Syria: 'peace deal' signals escalation (of course)
It is looking like the supposed diplomatic breakthrough on Syria could actually end up only escalating the war. US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin last week to hash out a common position. (AFP, Dec. 15) This came just days after Kerry explicitly disavowed that the US is seeking "regime change" in Syria—making the US tilt to Assad clearer than ever, and vindicating Putin in his move to start bombing Syira. On Dec. 18, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution establishing a six-month time-table for "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" in Syria. "Free and fair" elections are to be held within 18 months under UN supervision with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to vote. However, the official press release on the resolution made no mention of dictator Bashar Assad—and the notion that he will preside over such a transition defies five years of horrific reality.
Russian overtures to the Kurds continued in the build-up to the deal. When rebel factions were hosted by Suadi Arabia for talks on their own position vis-a-vis the UN agreement, the Kurds were excluded. This was vocally protested by Moscow. Russian deputy foreign minister Alexei Meshkov said: "We support the participation of a wide circle of opposition forces, which represent the Syrian people, in the Syrian negotiating process. The Kurds, certainly, must not be excluded from this process." (Rudaw, Dec. 16)
The icing of the Kurds and their allied Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) is certainly shameful. But accepting Russian advocacy is problematic for the Kurds as Moscow continues its aerial bombardment of other Syrian rebel forces—and civilians in their territories. Presumed Russian ari-strikes killed scores of people in the center of the rebel-held city of Idlib Dec. 20, with a busy market place and residential areas targeted. Rescue workers said they had confirmed at least 43 dead. (Reuters, Dec. 20)
This compounds similar bombardment of rebel-held areas by Assad's air force. Regime air-strikes on the center of al-Bab town in Aleppo governorate also claimed several civilian lives last week. (El-Dorar Al-Shima, Dec. 17)
Great Power meddling coincides with further polarization of ethnic groups on the ground into rival camps. A group of Arab tribes in Raqqa province issued a statement warning the People's Protection Units (YPG) against entering areas it controls. The YPG is the Kurdish militia that is the leading force in the SDF. "No one from the YPG may enter the Arab areas where are our fighters are present," the Collective of Raqqa Tribes said in the statement issued Dec. 15. The Collective further called on the YPG to "hand over" Tal Abyad, a Raqqa border town (mostly populated by ethnic Arabs and Turkmen) that the YPG liberated from ISIS. (NOW, Lebanon, Dec. 16) The YPG were also accused of erecting roadblocks to prevent displaced Arabs from return to their villages in the area, from which they'd beeb displaced during the Kurdish offensive against ISIS. (El-Dorar Al-Shima, Dec. 15)
There were also reports of the YPG attacking the Kurdish village of Suwaidiya, near Derke town, which is loyal to a dissident faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Syria (KDPS). Local KDPS leaders accused the YPG of occupying the village and arresting a number of youths—who were apparently freed after residents protested. (These claims were reported by BasNews, Dec. 15—a source sympathetic to Iraqi Kurdish strongman Massoud Barzani, who has also cultivated the KDPS as a satellite organization.)
The US presence is also apparently growing in this region. The Pentagon is now said to be preparing an airbase within Syria to supply the SDF. Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported Dec. 12 that the base is to be in YPG-controlled territory in Hasakeh governorate. "American technicians have worked for more than one and a half months to expand and prepare the airport with a runway specialized for warplanes," the report claimed. (NOW, Dec. 12)
Turkish military forces are meanwhile stepping up their counterinsurgency campaign against Kurdish forces allied with the YPG with Turkey. Hundreds of Turkish army troops stormed the southeastern Kurdish-populated town of Cizre in Şırnak province under the cover of pursuing guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) last week. "The army entered Cizre accompanied with dozens of tanks and armored vehicles,” a local activist told Kurdish news service ARA News Dec. 18. "A 24-hour curfew is now imposed on civilians in the town, as clashes broke out between a number of PKK rebels and the Turkish troops."
Presumed PKK rebels attacked a police station in Amed (Diyarbakir) with explosives Dec. 15. While the attack apparently caused no casualties, substantial damage to the police station was reported, with one wall was completely demolished by the blast. (Insurrection News, Dec. 17)
Amid this growing violence, Turkey's Kurdish-led leftist Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP)—which has heretofore been appealing to the government and PKK alike for peace—issued a statement in support of the Kurdish youth defying the curfews and clashing with police in Diyarbakir. HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas said: "We call on our people to expand the struggle and to embrace this honorable resistance... If they think they can make us take a step back by showing a tank gun, they are wrong. We fear nobody but God. We call on all civil society groups to embrace resistance in the lands of Kurdistan." (Reuters, Dec. 18)
Three HDP legislative deputies are among thousands of Kurds and their supporters who this week launched a cross-country march on Cizre in an attempt to break the army siege there. Turkish police have repeatedly used tear-gas in an effort to break the march, only for it to regroup and continue its progress. Its slogans include "PKK is the people, and the people are here" and "Long Live Kurdistan Resistance." (KurdishInfo, Dec. 21)
The good news amid all this is that ISIS has lost around 14% of its territory in 2015, while the Syrian Kurds almost tripled the land they control, according to military affairs think-tank IHS Jane's. Noted ISIS loses included Tal Abyad, the Iraqi city of Tikrit, and Iraq's Baiji refinery. (AFP, Dec. 22)
But maintaining this progress in 2016 could be a challenge if a divide-and-rule card to shatter the Arab-Kurdish alliance against ISIS succeeds. This sinister strategy is ironically shared by both the great regional rivals, Russia and Turkey. Where are the principled voices that will protest the state terror now being carried out by Russia and Turkey alike? Certainly, the US position is abetting both: maintaining the old alliance with Turkey while wooing Putin as a new ally, and still supporting both the YPG and Arab-led Free Syrian Army. This is a completely untenable position, and something has got to give. We may be certain of that.