The Kurdish PYD’s alliance with Russia against Free Aleppo: Evidence and analysis of a disaster

FSA appeal to Kurds

Above: Aleppo Free Syrian Army statement calls on “the honorable Kurds” in Efrin “to put pressure on those gangs to withdraw from those violated towns.”

by Michael Karadjis

This piece deals with an aspect that many involved in the Syrian issue have strong views on, and no doubt will make some very unhappy – the issue of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and their role in the current Russian-led Blitzkrieg against the Syrian rebels in Free Aleppo. As a long-time supporter of the Kurdish struggle for justice and self-determination, who formerly admired the PYD for the significant achievements it has made in Rojava, I had no interest in reaching such conclusions, but reality needs to be looked at in the face and analysed, not obscured by ideology and myths.

I welcome comments and discussion, and if that includes a reasonable amount of hate mail, that will indicate more about the haters than about my attempt at honest, if forthright, discussion of this important issue. All constructive criticism, even if harsh, will be seriously taken on board.

This piece is much too long, as much of it documents what exactly has been going on, and in particular which rebel groups are/were in control of various parts of Aleppo province that are under attack from the Russian-YPG alliance; both issues have been deliberately clouded by those defending this catastrophic course. Therefore, I have produced it more as a resource than an easy-reading essay.

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Introduction

Once the Russian Reich began its all-out Blitzkrieg against the Syrian revolutionary forces in Aleppo on behalf of the Assad regime – a massacre that has involved massive displacement, with tens or hundreds of thousands fleeing north towards Turkey, and the large-scale, deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools and other basic civilian infrastructure – a most unwelcome development occurred, that has led to much heated debate among supporters of the Syrian revolution.

Namely, the Kurdish-based People’s Protection Units (YPG), based in the Kurdish canton of Efrin on the western side of Aleppo province, launched an all-out attack on the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebels in Aleppo – ie, the very forces being bombed by the Russian imperialist onslaught – attacking and conquering rebel-held, Arab-majority towns throughout the region with the direct aid of Russian bombing.

Whatever the ups and downs in the relationship between the Syrian revolution as a whole and the ‘Rojava revolution’ before this point (and I believe both Syrian opposition and Kurdish leaderships can be faulted on many points), the only possible conclusion at this point is that the PYD/YPG has joined the counterrevolution on a massive scale, at its most murderous moment, the biggest knife that could possibly be put through any chances of Arab-Kurdish unity against the regime.

As many of the more progressive aspects of the Rojava revolution became apparent during 2014, I was as supportive and impressed as countless others were (though always holding back from the over-romanticisation of the process); I was also strongly supportive of what appeared to be a growing convergence between the YPG and the FSA during the defence of Kurdish Kobani against genocidal ISIS siege in late 2014.

Subjectively, therefore, I had no reason to want to reach such conclusions. However, for the Syrian revolution, the Russian imperialist Armageddon in Aleppo is every bit as decisive as Kobani’s resistance to the ISIS siege was for Rojava; yet, in contrast to the solidarity that the FSA extended to Kobani, the PYD has become a direct participant in the counterrevolutionary siege of Free Aleppo.

Of course, the YPG is a very small player in this act of mass homicide, whose major practitioners are Russia, Assad and Iran. Devoting an article to the role of the YPG does not suggest it bears the same level of responsibility. But these reactionary states do what reactionary states do; by contrast, when a supposedly revolutionary organisation claiming to be running a quasi-state on a radical-democratic basis joins the actions of imperialist invaders and the local fascist state, that deserves analysis.

One final point: Turkey. For months now, the Turkish regime has been waging its own war of terror against the Kurdish population in eastern Turkey, a brutal counterinsurgency against the PKK. Hundreds of civilians have been killed as the regime uses tanks, artillery and other heavy weaponry to terrorise the population into submission. Turkey, for its own reasons, is a main supporter of the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria. The difference in scale, is of course, phenomenal; Erdogan’s operation has been going on for months and has killed hundreds; Assad’s has been going on 5 years and has killed nearly half a million. Anyone with an ounce of human solidarity should have no trouble supporting the popular uprisings, and opposing regime counterinsurgencies, in both cases, regardless of issues of geopolitics or tactical alliances. Opponents of oppression do not see this as a contradiction.

The excuse of the PYD/YPG, that it is fighting “Turkish-backed groups,” is cynical in the extreme; if the YPG could employ US imperialism, which has committed far more crimes on a world scale than the Turkish regime, to help defend Kobani from ISIS, why is it wrong for the Syrian rebels to get essential help from Turkey against this gigantic genocidal assault? After all, if anyone has their backs to a wall, and tgus forced to get help fromm wherever they can, it is the Syrian rebels; by contrast, ‘Rojava’ has been untouched by Assad and is permanently protected by the US airforce. If Turkey were invading and bombing Kurdish Efrin and Syrian rebels were acting as ground troops and expelling the YPG from Kurdish areas, it should be vigorously condemned, yet this is not happening; the exact opposite of that is happening.

 

Background: PYD, YPG, SDF

The three main concentrations of Kurdish population in Syria, Efrin in northwest Aleppo province, Kobani in the far northeast of the province, and the larger Jazirah canton, including the city of Hasaka, in northeast Syria, have been ruled since mid-2012 by the PYD, a political party allied to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The YPG, and its sister militia, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), are the armed forces led by the PYD, though theoretically other non-PYD elements participate as well. They have declared these regions to be ‘Rojava’, meaning West Kurdistan, but do not aim to separate from Syria to form an independent Kurdish state. Rather, their official policy is to promote “Democratic Confederalism” throughout Syria, whereby the current Kurdish-majority Rojava regions are a mere nucleus, which allow them to demonstrate their model.

Supporters claim this model is based on radical council-based grass-roots democracy, is strongly feminist, and is multi-ethnic and non-sectarian. Critics claim that while democracy may well thrive at the council level, all major decisions are made by the PYD, which rules a one-party state that represses political opposition. Nevertheless, there does seem to be genuine drive to empower women, which is far ahead of much of the region; while assessments of the multi-ethnic element are mixed, with constitutional aspects that appear very good combined very serious charges – disputed by the PYD – of large-scale mistreatment of Arabs in some areas where the YPG has driven out ISIS. It is beyond the scope of this piece to seriously discuss this issue.

In 2015, the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was set up as a front led by the PYD/YPG to incorporate some of its smallish non-Kurdish allies. Its aims speak only of fighting ISIS, not the regime, and it has been strongly backed by the US, which sees it as a useful vehicle via which to blunt Turkey’s objections to its military alliance with the YPG, while supporting an anti-ISIS force that makes no problem for the Assad regime, which the US aims to keep in power.

  • In the Jazirah region, the YPG’s main Arab ally in the SDF is the al-Sanadid militia, based among the Shammar tribe (which indirectly involves the YPG in inter-tribal rivalries in the region). While the Shammar have mostly been anti-regime, there are some indications that al-Sanadid itself has had regime connections in the past. Whatever the case, it was never an FSA-connected group.
  • In the Kobani-Raqqa region, the YPG was allied to a number of FSA groups in the defence of Kobani in late 2014, but the major local FSA group involved – the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade – has seriously fallen out with the YPG (http://syriadirect.org/news/tribes%E2%80%99-army-disbands-in-north-amidst-accusations-of-ypg-blockade/), and so the US has refused to arm it to liberate its Raqqa homeland (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/article41559747.html); there are however a few smaller FSA groups (eg Northern Sun Brigade) still allied to the YPG in the SDF; and if this includes some representation from Arab opposition in tiny Jarablous, this could give some validity to a YPG-led move against the far eastern end of the ISIS-held border strip.
  • In Aleppo, the main non-YPG element of the SDF is Jaysh al-Thuwar, which seems to consist of a handful of ex-FSA fighters mainly motivated by vengeance against Nusra after the latter attacked and destroyed the FSA brigade Harakat Hazm in January 2015 (the vast majority of ex-Hazm cadres likewise detest Nusra, but continue to see the main enemies as Assad and ISIS and so joined other FSA brigades or the Shamiya Front in the region). In Idlib, Jaysh al-Thuwar/SDF seems to be essentially mythical.

