Assad’s Kurdish Strategy

Assad’s Kurdish Strategy

Joshua Landis

Aug 20, 2012

Assad’s Kurdish strategy appears to be to help the PKK to take control of the Kurdish regions of Syria in the North East. His aim is to hurt both the Free Syrian Army and Turkey, which are leading the opposition against him. In general, his strategy is to weaken the Sunni Arabs of Syria.

On July 19, the Syrian Army withdrew from the town of Kobani followed by Efrin, Derik and Amuda as PYD forces swept in to take its place. Many claimed this peaceful transfer of power was orchestrated by the Assad regime and PYD leaders. There was no fighting and no casualties were incurred, according to the PYD , which said the party essentially issued an ultimatum that prompted Syrian government forces to withdraw from their positions.

The PKK, masquerading as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the wing of the Kurdish movement that is most anti-Turkish and therefor anti-Free Syrian Army. It is also vocally pan-Kurdish in contrast to many of the other Kurdish parties in Syria, which have positioned themselves, at least for the time-being, around the more limited goal of seeking Kurdish national rights enshrined in an autonomous region within Syria. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party is blamed by Turkish authorities for the death of 40,000 Turks and Kurds over the last several decades due to their separatist agenda and insurgent tactics. Because the PKK is better armed and more militant than other Kurdish groups, it has advantages because it is more prepared for war and the use of force.

The Kurdish National Council (KNC) represents most of the Kurdish parties that oppose the PYD strategy. It is looking for an accommodation with the Free Syrian Army and Syrian opposition forces as a means to gaining national rights and freedom for Kurds. The KNC is a fractious coalition, that is not well armed or organized.

The Kurdish parts of Syria will undoubtedly become the focus of the power struggle that is emerging in the region over Syria. Sunni Arabs and Turks will line up against it. Shiite forces will be inclined to encourage Kurdish independence if only to hurt the Sunni Arabs by playing minorities of every stripe against the against the FSA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US.

But what should the Kurds do? All Kurds are looking to take advantage of the collapse of central authority in Syria. They see this as an historic opportunity to press for their freedom and national rights. But how hard should they press and how fast? Should they work with Turkey against Assad or should they fight Turkey and ally with Assad? Is this a moment for caution or for audacity? Should they side with the Syrian opposition and Turkey against the Assad regime based on the notion that the Syrian revolt is about freedom versus dictatorship? Or should they side with Syria’s religious minorities against Sunni Arabs, based on the understanding that this uprising is largely sectarian. If this is the case, perhaps Kurds, being an ethnic minority, should stick with minorities in general against Sunni Arabs, who will present the greatest future obstacle to Kurdish ambitions? For decades the Assad regime has stood for Arab chauvinism and the denial of Kurdish national rights. Now that Assad and the Arab Baath Party are losing power, some Kurds calculate that the Free Syrian Army will inherit the banner of Arab Nationalism.

Syria’s Kurds are understandably divided over how to pursue the struggle for Kurdish national rights and freedoms. The Syrian revolution is only in its infancy. The forces on the ground are changing with great speed to meet the challenges of the battlefield. Along with the emergence of new combatants and the transformation of the Syrian Army into an Alawite militia, ideologies are changing as rapidly as the faces of the leading fighters. Trying to keep up with the emerging forces in Syria is a full-time job. Kurds are having as much trouble picking their way through the dynamic battlefield and defining a strategy as everyone else. Their many factions are also fighting furiously among themselves for primacy in what many see as an emerging Kurdish state.

Kurd-Watch: New interview: Mustafa Jumʿa, Kurdish politician: »The PYD has weapons and we don’t. They will kill us all.«

KURDWATCH, August 16, 2012—Mustafa Jumʿa (b. 1947 in ʿAyn al‑ʿArab [Kobanî]) is Vice President of the Kurdish National Council and Secretary of the Kurdish Freedom Party in Syria (Azadî). On June 24, 2012, he was kidnapped by members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD); since his release, he has been living in Iraqi-Kurdistan. This interview, in which he speaks in particularl about his party’s relationship to the PYD, was conducted a few days before his kidnapping.

In Syria, role of Kurds divides opposition

By Babak Dehghanpisheh, Wash Post

BEIRUT — Opponents of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad are showing signs of splintering along a deep regional fault line, with Arabs and Turks uneasy about a military offensive last month by Syrian Kurds, who overran four towns in the country’s north.

