Behind The Lines: Kurds defending autonomous ‘Rojava’ enclave in Syria

Kurds have in the last two weeks inflicted a series of telling defeats on al-Qaida-linked rebels.

A MEMBER of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MEMBER of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After two-and-a-half years, the situation in Syria may appear to have turned into a static and bewildering slaughter. Neither victory nor defeat seem imminent for any of the sides, but this picture is not entirely accurate.
On one front, at least, there is movement in a clear direction. The Kurds of northeastern Syria are consolidating their autonomous enclave bordering Iraq, which they call “Rojava,” or western Kurdistan.
They have in the last two weeks inflicted a series of telling defeats on al-Qaida-linked rebels on its borders.
The absence of clarity in the direction of the war in Syria derives partly from the fact that there is no longer a single conflict in the country. Rather, the civil war has in the last year turned from a straight fight between a regime and a rebellion against it into three interlocking wars involving a variety of participating elements.
The regime and its allies are still engaged against a mainly Sunni rebellion.
An internecine civil war has also broken out in the rebellion itself, pitting the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its hardcore Islamist allies against more locally focused rebel groups.
The third contest is taking place between ISIS and its allies and the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the north and east of the country.
The first two wars remain at bloody stalemate. The Kurds, whose goal is survival rather than conquest, are winning the third.
The current Kurdish “surge” began on October 26 with the capture by the YPG of the Yarubiya border crossing in Hasakah province, between Syria and Iraq. The crossing, known by the Kurds as Tal Kojar, had been held by ISIS since March. The YPG captured it after three days of fighting.
The rebel Syrian National Coalition issued a strange claim following the battle that Iraqi regular fighters had participated alongside the Kurds. In truth, however, the superior organization of the YPG when compared to their Islamist rivals appears to have been the deciding factor.
The taking of Yarubiya gives the Syrian Kurds full control of an entry and exit point into Iraq for the first time. But its significance goes beyond this.
Hasakah province, with a 70-percent Kurdish majority, is home to the greater part of Syria’s oil reserves.
Syria has, according to a 2009 study, 69 billion barrels worth of proven oil reserves and probably about 315 billion barrels worth of not yet discovered reserves. The great majority of this is in the northeast of the country.
In March of his year, the YPG took over three oilproducing towns, most importantly the town of Rumeilan. Control of Yarubiya gives the Kurds the ability to engage in the export of oil.
This fact is not lost both on the jihadis of ISIS, who hope to run their own private oil export operations, and on the Syrian National Coalition, which reminded the Kurds in their statement that the oil belongs to “all Syrians.”
Following the Yarubiya victory, the Kurds pushed on, capturing 20 villages from ISIS and its allies over the last week. ISIS was joined by additional forces in these battles, including Islamist but not al-Qaidaallied groups.
The YPG’s drive forward concluded in the last days, with the complete capture of the strategically important and long-contested Ras al-Ain (Sere Kaniye) area, on the border with Turkey. The expulsion of ISIS from the al-Manageer area of the town left the YPG in full control of Ras al-Ain and the road to neighboring Tal Tamer. These gains mean that the Kurds have now consolidated a clear western “borderline” for their area of control in northeast Syria.
Their intention, according to Kurdish sources, is now to push further west, towards Tel Abyad. There the outcome is much less certain, however.
Outside of Hasakah province, in the areas of sparser outlying Kurdish populations in Raqqa and Aleppo provinces, the YPG has enjoyed less success.Many Kurds from these areas have fled to a Kurdish-held enclave in Afrin, further west and not linked to the main area of Kurdish control.
The YPG victories ultimately derive from the greater discipline and organization of this group, in comparison with its jihadi rivals.
This reporter has spent time both with the YPG and with the Syrian Arab rebels. The YPG, which was trained by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), exhibit a far superior tactical knowledge and awareness of basic soldiering.
Ammunition is carefully conserved.
Units move in a coordinated and controlled way. The rebels, by contrast, are certainly brave, but are often poorly trained and undisciplined.
What the recent fighting means is that the YPG and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) are now in firm control of around 10% of the territory of Syria. Rojava forms part of a contiguous area of Kurdish control, which stretches from Ras al-Ain at its western point, through northern Iraq and all the way to the Iranian border.
Sharp political divisions remain, however, between the PKK-oriented forces controlling the Syrian enclave, and the Kurdish Regional Government of Massoud Barzani in northern Iraq.
Hopes of unity remain elusive. A planned and much-discussed Kurdish “national congress” bringing together all forces in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil later this month may now not take place.
The rivalry between the two key pan-Kurdish forces of the PKK and its associated groups, and Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) appears to be for the moment insurmountable.
Still, the YPG’s performance in the fighting over the last two weeks confirms that as the de facto partition of Syria takes shape, Rojava is becoming an indelible part of the political landscape.