It has happened.
After heavy bombardments and intense fighting, al-Bab has finally fallen to the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) (1). This comes after months of shelling from Turkish artillery on the city and fighting between FSA troops, under the oversight of Ankara, and ISIS militants—battling for an area that is 30 square kilometres(2). Dozens dead and wounded, ISIS withdrew from al-Bab and FSA managed to take the area before ‘Syrian Arab Army’ (SAA) forces could advance.
al-Bab is circled in red and was captured by FSA on 25th of February.
Storming the city with Turkish armour, troops of ‘Ahrar al-Sham’ (AaS) were amidst the ranks of FSA fighters that took al-Bab. These troops are among the many Islamist forces that are fighting in ‘Operation Euphrates Shield‘ that Turkey started in August of last year (3). Armed and extremely zealous, these fighters rushed into al-Bab and had no hesitation in claiming its ‘liberation’ (4).
Ahrar Al-Sham fighters pose in al-Bab after capturing it from ISIS. (c. Feb 26th, 2017)
However, the inclusion of Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist organisations such as ‘Tahrir al-Sham’ (HTS) in the ranks of FSA, demonstrate a rather darker aspect of the current Syrian opposition; namely, its domination by Islamist factions(5). This domination is because of infighting amongst FSA that has been going on since 2012. Fights between Salafist and Jihadist factions (collectively Islamist factions) and “moderate” (secular) factions have forced FSA in splintering(6).
Members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front carry their weapons as they walk near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo city, November 25, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan
Once a centralised and organised opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian dictatorship, and an opposition that I once previously supported, now has become a disorganised and splintered opposition(7). Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Sunni Islamist groups have come into the fray—gathering support over the years. Fuelled by a desire to replace Assad’s tyranny with the tyranny of Salafist jihadism, AQ affiliates fight against SAA and those who deny their ideology(8).
The butcher of Aleppo.
When Eastern Aleppo fell in December, many Syrians from moderate factions of FSA defected to Islamist factions. Desperate and afraid of reprisals from SAA, many either fled to Turkish protection or joined HTS and began fighting (9). Those still hanging on against both SAA and HTS, such as ‘Free Idlib Army’ (FIA), now fight on multiple fronts. Helpless and outmanned compared to jihadists(10).
This is convenient for both Russia and Assad, as Kremlin now has more justification to keep its airstrike campaign going in Syria. Kremlin and Damascus have claimed that airstrikes in prior months have only targeted ‘terrorists’(11). However, airstrikes have targeted more than just ‘terrorists’. Many hospitals, schools and civilian areas have faced barrel bombs, airstrikes and chemical weapons by both Russia and SAA forces (12,13). Thousands of civilians have died in Aleppo alone, during its siege.
Aleppo during siege in December.
An influx of jihadists in opposition ranks allows Kremlin now to move more swiftly in changing the narrative of Assad in Syria. Helping reclaim land for Assad is one thing, but to prevent further uprising and to secure Assad’s position as a ‘hero to the Syrian people’, Kremlin has started to increase propaganda around him and has pushed the narrative of ‘buffer to terrorists’ even more (14).
Moreover, by saying that all of the opposition that opposes Assad are Islamists, Russia forces west into a dichotomy: Assad or Islamists(15). In prior months, one could argue against opposition being entirely Islamists, but with current infighting and splintering amongst opposition, the propaganda view is starting to become more dominant.
Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
Turkish-backed Islamists, who now desire to further an advance to capture Manbij, did the capturing of al-Bab with a desired goal in mind. Unlike Kurdish and Arab fighters in Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), as well as other Rojava forces (YPG and YPJ), these Islamists do not have liberty and democracy in mind. What they have in mind is the desire to create an Islamic State. When AaS’ fighters entered al-Bab, waving their index fingers in the air in the ‘Tawhid salute’ (oneness of god) and chanting Islamist slogans, the religious zeal was evident(16).
US forces and previous backers of FSA have halted their support, instead demanding that moderate factions regain control of opposition or risk being abandoned. This is very sad news, as many prior FSA supporters now watch the heart of Syrian revolution succumb to its wounds. With SAA tiger forces moving to cut off Euphrates Shield advancement, Turkish-backed Islamists and ‘Turkish armed forces’ (TSK) now scramble to continue offensive(17).
FSA fight in Aleppo region against SAA.
SAA forces reach the YPG held border near Manbij. SAA start advance against FSA.
Nevertheless, despite the erosion of FSA to Islamist domination, there is an unseen benefit in this conflict. That benefit comes from a possible securing of Rojava cantons in Northern Syria, especially Afrin Canton with Kobani canton. If FSA is bogged down battling SAA, then YPG may have chance to push against FSA and relink the cantons. In addition to this, if the cantons are linked and Rojava is secured, then it will give Rojava forces a better chance in negotiating the future of Syria.
However, before that can happen, YPG will have to defend Manbij from FSA advancement. President Erdogan has claimed the region to be in control of Arabs, implying that Kurdish militias are to abandon area or be forced out(18). YPG will refuse this and thus there will be future conflict to come.
