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Wars Within Wars

In northern Syria, the Kurds try to carve out a territory and fend off the jihadists

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By JONATHAN SPYER
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Kobani, Syrian Kurdish Region
With Syrian presidential elections scheduled for June, the incumbent and shoo-in for reelection, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, is campaigning on the promise that 2014 will be the year in which military operations in Syria end. However, the situation in northern Syria, exemplified by the conflict in the canton of Kobani, an area stretching from the Turkish border to south of Kobani city, and from Tell Abyad in the east to Jarabulus in the west, casts doubt on Assad’s optimism.

A YPG fighter fires during an ISIS attack  on the village of Haj Ismail in weste

A YPG fighter fires during an ISIS attack on the village of Haj Ismail in western Kobani.

Jonathan Spyer

Kobani is under Kurdish control, but cuts into a larger section of territory controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a jihadist organization. ISIS aims to hold a clear, contiguous area stretching from Syria’s border with Turkey into western Iraq, where it controls territory in the provinces of Ninewah and Anbar. The existence of the Kurdish canton of Kobani interferes with this plan, and since March ISIS has launched daily attacks against positions held by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) at the edges of the enclave. The Kobani situation offers a window into the Syrian conflict, a fragmented reality where in large parts of the country the regime is little more than a memory, and well-organized rival militias representing starkly different political projects are clashing. Last month, I traveled to the Kobani enclave, entering from the Turkish border with Kurdish smugglers. The road was short but perilous—a sprint toward the border fence in the dark and a rapid, fumbling climb over it. 

Kobani was the first of three cantons established by the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) since the Assad regime withdrew from much of northern Syria in the summer of 2012. There are two other such enclaves: the much larger Jazeera canton to the east, which stretches from the town of Ras al-Ain to the border with Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, and the smaller area around the city of Afrin further west. In all three of these areas, the PYD has set up a Kurdish-dominated autonomous administration. The intention of the Kurds is to consolidate their independent government and eventually to unite the three cantons. 

In the meantime, however, the stark reality of siege conditions in the Kobani canton was immediately apparent to me. The main electricity supply had been cut off, with only intermittent power from hastily rigged-up generators. The water supply, too, had been interrupted, and the local Kurdish authorities were busy digging wells in the hope of reaching natural springs located deep underground. 

Yet for all this, life in the city functions in a way closely resembling normality. The two hospitals in the city lack medical equipment and medicines, but they are open. “We are improvising, we are innovating, and we are not dying,” a doctor told me at Ayn al-Arab hospital
in Kobani city. The school system is functioning, too, and in northern Syria at present these are no small achievements. 

The Kurdish enclaves are almost certainly the most peaceful and best-governed areas in Syria. However, the Kurds are aware of the precariousness of their achievement. Ali, a member of the Kurdish Asayish paramilitary police, told me that “Assad doesn’t want to open another front now. But if he finishes with the radical groups, then he’ll come for us, inevitably.” In the meantime, as one PYD official said, “We take a third line, neither with the regime nor with the Free Syrian Army. We hope in the future to unite all the cantons. We accept a role for the Arabs, so we don’t see a problem with this. And right now, we have one goal—keeping out ISIS.” 

The PYD’s “democratic autonomy” project in northern Syria put it on a collision course with ISIS, which is trying to lay the basis for an Islamic state run according to its own floridly brutal interpretation of sharia law. The resulting conflict then is not simply about territory, or who will rule northern Syria; it is also about how this land will be ruled. 

Mahmoud Musa, a Syrian political analyst and a refugee from the town of Jisr al-Shughur, told me that “there are three serious and well-organized forces in Syria today—the Assad regime, ISIS, and the Kurds.” The last two regard themselves as at war with the regime. In reality, the rival mini-states they have carved out of a fragmented Syria are mainly in conflict with each other. 

 ISIS has emerged as one of the strangest and cruelest of the many political-military movements now active in Syria. I spoke with a young Kurdish man named Perwer who had spent a week in ISIS captivity. He was arrested at the Jarabulus border crossing, while returning to Syria from Istanbul. First detained by members of another Islamist unit, the Tawhid Brigade, he was then handed over to ISIS and kept for five days in one of the movement’s jails in Jarabulus town, just west of the Kobani enclave. 

Perwer related that a Kurdish man who had been caught raising the YPG flag in a village near the border with the Kurdish enclave was tortured to death. He also noted that among his fellow prisoners were Arab residents of Jarabulus held for drinking wine. They too were tortured. The Kurdish prisoners were regularly insulted and called apostates by the ISIS guards, who came from a variety of countries. Copies of the Koran were handed out to the Kurdish detainees, and the days in their crowded cell were broken up by prayer sessions, in which ISIS would seek to instruct their Muslim captives in what they regard as the correct method of Muslim prayer. 

ISIS’s mini-state reaches from the edges of Kobani to deep inside western Iraq. I visited the frontlines on the eastern edge of the Kobani enclave, where the positions of the YPG and ISIS push up against each other. In Tell Abyad, the two sides are camped in abandoned villages, where the ruined landscape has a slightly lunar quality. Eyewitnesses told me that ISIS forced the villagers to leave when the fighting began. Young fighters of the YPG moved carefully around their positions in the abandoned village, ever mindful of the presence of ISIS snipers. In places, the two sides are less than 500 meters apart. ISIS favors mortar fire by night and sniping by day. This has taken a toll on the male and female fighters of the YPG. Around 80 of them have died since the fighting erupted in March. Many more ISIS men, however, have been killed in their wild and uncoordinated attacks. 

