Are Leftist, Feminist Kurds about to Deliver the Coup de Grâce to ISIL in Syria?
In the past two weeks, a remarkable new development has taken place in Syria that bodes ill for the future of the so-called Islamic State group, referred to in Arabic as Daesh. Kurdish fighters from the northeast of the country have taken Tel al-Abyad, a key border town with Turkey through which Daesh smuggled arms and fighters. Now, under cover of American bombing raids, they have gone south to take an important army base only 30 miles from the city of Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate. As with everything in Syria, these events are fraught with moral and ethical questions, but that they could be a game changer is not in doubt.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Kurdish fighters supported by Arab rebels of the Euphrates Volcano paramilitary took the town of Ain Issa from Daesh, as well as the nearby Syrian military base, Brigade-93, which had been overrun by Daesh. The Kurdish forces received aerial support from the United States and its allies, who conducted an intensive bombardment of Daesh positions and convoys. Reportedly, their formations were breaking up toward the end of the battle and the fighters were simply running away. The Kurds are now only 30 miles from Raqqa, the capital of the so-called caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the nom de guerre of Ibrahim al-Samarrai, a minor Iraqi academic). Could Daesh be on the verge of being largely pushed out of Syria?
Kurds speak an Indo-European language ultimately related to English rather than Arabic, the language of most Syrians, which is related to Hebrew. Kurds make up about 10 percent of Syria’s 22 million people, and inhabit three formerly unconnected enclaves in the north of the country, which they call Rojava, consisting of Afrin in the west, Kobane in the middle, and Jazira in the east, abutting Iraq. By far the most populous of these enclaves is Jazira, from which the current campaign was launched. It is spearheaded by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the paramilitary arm of the far-left Democratic Union Party.
Politics is making for very strange bedfellows here, showing how much geopolitics has changed since the Cold War. You would not have thought leftist Kurds a natural ally for bourgeois Washington, but the vicious theocracy of Daesh has managed to unite the two against itself. In the 1980s, the Kurdish left was dominated by the then-Communist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which turned to guerrilla violence against the Turkish state in particular and sought secession for the country’s Kurds in eastern Anatolia. A dirty war ensued with the Turkish military, with extensive war crimes on both sides, in which some 30,000 are estimated to have been killed. Washington strongly supported Turkey against the leftists then. The Syrian-Kurdish YPG was a sister organization of the Turkish-Kurdish PKK, which remains on Washington’s list of terrorist organizations (though the YPG is not).
The PKK says it has given up its Marxism and separatism and now just wants a federal system in Turkey with a Kurdish province. A few thousand fighters are now holed up on the Iraqi side of the border in Qandil, occasionally launching attacks on Turkey. As for the YPG, it does not have a command line to the PKK but is rather autonomous in Syria, and has announced an ideology of direct democracy for all ethnic and religious groups in its territory, equality of the sexes, and environmentalism. The Democratic Union Party also advocates a federal Syria after the war ends, with substantial states’ rights and a Kurdish province, Rojava. The YPG fields female as well as male soldiers, to the consternation of Daesh militants, who are said to be afraid that a male fighter killed by a female commando cannot go to heaven. Rojava’s elected assemblies have a quota for women and make a place for Christians and Turkmen. The Democratic Union Party ideals sound a little like the anarcho-syndicalism of Spain during the Spanish Civil War, for which George Orwell fought as a volunteer.
On the other hand, critics of the YPG accuse it of brutality and ethnic cleansing of Arab inhabitants from some areas, in favor of creating a contiguous Kurdish territory. Arabs forced to flee from Tel al-Abyad reported that YPG fighters told them it was Kurdish territory now and there was no place for them. YPG leaders say, however, that they have Arab supporters, including the commandos of the Euphrates Volcano guerrilla group.
