Will Syria’s Rebels Face a Kurdish Front?


Kurdish PKK female militant

Four decades of unabated Assad rule are testament to the Syrian regime’s mastery of sectarianism in the Middle East. Once again, the Assads have utilized this talent to throw another wrench into the Sunni-Western campaign to oust them from Damascus. The regime recognizes the historic tensions between Arabs and Kurds, the incompatibility of pan-Islamism and Kurdish nationalism, in addition to Turkey’s escalating ongoing conflict with Kurdish separatists. This enabled Bashar al-Assad to manipulate these realities for his strategic advantage. By withdrawing from the mainly Kurdish northeast this past summer, the regime opened the gates for a Kurdish escalation. With Assad’s enemies now struggling to liberate areas from his tanks, fresh fighting between Kurdish militias and Syrian rebels around Aleppo threatens a second front for the already bruised Syrian opposition.

That fighting serves as a reminder of the Kurds’ long standing aspirations for further rights and autonomy, a quest almost always opposed by their sectarian rivals throughout the region. While the Assads – much like Saddam Hussein – have suppressed Kurds with decades of ‘Arabization, ‘Bashar calculated early on that his Kurdish subjects, as a whole, were unlikely to fight alongside the opposition. Not out of any loyalty, but for historic and strategic reasons.

So far, Assad’s gambit has paid off. Kurdish interests vary but often contradict those of their ethnic neighbors. We may call them Syrian or Iraqi Kurds, but their interests are anything but Syrian or Iraqi. That, however, did not stop the opposition from seeking Kurdish fighters to join their ranks. Unfortunately for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian National Council (SNC), these negotiations failed. The Kurds were reluctant to shed blood for a mainly Arab-Islamist opposition that was unable to offer autonomy in post-bellum Syria. Since then, Syrian Kurds are charting their own course.

Not surprisingly, Assad has manipulated Kurdish neutrality for his own benefit. His army’s coordinated withdrawal from Kurdish areas last summer was a serious development. That redeployment purposefully left hard-line Kurdish militias in control, thereby posing serious strategic problems not only for Syrian rebels, but for Assad’s new Turkish enemy to the north. Turkey as a rule is opposed to any Kurdish gains in Syria given concerns over its own restive Kurdish population.

The problems for Syria’s rebels are as follows: the far-leftist Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has barred Sunni Arab fighters from Kurdish areas and periodically cooperated with Assad’s forces in and around Aleppo, all the while expanding its control over strategic checkpoints and smuggling routes near the vital Turkish border. Over time, these actions and Kurdish neutrality have not only discredited the opposition’s narrative as a country united against Assad, they have put both sides on a collision course.

That collision took place on October 26. Heavy fighting erupted between the Peoples’ Defense Unit (YPG), a PYD militia and Syrian rebels in Aleppo’s Kurdish neighborhood of Ashrafieh. Sunni Arab gunmen from the Tawhid Brigade entered the neighborhood as a show of strength before the Muslim holiday of Eid. Unfortunately for them, Kurdish militias were not so keen on their presence. After dozens of rebel fighters lay dead, they withdrew but not before they abducted, and then executed, the local leader of the PYD – who happened to be a woman.

Hours after the fighting in Ashrafieh, additional clashes between Kurds and Arabs broke out over checkpoints in the vicinity of the Turkish border. As reports of the fighting emerged, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey’s arch enemy and PYD ally, consequently threatened to intervene against Syria’s rebels. While fighting remains largely localized, the PKK threat could be a game changer.

Both the rebels and PYD for the most part would like to avoid a Kurdish war at this time. A new front could jeopardize what is perceived to be a historic opportunity for Kurdish nation building in Syria. The rebels moreover, can hardly afford to fight the Kurds, especially if the battle-tested PKK becomes involved. Still, the Kurds and the rebels remain highly decentralized, with many rebel units operating pursuant to their own agenda – often to further the Arab-Islamist cause in the Middle East. While both sides are talking ceasefire, tensions and diverging goals could complicate those efforts over the long run.