New graduated YPG recruits in Afrin Canton, Northern Syria.
As for me, I watch these series of events on the sidelines.
Writing new observations in my journal.
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson
It is quite convenient for Turkey that there has been an influx of anti-YPG articles written recently. This comes at a time when US is rethinking its strategy in regards to expelling ISIS from Raqqa in Syria. The current offensive there is fought by Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), made up of predominantly ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG). This has caused Turkey much frustration, as Turkey considers the YPG to be a branch of the ‘Kurdish Worker’s Party’ (PKK). With PKK considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara, there has been conflict between PKK and Turkish government (1).
A woman cries over death of Turkish soldier.
Currently, YPG fight to secure a region in Northern Syria known as Rojava, which is just one of the four regions that Kurds consider a part of greater Kurdistan (Bakur, Baᶊûr and Rojhelat are other regions). ‘Rojava Revolution’ is what it is known as (2) and both men and women—offering a radical project given the environment that it is situated—are waging it. Assisted by US Special Forces and equipment, Rojava forces are Coalition favourites for fighting ISIS in Syria. For good reason as well, given that SDF and YPG, along with ‘Women’s protection Units’ (YPJ), have liberated many villages from ISIS (3). This rapid success and gaining of land in Northern Syria has made Ankara worried…very worried.
Bir Hebab and Makman fronts converge, as YPG encircle ISIS fighters.
In August of 2016, Ankara armed Free Syrian Army troops (FSA) with armour and pushed Turkish troops (T-FSA) into Northern Syria—igniting Operation ‘Euphrates Shield’. Under guise of fighting ISIS in Northern Syria, Ankara hopes to oust YPG from Northern Syria with T-FSA. Objective is simply to not allow YPG from securing Rojava and to keep a distance between YPG and Turkish border (4). Ankara has recently done its most to try undermine SDF’s operation, which is called ‘Wrath of Euphrates’—launched in November of 2016. Aim of which is to expel ISIS from Raqqa (5).
However, US tossed Ankara a lifeline with the recent rethinking of Raqqa offensive, as US Secretary of Defence and other officials now consider ‘alternative’ options. Proposing new strategies, Ankara desperately wants US to consider it and FSA for an offensive on Raqqa instead of YPG (6). (One of these strategies entails YPG making a pathway to Raqqa from Tel Abyad, even though that would also entail US oversight through conventional ground forces or it would result in a bloodbath, as forces would clash.) Pressuring Washington to consider its options carefully, Ankara has also sought to bring Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain into the mix to keep YPG in place by encouraging a greater local Arab force (7). In this geopolitical environment, Ankara has been doing its best to change the political dimension, as well as the narrative surrounding YPG.
King Salman and President Erdogan.
Recently a series of articles from Roy Gutman have appeared in ‘The Nation’ about Syrian Kurds—notably the YPG. In these articles, notably, ‘Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?’(8) Gutman seeks to undermine the credibility of YPG by insisting upon collusion between YPG and ISIS, as well as accusing YPG of war crimes, such as expulsion of Arabs from their households. Gutman in these articles seeks to paint a narrative of an unreliable and despotic force that does not have the people’s best interests in mind (9). Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (10), Meredith Tax, Joey Lawrence and Flint Arthur (11) have responded aptly to these allegations quite well.
This war of misinformation coincides with Ankara efforts to push for alternative options for Raqqa offensive quite well, which leads one to suspect that there may be funding involved in the publication of such articles. However, although this is speculation, these articles do come at an apt and convenient time for Ankara’s interests. With Operation Euphrates Shield, ongoing Turkish backed FSA move closer to Raqqa, putting pressure on Washington to act quick in deciding whether to continue corporation with Rojava forces or give into Ankara’s demands.
Armed Turkish forces have fought in Al-Bab against ISIS for a couple months now, which show that the force that Ankara wishes to ask US to lead is woefully insufficient and undisciplined (12). This is important given that the fight in Raqqa is expected to be much heavier than in Mosul. In other words, the fight to liberate Raqqa is not going to be an easy one. Ankara has also vowed to march forces from Al-Bab, should it be victorious against ISIS, onto Manbij—a city liberated by YPG in August (13). Demonstrating that Ankara’s dedication to stop YPG runs deep.
FSA fighter shooting in Al-Bab.
However, Syrian Kurds are cynical about continued US support. There are Kurds that believe US will side with Ankara—abandoning them (14). If this does indeed materialise, then it will be no surprise for a large insurgency to grow and push northwards. Anti-american sentiment is already rife, as Democratic Union Party (PYD) has already sought other avenues, such as Russian and Assad regime support. Pushing a more pragmatic approach, Russia and PYD have pushed for an autonomous rojava in region, if Assad is to remain.
Regardless of what happens in the next four weeks, there is going to be a lot of disappointment and bloodshed for all sides. However, for now, one has to wait and see.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson
SDF fighter waiting.