasks, given how difficult it will be to untangle Nusra later on. Thus, attacking Nusra-dependent rebels is likely not the best policy: empowering them so they no longer need Nusra is. But, regardless, the PYD is attacking moderate rebels who are not entangled with Nusra, some of them backed by the Islamist-allergic CIA. Not only is the PYD directly attacking non-Nusra-associated rebels, making them more likely to become dependent on Nusra, but the PYD’s aggression is politically helping Nusra by pushing insurgents to prioritize unity over moderation. Nine rebel groups, some CIA-supported, have already declared that during this crisis they will be led by Ahrar al-Sham, a close battlefield ally of Nusra’s.
The strangest thing has been to see the United States take (at best) an even-handed approach between a group on its own list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) and its NATO ally Turkey, while said FTO was attacking American-supported insurrectionists in Syria in alliance with Russia. Odd, too, to see U.S.-backed insurgent groups on both sides of the fight for Tel Rifaat, where the PYD-aligned Jaysh al-Thuwar attacked The Levant Front, Faylaq al-Sham, and Kataib Nooradeen az-Zangi.
This past week should have made clear that, as I wrote back in October, the U.S. policy making the PYD/PKK its sole proxy inside Syria was deeply mistaken. The PKK’s extensive and long-standing connections to Russia (now fully visible even under the PYD label) and the Assad regime, plus its own history of political extremism and terrorism, make it an unreliable partner to bet everything on.
Helping the PKK protect Kurdish areas from ISIS is one thing (though it should be concurrent with efforts to build up institutions that ensure Rojava is not left with one-party rule when this is over). But the PKK cannot defeat ISIS and will not even try in its Arab-majority heartlands like Raqqa City. In the meantime, the U.S.’s current stance is pushing Turkey to feel even more as if she is alone on Syria, the predicament that led to the open door for jihadist-Salafists. This is a mistake since Turkey’s interests and the West’s are more closely aligned in Syria, and Ankara is much more capable than the PKK.
In practical terms a policy correction would mean making the preservation of the rebels in northern Aleppo, one of the most effective anti-ISIS forces on the ground, a coalition priority. Rather than telephone calls from Vice President Joe Biden telling Turkey to desist and calls for “reciprocal restraint,” the coalition would clearly state that the PYD has no business in the Azaz corridor and would support Turkey re-opening the strip—by direct force if necessary.
The PYD/PKK offensive in northern Syria comes after a few months of attacks on Sunni Arabs from forces the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition has chosen to work with. In Diyala in Iraq, savage pogroms were launched against Sunnis last month by IRGC-controlled Shiite militias. At roughly the same time, Amnesty International documented the destruction of property and what amounts to ethnic cleansing by the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga against Sunni Arabs in contested zones between Erbil and Baghdad. Sectarian persecution of a minority—or a majority on the wrong end of a balance-of-power equation, as is the case in Syria—would generally be regarded as an ill on its own terms. When the constituency the West needs to enlist to undo ISIS is being victimized by the forces the West has chosen to ally with, despite the fact the worst these allies can do is inflict losses on ISIS at the periphery, it moves from being a crime to a blunder.
Kurdish forces have proven themselves, in Iraq and Syria, adept at defending their areas. The Iranian-run Shiite militias can clear zones when backed by U.S. air power, but the militias’ performances in Tikrit and Ramadi, during and afterward, including razing villages and mass-expulsion, not only ratifies ISIS’s central premise of a “Crusader-Shiite” anti-Sunni conspiracy against which only ISIS can defend Sunnis, but makes it likely Mosul will consider the current rule of takfirism the lesser-evil compared with the rule of Khomeini’ism. The political price aside, in simple military terms neither Kurdish nor Shiite forces can clear and hold ISIS’s heartlands; for that a Sunni Arab force is needed.
Input is also needed from the Gulf States and Turkey, which see ISIS as a threat, but see Iran and the PKK, respectively, as at least equal threats. A great power needs allies and to maintain world order the U.S. has to enforce the bare minimum foreign policy maxim that its friends are rewarded and its enemies punished. Such a policy is in the U.S.’s interest: the Gulf States and especially Turkey can do far more against ISIS than Iran or the PKK, both of which feed dynamics that make the ISIS problem worse. But to get allies on-side means attending to their needs. In Syria that can be summarized as being committed to the downfall of Assad and not allowing the PKK to control all of Turkey’s border and attack her assets with impunity inside Syria.
At present, the coalition’s policy is actively working against the mobilization of the forces, inside Syria and out, needed to complete its stated mission of destroying ISIS.