BEIRUT: Fighting between Kurdish groups and the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo this week has exposed a new front in the conflict, pitting Kurds against Kurds and Arabs against Kurds, with unpredictable consequences.
Details about the fighting in Aleppo remain sketchy, but with retributive violence having now spread, Kurdish and Arab opposition groups are now scrambling to contain an escalating conflagration, fearing it could derail a united battle against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“This is good news for Assad and very very bad news for the rebels,” said Syria expert and Director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, Joshua Landis.
Last Thursday night, ahead of an internationally backed cease-fire scheduled to take hold the following morning, FSA elements moved into the mainly Kurdish neighborhood of Ashrafieh in Aleppo, in a purported attempt to lay siege to the government’s criminal security headquarters.
The move was a breach of a negotiated agreement with the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD), backed by a Kurdish militia, the Popular Protection Committees (YPG), that the FSA remain clear of Kurdish areas.
The YPG is widely seen as being affiliated with the military arm of the PYD, the PKK, which has been engaged in a decades-long struggle for autonomy against Turkey.
YPG fighters repelled the rebels and, in the violence that followed, up to 30 people were killed from both sides, according to PYD Foreign Relations Committee head, Zuhat Kobani, and the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
FSA battalions then set up checkpoints in the area, sparking a series of tit-for-tat kidnappings that saw between 200 and 400 people from both sides captured, most of them Kurdish civilians. In mediation attempts over the following two days, most of those captured were released and the bodies of those killed returned, although at least one Kurdish civilian was reported to have been killed under torture by his FSA captors.
While it remains unclear why the FSA first entered the area, Arab opposition and Kurdish analysts confirmed to The Daily Star that the FSA fighters who entered Ashrafieh were mostly from the majority Kurdish Salaheddine Battalion: a mix of disgruntled former PKK members and anti-Assad Kurdish locals, alongside Arab Islamists from the Al-Nusra Front, presenting a troublesome scenario of some Kurds killing other Kurds.
“Some of those who fired on the [PYD groups] were members of the Salaheddine Brigade, but basically it was Arab,” said Kobani.
“Let’s not forget the fact that Kurdish rivalry in Syria was [a] factor that prompted FSA fighters to even think about entering a PYD-controlled district in Aleppo,” said Washington-based Kurdish journalist and analyst Sirwan Kajjo, adding that most of the Salaheddine battalion is fiercely opposed to the PKK.
The Kurds, who make up roughly 10 percent of Syria’s population, have been traditional opponents of the Assad regime because of decades of repression under Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.
Anti-Assad protests in the mainly Kurdish northeastern cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh, dominated by the PYD, broke out early in the uprising, but Turkey’s leading role in backing the Syrian uprising has dampened Kurdish enthusiasm.
The Syrian Army withdrew from Kurdish areas around Hassakeh in July, ceding control of some areas to the PYD with little resistance.
This fueled rumors, particularly from rival Kurdish groups among a coalition group the Kurdish National Council, that the PYD was working in collaboration with the Syrian regime, a claim strenuously denied by the PYD leadership.
“The regime is a red line and these claims are completely untrue,” the PYD’s Kobani told The Daily Star, adding that “at least 1,055 Kurdish detainees were in Syrian prisons before the conflict even started.”
Members of the KNC, however, remain suspicious.
Abdul-Baqi Yousef, an Irbil-based Kurdish Yakiti Party committee and KNC member, claimed the government “handed over the Kurdish areas to the PYD” in an attempt to stir divisions and provoke the Turks.
“This caused a great deal of indignation among the Kurdish people there,” he said.
“We are not against the PYD as a party, but the ties between the PYD and the regime could lead to confrontations between Kurd and Kurd,” he said.
Landis said the latest ethnic hostilities are in keeping with Assad’s policy of arming minorities, including Kurds, to weaken his Sunni Arab opponents.
“In the long term, the real threat to the Kurds is the FSA and Turkey,” he said.
“They don’t necessarily want a fight with the FSA. They just want to be left alone.”
In efforts to snuff out the distracting hostilities, Kurdish and FSA leaders have striven to point out their mutual opposition to Assad.
From Turkey, FSA deputy commander Malik al-Kurdi said the events were “regrettable” and voiced concern that escalating Kurdish-Arab hostilities would only serve the Syrian regime.
“I am sorry that these developments have taken place, whatever the reason. There should be no conflict between any parties whose only target is the regime.”
A statement from the Kurdish Higher Committee urged cooperation to contain the scope of the conflict but reiterated its demand that FSA forces not enter Kurdish areas.
“We have a very specific strategy; we want a peaceful revolution and protection of Kurdish areas. We do not accept government forces, nor the FSA in our areas,” said the PYD’s Kobani.
Following a phone call with Kobani Tuesday, Kurdi said all parties were now “trying to retract their forces to their previously held positions.”
He admitted proliferating armed opposition groups lacking a unified agenda or command structure could defy those efforts.
“My biggest fear is an Arab-Kurdish conflict,” he said.
There are signs it may be too late.
In what appeared to be retaliatory violence Monday, fighters under the command of Abu Ibrahim – a group not affiliated with the FSA – attacked Kurdish villages near the area of Qastal Jendo, north of Aleppo.
Also Tuesday, the PKK issued a statement threatened to intervene militarily to defend Kurds in Syria from any Arab threat.
“The popular forces will intervene directly against all parties and forces that are hostile to the Kurdish people,” the statement read.