The attacks marked the first time since the 17-month-old uprising began that Kurdish fighters had joined in military action against Assad’s forces. But the Kurdish muscle-flexing has rattled groups such as the Arab-led Free Syrian Army, which until now has played the leading role in the upheaval, and it has unsettled neighboring Turkey, whose animosity toward Assad is surpassed only by apprehension about the Kurds’ broader ambitions in the region.

……In Syria, the Kurdish region is home to 2 million people, and many Turkish officials fear that the Kurds will begin using the area as a base from which to launch attacks on the Turkish military, as they have done for years from neighboring Iraq.Until the recent attacks, Syrian Kurds had stayed on the sidelines, mostly, it appeared, out of concern that a victory by Arab-led opposition groups over Assad’s forces might do little to alter a power balance that has left Kurds relatively weak in Syria. There has been little cooperation between the armed Kurdish groups in the north and the Free Syrian Army, and their relationship seems to be one of mutual distrust.

But in response to the Kurdish moves, Syrian opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army were quick to reiterate a vow that they will not permit Syria to be divided along ethnic or sectarian lines. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he stood ready to send troops into Syria to confront Kurdish forces there if it becomes a base for incursions into Turkey by Kurdish guerrillas.

The U.S. government has also expressed alarm, warning Kurdish groups in Syria that they should not seek to work with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, whose insurgency against the Turkish government has killed at least 40,000 people.

“We share Turkey’s determination that Syria must not become a haven for PKK terrorists, whether now or after the departure of the Assad regime,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on a recent visit to Turkey. The armed group that pushed to take over the territory in northern Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian affiliate of the PKK. That set off alarm bells in Ankara. PYD representatives deny having links to the PKK, perhaps a sign of their concerns about Turkish intervention….

It’s not clear how appealing this pan-Kurdish sentiment — or the idea of regional autonomy — is to the Kurdish community in Syria. But it could lead to bitter fighting between Kurds and Arabs there if Assad falls. In the view of many Kurds, the Arab-led Syrian opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, embraces the same kind of Arab nationalism that has been used to quash rights in the past.

The main Kurdish attacks took place July 19, when fighters loyal to the PYD spread out in the town of Kobani and pushed forward for three days, taking over Efrin, Derik and Amuda. There was no fighting and no casualties were incurred, according to Semo, the PYD official, who said the party essentially issued an ultimatum that prompted Syrian government forces to withdraw from their positions.

The speed and relative ease with which the PYD fighters took control of the towns have raised some eyebrows, with rivals accusing the Kurdish group of acting as a proxy for the Syrian government.

The situation has become even more complicated because of the role being played by Kurds from neighboring Iraq, where the division of power after the fall of Saddam Hussein has left Kurds with a strong base. Massoud Barzani, a prominent Iraqi Kurdish leader, said last month that he was helping to arm and train fighters from the Kurdish National Council, which is jockeying for power in Syria as a rival to the PYD.

Barzani organized a meeting this month in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Irbil that brought Kurdish and Arab Syrian opposition leaders together with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu but excluded the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish group regarded by the Turks as the most problematic.

“What Turkey needs to do is divide and rule, and that’s exactly what they’re going to do,” said Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group. “They’re going to woo some Kurds, and they’re going to fight a lot of Kurds. And they’re going to use one Kurd against another Kurd.”

A Fawwaz al-Assad Story by A.D.

Dear Joshua

I never lived under the Assad rules as I left Syria when I was twenty years old. I have been living outside Syria since 1971. Married to an Anglo-Saxon wife and now I am a grandfather. I can be forgiven if I have little interest in the politics of Syria. However, the current terrible human situation/tragedy made me think I am after all and somehow feel Syrian.

Reading  the article “The Original Shabiha” really made me write to you as my daughter  I and had an experience with Fawwaz al-Assad similar to the “poor female” university student, described in the last post.

In 1993 I went back for a visit to  Syria with my daughter after living in a western country for twenty-two years. My daughter was eighteen years old back then. I wanted to show her where I was borne and  the civilization that existed  in Syria . She was eager to see every bit of it and certainly we did over five weeks spanning the country from North to south and East to West not to mention the Lonely Planet book that  may daughter highlighted  every page of.  My daughter became  very interested in Syria as soon as she started her first year at university. She was really very exited so was I.

Here  is the story. (A part from my wife and  now adult daughter,I never told it to anyone else till now)

Lattakia is where my story starts.

On a recommendation of an old friends, we took  a taxi to a lovely restaurant somewhere along the road to the “Summer presidential Palace” near Lattakia.

