IRAQ-SYRIA BORDER -- A homegrown secular militia is waging a fierce battle against militants linked to al-Qaida -- and winning. This sounds like the dream of Western governments, but in Syria, nothing is that simple.
The secular militias are the Kurdish Popular Protection Committees, or YPG, locked in a battle with extremists who are fighting the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad but who have been branded terrorists by America. It’s a fight that threatens to not only further muddy the waters of a hopelessly complex war but also destabilize an increasingly fragile Iraq.
A recent illustration is the Sept. 29 attack in the regional capital of Irbil, claimed by the the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an Iraqi terrorist group that has taken up the cause of toppling the Assad regime.
According to refugees from the area and a representative of the Kurdish fighters, Syrian forces rarely intervene in that part of the country, letting the two sides battle each other rather than the Assad regime. While the YPG has pushed back the rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, another al-Qaida affiliate, in many areas, the Islamists are dug in and the fighting is nowhere near finished.
“Both sides are strong,” said Zinar, 23, a former oil-field worker who fled the fighting in al-Malkia in mid-August. “I don’t think either will win in the near future if no one intervenes.”
Jaafar Akar Hannan, a leader of YPGs’ umbrella organization, the Democratic Union Party, said his fighters are preparing for a long war. He said the battle has been complicated by foreign support for rebel groups such as al-Nusra, whom he termed “Arab fascist Islamists.”
“We are gaining ground in lots of places, but fighting continues and al-Nusra is backed by many powerful forces,” he said.
Complexities of the fight
On the one hand, the rebels who want to knock out the Assad regime -- a goal the U.S. has made no secret of sharing -- are facing a peripheral battle that pulls them away from that objective. On the other hand, those rebels are in many ways the worst fear of the United States — radical Islamists who could end up controlling territory. Further complicating things, the secular Kurdish fighters are closely aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, militants who have fought a guerilla war against U.S. ally Turkey for decades.
The complexity of the fight underscores the difficult decisions facing Western countries about whom to support and how to do it.
“These conflicts have a way of decaying very quickly,” said Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who compared Syria to the messy, sectarian Lebanese civil war that dragged on for 15 years. “The unfortunate truth in Syria is it is a proxy battleground. Our allies are not necessarily working in ways that align 100 percent with our interests.”
Syrian Kurdish fighters are also confused.
“We are the major player that fights against Jabhat al-Nusra, who allies with al-Qaida, but no one helps us,” Hannan, the Kurdish militia official, said. “I’m wondering: Why don’t the Americans help us?”
Caught in the middle are Syrian civilians, mostly Kurds, in the north and northeast of the country, which refugees say has become a wasteland with little food and no jobs.
“You can’t survive there,” said Mizgin Abdul Haseep, 30, who fled to Iraq in late August. “It was a difficult decision, but it was better to leave.”
‘Their problem is our problem’
While more than 200,000 refugees have streamed into Iraq, the violence across the border had not touched Kurdistan until the brazen Sept. 29 attack in Irbil. Gunmen wearing suicide vests were accompanied by two explosives-laden vehicles, including an ambulance that detonated after emergency workers had arrived on the scene. Six members of the Kurdish security services were killed and more than 60 were injured. (Some local reports put the number at more than 80.)
Kurdistan government officials say the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claimed responsibility for the complex afternoon attack, an alarming development in a region of Iraq that had been largely insulated from the mounting bloodshed in the rest of the nation.
The Islamic State is a Sunni-dominated terrorist organization wreaking havoc in Iraq, whose bloody attacks targeting Shiite civilians helped to stoke a sectarian civil war that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in the mid-2000s. Now the group, composed largely of battle-hardened foreign volunteers, has joined the fight in Syria, where it quickly has become known for brutality and strict jihadist ideology. The Islamic State and al-Nusra, who now increasingly dominate the rebel war effort, have fallen out with the more moderate opposition group, the Free Syrian Army.
“Syria is our neighbor and their problem is our problem,” said Hamid Ahmad, an adviser to Kurdistan regional president Massoud Barzani. “We are concerned about them and if the war worsens, it will affect us.”
Kurds across the region make no secret of wanting their own nation one day. The Kurdish fighters in Syria see this struggle as an opportunity to gain control of part of a Kurdish autonomous region stretching across swathes of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“It’s an important moment for the Kurds of Syria,” she said. “They have an opportunity to gain their rights.”
Syrian Kurds, though, mindful of a nervous Turkey just across the border, have downplayed any ambitions beyond increased rights.
Hannan, the Kurdish militia leader, stressed that his group wants to remain part of Syria, but with significantly more autonomy -- what he termed “democratic self-rule” for ethnic and religious minorities.
“If you look at it in a nationalistic way, of course all Kurds want independence, but of course, this is not a rational demand right now,” he said.
Al-Nusra’s goals in the region are certain to alarm Western governments. Control of the porous northeastern border with Turkey would ease the flow of volunteers and weapons. And al-Nusra hopes to control a region where they can govern an Islamist state within a state and impose their version of strict sharia law, Nerguizian said.
“The only part of the country where they really have a chance of carving out an autonomous zone is in the north and northeast,” he said.
Another fault line
The fighting in Syria’s northeast might be opening another fault line in a war that has driven deep divisions between communities in an ethnically and religiously diverse country. Islamist rebels have been increasingly singling out Kurds, whose rhetoric also has become more anti-Arab. At the Kowergost refugee camp outside Irbil recently, Kurdish children were heard singing a refrain in Kurdish that said, “Arabs are cowards, Arabs are cowards.”
It’s a microcosm of a war that is becoming less about rebels-versus-regime and more about ethnic and religious groups protecting turf, according to experts.
“It has, in a way, excited feelings of fear and mistrust between the communities that were not there before,” Fantappie said. “I think things can still be repaired … but indeed these recent attacks, which in some cases have been targeting Kurds specifically, have been really damaging.”