The battle for control in Syria

Maryam Ishani
9 Min Read
A Syrian boy runs past damaged houses in the Syrian village of Tremseh (File photo)
A Syrian boy runs past damaged houses in the Syrian village of Tremseh (File photo)

There are many moving parts in Syria right now. In the last week, some of the highest ranking officers of Al-Assad’s government have either defected or met a bloody end. Rumours continue to circulate that Bashar Al-Assad has been hurt as well as his brother Maher, or neither, or both had been killed.

The rumours indicate the vulnerable nature that Al-Assad’s continued rule is in. The rebels are closing in, appearing to almost gain strength as they gain ground, despite months of pummeling in Homs and Deraa. There is a rapid deterioration and it seems to have coincided with the increased involvement of Syria’s Kurds.

Syrian Kurds have emerged as the tipping point in the conflict on Syria. It is not surprising that the four-border straddling, yet stateless, ethnic group has emerged as the group able to ride the chaos in Syria to a new plateau for their regional influence.

Damascus, below them, appears to be coming apart at the seams. Months before rebels came pounding at the doors of Al-Assad and his regime henchmen in Damascus with remote detonators, Al-Assad was getting nervous over the two million or so Kurds on his border with Turkey.

Thinking he could ally his Kurds with the Kurds in Turkey against Erdogan last month after the two nations reached a standoff over the shooting of a Turkish jet by Syrian border defenses, he attempted to lure them to his side with promises of citizenship, but failed.

Al-Assad underestimated that after the group’s experiences with regional authorities in Turkey and Iraq, they may be averse to having regional masters of any kind.

Indeed, the fluid Kurdish relationships across four contentious borders is a situation that is tough to control by four of the region’s largest armies. Iran, Turkey and Syria, have all given relative border autonomy to the Kurds living on their shared borders and Iraq has given almost all.

The Iraqi Kurds have the greatest autonomy with two of the most powerful Kurds in the region, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani entrenched in powerful positions and surrounded by effective fighting forces.

Last month, the leader of the Kurdish Freedom (Azadi) Party in Syria and member of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), Mustafa Juma, was detained at a checkpoint at the Syrian-Iraqi border. Juma was charged with intending to handover sensitive information about Syria’s pro-Assad People’s Protection Committee (PPC), the armed wing of the pro-Assad Democratic Union Party (PYD) to the Turkish consulate in Iraq.

That detention signaled that the Kurds were quietly playing their own long-game against a backdrop of chaos in Homs and Damascus. The importance their role could play in tipping the scales against Al-Assad was made apparent in last month’s meeting between Syria’s opposition members in Cairo.

After bickering broke out over disparate goals and positions members of the Kurdish delegation stood up and began to walk out, disgusted by the mess. However, the shoving and pushing to keep them there resulted in an all-out brawl.

Allegedly one of the major points of disagreement at the meeting was the decision to authorise a committee to act as the public face of the much splintered opposition, according to opposition leader Haitham Al-Manah in an interview with Reuters.

And for the Kurds, regional masters of any kind, were again out of the question. Morshed Mashouk, a senior member of the Kurdish delegation told Reuters, “we will not return to the conference and that is our final line. We are a people as we have language and religion and that is what defines a people.”

So it should have been no surprise then that a Syrian Kurd from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Abdelbaset Sieda, was within a month appointed the new head of the Syrian National Committee (SNC), the de facto leadership of the fractured opposition has always been eager to keep its place at the head of the table. Sieda’s KDP is allied with the larger KDP party which finds it head in Iraq under the leadership of the near patron saint of Kurds, Massoud Barzani.

Within two weeks of Sieda’s appointment, the effect of their support is apparent. On Friday, Kurdish militias seized control of a string of towns in northern Syria, and Saturday 650 defected Syrian soldiers were said to have taken control of Al-Malikiyah.

Wladimir van Wilgenberg, who is a writer and analyst focusing on the Kurdish situation, said there are widespread rumors that this group of soldiers is headed to take control of Qamishli. Qamishli is the largest city in Kurdish Syria, and has not yet been wrested from Syrian control.

Van Wilgenburg gave two reasons for the recent Kurdish offensive.  “It is the new unity created by the Erbil agreement,” referring to a conference held by Massoud Barzani, President of Kurdish Iraq in which he managed to bring together rival factions of the Kurdish National Councils (KNC) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), giving birth to the YPG or People’s Defense Alliance.

Hazal Ates wrote about the meeting for Al-Monitor and stated, “the Syrian Kurds decided to take a unified stand against Assad, set up a Supreme Kurdish Council and form ‘popular defense forces’ to control the region.”

Since that meeting the newly empowered YPG has taken control of many Kurdish majority cities. Van Wilgenburg writes that, “So far Kobanî, Efrîn, Cinderîs, Şêx Hedîd and Amûdê are under Kurdish control.”

In an interview with Daily News Egypt he added a second factor to explain the recent timing and success of the Kurdish operations, “Assad is militarily weakening.”

Ravaged by heavy fighting in Damascus and fears of low-ranking army defection, Assad’s forces have been thinned out and face restraints on how many men they can commit to respond to the Kurdish advance.

In addition to the problems the Kurds are causing Assad’s crumbling state, they also put Turkey in an awkward position. While Turkey stood firmly against Assad’s crackdown on protesters, it also does not want to see Syrian Kurds carve out an area autonomous enough to allow the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK) to operate within. The PKK has waged a decades long war against the Turkish state and a safe haven in Syria would give them a huge boost, much like they received when they began executing attacks out of northern Iraq.
Van Wilgenburg said the Kurds won’t adandone their recent successes for the status quo.

“They will not go away. Their aim is to create something similar to KRG,” said van Wilgenburg referring to the the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq.

An image grab taken from footage broadcast by Syrian state TV on 20 July shows men with their hands tied behind their backs, said to be rebel fighters, after the Syrian government forces said they recaptured the Al-Midan district of southern Damascus
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