By Michael Karadjis
(An abridged version of this article appeared in ‘The New Arab’ under the title ‘Tensions tried and loyalties tested in northern Syria’, at https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2016/9/2/tensions-tried-and-loyalties-tested-in-northern-syria).
One week the United States rushed to the defence of its Kurdish allies, People’s Protection Units (YPG), when the Assad regime bombed them in Hasake; the following week many pro-YPG voices were accusing the same US of betrayal, for supporting Turkey’s intervention into Syria, with up to 5000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops, to expel ISIS from the border town of Jarabulus.
However, fickleness would not be a useful explanation of US behaviour. Rather, both events suggest that the outlines of a regional understanding on a reactionary solution to the Syrian crisis may be in the making. If this sounds conspiratorial, let me stress at the outset that none of it is set in concrete, much could change, and many of the players may be only half-pleased; nevertheless, the fact that states that appear at odds with each other conduct behind-the-scenes negotiations is hardly a huge revelation.
And above all, it is always important to keep in mind that when capitalist states half-back revolutions for their own geopolitical or other reasons, the aim is some kind of pressure or manoeuvre; it has always been the ultimate aim of all regional and global powers for the magnificent people’s uprising in Syria to be defeated, one way or another, even if via different routes.
Turkey: the AKP’s diplomatic back-flips
Some of this relates to the recent diplomatic back-flips of the Turkish government of Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a decisive supporter of the Syrian rebels. This includes Turkey’s widely publicised reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have been forming a very close alliance over the last year, with countless high-level visits between Putin and Netanyahu); the further strengthening of its relations with Iran (which have always remained strong despite backing opposite sides in Syria); and the declaration by prime minister Binali Yildarim (who recently replaced Ahmet Davutoglu) that Turkey is no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a “transitional” government consisting of elements of the regime and opposition, a position bringing Turkey into line with the position of the United States and in conflict with that of the Syrian opposition. Yildarim also recently stated that Turkey’s ties to Syria will “return to normal.”
US imposes first No Fly Zone in Syria: To defend Rojava
As is widely known, the YPG – connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – and the Assad regime have had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact, which sometimes breaks into minor conflict, and at other times leads to collaboration – including aiding in the recent siege of rebel Aleppo.
However, the ferocity of the latest clash in Hasaka was new; this was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG; the airforce is normally dedicated to slaughtering the civilian population of rebel-held areas.
This may have been a message from Assad to Turkey, a response to Turkey’s own feelers. A senior AKP official recently noted that while Assad is a killer, “he does not support Kurdish autonomy … we’re backing the same policy.” This is true; despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy. And given the current rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran, the prominent Turkish-Iranian meetings are most certainly anti-Kurdish in content; Iran may be acting as a link between Erdogan and Assad.
Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. From the outset of the Russian invasion last September, the PYD/YPG declared in favour of Russia bombing “jihadists” (even though in practice it mostly bombed mainstream rebels and very rarely ISIS). In return, Russian air strikes were employed to aid the Afrin YPG against the rebels in February, helping it seize a number of rebel-held, Arab-majority towns in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat, an iconic centre of resistance to both Assad and ISIS. But Putin’s high-level reconciliation with Erdogan, while being Assad’s main backer even as he attacks the YPG, suggests Russia has dropped the YPG like a hot potato.
The US alliance with the YPG, however, is far more fundamental. The US has been the permanent air force for all anti-ISIS operations led by the YPG, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance it leads which includes small non-Kurdish components, for two years now. The US has also fielded “special forces” to work with the YPG, and has set up its first military base in Syria in the eastern part of Rojava.
With so much invested in its SDF alliance, the US imposed its first No Fly Zone (NFZ) in Syria, over eastern Rojava. After Syrian SU-24 attack planes bombed the area on August 18, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis warned that regime aircraft “would be well-advised not to do things that place them at risk,” as US warplanes intercepted regime jets. US Coalition aircraft confronted regime warplanes again the next day, which “encouraged” them “to depart the airspace without further incident,” Davis said.
