Syria: civil wars in the civil war

A split in the Syrian rebel forces could actually be salubrious. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a broad and very loose alliance that includes both secular pro-democratic elements and "moderate" (sic) Islamists—the latter considerably more hostile to the very secular-minded Kurds. A clean break between those who support or oppose a multi-ethnic secular post-Assad Syria is inevitable and would clear the political air. Unfortunately, this split is also breaking down along ethnic lines—and is embroiled with the Russo-Turkish game being played for northern Syria. The specter of ethnic warfare and Great Power intrigues threatens to further derail the Syrian revolution and escalate the already confused civil war. 

The Kurdish-led People's Defense Units (YPG) reports ongoing attacks from ISIS at the villages of Ayn Isa, Jarablus and Qereqozax in Kobani canton. Simultaneously, in what appears to be a coordinated campaign, the Turkish military continues to harass YPG forces at the border village of Tal Abyad, also in Kobani canton. And YPG enclaves in Aleppo city are under attack from the Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front and its ally Ahrar al-Sham.

The recent formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition uniting the YPG with more progressive elements of the Free Syrian Army, appears to be drawing the lines clearly within the FSA. A video released on YouTube shows fighters from Liwa Suqour al-Jabal—an FSA faction reportedly vetted by the CIA—burning SDF flags while chanting "Allahu Akbar!" (ANF, Nov. 30; Middle East Eye, Nov. 29) 

The pro-YPG Lions of Rojava group, in turn, posted an extremely graphic Facebook video purporting to show casualties from jihadist mortar-shelling of the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud in Aleppo—explicitly charging that Turkey is backing these jihadi factions.

Then there's the Russian factor… We are not sure whether to believe it, but Turkish news site Yeni Safak claims Russian helicopters are backing up the YPG in its campaigns against ISIS and other jihadis. (If true, this would mean that the US and Russia are in at least a de facto alliance on the ground in northern Syria, as the Pentagon has a small contingent of Special Forces backing up the SDF.)

Russian forces are meanwhile accused of a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Turkmen (ethnic Turkish minority) of northern Syria. Abdurrahman Mustafa, president of the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, charged that Moscow is waging a relentless campaign of aerial bombardment intended to "drive out" the Turkmen people from their homeland in northwestern Syria. In an interview with The Independent, Mustafa said thousands of Turkmen civilians had been forced from their homes in the Bayirbucak region. "There are not many left," he said. "It is nearly impossible to survive amid this bombing."

Speaking to Turkey's Daily Sabah, Mustafa openly contrasted the international mobilization for Kobani canton in its struggle against ISIS last year with the silence now that Bayirbucak is under attack. He asserted that the Turkmen have also been resisting ISIS. "Why [is it that] Daesh [ISIS] cannot take Azaz [town]? We are fighting against Daesh in Syria. The Sultan Murad Brigade has lost 150 fighters. Nobody knows anything about it." The Kurds and Turkmen may have common enemies in both ISIS and Assad, but the Russo-Turkish game seems to be pitting them against each other.

There is little doubt that Russia's air-strikes are taking an horrific toll. The watchdog website has been counting the number of civilians killed in air-strikes by foreign forces in Syria and Iraq. It accuses the US-led coalition of low-balling its casualty count, and puts the actual figure not at the absurd six confirmed by the Coalition but at upwards of 680 (with a high estimate of over 2,000). But that is over the course of more than a year. In contrast, just one month of Russian bombardment has already claimed between 250 and 375 civilian lives. "That is a very worrying toll," Airwars' Chris Woods told Public Radio International.

Even more worrying than the actual body-count is what the political impact on the ground could mean for Syria's revolutionary forces.

  1. Russia leading in Syria air-strikes

    A CNN chart provides a breakdown of the total foreign air-strikes in Syria since the US campaign began over a year ago. US air-strikes number 2,776 with another 158 carried out by US allies. Russian strikes are already at 2,716—in just a matter of weeks.