Are Rojava Kurds taking the Russian bait?
What is happening at the northern Syrian town of Azaz, in Aleppo governorate, could prove critical in determining what the role of the Rojava Kurds will be in the Syrian war and revolution. The Kurdish YPG militia took the nearby Menegh air base on Feb. 10. Since then, Turkey has been shelling YPG forces in the area from across the border, and has issued grim warnings. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu threatened to make the Menagh base "unusable" if the YPG does not withdraw, and promised the "harshest reaction" if Kurdish forces try to take Azaz. (BBC News, Feb. 15) Reuters reported Feb. 15 that 14 people were killed in Azaz when missiles hit a school sheltering displaced families. The account implied the missiles were fired by Russia, which makes sense if Azaz is being held by Turkish-backed rebel forces. But all accounts are maddeningly vague on who is in fact holding Azaz...
Azaz is in the strip that separates the two easternmost Kurdish cantons from that of Afrin in the west. Uniting Afrin with the other two has long been a goal of the YPG. ISIS has been in control of much of this strip, but does not appear to hold Azaz. Over the past months, it has been reported to be held by Turkmen militia, by the Nusra Front—and by ISIS, which in September 2013 seized it from the Free Syrian Army.
Middle East Eye reports that Kurdish forces captured the Menegh base from "rebel groups," but does not name which ones. It links to the source Hawar News Agency which says the YPG and its Arab ally Jaysh al-Thuwar took the base from "jihadist gangs." Syria Direct reports that the base had been held by Ahrar al-Sham (an ally of the Nusra Front) and al-Jabha al-Shamiya (another Islamist formation). May we assume these are the same forces that hold Azaz?
AP on Feb. 10 quoted one Maj. Yasser Abdul-Rahim, identified only as "a rebel commander," saying via Skype from Azaz that "we are fighting on three fronts"—meaning against the YPG, regime troops and ISIS.
Middle East Eye in its vague account also makes the serious charge that the YPG "took advantage of the heavy Russian air strikes and the weakness of the Syrian rebel groups to advance further in the direction of Azaz." Now, "taking advantage" of air-strikes is not the same as actively coordinating with them. Yet that is how it is being portrayed by some. A statement from the Fastaqem Union, another Islamist formation, accuses the "terrorist sectarian militias" of the PYD (political arm of the YPG) of joining in a "termination war" led by Russia and Iran in Aleppo governorate.
The site El-Dorar Al-Shamia (seemingly aligned with the Islamist factions, and always quick to run unflattering news about the Kurds) goes further still, claiming that Iranian "war media" published photos from inside the Menegh base after it was taken by the YPG—supposedly indicating that Iranian forces were backing up the Kurds. It's a very sketchy account to be making such a serious charge: there is nothing to indicate that the displayed photo is really from Menegh, or that it originated from Iranian "war media." An alliance between the militantly secular Rojava Kurds and Shi'ite-fundamentalist Iran seems a very unlikely prospect.
Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the PYD, for his part said that Turkey had no right to intervene in Syria's internal affairs, and that the Menegh base had been in the hands of the Nusra Front before being taken by Kurdish forces. "Do they want the Nusra Front to stay there, or for the regime to come and occupy it?" Muslim said by telephone. (EKurd Daily, Feb. 14)
The perception (or propaganda) that the Rojava Kurds are allied with Russia was given a boost by the news this week that the PYD has opened its first official mission abroad—in Moscow. (WP, Feb. 12) This move at a time when Russia is committing massive war crimes in Syria seems very ill-considered—at best.
Joseph Daher of the Revolutionary Left Current, a progressive voice of Syria's civil resistance, has issued a statement entitled "ALL the International Powers Want to Crush the Syrian Uprising" (online at Peace News and Syria Freedom Forever). It calls out Russian and Iranian intervention as the most destructive, but also rejects Turkish and Saudi intervention. It notes such slogans of the civil resistance as "The Kurds are a part of the Syrian Revolution."
The Rojava Kurds themselves have formed an alliance with secularist Arab militias, the Syrian Democratic Froces (SDF). In its founding statement last year, the SDF called for "a united national military force for all Syrians, joining Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs and other groups." Great Power intrigues could be about to shatter that critical, nascent alliance.