Kurdish Syria is above all a highly strategic region. Straddling Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, numerous players have an interest in thwarting Kurdish gains here. Such interests coupled with tensions on the ground will make further Kurdish-rebel fighting a real possibility. Beyond Syria, the PKK also has an interest in using Syria as a launching pad for operations against Turkey. This is not a remote possibility, as it is already being reported that PKK gunmen, in addition to their PYD allies, are already stationed along the Turkish-Syrian border.

That presence ultimately contributes to the rebels’ struggle to take Aleppo. This along with diverging interests and a history of Arab-Kurdish fighting could lead to a second sectarian war in Syria. In the end this works best for Assad. The regime recognized that Kurdish nationalism and pan-Islamism are two largely incompatible ideologies. The opposition’s inability to promise the Kurds autonomy was the ultimate deciding factor. As a result, Assad has simply laid the groundwork for a second front in the Syrian civil war. It remains to be seen if the rebels will take the bait.

Daniel Brode is an intelligence manager and senior analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm in Israel. He specializes in Middle East and North Africa affairs. 


About Daniel Brode

Senior Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm in Israel. Articles have been published in The New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Al-Arabiya, and Hurriyet. Matriculated at the Virginia Military Institute; completed US Army Airborne School and an exchange program at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces Hamburg. Studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before receiving a B.A. from Duquesne University in History and a Minor in German. Graduated with a M.A. in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University. Interned as a research analyst for the Institute for National Security Studies in the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and represented Tel Aviv University in the Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition. Completed mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
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3 Responses to Will Syria’s Rebels Face a Kurdish Front?

  1. Pingback: Will Syria’s Rebels Face a Kurdish Front? | Middle East Conflicts

  2. Brandon S. says:

    Great article.
    It seems Kurdish interests are aligned with Assad’s interests for the time being. Who should Israel and the West be supporting? If they should even be involved at all.

    Looking forward to the next article on this topic.

    • Santiago says:

      It’s been a while since I’ve been here and I’m glad I checked in. I have to dsragiee with you on this. The Turks will continue to posture and saber rattle. That’s what they do and have done. They threatened to cut off all trade with France when a law was introduced making it a criminal offense to deny the Armenian genocide (much less than our non-binding resolution). Trade was in fact never cut off and has increased since the law was passed. This has been the case with many other countries.I don’t think it will be any different with the US. The Turks are a lot of talk. They have already engaged the PKK in Northern Iraq and will continue to do so in a limited manner to fly under the international radar.The genocide resolution resolution fits in perfectly with the ideals of the US. We preach human rights to others, yet refuse to recognize the atrocities being committed around the globe (let alone our own participation in human torture). This is a human rights issue and will go a long way to bring the US in line with the rest of the world (something we seem to have forgotten how to do). Besides, it’s non-binding and has nothing to do with the current governing body in Turkey.The US needs to continue to recognize genocide for what it is. We should under no circumstance sweep it under the rug as we have done with Rwanda, Darfur, etc. etc. The US championed the cause to come to the aid of the Armenians when the genocide happened and we should champion the recognition that it in deed took place.I need to do some more research, but I believe recognition of the Armenian genocide is, or will become, a condition of Turkey’s admittance to the EU. Good luck there. Genocide should not be ignored, nor should it be downplayed as insignificant or overblown. The EU seems to have figured this one out. Why can’t we?Nancy Pelosi has put the resolution on the back burner for now, but has reassured her commitment to bring it to the full House for a vote. I hope she does. There are enough representatives in congress committed to pass it with a handy majority too. I’ve called Rep. Cannon several times and expressed my support and have urged all of my friends and family to call their representatives as well.I’ll get a good chuckle when the Turks back down from all of the saber rattling and fear-mongering rhetoric as they have done with everyone else. Precedence is on our side.

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