The civil war in Syria is raging without letup, mainly between the government forces and divergent opposition groups loosely under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Although sectarian and economic interests are among the factors spurring the parties to fight on, the true cause is the violent oppression by the regime of a segment of people that seeks to change the regime.
Given Syria’s complex ethnic and sectarian makeup, many undesirable consequences are now possible.
One of the worst scenarios imaginable will be the revenge operations and communal battles that will follow the collapse of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The increasing violence the regime is using against the people and its continuing massacres, without distinguishing between combatant and civilian, adds to fears of what will follow. This is in addition to the as yet unknown fates awaiting ethnic and religious communities that are now supporting the regime.
Recent clashes in Aleppo between groups affiliated with FSA and some Syrian Kurds are a clear sign that the clashes in Syria are not only based on religion or sect.
Some Syrian Kurd groups appeared to be on the side of the opposition from the outset. Some of them initially joined the Syrian National Council [SNC], but then walked out saying their demands were not being considered.
The strong Syrian Kurdish Party [PYD] pursued a dual-track policy of opposing the regime’s actions, at least rhetorically, while maintaining “special relations” with the Assad administration.
After taking over some regions in the north of the country in July 2012, the PYD hardened its rhetoric against Assad and began searching for dialogue and cooperation with other opposition groups. Throughout that process there was no open confrontation between various Kurdish groups, or with the Assad regime or with groups under FSA control.
The Kurds opted to stay out of the fray and sought to create a region of stability and security for themselves. Efforts to avoid clashes between the Kurds and the FSA were initially successful. Apart from some minor skirmishes between regime forces and the Kurds — as well as threats issued by the FSA against Kurds taking over territory — Kurds managed to stay out of clashes.
The Assad regime preferred that the PYD take over some the northern areas instead of the FSA. Assad thus succeeded in keeping the FSA out of some areas, especially Haseke, while threatening Turkey’s soft underbelly.
By avoiding tension with the Kurds, Assad was thus able to focus his forces on the FSA itself. The FSA, however, repeatedly declared opposition to a Kurdish ruled region, and also avoided clashes with the Syrian Kurds and even the PYD, which had the discreet support of the regime.
But the escalation of the civil war is now endangering this trilateral balancing act.
It all started to unravel on Sept. 30, 2012, when there was suicide attack in Kamishli in Haseke province, which is still under government control but governed with a special deal made between the Kurds and regime. In the attack, claimed by a group affiliated to the FSA, four were killed and 15 wounded. This was the first warning sign that Kurdish-populated areas thought to be safe and stable were not immune from combat between the government and the opposition.
We have now reached a new phase of this development.
In recent days, Aleppo has become the focal point of clashes. After the opposition designated Aleppo as a strategic target to break the government’s strength, different parts of the city quickly became a battlefield. The Kurds of Aleppo wanted to follow the line of their brethren in the north and tried hard to keep mostly Kurdish-populated al-Ashrafiyeh and Sheikh Maksoud districts out of the clashes.
Of course, this wasn’t entirely successful especially when the government said its army was responding to opposition forces operating in those districts. Then, on Oct. 26, something happened that could well be the turning point of the civil war in Syria.
On Oct. 26, an armed group affiliated with the FSA wanted to deploy in al-Ashrafiyeh. Kurds of the region opposed the move and wanted them to stay out. The government army shelled the opposition force based in al-Ashrafiyeh, killing 15, including nine Kurds.
The Kurds, who went out to protest the army shelling and demand the departure of the opposition fighters, came under fire from FSA elements. In this incident, 10 people were killed and 20 were wounded. Photographs of the incident show that the some Kurdish demonstrators had light arms and were shouting pro-Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] slogans.
The next day, on Oct. 27, the Kurdish Popular Protection Units [YPG], identified as the PYD’s military arm, mounted an attack against FSA militants who had fired on Kurdish demonstrators a day before. Altogether, 22 people were killed and many were wounded from both sides.
It is not yet certain which way these incidents will develop. But what has happened in Aleppo points to three important developments:
1. As the Syrian civil war becomes more savage, it is becoming more and more difficult for the Kurds to stick to their tactic of not becoming a party to the clashes. Incidents at Kamishli and Aleppo indicate that the Kurds are caught between the warring parties and have not yet become a direct party.
But political and physical confrontation between the PYD and the FSA in both incidents signal a widening rift between the Arab opposition and the Kurds. No doubt the prevailing perception of the SNC and the FSA — that the PYD supports Assad and refrains from assisting the revolution because of its own interests — will be reinforced.
That is why new areas of confrontation in Aleppo and in the north are likely. If it is not happening today it is because the FSA doesn’t want to open a new front besides the fight against Assad.
2. It is likely that the PYD — whose area of influence until now was contained to the north, especially at Afrin and Kobani — is likely to extend to Aleppo. This will mean other Kurdish parties affiliated with the Kurdish National Council may lose grassroots support given the firm and organized actions of the PYD.
3. Clashes in Syria until today have been on a slippery slope with the attitudes and alliances of parties becoming hopelessly complicated. In the long term, there may well be multitude of civil wars raging simultaneously.
The sectarian dimensions of the civil war are well known. It is not accurate to say the civil war is solely between of Sunni-Shiite sects. If you add the clashes between the Kurds and Arabs, the situation in Syria is bound to become an intractable logjam.