By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In a video posted online on December 25 a group of Syrian rebels praise God as they say they are embarking on a battle in eastern Syria. “Allah willing, we’re going to Manbij, and Raqqa and to Hasaka,” they say. They say they will fight the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). God is greatest, they shout, the rally cry of many fighters over the years in the Syrian civil war. A driver of one of the trucks is called “doctor” and asked about the upcoming battle. “With God’s help, we’ll be upon them,” he says holding up a knife.
The latest development has come about as the US announced its withdrawal on December 19. Turkey had vowed to launch an operation on December 12 and now Turkey is waiting to see what the US will do. The US says it will coordinate the withdrawal with Ankara.
The tragedy unfolding in eastern Syria will now likely pit these Syrian rebel fighters, some of them religious extremists, against mostly Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), some of whome are far-left extremists. The prelude to the battle comes with a series of bad omens, including a religious “fatwa” for what to do with “captives”
Up to 15,000 members of various Syrian rebel groups have signed up to take part. This includes AHrar al-Sharqiyah and others. Meanwhile the Syrian regime and Russia are seeking to take advantage of the predicament of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella group that contains the YPG and which has helped liberated a huge swath of Syria from ISIS.
From PYD to YPG and SDF
The SDF emerged in 2015 after the PYD and the YGP had been able to push ISIS back from Kobane and other areas. The US-led Coalition had come to their aid in Kobane to stop the rise of ISIS. The YPG had helped save tens of thousands of Yazidis from genocide in August 2014. By 2015 they were on the offensive. First they took back Kurdish areas, before taking back other areas in eastern Syria, including Arab towns and mixed towns. This is an area of Syria that had been neglected by the Assad regime where Kurds had lacked citizenship and basic rights. During the Syrian uprising many Kurds opposed Assad. In April 2011, to forestall more Kurds joining the rebellion, the regime sought to offer them citizenship. Nevertheless Kurdish areas came under the control of Kurdish groups, of which the YPG was the strongest. The YPG liberated areas around Hasaka in July 2015 from an ISIS offensive. Tel Abyad was also taken. Shaddadi was liberated in 2016 and then the SDF crossed the Euphrates and took Manbij in the summer of 2016. Raqqa, the ISIS capital was surrounded in June 2017 and liberated in October. The offensive continued down the Euphrates river to the Iraqi border, where in October 2018 the SDF was fighting for Hajin against ISIS remnants. The YPG also solidified control over Afrin, over an area in Aleppo and in eastern Syria. Other Kurdish political parties, such as the offices of the ENKS, were closed or raided.
In the meantime Turkey objected to this growing role of the YPG, which it sees as the same as the PKK. It launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 to prevent the YPG from advancing past Manbij. When that was over in the spring of 2017 it began planning to take Afrin. It launched an attack on Afrin, backed by Syrian rebels, in January 2018. This was an example of what Turkey hopes to do now in Manbij and eastern Syria.
The Syrian rebel groups that are prepared to help Turkey have become increasingly tied to Turkey over the last several years. As the Syrian rebellion faced defeat, it required more support from Turkey. This was particularly true after the fall of Aleppo in December 2016. What was left of the Syrian rebellion was not only more religious than it had been in the beginning, but it was also re-organized under Turkey’s military umbrella in Jarabulus, and eventually in Idlib. This meant that Turkey sought to sideline the most extreme group, HTS, and work with groups like Faylaq Sham and also the National Army, or Jaysh al-Watani. In this way the Syrian rebellion was transformed by Turkey, and the rebel areas were transformed, much as the partnership between the US and the SDF became an umbrella to transform eastern Syria.
But the US-SDF relationship and Turkey and the FSA (Free Syrian Army) or TFSA as it is sometimes called, is different because the Syrian opposition have refugees in Turkey and have a network of supporters there. There are no major SDF offices in the US or Kurdish refugees in the US, or camps for the SDF in the US. For that reason the connection between the US and SDF was more tenuous. That was clear when US envoy James Jeffrey told the Atlantic Council on December 17 that the SDF should be part of a future Syrian democracy. He also said the US relationship with it was temporary and tactical, even transactional. And then Trump decided to leave Syria.
