This post is the latest update for the State of Play: The Kurds in the Syrian civil war. It can be read independently, but readers will be able to refer to the initial post for background.
A general call to arms to fight Jihadis
– Since first clashes erupted on 12 July, intensifying on 16 July, notably over and in the city of Ras al-Ain, the YPG (The People’s Defence Units – see updated mapping of actors below) has been fighting Jahbat-al Nosra (JAN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS or ISIL) (van Wilgenburg, Al-Monitor, July 16). At the end of July, fighting was raging in the area of the oil fields of Rmeilan “around the main production facility” (Mohammad Ballout, As-Safir, translated by Al Monitor, 30 July 2013). Other groups “from Ahrar al-Sham, Ahrar Ghoweiran, the Free Syrians Brigades and the Umma brigade,” as well as the “Jazeera Free Brigades”, “composed of Arab Shummar clans” are also “participating in the military operations taking place in the triangle formed by the other important oil fields of Suwaidiyah, Rmeilan and the Tel Koujar-Rabihah crossing, adjacent to the Iraqi border.” (Ballout, Ibid).
On 30 July 2013, the struggle became a war within the war in Syria, after the YPG issued, in Hasaka province, “a general call to arms for all persons able to carry a weapon to join their ranks in order to defend the YPG held areas from the attacks of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, al-Nusra Front and allied rebel groups” (SOHR, 30 July).
Various assumptions have been made to explain this call to arms, linking it to the assassination of “Issa Ibrahim Hiso, a prominent member of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) on July 30”, to the visit of Saleh Muslim, the co-leader of the PYD to Turkey, which would have a disruptive potential, notably for the Al-Assad regime, and to ISIS and JAN (van Wilgenburg, Al-Monitor, July 31). However, first, Ballout (Ibid.) sees, as one of the main engines of the war between the Kurds and the Jihadis, control over the oil-rich areas of Hasaka province. Indeed, being able to access and exploits the oil fields means much in terms of resources thus money, crucial to mobilize supporters and soldiers, arm and pay the latter and thus wage the war. Second, ISIS strategy is to expand in Northern Syria, as explained – and foreseen – by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (Syria Comment, 18 July), where ISIS reproduces what it did in both the Aleppo and Idlib regions, “seeking … to consolidate control over outlying towns, particularly those of strategic importance along or near the border with Turkey” such as Tel Abyad, where, among others, oil can be smuggled out (Ballout, Ibid.) Thus, the reasons given by the YPG itself for the call to arms, i.e. attacks by ISIS, JAN and other groups, are probably the most accurate. The YPG would thus act as the last Northeastern stand against ISIS expansion, while trying to preserve the means of its monetary survival, meanwhile denying it to others.
Fighting in Hasaka province is still ongoing and can be followed on the PYD info website, on MESOP, on Wladimir van Wilgenburg’s blog and on the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). It extends to the northern part of the Raqqah province, where, for example, on 2 November 2013 “ISIS raid[ed] the KNC office in Raqqah and arrest[ed] some Kurdish activists” (Wladimir van Wilgenburg’s blog).
The population within Kurdish dominated areas, as in the rest of the country, has also to face the consequences of air raids by the Syrian air force, as the latter shells villages where the presence of ISIS and Jan are reported (e.g. PYD info, 19 Oct 2013).
Meanwhile, in Aleppo province, clashes take place for domination of villages and areas between the YPG on the one hand and various configurations of factions including always ISIS, and sometimes Ahrar al-Sham (van Wilgenburg, MESOP, 30 October 2013).
This war within a war has three major consequences.
First steps towards the end of endemic Kurdish infighting?
On the importance of military forces on the ground during a civil war
First, as the population increasingly perceives the YPG as its protector, the war against Jihadis further legitimizes the YPG and thus enhances the power of the PYD over its rivals (van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor 25 October 2013 & 13 October 2013). This is all the more important because infighting has not abated among Syrian Kurds. Thus, a rising support for the YPG could be seen as a weak signal announcing the victory of one group – the PYD – over the others, or rather a supremacy that would be sufficient enough on the ground not to potentially mar anymore overall political and military progress.
The PYD would then have to play carefully its hand to assert its position, ending as much as possible the divisions while integrating other factions. It could build on the latest effort at overcoming divisions as can be understood the 10 July PYD announcement of its intention to start working towards the “formation of an interim administration in Western Kurdistan” (ANHA, 10 July 2013) probably after consultation with other Kurdish leaders, including of opposing groups, within and without Syria (van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor, 19 July 2013). This, de facto, emphasized the difficulty to see the Supreme Kurdish Council (SKC) play its full role, as underlined by van Wilgenburg (ibid). The SKC would be replaced by an “interim administration within three months” while, a referendum on a draft constitution and parliamentary elections” would be organised “within six months” (Ibid.). By 13 August, consultations had been held “to form a council comprised of around 100 members that will be in charge of civil administration” (Ibrahim Hemeidi, Al-Hayat, translated in Al Monitor, 14 August 2013). This decision, sometimes criticized by other Kurdish parties afraid it would increase the PYD’s strength, was also not welcomed elsewhere, as it was feared it would start a process of partition within Syria (van Wilgenburg, 19 July). Since then Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD, notably during his trips to Istanbul to meet with Turkish authorities, has repeatedly emphasized that the objective was to set up an administration and not a government, and that no secession was envisioned (e.g. Hemeidi, Al-Hayat).
In this framework of fear for the future, the last stand offered by the YPG against Jihadis may also contribute to quell anxieties to see Arabs excluded and discriminated against within regions dominated by Kurds (Andrea Giloti, Al Monitor, 8 October 2013). Indeed, there has been evidence of Arab villagers being grateful to the YPG for “liberating them” from and “supporting them” against Jihadis and their potentially stringent rule, while protecting them from “mistaken” looting (van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor, 13 October 2013, Giloti, Ibid). The potentiality to see sectarianism sowed needs however to be kept in mind and envisioned..
