The northeastern Syrian city of Ras al-Ain can finally live in peace after the unprecedented agreement between the Popular Protection Units and Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades. The agreement, which puts an end to the constant fighting between the two groups, resulted from various mediation efforts orchestrated by opposition leader Michel Kilo. It signaled the end of the hostile media campaigns orchestrated by both sides, and it constituted a victory for the inhabitants of Sri Canet — the Kurdish name for Ras al-Ain — in the face of constant attempts to cause strife between Arabs and Kurds. This went along with a campaign to portray the Kurds as traitors and accuse their parties of fighting alongside the regime. The accusations were denied by the Kurds, who affirmed their loyalty to Syria and their rejection of any calls for secession.
The agreement entails the withdrawal of all fighters from the streets, the redeployment of military forces and the establishment of a temporary follow-up and monitoring committee with members from both sides. The committee's task will be to monitor the agreement's implementation and to establish a local civil council that represents the city’s constituents and administers the city’s affairs. In other words, the council would be considered a local representative of the sovereign authority, in whose affairs no military force may interfere, in addition to responsibilities for managing the border crossing.
The agreement transcended the borders of Ras al-Ain, for it considered the cities and towns in which the regime has no presence — Drabsiyeh, Amouda, Tel Tamr, Kirki and Derek — to be “liberated” cities, per a joint communiqué issued by the two parties. The result is an agreement that ends the continuous Arab-Kurdish state of conflict.
But why Ras al-Ain? And what drew all sides to this specific region? The answer is that Ras al-Ain, this small border town with Turkey, is viewed as a microcosm of society composed of Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Muslims, Christians and a Yazidi minority. Opposition control of the town is considered a prelude to the opposition controlling the region’s remaining areas, and securing the northern oil fields, having already secured those of Deir al-Zour. This would be followed by the sale and export of oil to Turkey — which would generate significant revenue for the brigades controlling these vast riches.
Securing these regions would also guarantee keep them from falling under the control of Kurdish forces opposed to Turkey, and therefore prevent the spread of any Kurdish forces feared by Ankara. Additionally, it would neutralize the threat of an Arab-Kurdish conflict erupting under the guise of an inter-clan war. The Hasakah Province comprises a mixture of different clans, some loyal and others opposed to the regime. In addition, there are Arab clans that look on their Kurdish neighbors with suspicion since in Ras al-Ain, the Kurds have a large presence of Popular Committee forces.
The presence of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which shares much of the same ideology as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), further exacerbates an already delicate situation, as a result of the Syrian armed opposition’s accusation that it backed the Bashar al-Assad regime. The joint protection leadership denies this accusation, arguing that the party’s members only took up arms to defend themselves and the Kurdish populace against armed brigades that considered them a threat to their agenda in the “liberated” regions.
But the real story goes back further. According to Kurdish opposition activists, the perception that the Kurds harbored secessionist feelings and were part of a fifth column is an old one. Kurds were viewed that way even before the popular demonstrations began two years ago. That perception intensified with the increased Turkish sway on political opposition figures, especially those belonging to the Syrian National Council (SNC). Turkish intervention even extended to many militant brigades fighting on the ground, to the point where Turkish tanks sometimes interceded to back FSA troops against the Kurds.
The aforementioned agreement hasn't garnered support from all armed opposition factions, such as the Jazeera and Euphrates Front to Liberate Syria, headed by one of the most prominent clan elders in the region, Nawaf al-Bashir. The position of Salafist factions, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ghuraba al-Sham Brigades, is not yet known. Such factions have never hesitated to open fronts against the Kurds, not only in Ras al-Ain, but in other Kurdish areas of the north as well. Despite this, optimism reigns in Sri Canet that the agreement will restore the Arab-Kurdish relationship to its previous state. Furthermore, it could pave the way for a wide-ranging recognition of Kurdish rights, and the possibility that they may be allowed to manage their areas without having to face accusations of being mercenaries and separatists.
This optimism remains cautious for fear that any slight problem might produce a new crisis. All it takes for the media war and street provocations to resume is for emotions to flare in opposition to the Kurdish or Jabhat al-Nusra flag being raised. Such sensibilities might in turn lead to a renewed argument about who is more entitled to run the region — with the Kurds insisting that they be allowed to run their own affairs, and the FSA insisting that it alone should control the region, in accordance to certain clan or political considerations. Guarantees offered by opposition figures will, of course, not suffice, as these figures are notable in their disregard for the events taking place in town.
With the exception of spurious statements, the Kurdish issue has been absent from the activities of the opposition coalition, as it is busy with the initiative launched by its president, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, and the formation of a transitional government. The SNC was also unable, during the reign of its former president Abdulbaset Sieda, to put an end to the Arab-Kurdish conflict. On the other hand, the Coordination Committee seems more in tune with the situation on the ground, as evidenced by the presence of the prominent Kurdish opposition figure Salih Musallam among its leadership’s ranks. The committee has demanded that the international community exercise pressure on Turkey, which is heavily involved in Kurdish affairs.
One can say that the Kurdish factions and the FSA brigades have succeeded in signing a truce that puts an end to the madness of war. It now falls on the Kurds to make their presence felt and play an effective role as part of the Syrian opposition. The opposition as a whole must now approach the Kurdish issue with a great deal more responsibility, for the risk remains great that matters could deteriorate if some elements continue to try to sabotage the truce.
Continue reading this article by registering and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly