Kurdish-Arab coalition emerging as ground force v ISIS

Friday 27/11/2015
Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG)

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.