During the past year, the Kurds have been the most effective fighting force in the region countering the advance of Daesh. Kobane is in northern Raqqah Province, and Daesh almost took it last summer, causing tens of thousands of its Kurds to flee to Turkey. Intensive US and allied aerial bombing of Daesh convoys and positions, in support of Kurdish fighters on the ground, pushed Daesh out and saved the canton. The Turkish government, a NATO ally of the United States, is afraid of the People’s Protection Units because they are a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Therefore, Washington brokered a deal to allow the peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan to send in fighters to Kobane last fall. (Turkey wants to see the Bashar al-Assad government fall, and seems to be willing to let supplies and fighters transit through its territory even to hardline Muslim fundamentalist groups).
But now the United States is actively allied with the YPG, apparently having been disappointed by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s insouciance toward Daesh. Washington needs the Kurdish commandos as much as they need its fighter jets. Without an effective infantry on the ground, the airstrikes would likely have remained ineffectual against Daesh. The advances of the past two weeks suggest a high degree of coordination between the United States and the Kurdish fighters, which appears to have been kept covert, possibly because of Turkish sensitivities. It is also not clear whether the peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan brought in to help save Kobane are continuing to fight, or whether more have come to help Jazira Canton.
In spring of 2011, Syria’s revolution was like the Egyptian and Tunisian youth revolts, involving protests in favor of more civil liberties, protests by slum dwellers in favor of jobs, protests by small town and city dwellers against the neglect and arrogance of the Baath Party officials and crony billionaires in Damascus and Aleppo. The Syrian National Council formed to press for democratic elections. The Kurds at first attempted to stay out of the fighting, and turned to establishing a semi-autonomous set of cantons beyond the reach of the genocidal Baath regime. When the government of Bashar al-Assad put snipers on buildings above city squares and began shooting protesters like fish in a barrel, then drew up tanks and fired on peaceful demonstrators, it drove the opposition to pick up arms. Initially, the Free Syrian Army formed of anti-regime activists and soldiers defecting from the Syrian Arab Army supported the aspirations of the Syrian National Council for a democratic Syria.
Then the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda affiliate, came over the border from Mosul and began taking territory in Syria, attracting local supporters as well as international volunteers. It specialized in attacking other rebels and taking their territory once they had displaced the regime. It also developed the technique of raiding poorly defended regime bases for weapons, capturing rocket propelled grenades and even tanks. The movement split over these treacherous tactics of preying on putative allies, with the breakaway group declaring itself the real Al Qaeda in Syria and taking the sobriquet “the Support Front.” The opportunistic policy of Daesh, which weakened and polarized the fundamentalist opposition to the regime, led Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to expel it from his organization. Daesh then turned on him, as well, rejecting the Al Qaeda approach of remaining a terrorist organization in favor of taking big swaths of territory and becoming a statelet based initially in Raqqa Province.
Daesh also began attacking the Kurds, in Kobane and Hasaka, making it clear that either they must enter the fray or risk being ethnically cleansed or massacred. Unlike Syrian townspeople, however, the Kurds had a long guerrilla past and were effectively able to mobilize. Daesh benefited from its store of captured medium weaponry, some of it taken from a fleeing Iraqi army in Mosul, and from the disarray and weakness of its enemies. In northern Raqqa Province it has begun to lose because US and allied air strikes are neutralizing its armored vehicles, tanks, and light artillery, and because in the YPG it faces a determined and organized guerrilla foe with a substantial demographic base.
The Syrian civil war has seen a great deal of back and forth, with rebels taking territory from the regime and then being pushed back, as at Homs, and with rebels contending with one another for predominance. It is therefore risky to predict that Daesh in Syria is on its last legs. Still, the combination of Western bombardment and a determined ally on the ground has worked militarily before, in Kosovo and in Afghanistan in fall of 2001. If the successes of the YPG continue, we could see the faux caliph, icon of the Muslim far, far right, ignominiously chased from his very capital by feminist socialists. The purport of an American alliance with these leftist Kurds for the future of Syria and for American relations with Turkey is even harder to predict.
Juan Cole is director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan and author, most recently, of The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East, (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
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