In Jarabulus on the western side, the frontline villages are still inhabited. Some of the local Arab clans are backing ISIS. A sort of de facto mini-transfer of populations has taken place in the area, largely, though not solely, along ethnic lines. I met a couple of Sunni Arabs among the ranks of the YPG fighters. There are also Kurdish volunteers among the ISIS men, including some commanders. They hail mainly from the villages of Iraqi Kurdistan, in particular from the Halabja area. Yet these details aside, it is clear the main dynamic of the conflict in this area is ethnic and sectarian, with Kurds faced off against Sunni Arab Islamists. The attitude of the YPG fighters to their ISIS enemies combines a certain contempt for their military prowess, with a sort of fascinated horror at their savage practices. 

“They outnumber us, often. But they lack tactics,” said Surkhwi, a female fighter and the commander of the Kurdish fighters in the village of Abduqli. “We think many of them take drugs before entering combat, and they attack randomly, haphazardly. They desecrate bodies of our fighters, cutting off heads, cutting off hands. They don’t respect the laws of war,” Surkhwi told me. “We also know that ISIS look at us women fighters as something not serious, because of their Islamic ideology. They think that if they are killed by a woman, they won’t go to paradise.” 

The YPG fighters themselves, meanwhile, are clearly experienced and well trained. While interviewing one YPG commander, Nohalat Kobani, I had the chance to witness his troops in action. The position in the village of Haj Ismail where we were conducting the interview came under attack from small arms fire as we were talking. I followed the YPG fighters as they raced to their positions to return fire. The coordination and discipline were impressive. The YPG blasted back at the ISIS position, 500 meters away, with rifles and a medium-caliber machine gun. After a while, the shooting from the other side stopped. Nohalat Kobani, a large, corpulent man and a veteran PYD activist, was amused and unperturbed by the incident. We recommenced our interview as soon as the shooting stopped. 

I met two ISIS fighters in an apartment in Kilis in the south of Turkey, two days after the skirmish at Haj Ismail. It was strange to be sipping tea and smoking with men whose comrades had been shooting at me a short time earlier. It was also fascinating to gain an insight into the appeal that ISIS has managed to exercise over some Syrians, and the way that the movement views the situation in northern Syria. 

Both men were Syrians. Abu Muhammad was clean-shaven and wearing a black tracksuit. Abu Nur sported a short beard. I remarked to my contact afterwards that I would never have taken them for Islamists. He told me that ISIS men customarily shave their beards and adopt western dress when entering Turkey from Syria, so as to avoid the attention of the Turkish security services and police. 

Abu Nur outlined his reasons for joining the organization. He had been a member of the Northern Storm militia, a notoriously corrupt non-Islamist militia group that had controlled the Bab al-Salameh border crossing from Turkey. The incident that had compelled him to leave Northern Storm and join ISIS, he said, was Senator John McCain’s visit to Bab al-Salameh in the spring of 2013. Abu Nur explained that he is suspicious of foreign governments using Syrians for their own ends, so when fighting began between ISIS and Northern Storm in his hometown of Azaz, he joined ISIS, which laid waste to his former colleagues in the subsequent weeks. He had stayed with ISIS, he told me, because it “imposes sharia, acts against criminals and robbers, and has no contact with any foreign government.” 

When I asked Abu Muhammad about ISIS’s practice of cutting off hands and heads as lawful punishments, he told me that “the media have exaggerated this. In certain areas they cut hands off, in others not,” he said. “We have tried our best to apply sharia law. Of course there have been some mistakes.” 

ISIS has recently carried out a strategic retreat in parts of northern Syria, which in some ways resembles the earlier redeployment by the regime. In January of this year, under pressure from other rebel brigades, ISIS began to withdraw its fighters from Idleb and much of Aleppo provinces, concentrating them in its Raqqa stronghold and further east. Abu Mohammed explained the reasons for ISIS’s redeployment. “If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back. And perhaps in the future I will return again.”

ISIS rules over large swaths of western Iraq’s Anbar and Ninewah provinces, where its fighters are engaged in an insurgency against the government of Nuri al-Maliki, who has been employing sectarian tactics against the Sunnis. So there is a strategic logic to ISIS contracting its forces and drawing down in northwest Syria. The problem for the Kurds is that the Kobani enclave falls within the area that ISIS still seeks to dominate. 

Abu Muhammad expressed the matter clearly: “The YPG wants to establish a Kurdish state. This is completely unacceptable. We want the caliphate, something old and new, from the time of Mohammed. The Europeans created false borders. We want to break these borders.”

Still, ISIS’s plan to destroy the Kobani canton is unlikely to succeed. The Kurdish administration and its militia are capable and well organized, and will continue to defend the enclave’s borders with weapons and supplies smuggled from across the Turkish border. There are veterans of the Kurdistan Workers’ party war against Turkey advising the PYD on both civil and military matters. They appear more than able to stave off ISIS, and to continue to develop the institutions of their autonomy. 

Bashar al-Assad may please himself with the farce of elections, but the wars within wars, competing worldviews, and irreconcilable projects, in northern Syria are testimony to the fact of the country’s fragmentation. They reflect also the rapid change still underway in the Middle East, as old ideas and regimes contract and fade, and new contenders for power make war among the ruins. 

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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