On Thursday, FSA rebels advanced into Kurdish and Christian neighborhoods in Aleppo, Syria, in a daring attempt to capture the city. Initial reports based on FSA claims and somebody’s friend who spoke to someone in Aleppo on the phone had the rebels taking 90 percent of the city and cooperating with Kurdish militias, but less than a day later these claims were revealed to be false. It seems the Popular Protection Unit (YPG), a Kurdish militia set up to protect the Kurdish areas from opposing forces, repelled the FSA. Shortly afterward, the Syrian army bombed the neighborhood, and a reported 15 Kurdish civilians were killed.
The following day, the FSA once again tried to enter the Kurdish neighborhood known as Ashrafiya. This video purports to show them firing at a civilian demonstration protesting the FSA and regime coming into the neighborhood, a Kurdish stronghold.
The YPG again fought back, repelling the FSA for a second time. According to a YPG source, there were 19 FSA deaths, 10 Kurdish civilians, and one YPG death. Hostages were taken on both sides, but both parties are said to have eventually released them. A report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death total at around 30, and said 200 people had been captured. An FSA leader released a statement calling the intrusion in Ashrafiya a mistake. The YPG also said they were moving a special forces unit into the neighborhood to further fortify it.
Conflicting reports have surfaced regarding who attacked the demonstration. Some blame factions of the FSA, while others point the finger at Jubhat Al-Nusra, a jihadi group linked to Al Qaeda. The YPG does not make a distinction, however. Though they speak of a willingness to cooperate with the FSA and maintain relations, they steadfastly refuse to let any other armed groups enter Kurdish neighborhoods. Many Kurds I spoke to while reporting recently from the Kurdish areas in the northeast of Syria expressed hesitant support of the FSA, cheering them in their fight against the regime but distrustful of their ties to Turkey, who has been waging a war of their own for nearly 30 years against a Kurdish insurrection.
The YPG has been linked to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful Kurdish party in Syria. Turkey and some members of the FSA have accused the PYD of being a front for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the rebel group currently at war with the Turkish government. The PYD say that while they share an ideology with the PKK based on the words of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, they are their own force and take orders from no one. Ocalan, now imprisoned in Turkey, spent 20 years in Syria and has a cult of personality surrounding him. Posters and flags bearing his image are everywhere in Syrian Kurdistan, also known as Rojava. Children wear necklaces with his face on pendants, and some young women I met had an image of him as the background on their cell phone.
The Kurds, for the most part, have tried to prevent the catastrophic violence of the civil war from entering their region. In Kurdish cities in the northeast, demonstrations against the regime have been ongoing, and Assad forces pulled back with minimal conflict a few months ago, leaving the Kurds with some sense of independence. Some have accused the Kurds of making a deal with the regime, but it appears that both groups are simply acting practically. Assad does not wish to open up a new front, and the Kurds simply want to protect their cities and their people. Though some media outlets have reported that there is an official truce between some Kurds and the regime, there is no evidence of this being true.
Kurds make up around 10 percent of the population in Syria, totaling about 2 million, but have been treated as second-class citizens for generations. Kurdish rights activists have been subjected to imprisonment, torture, and assassinations. In 2004, the Kurds in the city of Qamishlo revolted against the Assad regime, but the rebellion was quickly crushed and more than 30 Kurds were killed.
Not too much is known about the YPG, as they have declined to speak to Western media and only speak with Kurdish media sparingly. Through connections I made during a recent trip through the Kurdish areas of Syria, and with the help of an emissary of PJAK, a Kurdish rebel group in Iran, I’ve been able to correspond with a member of YPG’s central command over Skype from his apartment in Qamishlo. I conducted an interview with him a week before the fighting in Ashrafiya, and since then he has kept me abreast of ongoing developments. Although I was slightly skeptical at first, everything he’s told me so far has checked out, even when it contradicts the immediate narrative being put forth by most media.
The man, who gave his name as Shiyar Hassan, is 35 years old and has been a member of the YPG since it was founded. He said that the YPG formed in 2004 shortly after the Qamishlo riots, when a number of Kurdish youth realized that they needed to be able to defend themselves more efficiently. They did not officially declare themselves until the revolution started in 2011, and only made themselves known to the media in 2012, when they revealed their camps and brigades. “For years the Kurdish youth have lived under the oppression of the Baath regime,” he told me. “We have reached a point where we should live with honor.”
In early October I attended a PYD rally for the YPG in Qamishlo, which is currently home to both Assad regime troops and the YPG. So far a tense calm has remained over the city despite a few skirmishes and a car bomb detonated against the Assad forces and claimed by Jubhat al-Nusra. It seems likely that Qamishlo, the largest Kurdish majority city, will be a flashpoint in the coming weeks, but the demonstration that day was filled with singing and dancing.
Fifty young men and women, their faces wrapped in keffiyehs so as to hide their identities, stood rigid as they lined up in military formations and marched into the center of the street. They were greeted by a few thousand PYD supporters, all chanting slogans in favor of the YPG.