The restaurant was virtually empty as it was  a mid-day during the week( apparently not many Syrians dine out during that time). We ordered what the owner or the waiter recommended. Shortly after we started eating, two men and the waiter came to ask me and  my daughter to join a table on the other side on the restaurant(a real strange to us). I said well, we really like to be ourselves and we do not sit with people who we do not know. They left us alone for a short while, and then the waiter came and asked us to leave immediately as there is a security situation here. We did not understand what he really said and  I said we have not finished yet. The other two men came rushing to me and said in Arabic” take your F…..  and leave now or else.  My daughter immediately started crying as she noticed from their tone it is a threatening voice. We had no option but to leave.

On our way out accompanied with the waiter and  two men with him, said to me “we will crush you under the car you and your  F…. daughter “ I said why what is the reason, the answer was “ YOU upset the MOAALEM FAWWAZ” .

I never knew who  FAWWAZ  was before. My daughter was hysterical, crying as she sensed the situation. Luckily she said RING the EMBASSY . This two words have saved us as one of the men understood what she said. A taxi  just arrived ( as it is a gift from god) and we left the restaurant  immediately. What an experience it was. Sadly, We NEVER  been back to Syria since then.   A.D

Syrian Revolution News Round-up writes:

Following the conflicting reports on the defection of Syria’s Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa yesterday, Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed al-Muallim tweeted today that al-Sharaa will be replaced by the Minister of Interior Mohammad al-Sha’aar without giving more details on the reasons behind this change. Regime forces murdered 15 people in the Damascus suburb of al-Tal. The bodies were then identified as close relatives of Deputy Secretary-General of al-Baath Party Abdullah Al-Ahmar who is believed to be incarcerated by the regime.

[J.L.] This suggests that the Baath Party is dead and that most top civilian Sunnis are jumping overboard. The Assad Army is well on its way to becoming an Alawite militia.

Foreign Policy writes:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance at a mosque in Damascus on Sunday during the Eid al-Fitr holiday following Ramadan. On Monday, U.N. observers pulled out of Syria after a failed four-month mission as fighting raged in Aleppo, Daraa, and a suburb of Damascus.

WSJ [Reg]: Syria’s Leader Low on Cash—French Minister

PARIS—Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s regime is running out of cash to face the insurgency in the country and France plans to discuss with Russia ways to reduce Syrian government funding, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Monday. The …

In Syria, group suspected of al-Qaeda links gaining prominence in war to topple Assad
By Justin Vela and Liz Sly, Published: August 19

ALEPPO, Syria — A shadowy jihadist organization that first surfaced on the Internet to assert responsibility for suicide bombings in Aleppo and Damascus has stepped out of the shadows and onto the front lines of the war for Syria’s cities.

Here in Aleppo, the al-Nusra Front for the Protection of the People of the Levant, widely known as the Jabhat al-Nusra, is fielding scores of fighters, some of them foreigners, in the battle for control of Syria’s commercial capital, a key prize in the bitter war of attrition being waged across the country.

A look at the Syrian uprising one year later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international

A look at the Syrian uprising one year later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.

The group, suspected of affiliations to al-Qaeda, says it is also fighting in other locations, including the cities of Homs and Idlib and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus. Its growing role has prompted concerns that the 17-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is becoming radicalized as the bloodshed soars…

Jabhat al-Nusra commander Abu Ibrahim said he has 300 men under his control. About 50 of his fighters were seen milling around the mosque, many wearing the baggy, calf-length pants and long beards associated with devout Islamists. Others were inside.

Most of those fighting for Abu Ibrahim, a 32-year-old stone mason from a nearby village, are Syrians from Aleppo and the surrounding countryside. But some are Arab volunteers, among hundreds from the region and beyond who are thought to have trickled into Syria in recent months to join the fight against Assad’s regime. Abu Ibrahim said his contingent included men from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Lebanon, as well as one Syrian who had fought in Iraq against the Americans….

….a visit to the city did not reveal any significant schism between the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra and the more-secular units.

Abu Ibrahim said his fighters are part of Liwa al-Tawhid, or the Unity Brigade, a newly formed battalion of rebel groups fighting in and around Aleppo. “We are together,” he said. “There is good coordination.” And although many in the Free Syrian Army say they reject the ideology of Islamist extremism, the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra are regarded “as heroes” in Aleppo, said Abu Feras, a spokesman for the Aleppo Revolutionary Council. “They fight without fear or hesitation,” he said.

