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 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS / Handout)
Free Syria Army fighters in Saraqeb 370 (R)
(photo credit: 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.
The 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.
The Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Units) have until now managed to prevent the jihadis from gaining all but a small foothold in the town.
The Sere 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 area.
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 Syria’s north.
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 goal.
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.
The clashes continued until November 22, when a shaky truce took hold.
Colonel Riad 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 secession.
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 to separate.
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 really exists.