 

‘Linking’ Kobane and Afrin: a reactionary irredentist plan

First I want to clarify something about the ethnic configuration of the region in question, which is very relevant in understanding the current conflict, and one reason for the PYD’s fateful decision. The PYD states that it plans to “link” the Kurdish canton of Efrin with the Kurdish canton of Kobane. Polat Can, a senior PYD official, recently stated that “We in the YPG have a strategic goal, to link Afrin with Kobani. We will do everything we can to achieve it” (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/middle-east/article41559747.html).

Aleppo is a very large province, not just the large city that is its capital. The Kurdish majority cantons of Efrin and Kobani, both along the northern border with Turkey, are situated at the far west and the far east of Aleppo province respectively. Both are part of the PYD’s ‘Rojava’ state.

However, the 60-mile stretch between Efrin and Kobani is not ‘Rojava’, as is often blithely claimed by Rojava-Firsters. Here is a demographic map http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Syria_Ethnic_summary_lg.png:

Syria demographic map

Enlarge the Aleppo section of it, and you can follow what I am talking about below:

  • Beginning in the north-west of the province, the green section is Kurdish Efrin
  • Next along the northern border is the yellow section, the heavily Arab-populated territory controlled by the rebels, currently under attack by the Russia/Assad/YPG alliance, beginning with a narrow neck on the Turkish border with the town of Azaz, just to the east of Efrin, and then widening out south of Azaz and forming the great bulk of western and southern Aleppo province (which then connects to rebel-held territory in neighbouring Idlib and northern Hama); this includes half the city of Aleppo itself (the other half is controlled by the regime, which is connected to a thin neck of territory further south, but it controls nothing north of the city).
  • Back north to the Turkish border, to the east of the rebel-controlled Azaz-Marea-Aleppo ‘vertical’ corridor begins ISIS-controlled eastern Aleppo province. The bluish-coloured western part of the ISIS-run border strip is heavily Turkmen-populated, one of the most Turkmen-populated parts of Syria;
  • Further east again, still under ISIS, is the Arab-populated Jarablus region, coloured yellow, on the west side of the Euphrates
  • Just to the east of Jarablus, across the Euphrates, is green-coloured Kurdish Kobani

Quite simply, therefore, the PYD/YPG has no god-given right to “link” separate Kurdish-majority regions by annexing Arab-majority and Turkmen-majority territory! Yes, there are other Kurdish—majority regions under ISIS control further south from the Turkish border, which the YPG has a right to seize (eg Manbij, south of Jarablus), but clearly the only “link” that can be established between Afrin and Kobani is one based on Arab-Kurdish-Turkmen solidarity (ie, the thing that is being blown to bits at the moment)

Turkey’s opposition to the PYD’s aim of “linking” Kobani and Efrin is, of course, based on Turkey’s anti-Kurdish interests; it does not follow, however, that just because Turkish nationalist motivations are bad, that Kurdish nationalist plans to ride roughshod over non-Kurdish populations are justified. Thus the opposition of the local rebels, based among the local peoples, to this PYD plan, while it happens to coincide with Turkey’s interests, is just in its own right.

The dangerously Kurdish chauvinist aim would, if carried out, lead to massive bloodshed; is this part of the aim of the current YPG offensive under Russian air cover? And if so, doesn’t this suggest that the rebels were right all along to be suspicious of the PYD’s motives?

As for Turkey itself, the regime has two separate motivations in its Syria policy; one is its reactionary anti-Kurdish interest, especially as it now wages its own war of terror against its Kurdish population in eastern Turkey; the other is its interest in getting rid of the source of the massive instability on its borders that has led to Turkey being overwhelmed by 2.5 million Syrian refugees, ie, the Assad regime. Thus the article cited above by Roy Gutman is not wrong where it says that one of Turkey’s reasons to oppose such a move is that it “fears that if the YPG seizes the corridor, millions more Syrian Arabs and Turkmens will flee to Turkey” (http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/world/middle-east/article41559747.html, though “millions” is certainly an exaggeration).

Moreover, as Leila al-Shami, co-author of ‘Burning Country’, puts it, the very “attempts to carve out a new state through linking the cantons” is in sharp contradiction to “the idea of democratic confederalism” which she says she “strongly supports” (https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/the-assault-on-aleppo/#more-368) – let alone  when such a state is created via military conquest, Russian air power and destruction of the revolutionary councils of the Arab peoples living in this “link.”

 

The demand for “evidence” of Russia/YPG coordination

Faced with the reality of the YPG’s flagrant participation in the Russian-led Blitzkrieg, a number of Rojava-Firsters have been demanding “evidence.” I have some trouble understanding the demand, since it is all over the news that the YPG has been attacking and conquering these rebel-held towns; and also that Russia is bombing these rebel towns. I was therefore unsure whether this meant that some hadn’t been reading the news, or whether it was a demand for secret documents proving coordination; because, for example, maybe Russia and the YPG attacking the same towns at the same time was just coincidence. Since I don’t have such documents, and consider such coincidence unlikely, I have just put together some “evidence” for those who simply haven’t been watching.

First though, it is true that there were initial reports that a few villages had asked the rebels to leave, and for the YPG to take over, not out of love for the YPG, but so that they wouldn’t get bombed into oblivion by Russia. In these instances, we cannot fault the YPG. But the idea that this was the rule, rather than the exception, was soon belied by massive evidence of fighting and armed resistance to these YPG conquests by the local FSA defenders.

But then there are other excuses. The PYD’s Salih Muslim asks “Do they want the Nusra Front to stay there, or for the regime to come and occupy it?” This actually combines two excuses. First, he asserts that it is OK for the YPG to seize these towns (even with the help of Russian bombing) if they are run by Nusra (me: it still wouldn’t be); implying that they are mostly run by Nusra (me: they’re not, as we will see below), indeed, the YPG has a habit of calling whichever rebels it is fighting, or Russia is bombing, “Nusra.”

Second, he is claiming that it is OK for the YPG to conquer these towns while the Russians bomb them, because the YPG’s intentions are good; the Russians are bombing them anyway, and Assad will try to conquer them, so better we conquer them, even against local resistance, because we are preferable to the regime.

Yet if the YPG had stood in solidarity with the local rebel brigades and said “we will not conquer you, but if the regime comes, we will help defend you,” then they would have been able to keep Assad out – not to mention what it would have done for Arab-Kurdish solidarity.

An even more fantastic version of the events is given by İlham Ehmed, Co-President of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political body connected to the SDF, in an unfortunate article in Green Left Weekly (https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/61132). Repeating the disgusting slander that “the majority of the opposition forces in the region are loyal to Jabhat Al-Nusra,” and “are proxies with no political program, she added the further lie that this “is why they ran away after recent Russian bombardments”! Ehmed claimed that the YPG was therefore “trying to prevent the advance of regime forces by capturing the areas evacuated by jihadis.” So all the countless reports, and videos, of YPG fighting against local FSA and rebel forces as they conquer these towns under Russian bombs are just phantoms; the YPG is merely occupying empty towns. I’m sure Orwell would love to meet these folk.

Below is some evidence of the YPG-Russian attack on rebel towns, and of rebel resistance:

Syrian Observer reports on how the Aleppo province council “has been forced to leave its main base in the town of Hreitein and carry out its work from inside a tent east of the city of Azaz” after being attacked by Russian warplanes and “the advance of Assad’s forces,” but this was not the first displacement of the council, as it was preceded by the displacement from its previous base in the town of Deir al-Jamaal, which the Kurdish People’s Protection Units seized months ago, as a result of Russian aircraft targeting the base” (http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/30611/Aleppo_Province_Council_Operating_Out_Tent_Near_Azaz).

In the article “Moderate Syrian rebel factions face wipeout’ (http://www.voanews.com/content/moderate-syrian-rebel-factions-face-wipe-out/3180474.html), we read:

“YPG and rebel factions have been protecting civilians as they travel from Azaz. But at the same time the YPG has launched attacks on Islamist and moderate rebel factions around Afrin, seeking to expand the Kurdish enclave. Russian airstrikes on Saturday helped Kurdish fighters alongside militiamen from Jaysh al-Thwar, a YPG Sunni Arab ally, to capture the strategic Tal Zinkah hill north of Aleppo,” and in the same article, PYD leader Salih Muslim is quoted as saying that “the Russian airstrikes are targeting terrorists, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.”