As an aside, the ease with which the US effected this NFZ belies all the talk about an NFZ to protect civilians from Assad’s genocidal bombing leading to WWIII. Of course, most of the world won’t notice the imposition of this NFZ, as long as it is imposed by the US to protect US forces, or the YPG; it will certainly not be seen as any kind of “US intervention” by the western “anti-war movement,” any more than two years of bombing , with hundreds of civilian casualties, has been seen as such; a huge uproar against “US intervention” will only occur if the US, in some parallel universe, uses the forces already intervening in Syria to protect hospitals and schools from being blasted to bits in rebel-controlled areas.
But then again, the irrelevance of the dinosaur which calls itself an “anti-war movement” even while, in large part, shilling for one of the most brutal wars on civilians in modern history, is hardly new information. Its irrelevance to world politics today is richly deserved indeed.
Beyond ‘New Cold War’ nonsense: Regional alliance for counterrevolution
Recent discussion of an alleged “Russia-Turkey-Iran” understanding on Syria usually claims that Erdogan’s new tilt to Moscow was caused by the reticent support the US gave to Turkey’s government against the recent coup attempt, the US refusal to hand over Gulen, who Turkey blames for the coup, and the large-scale support the US gave the YPG/SDF in helping them expel ISIS from Manbij in northern Syria, not far south of the Turkish border.
However, the discourse that Turkey was thereby “moving towards Russia and away from the US on Syria” is based on the idea that the “Cold War” still exists. In Syria at least, the US and Russia see the Syrian conflict “fundamentally very similarly” as US Secretary of State John Kerry has made clear. While this does not exclude minor rivalry or tactical differences, in reality Turkey’s new position that Assad can remain “temporarily” means that Turkey has now reached the US position via coming half-way towards the Russian position.
This “Cold War” discourse fails to explain the prominent US-Russian negotiations to engage in joint bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra, which would almost inevitably mean bombing non-Nusra rebels as well, given the actual geography of the uprising. Indeed, there were even reports of the US-led Coalition bombing rebels in Aleppo during the recent siege.
In fact, the “Russia-Turkey-Iran” understanding is better seen as a “Russia-Turkey-Iran-US-Assad” understanding, with, of course, points of difference.
Part of this understanding is anti-Kurdish, though, as we saw in Hasake, this will be only partial in the US case, especially as it still wants to use the YPG for the potentially suicidal task of taking on ISIS in its capital Raqqa, due south of Kobani.
Another part of this understanding is anti-rebel, but this is only partial in Turkey’s case. Turkey allowed arms to flow to the rebels as they fought to successfully break Assad’s recent total siege of 300,000 people in Aleppo, which if unbroken would have led to catastrophe. This aspect does not entail aiding the regime in the impossible task of totally crushing the rebels, but rather in restricting them to current areas, forcing them to stop fighting the regime while using them only to fight ISIS or even Nusra, and pushing them into a deal with the regime that includes Assad “temporarily.”
This was the model the US has enforced on the politically moderate, but militarily tenacious, FSA Southern Front. The US held it back from advancing towards Damascus, thereby helping the regime force the surrender of the revolutionary town of Darraya. Thus, while outside the scope of this article, the surrender and ethnic cleansing of Darraya, and now a number of other small revolutionary centres, appears to be part of this same counterrevolutionary “tidying up” process.
The Turkish intervention in Jarabulus: Between liberation and slaughter
It was in this context that the US – while guaranteeing for now YPD-SDF rule over the territory it controls east of the Euphrates River (ie, from Kobani through to Hasake and Qamishle) – sought to “balance” between its Turkish and SDF allies by providing air support to Turkey’s direct intervention into Syria, along with 5000 FSA fighters from the Azaz-Mare and Idlib regions, to evict ISIS from the border town of Jarabulus.
The Turkish regime, of course, has its own aims in this operation, which may coincide at times with, but are distinct from, the aims of the Syrian rebels. And there are indications that FSA fighters are not unaware of the dangers of being entrapped by interests different to their own. However, it must be emphasised that these north Aleppo-based rebels, who have fought ISIS for years, acted in their own interests in liberating the Arab-majority town of Jarabulus.
