Syria: anti-ISIS forces advance —despite everything

Since launching their offensive on ISIS-controlled territory in northern Syria a week ago, the Kurdish-Arab alliance of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, also rendered DFS or QSD) says it has recaptured 36 villages in Hasakah governorate and is advancing towards Raqqa, the "Islamic State" capital. (See map.) The SDF leadership said in a statement Nov. 7: "Within a week of anti-ISIS operations, we have liberated 350 square km held by Daesh (ISIS) terrorists, including 36 villages, 10 farms, 2 gas stations and 6 border posts." The statement also claimed 196 ISIS "terrorists have been killed since the operation started," and "13 SDF fighters have been martyred during the battles so far." (ARA News, Kurdish Info)

Leave it to the Financial Times on Nov. 3 to provide some very unhelpful coverage, starting with the headline: "Syria crisis: ethnic rivalries undercut US plan for push on Raqqa." For starters, it isn't a "US plan." First and foremost, it's the SDF plan; the US is just supporting it with air cover (and perhaps a small contingent of Special Forces). But the article portrays the SDF as a US creation, motivated by the fact that Raqqa lies outside traditional Kurdish territory, and therefore it would be impolitic for a wholly Kurdish force to take it. Of the numerous conveniently anonymous quotes in the article, we'll offer just one: A source identified vaguely as a "senior defence official" (of what country?) apparently said: "The Kurds are geographically limited. We need Arabs rather than Kurds to lead the vanguard." It then goes on to assert, mostly based on such vague sources, that the SDF is riven with Arab-Kurdish tensions.

One of the few attributed quotes is from a former fighter with the Jaish al-Thuwar, one of the Arab militias in the SDF, who is said to have resigned in protest over the alliance with the Kurdish militia, the People's Defense Force (YPG). The defected Jaish al-Thuwar fighter, identified as Alaa al-Sheikh, said: "The Syrian Democratic Force is basically just the YPG. It's a mask to avoid Turkish strikes and get more coalition support."

It would be surprising if there were no Arab-Kurdish tensions in the SDF, given the history of the region. But the existence of the new alliance is a sign of hope that progressive elements in both communities are uniting around shared principles of democracy and secularism. Of course those who defected in protest of the alliance are more likely to be the intransigent ethno-nationalists. Emphasizing such voices only plays into the the divide-and-rule strategy by which ISIS, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and the Turkish state all seek (for their own reasons) to shatter and crush the secular-democratic forces.

Tellingly, just as the SDF offensive was launched, Turkey began an assault on the YPG-held border town Tel Abyad—testing the water for establishment of a Turkish-controlled "buffer zone" that would usurp the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria. So US-backed Turkey attacks US-backed anti-ISIS fighters… As Obama turns a blind eye. (At best, we can hope that quiet State Department pressure caused the Turks to back down at Tel Abyad after a few days of fighting.)

Meanwhile, the Turkish state continues its internal war against the Kurds. A week ago, Turkish special forces launched an attack on the Silvan district of Diyarbakir city, where local Kurds have declared "autonomy." Attacks by Turkish forces continue in the district, with neighborhoods reported to be under bombardment. (ANF, Nov. 9)

Obama is right to bet on the SDF as the best force to defeat ISIS. But how long before balancing the SDF and the Turkish government becomes untenable for him? Acquiescing in Turkish designs against the Kurdish zone could be fatal to the (so far) winning strategy against ISIS in Syria. Meanwhile, journalism that plays up the ethnic division rather than the strides made in overcoming it will certainly make ISIS happy.

  1. EU blasts Turkey —despite pressure

    The EU on Nov. 10 released a report criticizing Turkey for lack of human rights reform. (Justi) This days after European Commission president Jean Claude-Juncker told the Euroarliament that the EU should not "harp on" Turkey's huiman rights record because Ankara's cooperation was needed to stem the flow of refugees into Europe. (The Telegraph, Oct. 27)