Likewise, Syria Direct (http://syriadirect.org/news/side-campaign-in-north-aleppo-raises-fears-of-sdf-linking-kobani-to-afrin/), reports on the lead-up to the SDF capture of the Minagh airbase:

“Russian warplanes, which have been essential to the Syrian regime’s progress in the north, bombed rebel positions around the Minagh airport Wednesday as battles raged between the SDF and rebels, reported pro-opposition Aleppo News Network Wednesday. A war journalist present at the airport front confirmed to Syria Direct that Russian planes had carried out 16 airstrikes Wednesday on rebel positions there. On Tuesday, the SDF took control of two villages and a military base on the outskirts of the Minagh military airport” (and captured the base on Wednesday).

The same article, also reports on the truce negotiated at the end of the December skirmishes between the FSA and the YPG/SDF, stipulating that “the FSA would not move towards Kurdish-controlled areas and vice-versa.” It is fairly obvious who broke that eminently sensible truce, as the article continues:

“This week’s incursion into rebel-held areas in northern Aleppo is the fourth truce violation between them and the Marea Operations Room, Mohammed Najem a-Din, correspondent with pro-opposition Smart News, told Syria Direct Wednesday. “The SDF and Jaish al-Thuwwar have taken advantage of rebels being busy fighting the regime on Nubl and Zahraa” in order to make gains into their territory, said Najem a-Din.”

Syrian Observer (http://www.syrianobserver.com/EN/News/30560/Syrian_Democratic_Forces_Advance_Towards_Tel_Rifaat_Under_Russian_Air_Support) reported that:

“The Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces achieved a significant military victory in the area of Tel Rifaat in the northern Aleppo countryside, seizing control of the village of Kafrnaya to its south … one day after they captured Ayn Daqnah, in an effort to blockade the town from three sides. The sources said that Russian warplanes had been providing covering fire for the SDF during its attempt to enter the town and attacked opposition positions with dozens of rockets and bombs.”

According to Scott Lucas (http://eaworldview.com/2016/02/syria-daily-kurdish-pyd-we-will-not-pull-back-v-turkey-and-rebels/):

“With rebels under pressure from a regime-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah offensive north of Aleppo city, Kurdish forces began advancing earlier this month into rebel areas, taking a series of villages and the town of Deir Jawad on the Turkish border. … Despite the Turkish intervention, the Kurdish forces are still advancing. They captured Ayn Daqna, east of Azaz, on Sunday. They also are continuing assaults on the important town of Tal Rifaat, having been repelled on Friday and Saturday. Russia is now openly supporting the Kurdish attacks with airstrikes — at least 15 were reported on Tal Rifaat on Sunday.”

Lucas report also noted that the media activist Ahmad Khatib “was killed in the fighting for Tal Rifaat,” as was his brother.

According to the just-released Amnesty report on the deliberate Russian/Assadist campaign to bomb hospitals (https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/syrian-and-russian-forces-have-deliberately-targeted-hospitals-near-aleppo#.Vtfha0kwkrg.twitter):

“Two doctors and an activist from the city of Tel Rifaat who left two days before the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, took control of the town on 15 February, told Amnesty that all three health facilities – including a field hospital, a rehabilitation centre and a kidney dialysis centre – were directly targeted by missiles during the week of 8 February, just as the ground offensive on the town began. The attacks injured six members of the medical team and three civilian patients, leaving the population with no working medical facility. Doctor “Faraj” (his real name has been withheld for security reasons), who manages the field hospital, rehabilitation and kidney dialysis centre, told Amnesty:

The Kurds started gaining control of some villages in the northern part of Aleppo Countryside at the beginning of February and they were advancing towards Tel Rifaat. As they approached, Russian and Syrian forces targeted medical facilities. As a result, the civilians injured from the indiscriminate shelling had to be transferred to the Syrian-Turkish border because the hospitals were no longer operational.”

Meanwhile, Roy Gutman (http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/16/syria-ceasefire-brings-turkey-closer-to-war/) writes:

“Moscow actually stepped up its barrage of missiles and cluster bombs targeting primarily rebel-held towns close to Aleppo and on their main supply route to Turkey. Russia has even coordinated its airstrikes with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which captured towns and villages held by anti-Assad rebels after an intensive bombing campaign,” going on to give some stunning detail:

“In Tal Rifaat, a town of 30,000 that lies close to the main route from Turkey to Aleppo, Russian aircraft carried out an average 100 airstrikes a day this past weekend, emptying the town of its inhabitants and thousands of displaced, who fled to the Turkish border, according to humanitarian aid officials. The YPG captured the town on Monday.”

Gutman continues with the claim that:

“Faced with a manpower shortage, the Assad regime is relying on the Kurdish YPG to seize key real estate from rebels on the main route to Turkey.”

I mean, is all this what is meant by evidence? Or is this all just coincidence?

Meanwhile, there have been so many tweets/direct reports from the field of YPG attacks/conquests with Russian air support that I could fill pages with them, but hopefully the facts are now clear. Here’s a few:

Syrian Kurds backed by Russian airstrikes advance on Syrian airbase
http://rudaw.net/NewsDetails.aspx?pageid=193414
Aleppo: Syrian Rebels recaptured Al Alagamiyah & Al Shil’aa after heavy clashes with YPG & treacherous so called “Jaish Thuwar” https://twitter.com/Malcolmite/status/697120652218798080
YPG has sent an ultimatum to the FSA and Ahrar Al-Sham and other groups, either give them the Menagh Airbase or they will take it militarily https://twitter.com/VivaRevolt/status/697096507250581506
Following airstrikes by the Russian Air Force, the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) in the enclave of Afrin in northern Aleppo province took control of Ziyarah
http://www.almasdarnews.com/…/ypg-take-ziyarah-in…/
YPG has captured Maarnaz from FSA-Ahrar Al-Sham. https://twitter.com/VivaRevolt/status/696428417584070657
YPG seized Maranaz and Deir Jamal villages in northern Aleppo after clashes with the rebels, mainly Shami front (former Tawheed brigade) https://twitter.com/Abduhark/status/696646293536563200
YPG/Jaish al-Thuwar have taken Deir Jamal from the rebels , with Russian air support https://twitter.com/Paradoxy13/status/696476896616390656

With Russian Airstrikes, YPG progressing around Azaz
https://twitter.com/DrPartizan_/status/695386827541184516

Kurds militias withdraw their positions surrounding #Azaz after heavy clashes with #FSA HEROES. #Aleppo cs #Syria FEB 11 https://twitter.com/AEJKhalil/status/697894948109225984

Finally, Jim Rodney M points us to http://syria.liveuamap.com/en/time/01.02.2016, which shows the day to day events; he has been following it closely and says its shows “the SAA and allies pushed up through the east of Aleppo city while Russian bombers destroyed everything in their path. They met resistance all along the way but advanced to Nubl and Zahraa where they were then face to face with the YPG between Dayr Jamal and Mayer but instead of confronting each other they shared a battle line against free Syrians while the YPG advanced west under Russian air power taking town after town culminating in completely cutting Arab rebels off from Aleppo. … There is no other way to describe the events other than to say the YPG and the Assadi axis are allied with each other in a common assault against free Syrians.”

Meanwhile, the #‎Aleppo LCC reports on alleged meetings between SDF, Russian and Assad regime representatives in Efrin, and claims “The Russian side asserted to SDF intensifying the airstrikes on Azaz city and Aleppo northern suburb so SDF can advance and take over ‪#‎Izaz city and ‪#‎Tal_Rafaat town and Assad’s forces can advance toward Aleppo city,” as well as an earlier meeting where they allegedly agreed for the SDF to take the Menagh airbase: (https://www.facebook.com/LCCSY2011/posts/1720204668120076?fref=nf).

  

Which rebel groups control the towns under Russian/YPG attack?

