QAMISHLI, Syria -- The Kurds have never been lucky with geography, being landlocked and divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. However, due to the Syrian crisis and the threat of an Islamic caliphate bordering Kurdish areas in Syria, the Syrian Kurds have become one of the most reliable coalition allies against the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Most likely they will play a prominent role in capturing the IS capital of Raqqa.
The Kurds seem to fit perfectly into the current U.S. strategy of focusing on defeating jihadist groups and not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is the focus of most moderate rebel groups. Supporting some moderate rebel groups presents problems for Washington as those groups have partnered with the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and the Salafist Jaish al-Islam to fight against Assad. Some rebel groups have also given U.S. supplies to jihadists.
While IS fighters have recently defeated rebel offensives in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurds have been more successful on the battlefield, having proven themselves able to fight IS near the Turkish border. "They've been courageous. They have been successful," U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby recently said in Washington. Battered by Syrian and Russian air strikes, the rebels were quite successful in defending their territory for years, but have been unable to make many in-roads against IS.
While anti-Assad rebels have been losing battles near the Turkish border, the Kurds have been on the advance in northeastern Syria. Colonel Talal Silo, the official spokesperson of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), says they have three possible directions for campaigns after finishing the Shadadi operation last February: west toward Manbij, south to liberate the countryside around Raqqa, or southeast toward Deir el-Zour. Some critics have suggested that the SDF is unwilling to expand beyond traditional Kurdish areas, but when I asked Silo about the subject he rejected this, saying: "Our goal is not only Kurdish cities. The target of the SDF is not only to liberate Kurdish regions, because for example the countryside of Shadadi and the southern region of Hasakah that were liberated, were completely Arabic." "Our forces do not only contain Kurds, but also Arabs, Christians, Turkomans. It's for everyone," Silo said.
One of the main goals of the SDF is to take control of northern Syria, including opening a corridor from Kobani to the Kurdish enclave of Efrin. This conflicts with the goals of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels that want to use the countryside of northern Syria as a supply line to Aleppo, currently besieged by Syrian regime forces. Recently, fierce clashes erupted again when Aleppo's rebels tried to recapture Tel Rifaat from Kurdish-led SDF forces, leading to the deaths of dozens of rebels, especially from the Jaish al-Sunna group that originates from Homs.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters are dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the militant left-wing organization which is banned in Turkey. That is a problem for Turkey as Ankara is against any form of coalition support for the Syrian Kurds, even more so after the cease-fire between Turkey's Kurds and the Turkish state collapsed in July 2015. Therefore, Turkey has tried to back rival rebel groups and even jihadist groups to defeat the PYD and the People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, without any real results.
In February, Turkey started to shell Kurdish-led groups in Aleppo, after the Kurds took advantage of Russian bombings of Syrian rebel groups near Azaz and took the Menagh air base. Turkey has also shelled the YPG-allied forces trying to cross the river into the IS-held city of Jarabulus in July 2015. Off the battlefield, Turkey managed to exclude the Kurdish PYD from the peace talks in Geneva.
However, the PYD, unlike the Iraqi Kurdish parties, follows a multiethnic ideology and its leaders have realized that it's better to also recruit Arabs in a region that is not predominantly Kurdish. In March, the PYD announced its desire to establish a federalized Syria, where all of northern Syria, not only Kurdish "Rojava" -- Syrian Kurdistan -- would be represented. Therefore, they have appointed Mansour Saloum, an Arab from Tal Abyad, as the co-head. "We are all people living in this area, and all the ethnic groups will work together to achieve this project," Saloum said.
The move was condemned and rejected both by the Syrian opposition and the Assad government. This plan also contrasts with the approach taken by the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is part of the Syrian opposition and wants a Kurdistan region, similar to the one in Iraq. As a result the KNC condemned the recent announcement by the PYD and its allies and accused the PYD of seeking "Syrian federalism," instead of the establishment of a Kurdistan federal zone.
The support for federalism may have gained the YPG new enemies. In the mixed city of Qamishli, where there were clashes between the Syrian regime and the Kurds in late April, many of the local fighters are Arabs not Kurds. There have been low-level clashes before between the regime and Kurds in Aleppo, Hasakah, and Qamishli, but this was the first time that the clashes spread throughout Qamishli and the surrounding countryside. Kurds there think the Syrian regime attacked them because the regime feels stronger due to Russian support and to show the Kurds that they reject any form of federalism.
Strong And Diverse Coalition
The PYD's cooperation with Arabs is not new. They have focused on working with Arab tribes since they captured the Syrian-Iraqi border with fighters from the Shammar tribe in October 2013. Relations with the United States were established later, when IS tried to capture Kobani and were pushed back, losing hundreds of fighters due to U.S.-led coalition air strikes and ammunition supplies. After receiving U.S. support, they have achieved several victories, such as defeating IS in Tal Abyad, Al-Hawl, Al-Shaddadi -- all of them Arab areas.
From my observations, the SDF is focusing on recruiting more Arabs for future operations. Although U.S. officials have spoken about the Syrian Arab Coalition, in reality these are the Arabs that have joined the SDF. So far, I haven't met anyone who claims to be representing the Syrian Arab Coalition in northern Syria. "What's the Syrian Arab Coalition?" asked Bandar al-Humaydi, from the Arab Sanadid forces allied to the YPG. Arabs most likely join the SDF for financial reasons, or due to the fact that it is the strongest force in northern Syria. Moreover, it's one of the few forces that can really confront Islamic State in northern Syria -- having both a strong ideology and military force. Nevertheless, the command and control of the SDF is still dominated by Kurds from the YPG, and Arabs do not play a large role in the military leadership.
In the former IS-stronghold of Al-Shaddadi, two Arab members of the local police whom I interviewed told me they receive a salary of around $80 per month. "I joined to liberate the city from Daesh [IS]," said Xalaf Mohammed, a 23-year-old Arab. Although human rights organizations have accused the SDF of rights violations against Arabs, in many Arab regions of Hasakah, local civilians have welcomed the SDF forces.
"In the beginning the Kurdish percentage [of soldiers in the SDF] was like 60 percent, now it's changed, because the people that are joining the SDF now are mostly Arabs," Silo said.
At a former government-controlled prison in Alaya, Arabs who have joined the Kurdish security police, are now protecting the facility. "Arabs are working against the regime, because the regime has oppressed them, and they have seen humanity from our side," said Bave Egid, a Kurdish police officer stationed at the prison.
The SDF is a strong and diverse coalition and one that, for the foreseeable future, will likely be a key partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is currently in Qamishli, in northern Syria, conducting a research project for the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST), funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) on Syrian Kurds.