Kurdish Rebels Are Beating Up on Assad—And Al Qaeda

In Syria’s northeast, Kurdish militias are forming a ‘core defensive force’

Kurdish Rebels Are Beating Up on Assad—And Al Qaeda Kurdish Rebels Are Beating Up on Assad—And Al Qaeda

Uncategorized October 24, 2013 0

Kurdish forces in syria in 2012. voa photo Kurdish Rebels Are Beating Up on Assad—And Al Qaeda In Syria’s northeast, Kurdish militias are forming... Kurdish Rebels Are Beating Up on Assad—And Al Qaeda
Kurdish forces in syria in 2012. voa photo

Kurdish Rebels Are Beating Up on Assad—And Al Qaeda

In Syria’s northeast, Kurdish militias are forming a ‘core defensive force’

by ROBERT BECKHUSEN

Midnight on Wednesday, Oct. 23, Kurdish forces in Syria’s northeast launched an attack on villages controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — an extremist group affiliated with Al Qaida.

By noon, the Kurdish forces managed to push ISIL out of two villages, a victory of sorts in the months-long war between Sunni extremist groups and the Kurds. It’s a sign of the Kurdish rebels’ growing muscle in the multi-sided war for Syria’s northern Al Hasakah province.

But the rebels came short of taking back the coveted, ISIL-controlled border crossing of Yaarubia — a frequent target of air strikes by the regime of Pres. Bashar Al Assad. The crossing is tough real estate.

But according to the latest CTC Sentinel, the monthly journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, both the Assad regime and extremist Sunni groups like ISIL are increasingly at a disadvantage in the province.

“The Kurdish community of Al Hasakah is well positioned to assert its political and military power over its areas of the province,” writes Nicholas Heras in the Sentinel. Heras isn’t new to the region — he’s a specialist on the subject of conflict in Syria and Lebanon at the Jamestown Foundation.

Loyalist forces hold outposts in the cities of Hasakah and Qamishli, the two largest cities in the province, but are limited elsewhere. This represents “a war of positioning in the context of the Syrian military’s receding power in the region,” Heras writes. Assad’s forces in the province are secure enough to hold its outposts but not much else, and the regime has resorted to exerting “patchwork influence upon the various constituent ethnic and sectarian communities in the province.”

Sunni armed groups and tribal militias are also in the mix, with the heaviest fighting south of Hasakah city and in the province’s far northeast — where Syrian forces backed up by air power fight for control over the area’s oil resources. Extremist groups Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are only two of the various armed factions in the military’s sights.

The largest and most powerful of the armed groups in the province isn't the regime or the extremist groups, but a confederation of militias under Kurdish leadership. The Popular Protection Units, known by its Kurdish acronym YPG, numbers more than 30,000 fighters pitted against both sides.

The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, a thuggish, Iraq-based militia considered a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey. This week, the PKK threatened to renew a 30-year-old armed conflict against Turkey.

But the YPG has set a comparatively more moderate tone, presenting itself as a defensive non-sectarian militia with members across ethnic lines. Tribal groups and ethnic minority groups at risk of being attacked by Sunni extremist groups, such as members of the Kurdish Yazidi faith, have sought help from the YPG.

“Currently, the YPG is publicly positioning itself to contribute to this process by seeking to become the region’s core defensive force charged with the protection of all of Al Hasakah’s constituent communities,” Heras writes.

Heras cautious that success will depend on the YPG’s ability to continue winning battles against both regime troops and extremist fighters, and convince the province’s minorities it has their interests in mind.

Yazidi communities can also be pragmatic in their loyalties. Picking the losing side means the victor will retaliate — violently. “We don’t want to criticize either the government or the opposition yet, since we don’t know who will prevail,” one Yazidi man from the village of Qezlacuk told Al-Monitor.