“We support YPG because these are our brothers, our sons, and we want to protect ourselves. We don’t want anyone else coming here to protect us,” said Laila Muhammad Murad, 35, a bystander at the rally, as she joined a chorus of older women in their chants for Kurdish rights.
Not all Kurds in Syria support the PYD and the YPG though. Activists and opposition parties have accused the PYD of kidnapping rivals, assassinations, and general intimidation of opponents, using the YPG as an enforcement arm. The recent fighting in Aleppo seems to have intensified this conflict, though claims that it may lead to a Syrian Kurdish civil war similar to the one in Iraqi Kurdistan in the mid 1990s seem a bit presumptuous at the moment. When I questioned Kurds in Syria from both the PYD and rival parties about this infighting, they mostly brushed off concerns, saying that there were some small bumps and that they would work past it because “all Kurds are brothers.”
As the only Kurdish militia in Syria operating at the moment, however, it seems that the YPG is the only line of defense for the Kurdish people. The YPG is outgunned and outnumbered by the Assad regime and the FSA, but whereas the FSA is an umbrella organization for a variety of groups that lacks a strong central command, the YPG is a unified fighting force. Additionally, as the Iraqis, Iranians, and Turks can testify, guerilla fighting seems to be an innate quality in the Kurds.
It’s hard to get a good estimate on the number of fighters in the YPG. Low numbers say about 1,500, while I’ve heard others claim that they have up to 15,000. More recruits are joining every day, and they recently announced the establishment of a fourth brigade. “We have enough to protect the whole of western Kurdistan. We live among our people, and we have enough weapons we get from our people to defend ourselves,” said Hassan.
Whereas some FSA groups reportedly receive funds and weapons from Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and the regime is aligned with Syria and Russia, the Kurds do not seem to have an outside benefactor. At one point, Iraqi Kurdistan offered to send Syrian Kurdish troops it had been training on the border into Syria, but this was declined by the PYD, who saw it as a threat to their power. “We have got all our training here in Rojava, we didn’t get our training or support outside of Rojava, and we don’t want to see a second military force in Rojava,” said Hassan. “You can’t have two forces in one country. We call all the youth to join us, we are open for everyone.”
I questioned him as to how the Kurds planned on acquiring more arms, as videos of them taken by Kurdish channels show only Kalashnikovs and technicals (the pick-up trucks with the machine guns mounted on the back). “There is no problem to get arms. This is the Middle East, it is the biggest arms market you can find,” he said. ”When it comes to money, we get support from the people, because we protect the people and we guard them and the people regard us as their children.”
Though I was initially skeptical when he told me that the Kurds were prepared for any confrontation, Friday’s fighting in Ashrafiya may speak volumes about their ability to defend themselves.
Despite the recent clash with the FSA, when we spoke the week before, he told me that they had relations with the FSA on a local level but did not want them in Kurdish areas. “We want better relationships with them, we see them as a revolutionary force, but in places where we are organized, we see no need for them to be there. We have enough strength to defend ourselves,” he said.
A month earlier in Erbil, the largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan, I had spoken with Salih Muslim Muhammad, the leader of the PYD, who had told me roughly the same thing. “The Free Syrian Army, locally we have some relations with them, but this FSA is not one body. There are many bodies and they have many heads… There are no clashes between us, and we respect each other,” he said. “We said, OK, you can fight, and we are fighting government forces, but we don’t like you to be in our areas. It’s their places, they can do whatever they like in their places, but not in our places.””
Looking back, his words seem eerily prescient. Muhammad also reiterated a major talking point for those in the Kurdish areas, that of distrust of the FSA due to Turkish influence. “Those who are neighbors with the Kurdish areas, we can understand each other. But the heads that are sitting in Istanbul or Ankara, they are looking at us like enemies,” he said.
One point Hassan stressed over and over was that the YPG is a defensive force. The militia is meant as a deterrent to the FSA, Jihadi groups, and the regime, and they will only attack if provoked, he told me. In a separate conversation we had following the fighting on Friday, in which the regime had also bombed the neighborhood, he said that they would not let the regime’s attack go unanswered and they would respond “not only in Aleppo but everywhere.”
It may seem like bravado considering the overwhelming strength of the Assad forces, but it would not be the first time the YPG has responded after the regime attacked a Kurdish area. In September, the regime bombed Sheikh Maksud, a Kurdish neighborhood in Aleppo, killing 21 civilians. A few days later, the YPG killed 3 soldiers in the Kurdish city of Efrin and captured a number of others, relieving them of their weapons and kicking them out of the city.
It’s too soon to tell whether the skirmishes of the past week will be a major turning point in the conflict, or exactly what role the YPG will play in the future.
Hassan was hesitant to make predictions about where the conflict would turn. “We are not politicians. We don’t talk about what can happen,” he said. “Our work is to be prepared for any outcome. Anything that happens, we are prepared for it.”
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