Amid the chaos in Syria, the country's Kurds have managed to resist the advances of the Islamic State and carve out a zone of unprecedented autonomy in their own lands.
Over the past year, the YPG Kurdish militia beat back the Islamic State (IS) and nearly tripled the size of Kurdish-controlled territory in Northern Syria, all the while helping shrink the size of the IS caliphate by around 14 percent.
That's according to a new report by the IHS Jane's, a private intelligence company that analyzes international security issues, and has been tracking the ground war in Syria.
As a result, the Kurds are essentially in control of their own mini-state — which they call Rojava — that runs across the Turkish-Syrian border. Administered by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) the political arm of the YPG, the government in Rojava has reached an understanding with the Assad regime that allows the Kurds to govern their own territory, while beating back IS from the borders.
"The Kurds have had autonomy thrust upon them," explained Michael Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Tech University, and the author of Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War, a recent study of Kurdish politics in Syria. "There's no way they will go back to a subservient position of not controlling their own lands anytime in the future."
Syria's Kurds had long been denied self-determination by president Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, who both discouraged celebration of Kurdish identity — Hafez even banned their language from schools. But the Syrian Civil War forced Assad to focus his energies elsewhere. And as the Syrian military was re-deployed away from Kurdish territory beginning in 2012, the Kurds seized the initiative, mobilizing militias and asserting control over their own territory with the tacit approval of the Assad regime, which is much more focused on shoring up its major cities than butting heads with the Kurds.
Assad and the Kurds now jointly administer the city of Qamishli, and share control of the oil rich region of Hasakah. That uneasy alliance has been made possible by a mutual enemy: The Islamic State. Since the Islamic State captured Raqqa — the city it consider its capital — back in 2013, the Kurds have shared a long border with the group that stretches across most of northern Syria. Over the past year, the Kurds have fought — and won — two key battles against IS, shoring up their own territory, and cutting off much of IS access to the Turkish border.
Beginning in the fall of 2014, the Islamic State laid siege to Kobani, a Kurdish city on the western edge of Rojava. Kurdish fighters, backed by US airpower, lifted the siege and pushed IS back, effectively liberating the area by the end of January, 2015. In the following months, as IS focused its energies on major cities in Iraq and Syria, the Kurds were able to capture the villages and countryside outside the city, dealing a major territorial blow to IS.
The IHS Jane's report explains that IS lost so much ground to the Kurds because it did not have the military resources to fight on all its fronts.
"Geospatial analysis of our data shows that Islamic State activity outside areas it controls is heavily concentrated around Baghdad and Damascus, but much less so in Kurdish territory," explained Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS, and lead analyst for the IHS Conflict Monitor. "This indicates that the Islamic State was overstretched."
WIth IS fighting a multi-front battle against a dizzying array of adversaries —al Qaeda, the Free Syrian Army, the Assad regime and its allies — the Kurds continued to seize the initiative.
In the Spring of 2015, the YPG launched an offensive to take out the IS-controlled border crossing of Tal Abyad, a strategic key city that lies between Kobani in the West and the bulk of Kurdish territory in the East. Fighting between IS and the Kurds — who were backed by US air support — displaced more than 16,000 people.
This past October, Tal Abyad was officially cleared of IS fighters, and integrated into Rojava. The Kurdish victory was made possible, Strack said, because IS had redeployed its forces to far-flung battles in western Syria and Iraq. "The remaining forces in Tal Abyad were so depleted that they had to be re-enforced with... religious police units from Raqqa," Strack explained.
For the Kurds in Syria, the fight against IS has been existential. "It's a struggle for their very lives," Gunter said.
But it's also been an opportunity to forge an entirely new political culture in the burgeoning lands under their control. Rajava is governed by a co-presidents Asya Abdullah and Salih Muslim Muhammad, who espouse a secular, leftist, and unabashedly feminist worldview drawn from the writings of the Kurdish nationalist thinker Abdullah Ocalan, who sits in a Turkish jail.
"They see themselves as a post-state, utopian project," Gunter explains.
But so far, building a new society sandwiched between IS, Assad, and Turkey is far from utopian. IS continues to launch deadly suicide raids into Kurdish territory, and Turkey has more than once bombed YPG positions across the Syrian border as punishment for Rojava's links to the Turkish Kurdish militant group the PKK.
With no end in sight in the Syrian Civil War, the Kurds are hunkering down. "They live amidst a series of broken states," Gunter said. "There's no way to know what the future will be."
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