Squeezed into the Azaz-Mare pocket in northern Aleppo since the Russian-Assad-YPG offensive in February which cut them off from Aleppo city, these rebels needed to expand their area of operation. Unnoticed by the world, they had just liberated – largely on their own – the important town of al-Rai on the Turkish border the previous week, in an offensive from Azaz eastward. By now seizing Jarabulus, they aim to link back to al-Rai and thereby Azaz, gaining full control of this section of the border from ISIS.
In both Manbij and Jarablus, video evidence showed the populations were relieved to be rid of ISIS tyranny (and in Manbij, of US bombing which had claimed hundreds of lives), despite the two different liberators.
Turkey has long said it would not allow the YPG to move west of the Euphrates river. To the east of the Euphrates is the iconic Kurdish town Kobani, which resisted a furious ISIS siege in late 2014, and the PYD/YPG/SDF controls the entire Turkish border from there to Hasake and Qamishle in the northeast (ie, the Kobani and Jazirah cantons of ‘Rojava’). Kobani itself, and much of the Hasake-Qamishle region, is majority Kurdish, and the Kurds have exercised their rightful autonomous rule there for a number of years, carrying out their own revolutionary process.
However, the Tal Abyad region in between Kobani and Hasake, which the SDF and US airforce liberated from ISIS in 2015, is majority-Arab; the defection just days ago of the main Tal Abyad-based FSA component of that operation, Liwa al-Tahrir, from the SDF, suggests the driving back of ISIS may reduce the need of FSA-connected rebels east of the Euphrates to remain under YPG domination.
The Arab-majority town of Jarabulus is opposite Kobani on the west side of the Euphrates. Arab-majority Manbij is also west of the Euphrates, but not on the border; several months ago Turkey accepted the large-scale US air support to the YPG/SDF offensive to expel ISIS from Manbij, on the condition that the YPG then returned east once Manbij was secured. This was understood to mean leaving Manbij to the Arab, non-YPG components of the SDF, in particular, to the ‘Manbij Military Council’.
After liberating Manbij, SDF forces called the ‘Jarabulus Military Council’ moved north and seized a number of villages from ISIS, with the ultimate aim of taking Jarabulus. Turkish and FSA troops pre-empted this, however, by seizing Jarabulus first. As a strategic Arab-majority border town, the fact that the FSA received direct support from Turkey in expelling ISIS is no different fundamentally to the SDF receiving direct support from the US in expelling ISIS from Manbij.
However, what happened next was much more concerning. While information is scarce on the ethnic composition of these small villages south of Jarabulus, and of the local people’s relationship to the SDF liberators, these are issues that need to be worked out by local Syrian forces – the FSA and the SDF – on their own, without the Turkish military playing a role. However, when the FSA began fighting these SDF forces south of Jarabulus, Turkey took a direct role. This almost immediately degenerated further, as the Turkish airforce began bombing these SDF-held villages, leading, as may be expected, to war crimes, such as the slaughter of 28 civilians in Amarinah on August 27.
It is crimes such as these that further drive wedges between Arabic and Kurdish civilians, and between liberation movements among both peoples, just as the far larger-scale YPG collaboration with the Russian Luftwaffe in February, in seizing non-Kurdish territory from the rebels, had already done. While the current clashes are not on that order, any participation by the Syrian rebels in a possible Turkish drive to seize Manbij would certainly reach the heights of the Tal Rifaat disaster (though the US appears to also oppose such a move).
Turkey claims it is fighting YPG fighters, who haven’t gone east; Kurdish leaders such as PYD official Nawaf Xelil have publicly agreed that moving east was the understanding, and claim they have done so, so Turkey is fighting the local SDF; whereas others have charged the US with “betrayal,” and YPG spokesman Redur Xelil rejected the demand to move east and denied leaving Manbij. Meanwhile US Vice president Biden, on a state visit to Turkey at the time, sought to please his Turkish hosts, warning the YPG that it would lose US support if it stayed west of the Euphrates.