This has now set up a scramble to partition the area the US was once in. Turkey, Iran and Russia are the main players. The Syrian regime is as well. It has troops in Qamishli and Hasaka and therefore it will want to step into the void. Already it has begun moves around Manbij. But the question that many are asking is whether there will be a war or if Russia will broker and agreement. The SDF have reached out to France, Russia and the Syrian regime. So far it is not clear. Before the Afrin offensive Russia met with Turkey and it appears Turkey got a free hand to use its air forces over Afrin. This will be a key question again. Russia has close economic ties to Turkey through the Turkstream pipeline and also the S-400 deal. Turkey has connections to Iran also and recently hosted Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani on December 20. This means these countries will want to avoid a major battle. To do so they can let the FSA Syrian rebel proxies fight the YPG for control of certain areas, while Turkey helps with artillery or aircraft. Russia, Iran and the regime will watch to see how the SDF handles itself.
The tragedy of the whole story is that despite the missed opportunities of the Syrian rebels and the YPG; they both made mistakes during the Syrian civil war, these are Syrian groups that wanted a future in Syria. Even if both had outside influence, including PKK members from other countries who joined the YPG, or foreign fighters who joined the Syrian rebels, or even outside ideologies, in their core in the villages they come from the rank and file are Syrians. They didn’t take up weapons to fight each other, they took up arms to fight the Syrian regime and ISIS.
Along the way the Syrian rebels and YPG have diverged because the YPG’s main goal was not fighting the regime. In eastern Syria the YPG has clashed with the Syrian regime forces in Qamishli. While the YPG focused on fighting ISIS and ignored the regime as an enemy, the Syrian rebels had similar bifurcation in their priorities. For them fighting the Assad regime was the priority, not fighting ISIS. ISIS was able to wrest control of Raqqa and other Syrian rebel areas from the rebels in 2013 and 2014. The rebels accuse the YPG of working with the regime, and there are harsh memories from the battle for Aleppo when YPG areas sided with the regime. Similarly the YPG recall abuses against Kurds and anti-Kurdish rhetoric by Syrian rebel groups, and the experience of attacks by extremists and jihadists. The religious extremist rhetoric of some of the Syrian rebel groups opposes the kind of society the YPG has created. These are inherently different world views.
The coming clash between the Syrian rebels and the SDF/YPG over areas such as Manbij are an attempt by larger processes to pit these two groups against each other with the hopes they will be weakened and destroyed in the process, and that both will come to rely even more on outside countries, reducing their autonomy and eventually allowing the Syrian regime to retake all of Syria.
This is the destruction of the inconvenient hopes of the Syrian conflict that began in 2011. The inconvenient aspect is the fact that the Syrian rebels and YPG had hopes for a new Syria. Neither wanted to live under the Syrian regime. Neither really wanted Syria to be controlled by outside countries. But the coming clash is a way for regional countries to get rid of the inconvenient memories of 2011. These are the memories of the Arab spring and the freedom that many demanded in 2011 and 2012. These are the memories some of the instability and fluid, rapid changes that many regimes saw as a threat.
It is easier to have these groups clash and fight eachother so that the memories of 2011 and 2012 will go away. That way Turkey and Russia and Iran can work more closely on the future of Syria. Economies of scale are at stake here. The new Middle East in which the US has lost influence is at stake. The Syrian regime is part of this puzzle. It most of all has the most to gain from the battles in eastern Syria. It will watch the YPG be weakened and the Syrian rebels fight and perish, and it will come in and take what is left. This means that the best course of action from the point of view of Russia, Iran and Turkey is to allow limited clashes to take place. After some clashes the Syrian rebels be more beholden to Turkey for help. The YPG will eventually demand the regime and Russia come and intervene. Iran, Russia and the regime will be seen as heroes. Turkey wants the YPG neutralized. The regime wants the rebels neutralized. Russia wants to broker the deal. They all have something to gain.
The YPG and Syrian rebels have nothing to gain, but history is pushing them to battle over what remains of Syria so that Assad can take the whole country back, slowly, but surely.