Kurds Caught in Crossfire In Northwest Syria Battle

Kurdish groups are split as conflict comes to Qamishli in the next major battle in the Kurdish region of northwest Syria.

al-monitor Syrian refugees point out their town of Ras al-Ain during an air strike on the town, as they stand on the Turkish-Syrian border in Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province November 12, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

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Nov 14, 2012

Following the Ras al-Ain battle, the Kurdish leadership in northern Syria is getting ready to fight an imminent battle in the city of Qamishli. Preparations are currently underway in Turkey to infiltrate the Kurdish-majority city.

The Ras al-Ain battle was the first real infiltration of Kurds through the Kurdish border that stretches from Afrin, northwest of Aleppo, to the city of Derek, located in the easternmost part of the country, straddling the Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish borders.

Three hundred militants from the Islamic jihadist group Ghurabaa al-Sham have entered the strategically located town and have stationed themselves in Arab neighborhoods without entering the zones of the Kurdish Popular Protection Committees affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — the main Kurdish power in western Kurdistan.

The Ghurabaa al-Sham group is one of the Islamic Syrian groups that fought alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq and was used by Syrian intelligence in the war against the American occupation before its leader Mahmoud Gul Agassi — also known as Abu Qaqaa — was killed in a mosque in Aleppo in September 2007. Agassi was killed at the hands of one of those who returned from Iraq. The assassin was declared an infidel by the group, which then shed his blood after accusing him of colluding with the Syrian government.

According to a Kurdish leader, Turkish cadres have sent 1,000 Syrian opposition militants to a camp near the city of Nusaybin, adjacent to the Syrian-Turkish border and located only three kilometers from the nearest neighborhoods of the city of Qamishli on the Syrian side.

Nusaybin, which was annexed by Turkey in 1929 under the French mandate, witnessed a massive exodus to nearby rural areas for fear of shelling on the city, whose population numbers 150,000 people, mostly Kurds.

According to a Syrian Kurdish opposition leader, the battle for the strategic city of Qamishli is imminent. The PYD, which is trying to remove itself from the battlefield, will have to change its position and send back-up troops to the city to defend it.

The city is home to 180,000 people and is considered to be the largest Kurdish cluster in the region and the PYD’s stronghold. It is run by a national council of Western Kurdistan that operates under the supervision of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), of which half of its members are affiliated with 16 Kurdish opposition parties and share in the decision-making process. On the other hand, the security and military forces deployed in and around the city belong exclusively to the PYD ranks.

The Kurdish leader added that after launching the first bombs against Syrian army sites in Ras al-Ain, the Turks prompted armed jihadist groups to enter the city, paving the way for other forces trying to move from Nusaybin and travel five kilometers across the border.

These forces will weaken the PYD-dominated Kurdish military wall and prevent its forces from moving in the area, gradually opening it to all armed groups, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front and Ghurabaa al-Sham. The Syrian army will be exhausted and forced to retreat. However, the main goal of the attack on Qamishli is to control the city’s airport, located at few kilometers from the Turkish border, from which the armed opposition can be supplied directly in Syrian territory.

The US operations room in Antakya has indicated that the FSA has launched attacks to win control of airports near Aleppo, Idlib, Taftanaz and Meng. However, the FSA failed to capture key strategic airbases which launch Syrian helicopters and bombers.

Along with jihadists, Turks are also playing the game to restore their old relationships with the region’s tribes. The Kurdish security apparatus has begun making extensive contacts with Arab tribes scattered around Qamishli in order to build a united front against the PYD and the remnants of the Syrian army that are still deployed in the region.

Jihadist forces stationed in Nusaybin have launched negotiations with Muhammad al-Fares, leader of the Tayy tribe, which has 10,000 individuals living in the southern part of the city. The Syrian army started to evacuate some of its sites in the city, and the eastern barrier was removed at the request of the Kurds.

Fares used to have good relations with the authorities in Damascus until recently. Fares also had good relations with the Kurdish National Council, despite the fact that he was at the head of Arab groups that looted Kurdish stores in the city during the Qamishli uprising in 2004.

Turks and jihadist groups have supplied Arab tribes in the villages of Ghamr, Tannouriya al-Ghamr, Um Fursan and Hulat al-Ghamr with weapons. These villages are located on the eastern hills overlooking Qamishli and lie in the heart of the plains, where they are difficult to defend.