Passing the Hat for the Syrian Rebels
By Philip Giraldi • August 17, 2012, American Conservative

A bizarre interview took place last week on NPR. Michael Martin spoke with Brian Sayers of the Syrian Support Group. Sayers is the group’s director of government relations and is reported to be a former NATO political advisor who was hired to lobby on behalf of the Syrian insurgency this year. The Syrian Support Group’s website claims that it “seeks to facilitate, through all legal means, the protection of Syrian civilians during their historic struggle for freedom.”

Climate Change and the Syrian Uprising
By Shahrzad Mohtadi | 16 August 2012
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Article Highlights

  • A drought unparalleled in recent Syrian history lasted from 2006 to 2010 and led to an unprecedented mass migration of 1.5 million people from farms to urban centers.
  • Because the Assad regime’s economic policies had largely ignored water issues and sustainable agriculture, the drought destroyed many farming communities and placed great strain on urban populations.
  • Although not the leading cause of the Syrian rebellion, the drought-induced migration from farm to city clearly contributed to the uprising and serves as a warning of the potential impact of climate change on political stability.

Inside the Hunt for Assad’s Billions
by Eli Lake Aug 17, 2012

The Syrian regime has as much as $25 billion stashed in offshore tax havens and investments across the Middle East. Finding that fortune could be big business for an elite group of modern-day treasure hunters.

Kidnapping, Spats on Docket of Syria Rebel Boss

QOBTAN JEBEL, Syria—One morning this week, Sheik Tawfeeq Shehab Eddin replaced his AK-47 with a Bic pen and took up his post behind a metal desk.

Mr. Shehab Eddin is one of the four rural commanders of the Tawheed Division, an Islamist-dominated umbrella force that is leading Syrian rebels’ fight around the country’s largest city, Aleppo, against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Their division has driven pro-Assad forces from much of the Aleppan countryside and some of Aleppo. On Friday, division fighters fought regime tanks near the city’s airport.

Rebels say Syria’s government is stepping up airstrikes on the city of Aleppo as U.N. efforts to promote peace draw sighs from refugees.

The regime’s pullout from much of the countryside last month has left the Tawheed Division as the area’s army, government and police. That is why on Wednesday, Mr. Shehab Eddin and his aides spent some 14 hours hashing out questions about their next deployment to the front line in Aleppo, scrambling to defuse a flare-up with a neighboring Kurdish village and mediating petty disputes between villagers.

“We commanders have been forced to take on all the problems confronting our villages,” he said, adding that elected leaders should eventually take that over. “The role I am playing now is bigger than myself.”

Sheikh Tawfeeq Shehab Eddin breaking the Ramadan fast Wednesday. A commander of the Islamist-dominated rebel force fighting for Aleppo, he spent the day ruling on local disputes.

Similar makeshift governments are springing up in villages across Aleppo province’s countryside, providing interim courts, keeping basic services running, managing finances and distributing aid shipments.

Many of the rebel courts have taken on an Islamic bent. Tawheed Division commanders forbid the torture of detainees. But that ban doesn’t include whipping the soles of detainees’ feet, Tawheed commander Abdel Aziz Salama told several people, including a Human Rights Watch team.

Another group of Tawheed fighters executed four members of an Aleppan family accused of funding and running a hated pro-Assad militia accused of keeping iron-fisted control over restive areas. The division’s field commander, Abdel Qader Saleh, told The Wall Street Journal that the four men were given a battlefield trial before they were killed.

Here in Qobtan Jebel, a pinprick village of century-old stone walled homes in the hills west of Aleppo, Mr. Shehab Eddin’s word is law, at least for now. Before the uprising, the self-taught sheik—also known by his nom du guerre, Abu Soleiman—preached covertly to a small following in an adjacent village about the Syrian regime’s ills.

The sheik’s morning began when two of his fighters brought in a young man they had stopped at a checkpoint with seven jerry cans of gasoline in his car. The commodity is in short supply. The fighters suspected the man might be a smuggler. A couple quick questions satisfied the sheik, who ordered him freed with his fuel.

The next visitor pleaded for the release of a detainee accused of working as a regime informant in the village. The sheik was unmoved. “We have two witnesses and evidence against him,” he said, drawing X’s, O’s and spiral doodles on a blank sheet of paper as he listened.

Next came a stringy youth who said he had just defected from the Syrian army. He was brusquely questioned by the sheik’s aide, Ali al-Haji, a 28-year-old former tank commander with a degree in Islamic law.

