The already complicated Syrian civil war got a lot more muddled this week with divisions widening between manly Sunni rebel fighters and political exiles and with Syrian Kurds declaring self-rule—all of which is casting doubt on the relevance of the Obama administration’s efforts to get the warring parties to enter peace talks to end the 32-month long conflict.
A declaration by Syrian Kurds of a provisional regional government for Syria’s northeastern Kurdish areas has infuriated the mainly Sunni rebels battling to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. They accuse the Syrian Kurds of being in league with Assad, an allegation being leveled also by Turkey’s leaders, who see an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria as perilous for them, too.
The announcement of self-rule from the Kurds came after Kurdish militias seized another group of villages this week in northeastern Syria from jihadists, adding to an impressive few weeks of territorial gains. Kurdish activists say the victories in Hassaka province against al Qaeda-affiliated groups by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a sister group of Turkey’s long-running separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, and the consolidating of their hold on Kurdish-majority towns is allowing them now to declare provisional self-rule. About 10 percent of the Syrian population is Kurdish.
Syria’s main Western-backed opposition alliance, the Syrian National Council, now describes the Kurds as hostile, accusing them of being in cahoots with Assad. Until now, the Sunni-dominated rebel opposition has been careful to avoid antagonizing the Kurds and the SNC named a secular Kurd as its leader this year.
“The PYD is a group hostile to the Syrian revolution,” the SNC said in a statement yesterday, paving the way for Free Syrian Army units to join jihadists in fighting the Kurds.
The SNC added: “Its declaration of self-rule amounts to a separatist act shattering any relationship with the Syrian people who are battling to achieve a free, united and independent state.”
The Kurds say they support the rebellion against Assad but they have not been engaged in battles with the Syrian President’s forces since the army withdrew from Kurdish areas in the early months of the civil war. They have long held the goal of carving out an autonomous region in northeastern Syria along the lines of what the Kurds enjoy in northern Iraq.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Saleh Muslim, head of the PYD dismissed the accusation of a tie-up between Assad and his party as “untrue.” ‘They are saying this because they want to use us for their aims and we won’t do that. They have been supporting jihadists and Islamists fighting us. We don’t have any contact with Assad.”
In reference to his own series of imprisonments by Assad from 2003 until he fled in 2010 to neighboring Iraq, the 62-year-old PYD leader said: “We were fighting Assad long before them.”
As accusations were hurled back and forth over the Kurdish declaration, resentment simmered among Islamist rebels about the willingness now of the SNC, a grouping of mainly political exiles, to attend Geneva peace talks if they get off the ground. The SNC not only announced it would be prepared to participate in talks provided certain stipulations are met but outlined a partial cabinet of its own to administer rebel-held territory, mainly in the north of the war-battered country.
The pulling together of an interim government by the SNC has taken months because of disputes between the exiles, but the effort could largely be wasted with hostility mounting from Islamist fighters. One SNC member, Kamal Lebvani, acknowledged this, saying, “The fighters are the ones who decide things, not us.” And the fighters are apparently having none of it. They say the Geneva talks are irrelevant because they don’t address their demands for the immediate overthrow of Assad and punishment of regime loyalists and they warn they will never tolerate the SNC governing towns and villages they captured from Assad.
In September more than a dozen mainly Islamist brigades quit the coalition and its Free Syrian Army to form Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam). The umbrella group now numbers 64 militias. Islamist rebels deride the SNC as a puppet of Western and Gulf powers and say it is not representative of rebel fighters.
The Army of Islam’s spokesman, Mohammed Alloush, the brother of one of the umbrella group’s top leaders, says, “Any political solution should be imposed from the field, not from foreign parties.” The leaders of the affiliated brigades of the Army of Islam warned earlier this month they would consider any participation in Geneva talks an act of treason.
Fehim Tastekin, a Turkish columnist for the newspaper Radikal, says the SNC has been placed in a no-win situation, having to choose between either refusing to go to Geneva and face losing the support of the international community, “or agree to attend and lose Syria—that is, the armed opposition.”
SNC leaders say they still believe rebel fighters can be persuaded that political talks are the best way forward and intend to use community activists to assist them to persuade them that talks are necessary. One of their main arguments is that Assad’s forces, with the assistance of Shia fighters from Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah movement and from Iraq, are shifting the course of the war in favor of the regime.
This month Assad’s forces have made inroads into rebel-held suburbs south of Damascus and yesterday government troops added Hujeira as the latest in a string of suburbs arcing the Syrian capital to fall to the regime. Last week, Assad’s forces seized a strategic town to the southeast of Aleppo, once the commercial hub of the country, and are bent on recapturing districts from opposition brigades weakened by infighting.
Rebel fighters see the offensive on Aleppo so grave that they have called on all Islamists brigades, including jihadist formations, to reinforce the defense of the half of the city they nominally control. Hezbollah and Iranian fighters as well as Iraqi Shia militiamen are backing government forces in the offensive, according to the rebels. Mohammad Nour, of an opposition media network, Sham News, says regime forces have launched a pincer movement from the north and the east and are closing in on major neighborhoods. He says infighting between the Army of Islam and brigades affiliated with the SNC has made Aleppo more vulnerable to Assad.
With rebel divisions growing, new rifts between insurgents and Kurds, and Assad on the offensive, the prospects for Geneva talks even happening look increasingly forlorn.