In the Syrian Civil War, Kurds and Sunni Rebels Increasingly Clash

3 MINS READMay 29, 2013 | 14:59 GMT
In the Syrian Civil War, Rebels and Kurds Increasingly Clash
(-/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units in Aleppo on May 9.

Syrian rebel forces and Kurdish militias have been at odds since the outset of the Syrian civil war, but clashes between the two groups recently have become much more frequent and more intense — a trend that threatens the prospect of rebel success. Fighting mainly has been relegated to northern Syria, close to the Kurdish heartland. In fact, rebels and Kurdish forces fought in northeast al-Malikiyah, an area near the borders of Syria, northern Iraq and southern Turkey, as recently as May 29. For rebel leaders, these skirmishes are proving increasingly difficult to prevent.

A recent statement ostensibly signed by 21 rebel units declared unity in the effort to expel Kurdish militia units from Efrin, a Kurdish populated area in northwestern Aleppo governorate. However, the declaration is somewhat dubious. Several rebel units have denied the authenticity of the declaration, which they attribute to the regime's efforts at dividing the opposition.

In any case, the Syrian rebels are hardly monolithic; unity among every faction remains elusive. But the Kurdish militias are likewise variegated. A substantial number of secular Kurds fight for the rebel cause — toppling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad — including in the famous Kurdish Saladin unit. Other Kurds prioritize religious fervor over ethnic identity, as evidenced by their joining jihadist units.

The YPG is the militant wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is Syria's largest and best armed Kurdish group. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party recently has clashed not only with Syrian rebels but also with other Kurdish groups, especially those aligned with Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan National Government-backed Kurdish National Council.

Opposing Interests

Their denial of uniting against the Kurds notwithstanding, Syrian rebels have long clashed with Kurdish militias. The rebels, who are mostly Sunni Arabs, share with the Kurds an interest in toppling the regime. But the groups remain diametrically opposed in their goals for a post-al Assad Syria. If al Assad falls, the Kurds will attempt to carve out and secure an autonomous region of their own, while Sunni Arabs will attempt to consolidate economically valuable territory, which includes northern lands inhabited by the Kurds.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish Regions

Notably, the rate at which the groups fight one another is increasing. Skirmishes in Efrin broke out after alleged rebel units attacked the villages of Ziyaret and Akibe on May 25. On May 28, fighting persisted in Ziyaret and spread to the village of Basila. Meanwhile, clashes broke out in al-Malikiyah on May 29.

Many rebel leaders are concerned that combating the Kurdish militias may distract them from their fight against the Syrian regime, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to prevent retributive attacks. Radical jihadist groups have been particularly uncompromising in their stance toward the Kurdish militias, and therefore have been at the forefront of several attacks. Moreover, Turkey has an interest in encouraging rebel attacks against the Kurds as Ankara tries to prevent Kurdish forces from spilling over into Turkey.

The rebel leaders' concerns may be well founded. The rebels are currently facing several offensives from loyalist forces in Homs and Damascus. The timing is particularly bad for the rebels, who desperately need to press their attacks against regime forces in Aleppo and Hama to relieve the pressure on their comrades fighting farther south. In other words, they can ill afford to deal with armed threats emanating from the rear.

We will likely see a concerted effort by the rebel leadership to bring an end to the fighting. (A cease-fire may even succeed, if only temporarily.) However, eliminating all the clashes is proving difficult, adding yet another obstacle in the rebels' path to victory against the regime. 

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