Some of this appears to be sabre-rattling, for public consumption, or to test the waters; both Turkey and the PYD have ambitions beyond the agreed-upon terms. Turkish leaders talk about clearing “all terrorists” – ISIS and YPG – from the region, and many critics of the Turkish operation claim that Turkey’s real aim is to destroy ‘Rojava’. Any Turkish adventure to attack actual ‘Rojava’ – ie, the SDF-run, Kurdish-majority regions east of the Euphrates – should indeed be condemned, but is unlikely to occur on any scale (despite some border clashes around Kobani) because it will be strongly opposed by the US.
Indeed, as the SDF was pushed south of the Sajoor river separating the Jarablus and Manbij regions, Pentagon spokespeople demanded the fighting stop, calling it “unacceptable,” called on Turkey to focus on ISIS, and stressed their continued support for the SDF.
This re-focus appears to have occurred; on September 3, more Turkish tanks crossed over in to al-Rai, to aid the rebels who have captured about a dozen more villages from ISIS in the region, hoping to close the gap with Jarabulus. [And since the time of writing, Turkey and the FSA have linked al-Rai to Jarabulus and completely expelled ISIS from the border, an unquestionably positive thing].
The YPG’s plans to “link” to Afrin: A catastrophe well-avoided
The SDF had already alienated rebel supporters with its unilateral imposition of its system in Manbij, by scrapping the popularly-elected Manbij council which governed the city before ISIS seized Manbij in 2014. As reporter Haid Haid explains:, quoting Hassan Hamidi, an activist from Manbij:
“We really appreciate everything the SDF fighters did in order to push ISIS out of Manbij. But it seems that we are moving from one dictator to another. Manbij’s local council, which was elected to run the city, was uprooted by ISIS before and now it is dissolved by the SDF.”
Haid also quotes Mustafa al-Nifi, a local resident from Manbij:
“We were really hoping that the SDF would be able to share power with locals and allow them to govern themselves. However, it seems that it was a trick. Everything has been planned long in advance. They appointed people, who we do not know, to run the city. They also gave Manij a Kurdish name, which is ‘Mabuk’, and imposed a federal system on us. There is nothing left for us to decide.”
Haid notes that the PYD denies such accusations. “We are not imposing anything on anyone. We created a new local council and appointed people to run it temporarily, as it is difficult to organize elections in Manbij now,” said Kadar Biri, a member of the PYD party from Afrin. However, according to Haid, “although the creation of a local council was a positive step, imposing membership of the PYD’s choosing without coordinating with local notables, activists and members of the previous council has sent the wrong signals about the PYD’s commitment to inclusiveness and power-sharing with non-Kurdish communities in northern Syria.”
Further, according to leading spokesman on Kurdish issues, who is close to the PYD, Mutlu Civiroglu, the primary aim after taking Manbij was to “link” up with Kurdish Afrin in northwest Syria, by seizing the region in between (the PYD has been openly stating this was their goal for some time, eg, PYD co-chair Salih Muslim on July 3, PYD senior official Polat Can some months earlier). Indeed, some of the talk of US “betrayal” is simply sour grapes that Turkey’s intervention has blocked this “linking” project; and many of the assertions that Turkey is “destroying Rojava” or denying the right of “the Kurds” to have their united autonomous region are based on the disruption of this link.
However, most of the border region from Jarabulus to Azaz is ethnically non-Kurdish, mostly Arab and Turkmen, and the claim that the entire north is all ‘Rojava’ appears to be based on nothing more than the fact that the PYD has declared it to be so. In fact, the area unilaterally claimed as the ‘Rojava/North Syria Federation’ is triple the size of Kurdish majority regions, and double the size of the areas even where Kurds exist as minorities. This region has no ethnic, historic, geographic or cultural validity as a separate region.
To conquer these thousands of square kilometres of ethnically mixed, largely non-Kurdish, territory would be impossible without the support of either US or Russian air power. Both have decided, wisely, to avoid this, and there is zero validity in complaints about such an adventurous scheme not being supported. Indeed, if either imperialist power were to force through such an operation, it would lead to catastrophic loss of life, and an enormous new refugee outflux.
While Turkey’s own aims in preventing such a unified PYD-run state are of course anti-Kurdish and connected to its brutal war against its own Kurdish minority in southeast Turkey, it also just happens to coincide with the justifiable desire of the largely Arab and Turkmen rebels to liberate areas which are their natural support base.