Aleppo map who controls what

Map of northern Aleppo before latest fighting, showing control by Rojava Kurds (yellow), rebels (green), regome (red) and ISIS (black), source: https://media.almasdarnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/untitled24.png

The other main issue often arising in discussion is that of which rebel groups control the various parts of Aleppo now under attack.

For many Rojava-Firsters, this is a good excuse to support this counterrevolutionary action: “Oh, but that area is controlled by Nusra, so it’s good that the “democratic” forces are ejecting them” (even if with Russian air power – let me try that: Oh, but Iraq is run by Saddam Hussein, who is an extremely brutal tyrant, so of course we need to fight on the side of the US Blitzkrieg to unseat him, etc etc).

A particularly disgusting (and disappointing in the extreme, given the source) example of this was a tweet sent by the head of the leftist/Kurdish-based HDP in Turkey, Selahattin Demirtaş: “Davutoğlu says #Azez won’t fall. Who’s in Azez? Al Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. Rapists & people who sell women” (https://twitter.com/hdpenglish/status/701036280751247361).

Now the level of outright racism and dehumanisation in this tweet is unbelievable (so ordinary Arabic people don’t live there? Were the babies killed by Russian bombing of the maternity hospital there also rapists?); and of course it is also a lie that either Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham engage in a policy of rape (that would be the Assad regime) or sell women (ISIS), regardless of their other sins. But as we will see, it is also a lie about who is actually in control of Azaz.

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First, however, I disagree with the premise in any case. It is up to the local peoples to choose their political/military leaderships in revolutionary situations (in the same way as the PYD/YPG is in control of Kurdish regions), and to change them; and even if we dislike some of them, it is not up to an outside force; still less one operating with Russian air support, to forcefully eject them; and the ethnic factor in a military attack cannot be ignored, even if the SDF may theoretically be very good on the multi-ethnic issue.

And even in the case of Nusra, a group I detest, it is a new development in left-wing thinking that it is OK to be on the side of an invading imperialist power bombing the country to bits against even a reactionary local militia; in the conditions of this genocide from the sky, if even Nusra got its hands on good anti-aircraft missiles and shot dozens of Russian warplanes out of the sky it would be a victory for all humanity (and anyone wanted to now express outrage, kindly express it to children ripped to bits by Russian bombs in Aleppo).

In addition, most areas have been controlled by coalitions of rebel groups. Trying to single out areas allegedly controlled only by “Nusra” would be very frustrating; in general there is a loose military alliance between all the factions confronting the Assad regime/ISIS, necessary due to the overwhelming military superiority of those two (especially the regime), and their cooperation. Politically, Nusra tends to stand out on a limb compared to all other groups, but in military terms, it is entirely sensible for the FSA to reject the years-long US-prodding to wage war on Nusra now (though the FSA often finds itself clashing with Nusra *in defence* against Nusra transgressions). And in any case, as we’ll see below, Nusra has much less to do with the Aleppo fighting than is commonly made out.

But anyway, below is a little summary.

 

Azaz

First, on Azaz. In September 2013, ISIS seized Azaz from the ‘Northern Storm’ brigade of the Free Syrian Army. Before that, Northern Storm had put up a several-month resistance to furious ISIS siege, thereby also protecting PYD-controlled Afrin further west; the YPG did not lift a finger. But in January 2014, the FSA and other rebels drove ISIS out of the whole of western Syria (and temporarily much of eastern Syria), and so it was of course driven from Azaz. Since January 2014 Azaz has again been the major connection between the rebels and sources of funds, arms, trade, refuge etc in Turkey. That is why it is so crucial for the rebels to keep control of Azaz.

Since then, the main militia controlling it has again been FSA Northern Storm (Liwa Asifat al-Shamal (according to this well-researched article from January 2015: http://www.aymennjawad.org/15865/special-report-northern-storm-and-the-situation), just as it was before September 2013; therefore, the YPG has attacked, with the aid of Russian airstrikes on children’s hospitals, those who previously protected it. This article continues: “also present within Azaz town but lacking any governing authority is Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra” (it runs a mosque), while Northern Storm “also solely controls the (nearby) town of Sawran” (http://www.aymennjawad.org/15865/special-report-northern-storm-and-the-situation).

Notably, despite long-term tension between Azaz and Efrin, there has also been significant cooperation, which underlined the potential, and the folly of the YPG’s siege of Azaz:

“However, there was some limited cooperation of convenience in the fight to drive ISIS out … Since Northern Storm returned to Azaz officially under the authority of Liwa al-Tawhid and the Islamic Front in Aleppo (now the Levant Front), there has been official neutrality despite suspicion that reinforcements come from Afrin to the regime-held Shi’a villages of Nubl and Zahara. Securing water from Afrin would therefore require greater outreach to the PYD, which may be one of the underlying reasons behind the agreement publicly announced in February (2015) between the PYD’s military wing the YPG and the Levant Front, stipulating a united judicial system, establishing joint Shari’a and da’wah offices in Aleppo and Afrin, and working together to crack down on crime. Of course, Jabhat al-Nusra is opposed to any such arrangements with the PYD/YPG, which it considers to be apostate entities” (http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-administration-of-the-local-council-in-azaz/).

 

Menagh airbase

Syria Direct (http://syriadirect.org/news/side-campaign-in-north-aleppo-raises-fears-of-sdf-linking-kobani-to-afrin/) reports that the base had been held by a combination of Ahrar a-Sham and Jabha al-Shamiya (also known as Shamiya Front, or Levant Front). Meanwhile, we also read that the “YPG has sent an ultimatum to the FSA and Ahrar Al-Sham and other groups, either give them the Menagh Airbase or they will take it militarily” (https://twitter.com/VivaRevolt/status/697096507250581506), while a statement by the FSA FastaqemUnion claims it was “under the national brigades of the FSA” (https://twitter.com/FkoUnion/status/698990013007196168). Rudaw also claims the YPG seized it from “the Levant Front,” ie, Shamiya Front (http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/11022016).

Thus it seems we had FSA, Shamiya Front, and Ahrar al-Sham. The claim that “Nusra” was there at all now seems most likely to just be standard YPG propaganda. Leaving aside the FSA, these other two forces may be called ‘Islamists’; as Leila al-Shami explains, “the Islamists represent the conservative culture of rural Aleppo. They are comprised primarily of Aleppo’s sons, brothers and fathers” who “have strong local support” (https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/the-assault-on-aleppo/). However, they are two very different strads of ‘Islamist’. Ahrar al-Sham is a relatively hard-line Islamist militia, but as al-Shami says, genuinely based in the community, and moreover, it has continually condemned violations by Nusra (eg, see this vigorous condemnation of Nusra’s attack on the Druze in northern Idlib https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/609449774673211392), and even clashed with it recently.

As for the Shamiya Front, while it can also be broadly described as ‘Islamist’, this is only true in the same sense that various Christian “liberation theology” movements could be described as “political Christian” (for those who immediately express outrage, I recommend quickly checking your pulse for Islamophobia levels). A coalition of starkly moderate, FSA-aligned ‘Islamists’ – nothing like Ahrar al-Sham or Jaysh Islam – who have all played leading roles in the war against ISIS, the Shamiya Front’s ‘Islamist’ credentials are best shown in this video where they treat ISIS prisoners to a mock execution, with a terrific ending: http://www.news.com.au/technology/syrian-rebel-brigade-al-shamiya-front-punk-isis-prisoners-with-mock-execution/news-story/a70b7280f010cccbd6a7136c03848e84.

In a recent Op-Ed in FP, Shamiya Front leader Abdallah al-Othman says they are “local fighters who wish to attain democracy and defend our hometowns from slaughter,” and declares “the Levant Front desires a Syria that is free and pluralistic, with respect for human rights, peaceful elections, and the rule of law” (http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/17/fighting-for-aleppo-abandoned-by-the-world-islamic-state-levant-front-isis/).

Does an ‘Islamist’ group like this really deserve to be attacked by YPG/SDF thugs supported by Russian terror bombing?


