The Turkish intervention in northern Syria has set off open war between Free Syrian Army factions and the Rojava Kurds—which will only serve the interests of ISIS and Assad. Portrayed as an offensive against ISIS, the intervention has at least equally targeted the Kurds—the most effective anti-ISIS in Syria. Turkey, long accused of conniving with ISIS to weaken the Kurds, is now making a bid for its own "buffer zone" in north Syria, reducing or completely usurping the Rojava autonomous zone. The US is now torn between its NATO ally Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) it has been backing against ISIS. US Central Command on Aug. 30 claimed it hads secured a "loose agreement" for a ceasefire between Turkish and Kurdish forces. This was immediately refuted by Ankara, with cabinet minister Omer Celik saying flatly: "We do not accept in any circumstances a 'compromise or a ceasefire reached between Turkey and Kurdish elements." (MEE, Aug. 31)
Free Syrian Army groups collaborating in the Turkish operation, dubbed "Euphrates Shield," have taken control of five villages from the SDF in the Jarablus area, and two from ISIS. (Syrian Observer, Aug. 29) Kurdish media cite claims that ISIS voluntarily withdrew from these areas as Turkish and FSA forces moved in, pointing to a deal with the jihadists. In contrast, the offensive against the Kurds has clearly been very real, and included air-strikes.
The minimal aims of the operation are to prevent the People's Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia (the core force of the SDF) from linking up two areas they control—Afrin canton on the west side of the Euphrates River and Kobani canton on the east side. Linking these two areas would allow the Rojava Kurds to consolidate a contiguous autonomous zone. (ESSF, Aug. 27)
The Kurds' recent declaration of autonomy is a challenge both to Turkey and the Bashar Assad regime—which helps explain the newly softening relations between these supposed enemies. The betrayal of the Kurds is the sinister side of the Great Power convergence now seen in Syria.
The anger against the Kurds is palpable. Assad's ongoing aerial terror in Aleppo and other areas held by FSA-aligned forces has been permitted by the Great Powers with no interference—despite desperate pleas for a no-fly zone from the besieged populace. But when the Assad regime last month launched its first air-strikes on Kurdish forces, the US immediately scrambled jets and issued threats. On Aug. 18, Pentagon spokesman Cpt. Jeff Davis warned that regime aircraft "would be well-advised not to do things that place them at risk." US aircraft confronted regime warplanes again the next day, which "encouraged" them "to depart the airspace without further incident," Davis said. This is perceived as a de facto US no-fly zone to protect Rojava—exacerbating Arab resentment of the Kurds. (Mkaradjis blog, Sept. 4)
Then there is the critical question of power and administration in the areas taken from ISIS by Kurdish-led forces. Given the charges of "ethnic cleansing" by the YPG militia against Arabs in their anti-ISIS campaign (however questionable), it is imperative that the SDF and YPG play their cards very carefully in liberated areas. Disturbing news is reported from recently liberated Arab-majority Manbij. Hassan Hamidi, an activist in the town, told Lebanon's Now Media Aug. 23: "We really appreciate everything the SDF fighters did in order to push ISIS out of Manbij. But it seems that we are moving from one dictator to another. Manbij's local council, which was elected to run the city, was uprooted by ISIS before and now it is dissolved by the SDF."
The SDF itself may be fracturing, with the Arab militias turning against the YPG. The Liwa al-Tahrir militia is said to have split with the coalition, and clashed with YPG forces at the village of Qunaitera, outside Solok north of Raqqa. (Zaman Al Wasl, South Front, Sept. 2)
The pro-Moscow website Al Masdar News reports that several Arab tribes in the Tal Abyad area north of Raqqa have formed a new militia called Saraya al-Qadisiyah to fight the YPG—pretty clear indication that Assad's ally Russia has turned on the Kurds, and dropped efforts to cultivate them as proxies. This should, at least, put to rest the persistent calumny that the Kurds are collaborating with Assad.
All this throws into question the fate of the ISIS capital Raqqa, the ultimate objective of the SDF campaign. Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook said Aug. 25: "I'm not going to put a timeline on it, but you know our ultimate objective here is Raqqa. The secretary has made clear that [Raqqa] as their [ISIS] capital of their so-called caliphate, is a key objective here and will be a difficult objective." But with the SDF now being attacked by Turkey and FSA forces, and possibly fracturing, this may have to be rethought. (Kurdish Question, Aug. 27)
The destructive internationalization of the war continues to escalate. Regional media report that 600 Russian grounds troops have arrived at Hmaymeem air base on the Syrian coast, and are being prepared to participate in the battle for Aleppo. (Gulf News, Sept. 3) And despite the Moscow-Damascus propaganda trick of conflating all the the forces it targets with "ISIS," Assad's foreign minister Walid al-Muallem is reported to have admitted at a meeting in Baghdad with Iraq's leaders that ISIS is not the regime's "prime concern," but rather the FSA-aligned rebels. These, of course, are also fighting ISIS. (New Arab, Sept. 1)
Russian-backed regime forces are making progress against the rebels—with the inevitable grim consequences. After the fall of Daraya last month, the town's civilians were evacuated to regime-held territory, and there are fears for their fate. Now there are reports that at least 10 of the evacuees were arrested by regime forces upon arrival at the supposed "shelter" in Harjalleh, outside Damascus. (Orient News, Aug. 30) There are concerns they could join the many thousands forcibly disappeared by the regime.
Now the town of Moadamiyeh, adjoining Daraya, is being similarly evacuated after a deal was worked out with the town's rebel defenders. The deal was obviously made under threat of continued starvation and bombardment, and is being assailed as forced displacement. (Al Jazeera, Sept. 3)
So the genocidal regime advances, the offensive against ISIS is in jeopardy—and the resistance forces are at war with each other.
This faces the White House with a hard choice. The heroic behind-lines anti-ISIS monitoring group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently writes: [T]he US administration is in a critical position, either to support Kurds and help them to create their nationalist Kurdish state or fight them in order to improve their relations with the Turkish administration but this is unlikely to happen because the US administration will not lose the Kurds." But is Washington really more likely to stick with an irregular Kurdish militia of radical-left persuasion than its longtime NATO ally Turkey?
The Arab-Kurdish divide-and-rule strategy employed by both Turkey and the Assad regime only abets the regional despots, and portends a carve-up of Syria among the most reactionary forces. The survival of the Syrian Revolution depends on overcoming it.
Can we manage it?