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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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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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