Tel Rifaat

 It is very difficult to get a clear idea of who exactly “controls” the iconic revolutionary town Tel Rifaat, if not simply a coalition like elsewhere. What we do know is that it was in Tel Rifaat that ISIS mastermind, Hajji Bakr, was killed by rebels as the anti-ISIS war began in earnest early January 2014; and his family was taken prisoner by Liwa al-Tawhid, the strikingly moderate ‘Islamist’ brigade that previously dominated Aleppo before breaking apart when its leader was killed by Assad. So ‘moderate’ in fact, that one former part of it, the Northern Sun Brigade, is now with SDF (so they have ‘Islamists’ too!), though most simply became Shamiya Front.

Tel Rifaat has seen months of demonstrations in support of the revolution, demanding that the revolutionary brigades unite to face their enemies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hEBtN-RK-Y), where the only flags we see are FSA flags; activists in Tel Rifaat released a statement demanding leaders resign to take responsibility for recent defeats , leading to the deputy commander of the Shamiya Front doing just that, in a small sign of grass-roots democracy in action (http://syriadirect.org/news/rebel-leader-resigns-amidst-aleppo-protests/). Not quite the kind of town that needs to be “liberated” by hundreds of Russian air strikes (as one of the sources I quoted above described).

Meanwhile, here is a charming video showing victorious YPG fighters (well, that is if you call victory by Russian air strikes a “victory” by the YPG) gloating over the bodies of FSA defenders of Tel Rifaat: https://www.facebook.com/BABAMAMABOBO/posts/1118834781494675

 

Mare (Marea)

In fact it is still uncertain whether or not Mare – another iconic revolutionary centre and the front-line in the war against ISIS – has fallen to the Russian-YPG offensive or not. Some days ago, YPG sources claimed that the local rebels had reached a deal with them. Of course this is possible – when confronted with the dilemma “do you want to let our Russian allies obliterate you, and Assad forces take over, or just give up and let us take over?” Which is hardly an argument that that YOG is carrying out a humanitarian operation. But in any case, FSA sources claim to still be in control.

Mare is run by the Mare Operations Room. According to the very reliable ‘archcivilians’ site (https://twitter.com/archicivilians/status/671741957706788864/photo/1), this consists of the Suqor al-Jabal Brigade (FSA, also known as the Falcons of Mount Zawiya Brigade, previously part of the 5th Corp), the Fursan al-Haq brigade (FSA, now fused with other FSA groups as the Northern Division), Liwa Ahrar al-Surya (FSA), the Fastaqim Kama Umirt Union (FSA), and Faylaq al-Sham, the Muslim Brotherhood connected brigade, also loosely associated with the FSA on the same ‘soft-Islamist’ wavelength as the Shamiya Front. A Wikipedia page adds the Shamiya Front, which would seem likely. Some sources (http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/30384/Free_Syrian_Army_Expels_ISIS_from_Aleppo_Villages), add the Turkmen-based Sultan Murad Brigade (FSA), and some add Ahrar al-Sham, both of which also seem likely. No sources anywhere suggest Nusra.

It has been the Mare Operations Room that has been signing ceasefires with the YPG over the last 6 months of on and off skirmishes connected to the appearance of a handful of embittered ex-FSA fighters known as ‘Jaysh al-Thuwar’ (the main non-YPG component of the SDF in Aleppo). The last ceasefire in December called for neither side to cross into the other side’s territories (which Jaysh al-Thuwar had done in December, seizing four FSA-held towns, with Russian air support). It is pretty obvious who has now broken the ceasefire.

According to this article, ISIS and the YPG are both attacking revolutionary Marea at the same time: http://syriadirect.org/news/is-and-sdf-each-attack-rebel-held-marea-%E2%80%9Cevery-brigade-is-striving-to-build-their-dreams-on-our-guts%E2%80%9D /

 

Aleppo City

As for Aleppo itself, a mega-coalition, Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest), dominates here, initially set up by 31 mostly FSA brigades (all the big ones, eg Fursan al-Haq, Divisions 13, 16 and 101, others listed above in Marea), along with all the soft-Islamist brigades (Shamiya Front, Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Authenticity Front, Jaysh Mujahideen, Faylaq al-Sham), and also Ahrar al-Sham, but not Nusra (http://archicivilians.WORDPRESS.com/2015/06/18/infographic-fatah-halab-military-operations-room-coalition-of-31-rebel-factions-syria). It was later joined by another 19 small, locally-based FSA brigades (https://twitter.com/BosnjoBoy/status/626060428519571456).

Much has also been written about the system of local councils in Aleppo, though years of barrel bombing have no doubt made these much less functional than they might be. However, this description of grass-roots struggle in Aleppo by Leila al-Shami gives a good picture of what is at stake:

“When we talk of ‘liberated areas’ it’s more than just rhetoric. Under threat in Aleppo are the different local councils which ensure the governance of each area and have kept providing services to the local population in the absence of the state. We are talking about more than 100 civil society organizations (the second largest concentration of active civil society groups anywhere in the country). These include some 28 free media groups, women’s organizations and emergency and relief organizations such as the Civil Defense Force. It also includes educational organizations such as Kesh Malek which provides non-ideological education for children, often in people’s basements, to ensure school continues under bombardment. Under Assad’s totalitarian state, independent civil society was non-existent and no independent media sources existed. But in Free Aleppo democracy is being practiced as the people themselves self-organize and run their communities” (https://leilashami.wordpress.com/2016/02/25/the-assault-on-aleppo/).

 

Where is Nusra?

It is interesting to note that, despite the constant refrain of “Nusra” being everywhere, this close reading of the sources suggests Nusra only has a secondary presence in Azaz, that it may or may not be represented at the Menagh base (and if it is, again in a very secondary role), that it does not exist in Mare or Tel Rifaat, and that in Aleppo it is the only militia excluded from the grand military coalition. Of course, Nusra does exist, and operates more on its own, as well as in a separate military front with Ahrar al-Sham (Ansar al-Saria, ie, Ahrar operates in both Fatah Halab and in Ansar al-Sharia); and appears to be more present further south, in southern Aleppo near its main base in Idlib.

But its relative absence is in fact no mystery: mid-last year, when Turkey began calling for a “safe zone” along the Turkish border to settle refugees, allegedly to include a Turkish-backed push by rebels to expel ISIS from the region between Azaz and Jarablus – a plan blocked by the US – Nusra was the only brigade in Aleppo to oppose this plan. Strikingly, for a group that is often bandied about as “Turkish-backed,” Nusra declared Turkey to be motivated only by its “national security interests” and not by Syrian interests, declaring it to be “not a strategic decision emanating from the free will of the armed factions,” though the rebels “have the ability to combat ISIS — if they unite through means sanctioned by sharia law… without seeking the help of international or regional forces” (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/565709-nusra-withdraws-from-turkey-border).

Therefore, Nusra  announced its withdrawal from Azaz, Marea, Tel Rifaat and all the more northern and eastern regions, which have now been under attack (thus even the first link above, which in January 2015 said Nusra had a secondary presence in Azaz, may be old information).

In a later interview, Nusra chief Joulani explicitly declared that Turkey’s “national security” issue, which Nusra did not want to be involved with, was “the Kurds,” and clarified, that Nusra withdrew from northern Aleppo countryside not to ease the way for the Turkish zone as some had suggested, but because “we don’t see it permissible to fight ISIS under a Turkish or an international coalition air cover” (https://t.co/3gldQBYqY9).

(As an aside: Regardless of my very low opinion of Nusra, this declaration actually showed a strange political intelligence; much as I would be sympathetic to the reasons for the entire non-Nusra rebellion supporting such a Turkish move, it is interesting that the most reactionary organisation had the clearest understanding that Turkey would be acting in its own interests which do not necessarily coincide those of the Syrian masses. So calling Nusra a Turkish-backed group has no basis. And the fact that Nusra saw these Turkish interests, which it wanted no part of, as being anti-Kurdish, indicates that Nusra’s hostility to the PYD is more political (opposed to the PYD’s politics) and monopolistic (Nusra has attacked FSA brigades far more than it has attacked the YPG), rather than “anti-Kurdish” as such).

