Kurdish Resistance May Break the Syrian Rebels

Mike Giglio on a new front in the months-long Syrian conflict

Narciso Contreras / AP Photo

When fighting broke out between rebel soldiers and Kurdish militiamen in the Syrian city of Aleppo on Sunday, rebels quickly downplayed the violence, calling it a mistake and claiming that a government ruse was to blame. “The problem,” read a statement put out by the main rebel coalition, “was the result of a misunderstanding that was created by a regime plot.”

Rebels expected the government to continue its military assault on Aleppo and other major cities this past weekend, despite its promise of a ceasefire for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, and the truce was broken repeatedly before it expired on Monday night. But the clash with the Kurds was unexpected—and, as the rebel response suggests, a cause for alarm among the opposition.

A conflict with the Kurds—who make up an estimated 10 percent of the Syrian population, have armed forces of their own, and have so far managed to remain unaligned in the grinding war—would likely be damaging for the rebel coalition, which is already hard-pressed in its struggle to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “It would spell doom for them,” says Shashank Joshi, a Middle East analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It would stretch them far too thin. They are operating at the edge of their envelope.”

Thirty people died in the altercation between the Kurds and rebels, and soldiers from both sides were taken hostage, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The bloodshed reportedly started after some 200 rebels moved into Ashrafiyeh, a strategically important district in Aleppo with a high concentration of Kurdish residents. Analysts dismissed the idea that the government played a hand in inciting the violence. Instead, they say, it was more likely the result of suspicions between the two sides reaching a head as the battle for Syria’s largest city continues to unfold.

“Clearly this is not something that was orchestrated by the regime. It’s a very awkward issue for the rebels, because it underscores just how divided the opposition remains,” Joshi says. “The rebels don’t want to acknowledge this, but they’re viewed very skeptically by large parts of the Kurdish population in Syria.”

Unlike many in Syria, the Kurds do not necessarily see the rebels as welcome liberators—even though they have long suffered under Assad’s rule. Like the country’s Christians, the Kurds seem to be wary of reports of increasing religious radicalization inside the rebel forces. And if the rebels do emerge triumphant, many Kurds wonder where they’d stand in the new Syria.

The Kurdish regions are dominated by the PYD party, which many analysts tie to the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group that has spent decades battling for autonomy in Turkey. As the war intensified over the summer, the Assad government pulled its forces back from Kurdish-dominated areas, likely determining that any conflict with the Kurds would be too damaging to their fight against the rebels. The Kurdish-controlled areas have pushed to keep out of the conflict ever since.

One activist in the Kurdish city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria reports taking part in a recent demonstration in which protesters had the message: “No to the regime, and no to the rebels.”

“What can you do when one side is killing you in the name of the rebellion, and the other side is killing you in the name of dictatorship?” the activist, Barzan Iso, says.

“The Syrian Kurds have tried to stay out of this as much as they can, and just look out for themselves. They’ve tried not to get involved on either side,” says David Pollock, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There’s a lot of suspicion and mutual mistrust between the Kurds and the main Syrian opposition. There’s no political agreement, and there’s a built-in rivalry over who’s going to take control of those parts of the country as the Assad regime weakens.”

Many Kurds are quick to point out that they have opposed Assad’s government for years—and that in 2004 they even waged an uprising of their own that resulted in a major government crackdown. And despite their suspicions, some Kurdish activists insist that Kurds and rebels are on the same side—and have sought to downplay the weekend clashes as well. “It’s a misunderstanding, and they’re going to fix it,” says one longtime Kurdish activist, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

So far, the details of Sunday’s fighting in Ashrafiyeh have been hard to nail down. “It’s really difficult to answer. Nobody knows, and nobody tells the truth,” says one activist who monitors the violence in Syria.

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But Joshi, the RUSI analyst, points out that such misunderstandings are more likely in Aleppo, where control is fluid and the fighting is chaotic, than in the Kurdish areas of the countryside that the rebels have largely left alone. “Outside of Aleppo, they’re giving the Kurds plenty of room. They know what the ground rules are,” Joshi says. “There are incentives on all sides to keep the Kurds out of the conflict.”