The fidgety defector, 20-year-old Ahmed al-Latouf, said he had served as an army mortar man. “There’s no mobiles phones, no television,” he said. “No one knows anything and they believe what their officers tell them—that we are fighting criminal gangs and terrorists.”

The sheik concurred. “We know our brothers in the army have been lied to and brainwashed,” he said, admitting the youth into the ranks of rebel fighters, who elsewhere could be seen doing calisthenics and training with rocket-propelled grenades.

A fighter rushed in. A resident of Qobtan Jebel, he said, had that morning kidnapped a resident of a nearby Kurdish village and was demanding ransom. In retaliation, the Kurds kidnapped four village men.

Kurdish villages dot the local countryside, and relations have cooled since Syria’s civil war took a sectarian turn. With police gone, crime is a growing concern. Rebel commanders say a flare-up now in Kurd relations would play into regime hands. “We’ll call the Kurdish leaders, set up a meeting and solve the problem,” said Mr. Haji.

Next in line was a man from Aleppo who had raised funds for Mr. Shehab Eddin’s brigade, which fought in Aleppo’s Salaheddin neighborhood for 14 days but withdrew last week after supplies wore thin. The fundraiser demanded an explanation for the withdrawal. “We couldn’t stand it anymore. We weren’t getting enough help,” the aide, Mr. Haji, explained, eager not to alienate a supporter.

A group of villagers stormed in waving handguns and assault rifles. A fighter had commandeered their car to ferry supplies to the front, but sold it instead. They vowed revenge.

“Don’t do a thing until I have a chance to look into this,” Mr. Haji said. “Are you really going to kill someone over a car?”

“We spend a lot of time dealing with petty issues while fighting a war at the same time,” Mr. Haji said after they left. “But if you don’t listen to everyone, we’ll lose the people and then the revolution.”

As the sun set, Mr. Haji retired to his commander’s walled residence where he lives with his three wives and 15 children. They broke the Ramadan fast, silently using flatbread to scoop lentil soup, hummus and tuna fish out of metal bowls.

“We’ll set an ambush for the guy who kidnapped the Kurd, and we’ll turn him over to the Kurds, in exchange for our men back,” he said, reclining on a pillow on the cement floor, scrubbing his teeth with a twig. He dispatched a patrol to find the suspected kidnapper. “The regime wants us to fight among ourselves. We can’t allow this to happen,” he said…..

Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert at the University of Lyon, said the incoming foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, “realised that France had invested too much political capital in the SNC”. He said the new government had instead thrown its weight behind Manaf Tlass – a former Republican Guard general and member of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle – who defected in July. France is hoping the FSA will coalesce around Tlass, providing some coherence to the disparate array of militias.

The Urgent Need to Prevent a Middle East War
by Patrick Seale Released: 14 Aug 2012

The Middle East is facing an acute danger of war, with unpredictable and potentially devastating consequences for the states and populations of the region. A ‘shadow war’ is already being waged — by Israel and the United States against Iran; by a coalition of countries against Syria; and by the great powers against each other. A mere spark could set this tinder alight.

The threat of a hot war is coming from three main directions: first, from Israel’s relentless and increasingly hysterical war-mongering against Iran; second, from America’s geopolitical ambitions in the oil-rich Gulf and its complicity in Israel’s anti-Iranian campaign; and third, from the naked hostility of some Sunni Arab States towards Iran — and towards Shi‘is and Alawis in general.

These Arab states are apparently unaware that they are playing into the hands of Israeli and American hawks who dream of re-modelling the region in order to subject it to their will. This same neo-con ambition drove the United States to invade and destroy Iraq in the hope of permanently enfeebling it.

The current Israeli war fever rests on a blatant falsehood: that Iran poses an ‘existential threat’ to the Jewish people. What a joke!….

… Can war be prevented? King Abdallah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia is one of the wisest leaders on the international stage. He alone has the political weight, the resources, and the influence with both the United States and the Muslim rebels in Syria to check the region’s downward rush to disaster. He seems torn between his understandable distaste for some Iranian policies and his instinctive understanding of the need for better Saudi-Iranian relations. Several Gulf officials, in turn, are torn between their fear of a powerful Iran and their understanding that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council share many commercial and strategic interests with the Islamic Republic.

Instead of siding with the United States and Israel in the destruction of Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies should join with Iran in building a new security system for the region free from external meddling. If they act together, they can spare the region the devastation of war. But they must act soon because time is running out.