 

Conclusion: An attack on the Syrian revolution and possible suicide for Rojava revolution

It is difficult to call this turn of events anything other than an outright betrayal of the revolution by the YPG leadership, with likely catastrophic results for all concerned. Right now, the YPG is a direct participant in the catastrophe of the Arabic peoples of the Aleppo region and their revolution, in direct partnership with the Russian Blitzkrieg and therefore indirect (to be charitable) partnership with the fascist regime and its Iranian-led global sectarian invaders.

Tomorrow, this betrayal may also be catastrophic for the Kurdish civilians and their own revolution as well. While it is not unusual for nationalist leaderships to make decisions based on the narrow interests of their own nation (one would have expected better from an officially left leadership, but anyway), in this case it is short-sighted even from this narrow point of view. The Assadist representative at Geneva, Bashar al-Jaafari, made a point of telling the PYD that they should forget about autonomy or federalism, “take the idea of separating Syrian land out of your mind” … “we have said before our theme for these talks is Syrians in Syria and our precondition is to protect the unity of the land and Syrian nation” (http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/310120162). When you add to this a couple of recent regime bombings of the YPG, the regime is essentially laughing at the Kurdish leadership even as it declares that “these Syrian Kurds supported by the American administration are also supported by the Syrian government” – a “support” which goes for now as the YPG serves its purposes (http://www.trtworld.com/mea/assads-un-envoy-reveals-regime-support-for-pyd-49189), but certainly not for the day after.

Hence, the position now being implemented by the PYD/YPG in this conflict is crucial both to the future existence of the revolution as a whole, and to the Rojava revolution. Getting it wrong here can mean that all the stories of setting up a radical-democratic, non-sectarian, multi-ethnic, feminist model – and despite exaggerations and romanticisation, a certain amount of this is undoubtedly true – may shortly afterwards turn to dust. What has protected the Rojava revolution for three years, while it was untouched by Assad’s barrel bombs, ballistic missiles, sarin etc, so that this model could be built, was none other than the enormous sacrifice by the rest of the country, the Syrian revolution in Arab Syria, the blood of hundreds of thousands of people outside Rojava, who continually fought and died in the struggle against Assad (and whose similarly revolutionary-democratic councils were bombed into oblivion); they were a wall protecting Rojava, and the moment they fall, Assad, with mathematical precision, will turn Rojava into dust, with no-one left to help (I’m reminded of a poem by Martin Niemoller: http://allpoetry.com/First-They-Came-For-The-Communists). At that point, Assad and Erdogan may find they have less problems with each other than they thought.

The PYD appears to be relying on the idea that its current US and Russian sponsors will save it some autonomy due to their own interests, even if it means Assad, or an ‘Assad regime without Assad’, won’t be able to fully carry out the threat to “unify” the country. Nothing is out of the question. As SDF Co-President İlham Ehmed speaks of Syria being divided into three “federal regions,” with the northern one ruled by them (https://anfenglish.com/features/ehmed-three-federal-regions-will-be-formed-in-syria-part-ii), corresponding closely to the plan recently flagged by the US Rand Corporation (http://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE182.html), John Kerry now says that partition may be part of a ‘Plan B’ if a ceasefire cannot be achieved (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/23/john-kerry-partition-syria-peace-talks?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail). Yet putting the PYD/SDF in charge of a “northern” federal unit outside that extends beyond ethnically Kurdish areas is not the same as Kurdish autonomy, and would instead turn it into a US-Russia-backed police force guarding a brutal occupation of land seen as occupied by the Sunni Arab majority there, not to mention by those millions driven from northern Syria in this gigantic Nakbah. WE are reminded of other dark events in Mideast history. Even then, I suspect this “solution” would be temporary while the post-Assadist state re-gathers its resources.

I have no interest in reaching these conclusions. I always supported the Rojava revolution along with the rest of the revolution, and despite disagreeing with many uncritical supporters of the PYD leadership and its views, I was willing to recognise the relatively politically advanced nature of the process in Rojava. Moreover, regardless of this process, I’ve always supported the right of self-determination for the Kurds throughout the region, including, if they choose, an independent state. But the leadership has made these decisions, and needs to be held accountable.

 

Responsibility of Arab and Kurdish leaderships for Arab-Kurdish disunity

It is true of course that the various opposition leaderships, both political and military, share responsibility, for not having taken a clear position in support of Kurdish national self-determination. The initial refusal of the exile-based Syrian opposition to agree to dropping the word “Arab” from “Syrian Arab Republic” was an important symbolic example. The opposition advocates general rights for Kurds and other minorities, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) consisting of some 15 parties, is part of the Syrian National Coalition. When it officially joined the Coalition in 2013, a joint declaration was released in which the Coalition confirmed its commitment to “constitutional recognition of the Kurdish people’s national identity, considering the Kurdish affair an integral part of the general national cause in the country, the recognition of the national rights of the Kurdish people in the framework of the unity of the Syrian people and lands, the cancelation of all discriminatory politics, decrees and measures against Kurdish citizens, the treatment of their effects and repercussions, granting the victims compensation and returning rights to their rightful owners.”

Nevertheless, the KNC still fights within the Coalition for a clearer position on the issue. A crystal clear position in support of self-determination (as opposed to the emphasis on “the unity of the Syrian people and lands”), is essential to win national minorities such as the Kurds to the side of revolution. Significantly, however, the Syrian National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, to which the PYD has long been affiliated with, does not have no clearer position on the Kurdish issue than the Syrian National Coalition.

This is a longer-term discussion that needs to be had about the ultimate fate of the revolution. However, supporters of the Syrian revolution have rarely given their support on the basis that its various leaderships are politically advanced; the exile-based leaderships are conservative and bourgeois, and widely criticised by the revolutionaries on the ground; while the internal civil and military leaderships of the FSA and the LCCs etc are empirical revolutionaries who arose from the grass-roots, without strong traditions of political consciousness, crushed as political thought was for 40 years under the Assads. In contrast, the PYD leadership comes from a consciously left-socialist tradition, and one would therefore have expected a better approach than the treacherous one now being implemented.

Moreover, it is not even clear that the Kurdish masses – whatever suspicions they may rightly have about sections of the opposition – are necessarily in support of these current moves, or that their mistrust of the opposition is driving the PYD’s current actions (here is statement of a Kurdish FSA faction condemning the PYD’s actions: http://en.eldorar.com/node/1500). While the Kurds have been nationally oppressed in Syria – especially by the Assad regime – it has been the Sunni Arab majority that has suffered far and away the most over the last five years, subjected to massive slaughter and large-scale dispossession, while the Kurds in Rojava were left alone. In such circumstances, it is just as much the stance of the Kurdish leadership – especially a leftist Kurdish leadership – towards their Arab brothers and sisters that is crucial as is the reverse. Moreover, the position of the PYD leadership in relation to the uprising against Assad was unclear from the outset, and over time evolved into a “plague on both your houses” position, casting themselves as a third alternative, rather than seeing their role as providing a critical left perspective in support of the revolution.

Assad withdrew from the main Kurdish regions in late 2012 and handed them over to the PYD. Of course, Assad did not do this to support Kurdish autonomy, but to be able to focus on slaughtering the more immediate threat of the rest of the revolution; the PYD did not accept because it is pro-Assad, but because it saw the sense of building their own Rojava project rather than demanding to be barrel-bombed. They can hardly be condemned for the latter. However, this situation tended to harden this position of “third-force” neutrality, leading many oppositionists, rightly or wrongly, to see the PYD as a stalking horse for the regime, which often led to, mostly small-scale, clashes (as well as other instances of revolutionary cooperation).

While the PYD claims its Rojava project is multi-ethnic, and in some places this seems to be valid, the momentum of Arab-Kurdish joint demonstrations against the regime throughout 2011-2012 took place independently of the PYD (see this article to get a feel for this period: http://www.developmentperspectives.ie/serdar-ahmad-the-story-of-a-syrian-grassroots-leader/). Some have even argued that the separation of Rojava and its withdrawal from the anti-Assad struggle tended to dull this momentum, ironically enough. I have no information to sustain this view, but it is notable that when the PYD used repression against Kurdish opposition – most famously in Amuda in 2013 (http://www.syriauntold.com/en/2013/07/amuda-shouts-once-again-he-who-kills-his-people-is-a-traitor/) – it was directed against Kurdish activists with strong links to the wider revolutionary movement.