According to a Turkish leader, Turks are trying to drag the Arabs of Ghamr into battles. These tribes came from the Euphrates basin to Qamishli, following the construction of the Euphrates Dam. They were accommodated in 40 villages stretching along 240 kilometers, from Derek to Sari Kanye, along the section of the Turkish-Syrian border known as the Arab belt.

The Turks have also been trying for weeks to gain the support of the Shammar tribes — led by Hamidi Bin Daham al-Hadi — and the Shammar al-Jarba branch, which maintains good relations with Saudi Arabia. However, its leader is still on the fence and has complained of Kurdish infiltration of Western Kurdistan.

He said that the wing of the Yekiti Party led by Ismail Hami, as well as the wing of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (Azadi) led by Mustafa Juma, are in contact with the Turks and are working with them through the KNC. He added that they may participate in the battle, in addition to the Salahuddin battalion supervised by Salah Badr al-Din, which mostly consists of Kurdish members.

The Kurds are being subjected to political and military blackmail over the battle they fought in Ras al-Ain, and the battle to enter Qamishli, which is currently under preparation.

During the battle of Ras al-Ain, PYD forces did not intervene in the fights between Ghurabaa al-Sham and the Syrian army, out of fear that they would be accused of siding with the regime. They are already accused of that, because they did not take part in the fighting in Aleppo and prevented the armed opposition from entering their areas. The Ghurabaa al-Sham also exhibited great cleverness by not attacking the Kurdish neighborhoods, which facilitated the fall of the town.

However, the neutral Kurdish position, fearful of accusations of cooperation with the regime, led to the loss of Ras al-Ain and the penetration of the Kurdish wall.

The Kurdish leaders fear that some of the refugees in Deir al-Zour, who amount to nearly 12,000 families, would join the attack force that is under preparation.

To avoid once again facing the dilemma of choosing between fighting to defend the Kurdish towns and cities under the pretext that the attackers are targeting the Syrian army, and the inevitable fall of these towns and cities if the Syrian army is defeated at the hands of jihadist groups, a Syrian Kurdish leader said: “We tried to remove this excuse from the attackers by controlling the area in which units of the Syrian army are still stationed. We told the regime officials in the area that the exit of their units from the area would make it easier for us to defend it politically on the grounds that it does not have a military presence by the regime, while maintaining the service institutions of the state and presence of Syrian flags.”

The Kurdish leader added, “The directors of security branches and military officials asked to stay and take part in defending the city. We asked them to get out of the city and remove the checkpoints, but they are still stationed at the airport. A battalion consisting of 1,000 Syrian soldiers headed to Ras al-Ain as helicopters continued to survey the area. We believe that they will not be able to move freely in the area without the heavy use of aircraft. Thus, in recent days the Turks have deployed a network of missiles and air-defense systems.”

The Kurds persuaded the regime security branches to withdraw from Derek, as they had from the strategic town of Tel Tamer, which lies 40 km from Ras al-Ain along the highway to Aleppo. A meeting held at the church in the city of 50,000 residents led to the formation of self-defense units.

On whether the Kurds and popular protection units are capable of defending Qamishli and preventing its downfall, the Kurdish leader said: “We will not repeat the mistake of Ras al-Ain. We will fight in the city, whether or not the Syrian army units fight in the city or withdraw from the airport. If the Turks do not pave the way for an artillery attack on Qamishli as they did in Ras al-Ain, we will be able to defend the area. There is no other choice but to defend it, because seizing it would lead to the dismemberment of western Kurdistan, open the door to attacking Afrin and transform the whole region to a battlefield, which is what we have so far tried to avoid.”

In other news — citing AFP, AP and Reuters  Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdul Latif al-Zayani said in a statement that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will hold talks in Riyadh today [Nov. 14] with his counterparts in the GCC on the conflict in Syria. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that Tehran will set up a meeting between the parties to the Syrian conflict next Sunday [Nov. 18] to hold a “national dialogue.”

Paris has bucked the consensus of its European allies by formally declaring its recognition of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, confirming that it “will consider arming the opposition once a transitional government is formed.”

Washington considered the coalition the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” However, it avoided recognizing it as a “transitional government,” as France did.

In an interview with the TV channel Russia Today, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said that the new coalition is an American-Qatari project that is being used by external forces to destroy Syria.

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