Syrian rebels fighting ISIL have a new target in their sights – US-allied Kurds
GAZIANTEP, TURKEY // Turkey’s intervention in Syria’s war has breathed new life into Syrian rebels, with fighters in the border town of Jarablus now just 30 kilometres from linking up with their comrades on the border north of Aleppo.
Leaders and representatives of various rebel factions told The National that less than a week after Ankara launched its ground and air offensive across the border, they are close to clearing ISIL from its last stretch of border with Turkey for good.
But while close to dealing the extremists a major setback, rebel forces and Turkish aircraft and artillery have turned to another target: US-allied Kurdish forces that have fought ISIL from its inception and recently battled the Syrian government.
Ankara considers the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG militia to be arms of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that is in the midst of a bloody insurgency against the state in eastern Turkey. Rebel leaders also accuse the Kurdish faction of stealing Arab land in Syria and compare the group’s aspirations of sovereignty to those of ISIL.
“The PYD is like ISIL, but the PYD tries to have legitimacy by fighting ISIL,” said Yasser Al Youssef, a spokesman for the political office of Harakat Nour Al Dine Al Zinki, one of the rebel groups involved in the Jarablus offensive. “The project of the revolution and the project of the PYD are opposites and against each other.”
Speaking by phone from Jarablus, a Faylaq Al Sham commander, Major Yasser Abdul Rahim, also equated the Kurdish group with ISIL, saying his mission was to “clear the area of ISIL and the terrorist PYD and YPG extremist groups”.
Turkey has repeatedly demanded that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition dominated by the YPG, withdraw its forces to east of the Euphrates River, this time backing up its ultimatum by hitting Kurdish forces with air and artillery strikes.
On Tuesday, US Central Command spokesman Colonel John Thomas said Turkish and Kurdish forces in the area had come to a “loose agreement” to stop fighting, according to Agence France-Presse. Centcom commander General Joseph Votel, meanwhile, said Kurdish components of the SDF have “for the most part” moved east of the Euphrates, Reuters reported.
Despite these reports, however, Turkey’s pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper said on Tuesday afternoon that Ankara had again vowed to hit Kurdish forces if they did not withdraw immediately.
But even if the SDF willingly withdraws east of the river – or is forced to do so militarily – the renewed conflict between rebels and Kurdish forces may not be over.
“If those units respect the demographics of Syrian lands and join a unified Syria, that means we will stop the conflict,” said Maj Abdul Rahim. “But if they do not respect the demographics of Syria and just want to divide Syria and steal the fortunes of Syria – like oil – that means they are still a terrorist organisation and we will continue fighting them.”
In launching Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey said it had the backing and cooperation of the US-led anti-ISIL coalition, despite Ankara also saying it intended to clear the border area of Kurdish forces. The United States asked SDF forces in the area to comply with Turkey’s demands and withdraw east of the Euphrates. However, as Turkey targeted Kurdish forces with air strikes and clashes between the SDF and rebels intensified, the US backed away, calling the situation “unacceptable” and stressing that it was not participating in the Turkish action against the SDF.
Like other rebel leaders contacted by The National, Colonel Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, formerly the head of the Aleppo military revolutionary council, claimed the recent fighting only started after Kurdish forces attacked rebels.
“We don’t want to fight anybody except [Syrian president Bashar] Al Assad and ISIL. If the YPG is allied with ISIL indirectly to fight us, we must fight both,” he said.
However, Col Akaidi was confident the rebels would stop pushing their offensive against the SDF if the coalition crossed the Euphrates.
How far Turkey is willing to go in its support of allied Syrian rebels is unclear. Rebel representatives downplayed the extent of Turkey’s contribution of ground forces, saying the relatively few tanks Turkey supplied had largely stayed close to the border.
However, by giving rebels air and artillery strikes – and letting rebel units transit through Turkey to blindside ISIL forces in Jarablus – Ankara is allowing the rebels to make advances that would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, without their help.
“It’s possible to succeed without Turkish support, because we are used to fighting without any air strike cover or anything,” said Colonel Mohammed Ahmed, a representative of Jabhat Shamiya, another faction involved in the offensive. “But this support makes it faster.”
Col Ahmed added that he anticipates clearing the area west of the Euphrates of ISIL and YPG forces within the next three weeks.
While thankful for the Turkish support, there is a feeling among rebel ranks that Turkey has limited its goals to securing its border and will not be willing to get more deeply involved in the war in Syria.
On Monday, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, underscored his country’s limited ambitions, saying Ankara had not entered Syria’s war and that its presence was temporary. However, last week prime minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey would remain in the country as long as it took to clear the border of ISIL “and other terrorist elements”.
International pressure could also potentially limit Turkey’s involvement and rebel gains. The US and Russia, already critical of Turkey’s actions, could decide they’ve had enough of watching their Kurdish allies get knocked around by Turkish air strikes. And if the offensive eventually helps bolster rebels closer to Aleppo, Russian tolerance for Turkey’s moves could erode when territory more important to the Syrian government is under threat.