Fierce clashes broke out between Syrian rebel factions and Kurdish fighters in Aleppo province this week, as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to battle ISIS in Raqqa. Fighting erupted in Derat Ezza in the western Aleppo countryside on June 13, after Kurdish fighters attempted to take a rebel base in the area, opposition media reported. The assault was thwarted after the rebels regained the positions with support from Turkish artillery. At least 32 fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups were reported killed in the clashes, as well as dozens of Kurdish militants. (The New Arab, June 14)
The growing enmity between Arabs and Kurds in Syria shows ever greater danger of exploding into ethnic war. It is clearly exacerbated by the fact that the Kurdish leadership are looking to Russia and Assad as tactical allies against Turkey, while the Free Syrian Army and especially Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham are being backed by Ankara.
But the fact that the SDF is now receiving military support from the US seems to be straining its ties with Russia. In a strange development on June 12, Russian state media outlet Sputnik ran an uncritical interview with a Syria “expert” named only as Husma Shaib (no affiliation given), who assailed the “so-called” Syrian Democratic Forces as “terrorists” akin to ISIS and Nusra Front. (EA Worldview, June 13) In other words, precisely the propaganda line of Russia’s supposed rival Turkey.
However, in a sign that the de facto pact between the Kurds and Damascus is not completely severed, it is reported that the People’s Protection Units (YPG, the Kurdish militia which is the central pillar of the SDF) remains in control of the predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafia in Aleppo city—despite an ultimatum from the regime to evacuate the enclaves. (Rudaw, June 15)
In another unlikely outcome, a Syrian Kurdish official said that his people are ready to work with Saudi Arabia—an obvious response to the current diplomatic crisis among the Gulf States. “Saudi Arabia is an important power in the region and it must play its role in promoting stability in Syria. We are ready to cooperate with Saudi,” said Ilham Ahmed, currently on a visit to Washington to discuss the ongoing Raqqa operation.
The statement comes just as Turkey has thrown its support behind Qatar, now diplomatically isolated and embargoed by the other Gulf States. The Turkish parliament has approved a motion to deploy troops in Qatar, and provide food and other supplies that have been cut off to the mini-state by Saudi Arabia. (ARA News, June 9)
Ilham Ahmed is co-chair of the Democratic Council of Syria, civilian wing of the SDF. On April 28, after Turkish air-strikes on Syrian Kurdish forces, he had an op-ed in the Washington Post, entitled: “We’re America’s best friend in Syria. Turkey bombed us anyway.”
We acknowledge that there are no easy answers, and the forces pitting the Arabs and Kurds against each other are powerful and cannot be wished away. We recognize the right of the desperate—as the Syrian Kurds are, caught in a pincer between Turkey and ISIS—to take their allies where they can find them. The same goes for the Arab rebels, facing the increasingly genocidal Assad regime and merciless Russian bombardment.
But we must emphasize again that the Great Power game being played out over Syria is inimical to the cause of revolutionary unity. If the Syrian revolution is to survive, Arab-Kurdish unity will have to be rebuilt. Ultimately, if there is to ever be a free and peaceful Syria, the Arabs and Kurds are going to have to get along with each other—not the Great Powers they are now each looking to for protection.