Story Stream
recent articles

In recent months, the Syria crisis has begun to transform itself from a fairly intelligible civil war of rebel versus regime into a series of belligerent sideshows that do little but vitiate the overall struggle against the Assad regime. The latest of these really is the crowning achievement of Bashar's long-term strategy to sow chaos and confusion among his enemies since the belligerents this time are none other than two of his former proxies: al-Qaeda and the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD) or the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which is considered by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union to be a terrorist organization.

Since around mid-February, the city of Ras al-Ain in Hasakah has been divided into two sectors, one controlled by the People's Defense Units (YPG), which are the militias beholden to the PYD, and the other controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as al-Nusra's latest partner in Bin Ladenist misery, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This has been an uneasy division interrupted by sporadic fighting between sides, though this fighting reached a climax on July 16 when Jabhat al-Nusra attacked a YPG Women's Defense Unit and captured a YPG militant in Ras al-Ain, an ethnically diverse city in Hasakah. The YPG responded just as fiercely, killing a number of al-Nusra fighters and freeing its captured comrade. In the process, the militia also managed to overtake Ras al-Ain and rout al-Nusra from the former Syrian Political Security branch and Ba'ath party headquarters, which were under the latter's control. (Pro-PYD media would later parade confiscated passports of alleged al-Nusra jihadists showing that many, if not the majority of them, were foreigners from Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and even the United States.)

On July 17, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Salafist brigade Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and Liwa al-Tawhid (the largest FSA-aligned brigade in Aleppo), all conducted a joint operation to take the oil-rich city of Rumeylan in Hasakah from the PYD. The YPG's success continued as it then seized control of the valuable Ras al-Ain border crossing with Turkey, effectively pushing al-Qaeda back into the outlying villages of Tal Half, Asfar, and Najar, and scaring the hell out of the Turks, who, whatever peace process is currently underway with PKK high command, certainly doesn't want Abdullah Ocalan's militants manning any border crossing. On July 18, the YPG also seized the al-Sweidiya oil district and detained around 30 Islamists fighters, although al-Nusra and the Islamic State managed to kidnap 19 Kurdish university students along the Tal Tamer-al-Hasakah road.

On July 19, al-Nusra waged suicide bombings at PYD headquarters in the al-Jwadiya suburb and in Asayish, where it killed PYD leader Walid Abu Hanzalah. Meanwhile, the town of Tel Abyad, in adjoining Raqqa province, began to succumb to similar Islamist-Kurd tensions, leading local tribal leaders to try and negotiate an agreement to prevent further internecine warfare. That agreement evidently failed. The following day, July 20, Abu Musa'b, the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra in Tel Abyad, was reported captured by the YPG. Al-Nusra would later deny this, but on July 21, the non-captured emir was somehow "released" by the YPG in exchange for 400 Kurdish civilians who had been taken by al-Qaeda in Tel Abyad.

In yet another round of mutual recrimination and misinformation, Alaa Ismail Shayku, a ceasefire negotiator aligned with Jabhat al-Akrad, a Kurdish FSA brigade, was said to have been beheaded by al-Qaeda militants and his house blown up, a rumor which a Kurdish journalist later debunked as mere jihadist scaremongering. In all, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that around 70 jihadists have been killed in a week of fighting, and al-Qaeda has been put on the backfoot, being knocked out of the villages of Yabseh, Kandal, and Jalbeh by a formidable PYD.

The backdrop for all this, unsurprisingly, is economic: al-Qaeda and the PYD have each made rival declarations of territorial ownership in an oil-abundant region of Syria and each intend to see those declarations to completion. Al-Nusra and the Islamic States' suggestion that it wants to establish an Islamic "emirate" in the north counters reports that the PYD will declare an autonomous zone in what it calls Western Kurdistan, first by forming an interim government in the next three months, then by holding parliamentary elections and a referendum on a draft constitution in the next six. This would be in line with what the Kurds of Iraq have had for two decades, and also what Ocalan has articulated as the "confederalist" model for establishing Kurdish regional governments in other countries with sizable Kurdish minorities, namely Turkey, Syria, and Iran. The trouble with the PYD's preemptive plan is that it is not shared by other Kurdish parties. The Kurdish National Council, the umbrella organization representing over a dozen moderate Kurdish groups, has rejected it.