The rise of jihadist forces, first Nusra and then ISIS, led to further conflict, especially as these forces were based mostly in the north and east of the country, and thus tended to vie for some of the same regions, resources and border crossings as the PYD. In late 2013 in particular, they launched murderous attacks on the Kurds in the northeast. While the Syrian opposition did not endorse these jihadist attacks, some small rebel formations on the ground in eastern Syria found themselves stuck between the jihadists and the YPG, where local, conjunctural factors often played a role in deciding who was their chief opponent at the moment’ and in some cases local FSA groups seem to have taken an anti-YPG position. However, the simplistic assertion that “the FSA joined the jihadist attacks on the Kurds” in late 2013 is essentially slander, especially as the FSA was also already at war with ISIS in this period.

Considerable study would be required to ascertain the various errors made by both Arab and Kurdish leaderships. Yet ultimately, it is difficult to see the PYD’s current actions in Aleppo as mere “mistakes” of a revolutionary left leadership under extreme pressure of events, as has been put to me (and amusingly, the same people often tell me how wicked it is for the Syrian rebels to be receiving aid from the Erdogan regime in Turkey – as if it is not the rebels who are the ones under extraordinary, super-human, pressure, and for whom the opening to Turkey, and the little support they get via Azaz, is an absolute lifeline; talk about the pot calling the kettle black!).

 

How did the PYD arrive here?

No, the PYD’s current betrayal is rooted precisely in it not surpassing the bounds of being a nationalist force, despite the rhetoric. In particular, this is combined with the nature of large-scale decision-making in a one-party state, no matter how much power the democratic councils have in local decision-making. For example, the PYD has just banned the Kurdish publication ‘Rudaw’ from operating in Rojava, and “also banned journalists and freelancers from sending their work to Rudaw and warned all agencies and organizations to cut off all contacts with the media network” (http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/250220161). Was this act of political repression decided upon by local councils, with relevant information, discussing the issue across Rojava and coming to this decision? Or was it a ruling by some Political Committee of the PYD?

Further, it is my view that the road to becoming a ground force for Russia’s counterrevolutionary Blitzkrieg in Aleppo today was set by the evolution of the PYD/YPG into the main ground force for the US-led Coalition also bombing Syria.

The initial cooperation with the US, when the US airforce came in to bomb ISIS away from Kobani in late 2014, was undoubtedly necessary, when defence against the threat of ISIS subjugation and terror in Kobani was a question of survival. When FSA forces formed an alliance with the YPG for the defence of Kobani, this was also a high point of revolutionary unity between the Arab and Kurdish masses and their leaderships.

However, the US-YPG arrangement then turned into a long-term alliance, and not one for immediate defence as in Kobani, but one for offensive operations against ISIS. Much as the Islamic State is a monstrously reactionary state that needs to be overthrown, it is questionable that this can be achieved via the military actions of a nationalist Kurdish militia on the ground, completely reliant on US air strikes, where the Islamic State is based among Arabs. Since early 2015, every offensive operation by the YPG against ISIS relies on US air-strikes; these US bombings are netting an increasingly higher number of civilian casualties (even this week, the US bombed a bakery and killed 28 civilians in the town of Shadada in Hasaka region, at the onset of a YPG offensive against ISIS: http://www.orient-news.net/en/news_show/103136/0/US-led-coalition-jets-kill-civilians-in-Hasakah-countryside); the YPG is the only ground force sharing coordinates with the US; US special forces have arrived in Rojava and work with the YPG; and even a US airbase has been set up on Rojava soil.

This pattern of dependence on foreign imperialist powers thus emerged, along with a haughtiness, an arrogance, that comes with the idea that you will always be protected by powerful foreign states. This has now reached a tragic climax.

One final point: there is some talk that this move by the PYD is a “pro-Russian” move away from alliance with the US. It isn’t. This view relies too much on the “Cold War” myth, and ignores the “fundamental similarity” of US-Russian views on Syria, as John Kerry rightly put it – especially the studied, deliberate, cold US indifference to the current Russian-led slaughter of the revolutionary forces in Aleppo.

Is it really surprising that the very weeks that the YPG is acting as the Russian ground force in Aleppo, the US and YPG launch a new offensive in Hasaka region; that the SDF includes the logo of the US-led Coalition in their list of allied militias (https://twitter.com/defenseunits/status/700741630618370049); that US Government Counter Terrorism Center, which had linked the PKK and PYD in 2014, removed this reference in 2016 (https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/701451967692845056); and that Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, paid an official visit to the PYD in Kobani “in what appeared to be the first official trip to Syrian territory for several years” by an official from the Obama administration, where he was presented with a plaque by YPG founding member, and former PKK member, Polat Can (http://www.nrttv.com/en/Details.aspx?Jimare=5199). Thus, the counterrevolutionary position currently adopted by the PYD is an embodiment of the US-Russia agreement on Syria, not a problem for their alleged “Cold War.”

13 thoughts on “The Kurdish PYD’s alliance with Russia against Free Aleppo: Evidence and analysis of a disaster

  1. An excellent piece, Michael, which clarifies several of the key points, and I broadly agree with your well argued and balanced political assessments. I’m planning on writing something myself in the next couple of weeks, so I’ll limit myself here to a couple of points, both factual and interpretive:
    1. the Jazira Shammar have never been “pro-regime” rather the opposite.
    2.I am both more negative and in one respect less negative than you in regard to the YPG/PYD. To take the latter first: you say “It is true of course that the various opposition leaderships, both political and military, share responsibility, for not having taken a clear position in support of Kurdish national self-determination” But I would emphasize a broader set of contextual factors:a. the attacks on the YPG by Islamist forces in 2012 in Ras al ‘Ayn, which seems to have sparked off this long period of bad blood (exacerbated by the deep ideological differences between the two currents). To a large degree this casus belli has become a propaganda tool for the YPG, but I believe it has at least some real foundation; b. the active exclusion of the PYD from the Vienna process at, it seems, the instigation of Turkey, which pushed them firmly into the arms of the Russians; c, and by far the most important, the Turkish onslaught on the PKK affiliates in Turkey and Syria, which had multiple ramifications.In the light of that there are other forces who share some of the responsibility for the current tragic situation.
    In my view the current alignment of the YPG was not a “done deal” six months ago but was shaped by this subsequent combination of events
    However none of that exonerates the YPG/PYD who have chosen a course in line with the opportunist and self-centred politics that they have always shown since 2011/12.
    As far as my more negative view is concerned: I have always been sceptical of the “Rojava project” ever since the publication of the Rojava social contract: a supposedly anti-statist project whose key text is just a clumsy compilation of liberal democratic nostrums. In my view, Rojava is largely an exercise in fantasy- whenever you can get tangible information about the working of Rojava institutions they turn out to be far more modest than the official self-image. (The work on the status of women may be a partial exception to this). You ask “Was this act of political repression decided upon by local councils, with relevant information, discussing the issue across Rojava?” A question which could be applied with greater force to the decision to adopt the current political alignment. All the Cantons have assemblies, government councils, ministries of defense and foreign affairs – what role did they play in deciding this policy? For a depressing example of this look at this inteview with İlham Ehmed (who you quoted in a different context: ). http://en.hawarnews.com/msd-co-president-ehmed-three-federal-regions-will-be-formed-in-syria/
    This leading figure in the Rojava political order seems to think that the PYD are going to be able to write the constitution and determine the shape of a future Syria, presumably with the support of their new Russian patron. The politics of fantasy run wild!

  2. Well written piece but I think you are leaving out several important events to put blame on ypg and sdf. For an example you fail to mention the repeated shelling of afrin and their area in Aleppo by many of those rebels. Imo. The many aggressions have pushed ypg to take to arms since the islamists amongst the rebels have shown that they have no intentions to lift the blockade or live peacefully side by side.

    And regarding the supposed non aggresionpact signed in December, I think that already was obsolete due to heavy shelling in January.

