Kurdish-Arab coalition emerging as ground force v ISIS
OTTAWA - A hope for countering the Islamic State (ISIS) has emerged through a new US-backed formation of rebels in Syria. A coalition of Kurdish and Arab rebel groups formed in the province of Hasakah in mid-October, with the aim of fighting ISIS in north-eastern Syria.
Opposition groups in Aleppo and Idlib have voiced a readiness to join the coalition, increasing the possibility for the combined forces to become a significant ground force in Syria.
Days after the group’s emergence, US President Barack Obama reversed his long-standing refusal to put boots on the ground in Syria. Obama authorised the Pentagon to send special operations forces to “train, advise, and assist” rebels, believed to be the new Kurdish-Arab coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
This coalition, which marks an unusual unity among the Syrian armed factions to counter the expansion of ISIS, likely aims to challenge the terror group in Deir ez-Zor and Hasakah provinces on Syria’s eastern and north-eastern borders.
The newly formed alliance includes the prominent Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG); the Syrian Army defectors group, the New Syrian Army; and the Arab Sunni tribal insurgency, the Raqqa Revolutionaries Front, alongside small Assyrian and Turkmen contingents. The force initiated its first coordinated mission against ISIS in late October. A coalition spokesman told Agence France-Presse that it received air support from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.
“It would be wise not to demand too much of them and overburden them,” said Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Even with the considerable air support from the coalition, says Sayigh, “These forces are not yet strong enough on their own to dislodge… [ISIS].”
Sayigh pointed out that the strongest contingent of the SDF coalition is Kurdish and, if the group extends into non-Kurdish controlled areas, “it risks losing Arab support”.
Tensions between Arab and Kurdish Syrians have been present for quite a while. Since Kurdish factions, mainly the YPG, gained control over northern parts of Syria in mid-2013, the fear of Kurdish separatism has increased.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the United States has tried to find a “capable” ground force to back in the fight against the Assad regime and extremists. Washington has not been successful in establishing strong and reliable allies on the ground. The YPG has proven, to some extent, to be the most organised armed group in the Syrian conflict.
But according to a Human Rights Watch report, Kurdish authorities in north-eastern Syria have reportedly committed abuses in areas where they control non-Kurdish residents, including Arab and Turkmen communities. Prior to the SDF creation, Turkmen Syrian rebel groups debated whether to fight the Kurdish YPG. The YPG strongly denies the charges made in the Human Rights Watch report.
Henri Barkey, the director of the Middle East Programme at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, shares Sayigh’s concern for backlash if the Kurds overextend the territory they control.
“It is important to ensure that Syrian Kurds do not control territory beyond their own region so as not to sow the seeds of distrust for the post-Assad period,” Barkey said. “They need to show that they can help liberate territory without having any intention to control it or subjugate populations.”
While the United States has demonstrated support for the Kurds, Turkey continues to oppose any expansion of the YPG on its southern borders. Ankara considers the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to be terrorist groups due to their links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that Turkey has been in conflict with for 30 years.
Some have argued that the SDF Kurdish-Arab cooperation was orchestrated by the United States in order to compromise with its NATO ally Turkey. The Arab forces of the SDF coalition are believed to be those who participated in the US train-and-equip programme in Jordan.
Renad Mansour, a fellow and researcher on Kurdish affairs at the Carnegie Middle East Center, argues that the new force could be effective in its present form, as the Kurdish and Arab groups combined “present a viable alternative capable and bent on fighting both… [ISIS] and the regime.”
Mansour explains that the groups are working to overcome their differences and compromise to fight a common enemy. “Today, both sides are attempting to develop their strategic foresight,” he said.