On the other hand, the situation is not without its dangers. There are Kurdish minorities in this mixed region, in particular in some rural areas further away from the Turkish border strip (see the demographic map linked to above). If Turkey does not rapidly withdraw, or if the FSA fighters become too closely connected to the intervening Turkish forces, they could risk being drawn into conflict with their Kurdish brethren at the behest of an outside power.
US, Russia, Iran, Assad: Why it became OK, for now, to allow an FSA operation
Like the US, both Russia and Iran appear to have greenlighted the Jarabulus operation. While Russia has merely expressed “concern,” Iran initially remained “conspicuously silent,” while later suggesting that Turkey needs to move more quickly to complete its “anti-terrorist” actions in order to withdraw. Iranian sources have claimed that Turkey and Assad are coordinating through Iran.
While the Assad regime formally denounced a violation of its alleged “sovereignty,” Turkey claims to have informed it beforehand, with the deputy prime minister noting that “we believe Damascus is also bothered by what was happening in and around Manbij. They recently hit PYD targets.” Yildarim also suggested that Damascus understands that the PYD “has started to become a threat.” In the midst of the Jarabulus operation, Yildarim declared on September 2 “We have normalised our relations with Russia and Israel. Now, God willing, Turkey has taken a serious initiative to normalise relations with Egypt and Syria.”
However, the implication here that Assad may be secretly approving the Turkish operation, due to joint hostility to a Kurdish entity, has some holes in it. Most obviously, the fact that Turkey is working with the FSA, who are the very forces trying to overthrow his regime, regardless of his opposition to Kurdish autonomy.
Furthermore, the US support for this operation also comes with a question mark (and not only because Turkey apparently acted unilaterally at the last moment and upstaged US plans to exercise more control over the operation). To date, the central condition for US support to any rebels to fight ISIS has been the demand that they drop the fight against Assad – this was the case both with the ill-fated Division 30 in the north (indeed, the reason its numbers were so pathetically tiny), and the New Syrian Army in the southeast; while of course the SDF, the US’ favoured anti-ISIS force, mostly doesn’t fight Assad by definition. By contrast, while the Azaz-Mare-Tal Rifaat rebels have confronted ISIS in that region for years, they have never before received any substantial US support against ISIS (in fact, they normally get bombed by Assad whenever they fight ISIS in northern Aleppo).
Thus Erdogan’s push for a “safe zone” in northern Syria last year met out-of-hand US rejection, because the Syrian rebel groups who Erdogan wanted to let control it would have used it as a base to fight the regime. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner stressed “we’ve been pretty clear from the podium and elsewhere saying there’s no zone, no safe haven, we’re not talking about that here,” insisting it could only support an “ISIS-free zone” but not any kind of safe zone and certainly not one patrolled by the rebels.
But something important changed in February this year. By bombing the YPG/SDF into Tal Rifaat and other Arab-populated northern Aleppo regions, Russia cut the rebels in the Azaz-Mare pocket off from Aleppo city and thus effectively cut them off from the front against Assad. So now even though they want to fight Assad, and hardly any have made the pledge to drop that fight, effectively they can’t. So backing them to take over the Jarabulus-Azaz border strip became “safe” from the American point of view – and safer than previously from Assad’s view as well. How ironic that it was the YPG’s own eviction of the rebels in Tal Rifaat that has enabled US support for the Turkish operation that has blocked the YPG’s “linking” scheme!
Then there is a final reason why Assad may be grudgingly approving of Turkey launching an FSA-led operation against ISIS in the north: aside from the fighters from Azaz-Mare, the operation has also meant fighters from Idlib moving to a distant theatre rather than the key battleground of southern Aleppo. By early September, in the midst of the northern operation, the regime began a new determined attempt to re-impose the total siege that was broken several weeks ago in the truly magnificent operation by some 30 rebel groups working together [Update: since the time of writing, the full encirclement has been re-imposed]. This again raises theory popular among some pro-revolution circles: Assad allows Turkey to stop YPG in return for Turkey abandoning Aleppo rebels to Assad. Conspiracy theory? Perhaps. But not out of the question. And if true, catastrophic in its implications.