  3. totally agree with you in this point
    as a social democrat myself, I always find the left’s support for mass murderers in syria, vietnam and (my own country) China very problematic

    When you are “anti-imperialist”, you are against imperialist crimes(like those in palestine and east timor) for something that’s better, not worse(like assad)

  4. The Kurds are sectarian and will commit ethnic cleansing against Arabs. For example, the YPG has been committing ethnic cleansing against Arabs in areas that they “recaptured” from ISIS.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People%27s_Protection_Units#Forced_displacement

    But this is nothing new. The Kurds have a history of committing ethnic cleansing against Arabs and Turkmen:
    http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2005/10/05/our-kurdish-problem/

    Even Patrick Cockburn criticized the Kurds of being sectarian (during the Iraq War) before he joined the “Baathist amen corner” in support of U.S. and Russian military aid to the Kurds.

    The ethnic cleansing performed by the YPG is the same tactic Israel has used against Arabs when Israel was created. Israel has ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Arabs in Palestine. See the similarity? Another similarity is that the U.S. arms and funds both Israel and Kurdistan. If things still stay the same, then Kurdistan might become a second Israel. One who opposes Zionism (Jewish nationalism) should also oppose the Kurdish version of Zionism, i.e., Kurdish nationalism.

    People falsely conflate “sectarianism” with “Salafism” or “jihadism”. They will also conflate “secularism” with “non-sectarian”. But this isn’t the case as we have seen from many instances where secular states could be just as sectarian (if not more) than Islamists. Just because a state is “secular” does not mean that it is tolerant of other religions. For example, the Assad regime is sectarian against Sunni Muslims, the Sisi regime is sectarian against Muslims, Israel is sectarian against Muslims, and Kurdistan is sectarian against Arabs.

    Backing the Kurds will only give rise to further sectarian bigotry against the Kurds. The recent suicide bombing against a Kurdish wedding is an example. This is just an example of the recent wave of anti-Kurdish hate crimes caused by U.S. backing of the Kurds. In 2014-2015 when the U.S. is using the Kurds to wage war against the Islamic State, there was a rise in hate crimes:

    In 2014-2015, Kurds were personally targeted in various instances due to Kurdish political groups and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s alliance with Western countries. Kurds in Iraq and Syria have been embroiled in a war against the rebel group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. As a result of the increasing awareness of the Kurdish people due to this conflict, anti-Kurdism has also been on the rise. In the United Kingdom, a Kurdish shop owner was attacked by a kurdophobe who said he wished genocide against all Kurdish people.[7]

    In November 2014, a Kurdish footballer Deniz Naki was the victim of an attack in Turkey. Naki, who played for the Turkish club, Gençlerbirliği S.K., was attacked by Turks while he was out buying food in Turkey’s capital, Ankara. The incident occurred shortly after Naki had declared that he was Kurdish and expressed support on social media for the Kurdish groups fighting against ISIS militants. A number of assailants allegedly cursed him and called him a “dirty Kurd” before beating him and injuring his hand and giving him a black eye. Naki has since left Turkey and returned to Europe where he intends to continue his football career.[8]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Kurdish_sentiment

  5. Hi 3D, thank you for your comment. A few points.

    1. “The Kurds are sectarian and will commit ethnic cleansing against Arabs. For example, the YPG has been committing ethnic cleansing against Arabs in areas that they “recaptured” from ISIS.”

    The YPG certainly has committed acts of mass displacement, as documented by Amnesty International and many other sources. It is a matter of debate whether you call that “ethnic cleansing” or not, as this term is usually reserved for a consistent, systematic policy, whereas these cases are arguably not that (see this for a balanced discussion: https://magpie68.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/the-ypg-in-tal-abyad-do-the-ethnic-cleansing-charges-hold-water/. Not that it makes it alright, of course.

    However, if you are claiming the YPG commits ethnic cleansing, or anything else, language is important – it is the YPG, not “the Kurds”, who are an ethnic group, some of whom support PYD/YPG, some support other rival Kurdish groups, some who are members of mainstream Syrian rebel groups etc.

    2. “But this is nothing new. The Kurds have a history of committing ethnic cleansing against Arabs and Turkmen:http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2005/10/05/our-kurdish-problem

    Precisely a different group – this refers to the Iraqi Kurdish parties KDP and PUK, not PYD. All the more reason why I prefer precision.

    3. “The ethnic cleansing performed by the YPG is the same tactic Israel has used against Arabs when Israel was created. Israel has ethnically cleansed hundreds of thousands of Arabs in Palestine. See the similarity? Another similarity is that the U.S. arms and funds both Israel and Kurdistan. If things still stay the same, then Kurdistan might become a second Israel. One who opposes Zionism (Jewish nationalism) should also oppose the Kurdish version of Zionism, i.e., Kurdish nationalism.”

    Perhaps, perhaps not. There can be uses and limitations of analogies. An important difference is that Israel was created as a colonial-settler state, with a population transported in as a direct (if unique) form of western colonisation, against the indigenous population. Israel is also thus part of imperialism by definition. In contrast, the Kurds are indigenous to the region just as are Arabs or Turks. Moreover, they are a historically oppressed nation fighting for their liberation. At times, imperialism may find “supporting” them useful, as with today; this does not in itself make their struggle invalid. However, if their leaderships use this imperialist backing in an arrogant way, believing they can become new oppressors and/or ethnic cleansers with impunity because of this imperialist backing, then of course this must be vigorously condemned, as my article does. In my opinion, however, it would take a substantially bigger leap to turn such potentially chauvinistic states into a new Israel, even if not out of the question. That would mean imperialism had decided that the creation of a new Israel was in their interests, and they put huge resources into it. My guess is otherwise: that once their usefulness to imperialist strategy is over, they will be dumped and left to Arab, Persian and Turkish revanchism, as has happened in the past. Or otherwise, allowed a weakened version of autonomy that relies completely on imperialism for its survival, while being blocked from real independence.

    4. “People falsely conflate “sectarianism” with “Salafism” or “jihadism”. They will also conflate “secularism” with “non-sectarian”. But this isn’t the case as we have seen from many instances where secular states could be just as sectarian (if not more) than Islamists. Just because a state is “secular” does not mean that it is tolerant of other religions. For example, the Assad regime is sectarian against Sunni Muslims, the Sisi regime is sectarian against Muslims, Israel is sectarian against Muslims, and Kurdistan is sectarian against Arabs.”

    While I understand your general point, I think it is often useful to maintain specific language. Thus “sectarianism” for discrimination against other religious sects as opposed to “nationalism” or National chauvinism” for discrimination against other national/ethnic groups. Kurdish political/military groups may thus act in a nationalist/chauvinist way towards Arabs (and Arab, Turkish and Persian states towards Kurds), rather than a “sectarian” way. On the other hand, I take your point that the two often get mixed up in practice by chauvinistic regimes. The Syrian Baath Party is “secular” but carries out massive terror and dispossession of the Sunni majority, while 4/5of the officer corp, and almost 100% of the most repressive wings of the security forces, are Alawites. However, the regime is blessed by the quisling head of the Sunni Muslims in Syria, and contains significant sections of the leadership of the big Sunni bourgeoisie. It is class first; nation and sect are divisions utilised by the Alawite/Sunni ruling class to maintain power.

    5. “Backing the Kurds will only give rise to further sectarian bigotry against the Kurds. The recent suicide bombing against a Kurdish wedding is an example. This is just an example of the recent wave of anti-Kurdish hate crimes caused by U.S. backing of the Kurds. In 2014-2015 when the U.S. is using the Kurds to wage war against the Islamic State, there was a rise in hate crimes:”

    Of course it is true that bad political decisions often reverberate against the ordinary people who are seen to be led by these bad leaders. However, it seems a stretch to say that these racist anti-Kurdish actions are all caused by reaction to their alliance with US imperialism. Clearly, anti-Kurdish chauvinism has been deliberately fostered by the Iranian, Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian regimes over decades, so it exists regardless. Of course, unwise decisions of the Kurdish leaderships may exacerbate it. But when we read about Turkish thugs attacking a Kurdish football player and calling him a “dirty Kurd” after he “expressed support on social media for the Kurdish groups fighting against ISIS militants,” I cannot be sure whether this was due to traditional racism against Kurds, due to the YPG’s alliance with the US, or due even to pro-ISIS sympathies, without further elaboration.

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