Behind the Lines: Syria’s war within a war
Clashes between Kurds and Islamist rebels point to the country’s increasing fragmentation.
Free Syria Army fighters in Saraqeb [file photo] Photo: REUTERS / Handout
A civil war within a civil war has been under way for the last two weeks in the
small Syrian-Kurdish border town of Sere Kaniye, in Hassakeh province in
northern Syria. The town, known as Ras al-Ayin in Arabic, has witnessed fierce
fighting between Islamist Syrian rebels and a Kurdish militia.
rebels, led by the Salafi Jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra organization, are seeking to
push into the town, apparently as a first move in an attempt to undermine a de
facto Kurdish autonomous area stretching to the border with Iraq.
Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Units) have until now managed to prevent the
jihadis from gaining all but a small foothold in the town.
Kaniye fighting is an indication of the increasing transformation of Syria’s
civil war from an insurgency against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad into a
many-sided conflict in which the various ethnic and sectarian communities of
Syria fight over the country’s ruins.
The de facto Kurdish autonomous
zone in northeast Syria has existed since last summer. The regime’s forces at
that time withdrew from the area, apparently as part of a larger strategy in
which Assad has abandoned most of the northern part of Syria in order to
consolidate his forces around Damascus and in the western coastal
Since the departure of Assad’s troops, the northeastern enclave has
been effectively under the control of the PYD (Kurdish Democratic Union), a
Kurdish Syrian party closely linked to the PKK guerrilla organization. In a move
reminiscent of one made by the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq during that
country’s civil war, the Kurds have made clear that they intend for the area
under their control to be off limits to both the Assad regime’s forces and the
rebels fighting them.
This development has not gone unnoticed by the
Islamist brigades that form the vanguard of the rebellion against Assad in
In a recent interview with this reporter, Hadji al-Bab,
one of the commanders of Aleppo’s powerful Tawhid Brigade, differentiated
between Kurds who supported the revolution and those who supported a “separate
Kurdish country.” He claimed that the latter group was in fact working in
coordination with the regime.
The Tawhid commander stressed that the
territorial integrity of Syria was non-negotiable for the rebels and added that
minorities would be protected in the “Islamic state” which was the revolution’s
The first attempts by the Islamist rebels to break into the Kurdish
enclave came in November of last year. Sere Kaniye, situated at the edge of
Hasakeh governate and on the Syrian- Turkish border, was a natural first target.
Elements of a number of Syrian Islamist brigades, including Jabhat al- Nusra,
Ghurab al Sham, Tawhid and Ahfad al-Rasul first fought with remaining government
forces in the town, then refused to vacate the area in line with requests from
Kurdish local authorities.
An attempt by Islamist fighters to erect
checkpoints and begin to impose extreme Islamic norms in the town, and the
killing of Amed Xelil, a local Kurdish civilian leader, led to resistance from
the Kurdish YPG. In the subsequent fighting, four YPG members and 18 of the
Islamist rebels were killed, according to Kurdish sources.
continued until November 22, when a shaky truce took hold.
Asaad, nominal leader of the Free Syrian Army, criticized the actions of the
Islamist fighters. In so doing, Asaad inadvertently showcased the growing
irrelevance of the nominal, secular leadership of the FSA.
After a period
of quiet, Islamist rebels again attacked Seri Kaniyeh on January 16. On January
17, Jabhat al- Nusra fighters entered the town accompanied by a number of T-55
tanks. According to Kurdish sources close to the PYD, the Islamist fighters
entered the town from across the Turkish border. The Kurds also maintain that
wounded Islamist fighters were transported back across the border for treatment
in neighboring Turkish hospitals.
At least two of the tanks were
destroyed by YPG fighters. There have been deaths on both sides. The fighting
continues. The Islamist rebels have failed to make real headway into Sere
Kaniyeh, as of now.
The fighting in this area constitutes a new front of
civil war in Syria. Since November, the Assad regime has been absent from the
town. The nearest government forces are situated far to the south. Instead, the
war is one in which Islamist rebels – apparently backed by Turkey – are seeking
to undermine an area of Kurdish autonomy and to prevent any possibility of
The Sere Kaniyeh events show that it is now mistaken to think
of the Syrian civil war as a single conflict, pitting the Assad dictatorship
against a popular insurgency.
The Assads, for all their many faults,
grasped a certain truth – that Syria, a state established by British and French
colonialism – lacked any real binding identity and could be held together only
by force. The force of the dictatorship is now gradually receding and fading. As
it does so, the incompatible component parts that it held together are beginning
The regime itself is turning into a structure operating on
behalf of the Alawi minority. The Sunni Arab insurgency is also divided along
ideological and tribal lines. The Kurds in northeast Syria, meanwhile, are
making clear that they want no part of either the Sunni Islamist rebellion or
the reduced dictatorship. In a manner similar to their compatriots in Iraqi
Kurdistan, they are seeking to create a defensible haven for themselves. The
Islamist rebels are trying – so far without great success – to force their way
into this haven.
The war-within-a-war in northeast Syria thus offers
stark evidence of the extent to which “Syria,” as a unified state, no longer