Unity among Kurds is, however, far from being achieved. Early October, the four parties that had so far funded the alliance called the Democratic Political Union (KDP), which controlled the Kurdish National Council (KNC), merged “into a single party under the banner of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S), currently led by Abdulhakim Bashar” (see updated mapping), an attempt by parties supported by Barzani (President of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq) to rejuvenate the old party created in 1957 that had then fragmented (van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor, 19 October 2013). This renovated party seems, however, to be fraught with the same divisions as the overall Kurdish factions. Furthermore, if its leaders claim representing many people on the ground, the YPG and PYD, of course, refute this claim.
Meanwhile, even fighters affiliated initially with the KDP and thus who used to oppose the YPG preeminence have started joining the latter in their fight against jihadis (Van Wilgenburg, 25 October).
Geneva 2 and international support
Kurdish infighting finds its mirror image among international actors (who supports whom), and both express themselves perfectly well in relation to the always more uncertain Geneva 2. According to Van Wilgenburg (19 July 2013), the PYD is “closer to the PKK and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Some claim this front [Qandil or Slemani front] is closer to Iran, Russia and Syria and more critical of Turkey….the second Erbil front led by Barzani is closer to Turkey.”
On 7 September 2013, the KNC decided to join the NC (Ara News, 8 Sept 2013). However, part of the KNC would want to attend Geneva as KNC, some as KNC and, if impossible, be represented by the NC, whilst others want to go as part of the KSC (Van Wilgenburg, 9 October 2013). The U.S. and Turkey would be supportive of the KNC and its representation by the NC (Ibid.).
On the contrary, the PYD wants to attend Geneva “not as part of the Syrian National Coalition but as an independent Kurdish movement”, which is opposed by Turkey, and believes the end solution “must include Assad” not to see all Alawites killed (Taraf, Interview of Muslim, translated by Al Monitor, 26 October 2013). Russia supports the presence of the PYD dominated SKC at Geneva (van Wilgenburg, 9 October 2013). As a result, even politically, part of the KNC finally has an aim similar to the PYD.
Turkey: a key challenging role?
Second, the war between the YPG and Jihadis highlights the potentially murky and certainly challenging role of Turkey in the Syrian conflict. Although Turkey repeatedly denied it, it would have been “supporting al-Nusra and other radical Islamist groups against the Syrian Kurds” and as the strongest force against the Al-Assad regime, but would be now reconsidering or being more cautious in its support (Semih Idiz, Al-Monitor, 13 August 2013). Meanwhile, Saleh Muslim repeatedly asked Turkey to intervene and keep the jihadists in check (Amberin Zaman, Taraf, translated by Al Monitor, 4 August 2013; Taraf, 26 October 2013). What Saleh Muslim asked could be logical but not always that easy to obtain. Indeed, the border between Turkey and Syria is very long and probably impossible to control strictly. One may think, as a comparison, about the difficulty of the U.S. to surveil and control its border with Mexico. The Jihadi strategy to expand towards the border with Turkey means a need to secure logistics and supply but this may also happen without full and active Turkish support.
Warning about the sterilization of Western Kurdistan
“it will be a long time before the soil is suitable for agriculture, groundwater will no longer be suitable for use and surface and sea water will be at stake. The air will, in short, be poisonous.”
Finally, and most importantly for the future, the war between the YPG and jihadis dominated groups draws attention to an ecological catastrophe in the making in Western Kurdistan, and more generally around all Syrian oil fields.
As seen above, one of the main engines of the war between the Kurds and the Jihadis, besides those underlined by Al-Tamimi, is control over oil fields and their exploitation (Ballout, 30 July 2013). When the various groups are not fighting over controlling fields, “militant factions and Kurdish protection units (YPG) take charge of oil extraction, refining and selling on their own account” (Alaa Halabi, As-Safir, translated by Al Monitor, 28 October 2013). They extract crude oil, sell some of it as such and “refine part of it using primitive refining methods, whereby derivatives such as diesel and gasoline are sold to citizens or traders” (Ibid.). Not only are derivatives of poor quality, but the environmental consequences are tragic. It is worth citing Halabi’s article at length:
“The source added…’Also, militant factions, local factions and some investors own about 2,000 primitive refineries. …These refineries emit smoke and fumes into the air, which leads to further pollution. This has caused the formation of a black cloud over the eastern region of Syria, which will have disastrous results for the area’s residents, water sources and agricultural land, which will inevitably be deserted.’ … Salah al-Jani, a petrochemical engineer, explained ‘When hydrocarbons go out of their cycle [in the case of primitive refining] — into wells, pipes or tanks — the composition of environmental components will be radically changed. In such a case, it will be a long time before the soil is suitable for agriculture, groundwater will no longer be suitable for use and surface and sea water will be at stake. The air will, in short, be poisonous. The associated water — when produced it must be separated before being transported, and it is also called class water — contains salts that threaten plant life, surface water and groundwater. It also carries natural radioactive compounds called NORM, with a level of concentration that cannot be neglected and of an intensity that lasts for years.”
Diseases related to primitive refining already have been noted, from skin infections and cancers to birth defects.
This ongoing environmental tragedy has the potential to finally terminate all hopes for Kurds to ever be free to live according to their own way of life on their land, whatever the political system and the ruler in power. If they do not succeed in finally asserting control over the land where the oil fields are located and then in imposing proper refining, which would indeed demand the end of infighting and the support of international actors, then their only choice will be to run away from this land for which they fought and suffered so much.