Changes in internal Turkish politics in relation to the safe zone
Turkey is overwhelmed by some 3 million Syrian refugees; the basis for much of the AKP’s opposition to Assad has been the need to remove the source of this massive instability, alongside the solidarity felt by much of the AKP’s moderate-‘Islamist’ base with these Syrian Arab refugees and their struggle – the same base which propelled the AKP to break Turkey’s decades of alliance with Israel and take up a pro-Palestine position. Ironically given the resurgence of the Kurdish war since 2015, this same moderate ‘Islamism’ had allowed the AKP to reach out to the Kurds in a way that the Kemalist Turkish-nationalist regimes had not done in 80 years, instituting important language and cultural reforms for the Kurdish minority and beginning a ‘peace process’ involving the PKK. Palestinians, Syrian Arab refugees and Kurds were all ‘Muslims’ after all, during the decade in which ‘Islam’ was temporarily elevated above ‘Turkishness’ as part of carrying out important changes in capitalist class rule in Turkey.
Erdogan’s regime needed to consolidate the new position in the state of the traditionalist Anatolian bourgeoisie that the AKP represented, after decades of playing second-fiddle to the big ‘secular’ Kemalist bourgeoisie. But once this new unwritten power-sharing arrangement was complete, the reconstitution of the Kemalist regime, albeit with slightly more ‘Islamist’ coloration, was on the order of the day. The contention that Erdogan’s increasingly repressive moves, since re-launching the war against the PKK and the Kurds in mid-2015, is part of setting up an ‘Islamic state’ is wide of the mark, and the contention that it is related to a new ‘Ottoman Empire’ is just Orientalism. The Kemalist Turkish national state is the vehicle through which the Turkish bourgeoisie rules.
In this context, Turkey can have its “safe zone” in northern Syria, that both prevents ‘Rojava’ from linking right across its southern border, and also allows a space for Turkey to transfer a section of its massive Syrian refugee population back into Syria. Indeed, Turkey aims to build whole “refugee cities” in the safe zone. Both aims allow for Erdogan to strengthen his new alliance with the opposition moderate (CHP) and right-wing (MHP) Turkish nationalists, both of whom despise Syrian refugees as much as they are hostile to the Kurdish struggle, and who have opposed Erdogan’s Syria policy from a pro-Assad angle; both support the current operation, as they can drive out refugees without the same “danger” of supporting the struggle against Assad as last year’s proposed zone entailed.
Yildarim’s statements on reconciliation with Syria since he replaced Davutoglu correspond closely with this general direction, as do Turkey’s increasing restrictions on the entry of Syrian refugees, which has led to a number of previously unthinkable brutal killings by Turkish border guards this year, and even the building of border walls.
Moreover, the strong ethnic Turkmen presence in this region also allows Turkey to attempt to control the safe zone via proxy ‘national’ forces, which gives Turkish nationalists an extra reason for intervening in this particular region. The relatively recent appearance of occasional pro-MHP fighters in Turkmen regions is connected to this new focus, following years of MHP opposition to the AKP’s anti-Assad policy.
Which rebel brigades are involved in the operation?
