Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern
Iraq, threatened this week to send forces into northern Syria to defend
beleaguered Kurds there.
In the statement, issued on August 10, the
Kurdish leader said he had instructed his representatives to enter Syria in
order to investigate media claims that the “terrorists of al-Qaida are attacking
the civilian population and slaughtering innocent Kurdish women and
If the reports are true, the statement continued, then “Iraq’s
Kurdistan region will make use of all of its capabilities to defend women and
children and innocent citizens.”
No details were offered as to the form
the intervention would take. But Barzani’s statement indicates the growing
gravity of the situation in northeast Syria.
Since July 17, the
al-Qaida-linked jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat
al-Nusra organizations have been engaged in a series of attacks on outlying
areas of Kurdish population and control.
Their intention ultimately
appears to be to secure a contiguous corridor under their rule, stretching from
the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor area in eastern Syria through Raqqa province to the
border with Turkey. Demographic and geographical realities mean that such a
corridor would inevitably run through an area of populated by Kurds.
existence of small Kurdish enclaves within their desired area is an obvious
irritant from the jihadis’ point of view. They are thus seeking to isolate and
overrun all such points of Kurdish control. This is not yet a generalized
challenge to the Kurdish-controlled area in the northeast; rather, it is an
attempt at localized ethnic cleansing of a type familiar from other
Kurdish and humanitarian concerns currently center on Tel Aran
and Tel Hassel, 30 kilometers west of the city of Aleppo.
towns, with a joint population of around 40,000, were attacked and occupied by
ISIS and al-Nusra forces on July 29. Kurdish sources report that between 30 to
40 civilians have been killed by the jihadis, and hundreds more
Around 250 civilians from Tel Aran, meanwhile, have been
captured by the jihadis and are currently in captivity.
fighters of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia are committed to the
defense of these pockets of Kurdish population, which are situated to the west
of the main autonomous zone in the northeast of the country. The YPG is
controlled by the PYD, the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish movement which dominates
the Kurdish-controlled areas.
But the battle is not solely between al-Qaida and the Kurds. Non-jihadi rebels have joined forces with the former,
giving the situation the increasing appearance of an ethnic clash between Arabs
Elements of both the Tawhid and Farouk Brigades, associated
with the “mainstream” rebels of the West-supported Supreme Military Council,
have also joined forces against the YPG.
The Arab rebels want to preserve
the territorial unity of Syria, and suspect the Kurds of separatist ambitions.
The jihadis within rebel ranks want an Islamic emirate in northern Syria. The
Kurds, for their part, deny separatist ambitions. But since the start of the
civil war in Syria, they have sought to maintain control of their own areas,
supporting neither regime nor rebels. It appears that this approach is becoming
increasingly difficult to sustain.
The Arab rebels also suspect the YPG
of collaboration with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. Following the
recent capture by the rebels of the strategic Minigh air base outside Aleppo,
200 members of the fleeing regime garrison sought and were granted sanctuary in
an area controlled by the YPG. From the point of view of the Arab rebels, this
confirmed Kurdish links to the regime. Kurdish officials, meanwhile, say that
they will offer safe passage to forces of either side (while privately admitting
that the events following the Minigh capture would have been best
So far, the military results have been mixed. The YPG fighters
are better trained and organized than those of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. But the
Kurdish areas are cut off from one another. The Kurds succeeded in driving the
jihadis out of the contested Ras al-Ain (Sere Kaniyeh) area on the Turkish
border. Tel Abyad, further west, remains contested.
There are also, inevitably, a jumble of outside powers engaged
in this situation.
The PYD accuses Turkey of aiding the jihadis. They
maintain that al-Qaida fighters were permitted to enter from Turkey, and there
have also been claims of Turkish artillery support for the jihadis in the Tel
Russian and Iranian senior officials and media, meanwhile,
have issued statements in recent days expressing support for the Kurds. In a
strange coda to the events on the ground, both the Iranian Press TV and the
Russia Today government channel made note of an Iranian TV report alleging that
al-Qaida forces massacred 450 Kurdish civilians in Tel Abyad. Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed his “shock” at the revelations.
senior Kurdish officials say that no such massacre took place.
Salah Muslim visited Iran in recent days. He later told reporters that the
Iranian regime has agreed to the Kurdish self-government project in northern
Amid all the various competing forces, there is one that is
US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf,
in a statement to reporters this week, urged KRG President Barzani to reconsider
his plans to intervene in Syria if it transpires that al-Qaida is indeed
carrying out massacres against the Kurdish population there.
So at a time
when it has become clear to all regional players that the borders separating
Syria from Iraq and Lebanon are today mainly fictional, the US apparently
considers that maintaining this fiction is more important than the fight against
No one would expect the US itself to take up this fight in
Syria. But Washington seems to want to prevent anyone else from doing so either.
The inhabitants of Tel Hassel and Tel Aran, meanwhile, remain under siege.