Jihadists’ Rise, Kurdish Self-Rule Disrupt Syrian Alliances

The growing strength of jihadists in Syria is making some fighters reconsider their war against the regime, while Kurds are attacked by all sides to prevent them from establishing an autonomous zone.

al-monitor Free Syrian Army fighters move through a hole in a wall in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, after seizing it on July 22, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Hamid Khatib.

Topics covered

syrian, jihadists, jabhat al-nusra, autonomy, al-qaeda

Jul 24, 2013

Events in northern Syria are remaking the region's political map and alliances, beginning with the al-Qaeda/Kurdish incident.

Al-Qaeda’s actions have caused polarization among both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the regular army. The UN has received information from diplomats still in Syria that al-Qaeda’s rapid rise, its control over large areas and its dominance over the Syrian opposition’s decision-making has prompted dozens of opposition battalions to reconsider their war against the Syrian regime.

A UN diplomat who maintains contacts with the fighters in Syria said that more than a hundred FSA battalions, some of which are in Ghouta in the Damascus countryside, might soon rise up against Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups that are importing foreign fighters, and join forces with the Syrian army.

The diplomat said that these battalions, which have started colliding with Jabhat al-Nusra, have raised the possibility of joining forces with the regular Syrian army to repulse the Islamist threat.

In June, four battalions in the Houran, operating under the Supreme Military Council (SMC) led by Ahmad Nehme, tried to negotiate with the Syrian army via Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh to try to reach a truce in the southern region and exchange detainees. But as of now, the mediation has gone nowhere.

Meanwhile, the declaration of a local Kurdish administration has caused an unprecedented realignment that may result in a three-sided war in Syria among Arabs, Kurds and al-Qaeda. That war will be partly fed by Turkey and the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

In Tel Abyad, the FSA suffered defections from its Kurdish units. The Arabic/Kurdish/al-Qaeda polarization intensified when the “Kurdish Front” brigade defected from the FSA’s ranks and joined the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Meanwhile, a unified front has formed to fight the Kurds in the region. That front includes the FSA’s Brigade 313, Platoon 11, some SMC battalions in Raqqa, some fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Ghuraba al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham (which controls Raqqa), the Unification Brigade and one of the Farouk Brigades that came from Homs to fight the Kurds.

The Turks recently got involved in the Tel Abyad battles. A Kurdish field commander told As-Safir that Turkish drones were flying over the battle areas and that artillery shells from the Turkish side landed near a Kurdish site in Tel Abyad during the fight against Jabhat al-Nusra.

The Turkish General Command has placed the army’s 2nd Division and the Diyarbakir air base under red alert. Turkey flew drones and fighter jets in the region to monitor what is going on and to open fire if anyone harasses them. The Kurds say that hundreds of fighters from Salafist groups have begun arriving from Turkey by train. They disembark at the Ras al-Ain station on the Turkish side. The Kurds captured a convoy going from Raqqa to Tel Abyad comprising three four-wheel-drive vehicles equipped with Dushka machine guns.

The Kurds are fighting against a coalition grouping the FSA, al-Qaeda and jihadists in the strategic Tel Abyad area. That battle has extensions going into Iraq and its outcome will determine the fate of key strategic corridors that will determine the future of the Syrian north. In other words, will there be a Kurdish self-rule or an Islamic emirate?

Elsewhere, the “interim government” and the National Coalition’s executive committee have no significant military support to defend the land that they dream of ruling someday. The Kurdish forces succeeded in expelling Jabhat al-Nusra and the FSA from the border town of Ras al-Ain, and grabbing the border crossing with Turkey.

Tel Abyad is part of a 120-km [75-mile] long, 20-km [12-mile] wide corridor that runs from near the Turkish border to Raqqa. That corridor is mostly inhabited by Arabs, but cuts through a heavily Kurdish area, which it divides in two: one in the east that continues to Ras al-Ain and the other in the west that continues to Kobani, one of the largest Kudish concentrations in north Syria.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the jihadist groups want to control that corridor because it serves their interest and Turkey’s. Controlling that corridor will make it easier for Turkish troops to intervene inside the Kurdish autonomous region in case the latter starts threatening Turkish interests. Also, the corridor can be used to smuggle oil to Turkey from fields in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, which have fallen under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra and the tribes of al-Aqaydat and Bou Hassan. The corridor is also a smuggling route for the drug trade, which has flourished recently under the protection of the fighters, who also want to keep collecting customs revenues from the border crossing. But most important, the crossing is a main corridor for arms shipments and jihadists toward Raqqa and east Syria.

A Kurdish field commander told As-Safir that Kurdish forces are approaching the Syria-Iraq border crossing at Rabiah, which Jabhat al-Nusra has controlled for eight months. The Kurdish forces have entered the nearby villages of Abu Khazaf and Abu Farah and stand just 7 km [4.35 miles] from the crossing. The Kurdish forces are awaiting a political decision to take it over, thus shutting down one of two important Syria-Iraq border crossings that Jabhat al-Nusra controls: Rabiah and Abu Kamal.

Yesterday, July 23, the Kurds took over, from Islamist fighters, three of the five villages that make up a “Kurdish belt” around Tel Abyad. The Kurdish official said that Kurdish fighters have captured more than 30 Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS fighters, including two ISIS “emirs,” in battles around al-Yabisa, Ali Agha, Findur, al-Sakri, and Tel Akhdar.

The raging battles, especially in Tel Halaf, stretched over a 70-km [43-mile]-long front with Kobani on its west end. Jihadist groups have started a racist and religious incitement campaign against Syrian Kurds in the north. The Kurdish official said that mosque preachers controlled by these jihadist groups have started calling for the killing of Kurds and deeming Kurdish women war booty for jihadist fighters.

In a statement, Jabhat al-Nusra warned that starting today it will target any vehicle passing on the main road connecting Aleppo with other regions under the pretext that the Syrian army is using those roads to transport military supplies. The statement said that the Syrian army has “claimed to have opened those roads for the civilians while in reality it is using them to transport military supplies,” and warned that “the mujahedeen have booby-trapped the roads.”

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