However, it remains a big question whether or not this will succeed. While the general analysis here indicates that the Assad regime may be, behind the scenes, generally part of this new consensus, this is only grudging, and Assad would also have reason to be nervous. Even if the analysis is correct that Turkey aims to hold the rebels in check within this zone, there is no guarantee that it will be able to control the significant rebel coalition now in operation in the region. The big majority of the FSA and rebel forces involved are neither ethnically Turkmen forces, nor specifically proxy forces in any other way. Most are genuine representatives of the Syrian revolutionary forces in the region. According to Charles Lister, who is someone who certainly knows what he is talking about, the groups involved in this Jarablus operation are:
- Sultan Murad (ethnic Turkmen FSA brigade, now thought to be heavily infiltrated by Turkish nationalists)
- Faylaq al-Sham (MB-aligned, very moderate; in Idlib it had been a member of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, but split away rejecting Nusra’s heavy influence in it)
- Jabhat al-Shamiya (the ‘Levant Front’, a very moderate-Islamist coalition, which generally takes the FSA label, includes many former fighters from Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaysh al-Mujahideen etc; those who think there can only be moderate Christians but certainly not Muslims could look at this video made by them)
- Nour al-Din al-Zinki (independent soft-Islamist, though recently roguish behaviour seems to have increased)
- FSA 13th Division (who have led the multi-month fight against Nusra in Idlib that erupted during the mass demonstrations during the ceasefire earlier this year)
- Suqor al-Jebel (FSA brigade from Idlib, formerly part of Syrian Revolutionaries Front, then the 5th Brigade)
- Jaish al-Tahrir (ie, just defected from SDF, FSA from Tel Abyad)
- Hamza Division (FSA coalition of 5 groups, set up in Mare to fight ISIS)
- Jaish al-Nasr (FSA coalition of 16 groups, mostly in Hama and Idlib)
- Mutassim Brigade (well-armed by US, includes some of the former Division 30 fighters who the US armed to fight ISIS only; this appears to be the only of these FSA brigades known to have accepted this US diktat to drop the fight against Assad)
- Ahrar Tel Rifaat (ie, FSA fighters expelled by the Russian-YPG conquest of Tal Rifaat in February)
- Liwa al-Fateh (Islamist, formerly part of Liwa al-Tawhid)
Meanwhile, the latest news is that they have now been joined by fighters from:
- Jabhat al-Haq
- Syrian Revolutionaries Front
- Harakat Hazm
These last two were large FSA coalitions destroyed by Nusra in Idlib and Aleppo in late 2014-early 2015, some of whose commanders then took refuge in Turkey.
By no means can this collection be brushed aside as a “Turkish proxy force” (and as an aside, the commonly stated claim that Turkey backs Nusra is shown as obvious nonsense by the composition of this list). The very different reactions to Turkey’s intervention from revolution supporters reflect the fact that the final outcome will depend on the relationship of forces on the ground, regardless of varying motivations; the situation is fluid and contradictory.
Even the fact that they are unable to fight Assad due to being cut off, as explained above, is a factor that can change. In particular, the fate of the very next big prize in the region – al-Bab, which is the last ISIS-controlled town in eastern Aleppo, away from the border, south of rebel-controlled al-Rai, west of SDF-controlled Manbij – is of critical importance. Both the rebel coalition and the SDF have indicated it is their next target; ISIS may try to hold onto it; and the regime may also try to take it, being just north of regime-controlled Aleppo. A catastrophic four-way contest is not out of the question.
Al-Bab’s fate probably depends on who the US and Russia will allow or facilitate to take it. Keeping the Turkish-backed rebels and the regime apart, which this analysis suggests is the plan, would require either ISIS remaining, or the SDF being allowed to take it, and thus establishing their “link” via occupied Tal Rifaat, but not on the Turkish border. But the momentum set in motion by Turkey’s action may make that unfeasible; and even if an ‘Assad-Erdogan Aleppo for Kurds’ deal is behind the events, it may not be easy for Turkey to hold back rebels who would be even more determined to take al-Bab, to pressure the regime from behind, if Assad’s full encirclement of Aleppo is re-imposed.
Conclusion: Necessity of people’s unity beyond ethnicity and sect
Of course, this is all very volatile, because no side comes out fully happy. But my conclusion remains that Turkey wants to cut an anti-Kurdish deal with Assad and Iran, with Russian backing, to include a Turkish-influenced ‘slice’ of the north; the US is in on it partly but won’t completely abandon the YPG, as long as it knows who is boss; and Turkey on its side won’t completely abandon the rebels, again, as long as they know who is boss.
The conflicts between Arab and Kurdish rebels, or between the FSA and its allies, and the YPG and its allies, and their pragmatic foreign connections, may not be responsible for this unwritten new reactionary alliance, but they most certainly facilitate it. Neither side is innocent in this regard – a long story in itself – but as a general statement, the current state of affairs underlines the necessity of finding a more cooperative relationship between forces fighting for liberation on the ground, of a more serious drive on all sides for Arab-Kurdish, and non-sectarian, unity in the struggle against tyranny and oppression in Syria.