As the operation proceeds to expel the Islamic State (IS) from its last major Syrian urban stronghold, Raqqa city, a statement was published on 5 July by a number of clerics, which points to the danger that the Coalition campaign, by partnering exclusively with Kurdish forces, is preparing conditions that will allow other Islamists to fill the vacuum after IS loses overt control of eastern Syria.
The full statement reads:
All praise is due to Allah, who said: “And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours: verily in that are Signs for men of sound knowledge” [Ar-Rum (30): 22]. And may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon our Prophet Muhammad, his family, and companions.
Allah blessed the Syrian people when they revolted against their executioner and rose against the rule of the Assad family that pursued division between the sons of Syria on an ethnic and sectarian basis. This nation wrote down the expressions of brotherhood, harmony, and solidarity in the face of the tyrannical regime with its blood.
We—the signers of this statement—affirm the principles for which sake the people revolted, including the rejection of a project of partitioning Syria on a sectarian, ethnic, or nationalist basis, a division separating the sons of the single motherland and its districts and towns, weakening its economy. Syria, the land of our people, was and still is unyielding to division and plots aimed at partition, [while] stressing the need to keep the rebels’ hands outstretched to all honourable people of difference races to complete the path of the blessed Revolution and achieve its goals.
We welcome all those who join the ranks of the Revolution that expresses the rights of all [Syria’s demographic] components.
We also congratulate our brothers in the Kurdish Salvation Movement with their launch and see it as a step in the right direction, at the right time.
We emphasize that the weapon of the Revolution must be directed solely at the regime’s chest, its remnants, and the followers who strengthen it. That is the endeavour from us: to topple [the regime] and establish a state of justice in which [the country’s] children enjoy their rights fairly, far from injustice and oppression. [We want to move] hand-in-hand towards a Syria of freedom and independence, towards the liberation of the homeland, the soil of which is irrigated with the blood of Kurdish and Arab and other martyrs.
[Signed by:] Abdul Razzaq al-Mahdi, Dr. Ayman al-Harush, Abdullah al-Shaybani, Ahmad al-Ulwan, Abu Islam al-Hamawi, Ali bin Nayef al-Shahud, Abbas al-Sharifa, Dr. Abdulmunim Zin al-Deen, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Abu Zayd al-Shar’i, Abu Ahmed al-Iyad, Abu Dajana al-Hamawi, Hassan al-Dughaym, Abu Mahmud al-Shami, Abu Muhammad al-Sadiq
The Kurdish Salvation Movement and Ahrar al-Sham
The Kurdish Salvation Movement was announced in March, and is one of a number of groups going back over a year to have emerged that claim a Kurdish ethnic marker alongside political alignment with the rebellion and—either tacitly or openly—Turkey.
The specific rebel group the Kurdish Salvation Movement appears to be aligned with is Ahrar al-Sham, judging by the clerics who signed this statement, who are largely in, or in the orbit of, Ahrar.
On one side, Ahrar originated in the jihadi milieu around al-Qaeda and maintained an extensive battlefield alliance with al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. Ahrar got certain ideological benefits and a degree of independence from state support. Al-Qaeda got a portal into the Syrian revolutionary populations and groups that provided it a support system (perhaps even an existential one) to grow into a formidable force and co-opt sections of the rebellion.
On the other side, Ahrar has benefited from vast support—media, financial, logistical, intelligence, and military—from Turkey and Qatar, though Qatar’s influence in Syria has waned considerably over the last year. Ahrar has tried to present itself as a “moderate” group and, when this proved unsuccessful, as a group with moderate factions. The evident internal rifts, however, are generally better explained by this power struggle between the pro-Turkey and pro-al-Qaeda factions, not as ideological differences, per se.
This has been somewhat different since January this year, when, during the process of al-Nusra refashioning itself into Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), direct military clashes broke out between Ahrar and al-Nusra, and a number of important Ahrar figures and units defected to HTS (some would later defect back). Since the spring, a more competitive relationship has been entrenched between Ahrar and HTS in the “Greater Idlib” area of north-western Syria, spilling over into tensions within HTS itself, and Ahrar has drawn closer to Turkey.
The Kurdish Salvation Movement’s own ideological inclination is unclear, though its iconography leans Islamist, and the group is clearly tied to Turkey’s moves to undermine the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian structures, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Democratic Union Party (PYD), which rule over swathes of northern and north-eastern Syria, and have received Western support to battle IS.
The Troubled Aftermath of Raqqa
It has been evident for some time that the Coalition’s posture of unbalanced support for the YPG/PKK—ignoring its use of Russian airstrikes to attack other Western assets, for example, and its heavily repressive method of governance—because the YPG had shown some military gains against IS, was undermining the campaign by politically ratifying the narrative of IS, al-Qaeda, and other Islamists that only they could or would provide support to Sunni Arab populations.
Among the reasons the YPG is so deeply feared and distrusted by the Arab population in Raqqa, apart from the abuses reported by relatives elsewhere and the fear of conscription, especially of women, is the perception that the YPG is aligned with Bashar al-Assad and Iran. The PKK clearly was an asset of the Assad regime for many decades, and has intimate ties with Iran and Russia, too. The fact that the regime handed over the Kurdish-majority territories in northern Syria to the YPG in the summer of 2012, to keep them out of the rebellion, furthered the opposition’s view that the YPG was an extension of the regime. And this notion, as well as the confrontational dynamic between the rebels and the YPG, was locked into place for many after the insurgency seized Ras al-Ayn in November 2012, and was attacked by the YPG. From that moment on, many unpopular insurgents—the hardline Islamists most obviously—found they could gain some traction if their battle was with the YPG.
Over the medium-term, displacing IS with the YPG in Arab-majority zones sets conditions that can allow IS to return by erecting governance structures that local populations and neighbours—especially Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—have every incentive to destabilize. More immediately, it means that in eastern Syria it provides space for Islamists—who have been uprooted by IS’s rule—to return in a zone where they are otherwise somewhat suspected. “People in eastern Syria blamed Ahrar and Nusra for the ISIS takeover,” Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, who comes from this area, tells me. This “can make it hard for them to return to eastern Syria. But they are trying to go back using the risk of YPG hegemony as a justification to expand”.
Al-Qaeda has already begun trying (41:00) to break out of its isolation in Idlib by infiltrating the Turkish-held EUPHRATES SHIELD zone of Syria, to lay hands on reconstruction money, and also to re-infiltrate further east as IS retreats. There are even reports that al-Qaeda is trying to return to Iraq, led probably by Khalid al-Aruri (Abu al-Qassem), a senior al-Qaeda leader and former associate of IS’s founder Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), who was released by Iran in September 2015.
The use of the YPG to clear IS from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor might provide durable stability if a political model was provided in the aftermath that local populations in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor could buy into. One possible route is continued American engagement that makes the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) into something more like what it is claimed to be—an umbrella group, rather than what it is, a vehicle for YPG dominance. The Americans’ stamina for engagement in the Middle East and the PKK’s record on power-sharing allow doubts about the feasibility of this path.