Syrian Kurds fight against Assad in increasingly complex war

New fighting broke between Kurdish and regime forces in the northern Syrian city of Hasakeh.The fighting erupted after the official Syrian news agency SANA reported that a truce agreement had been reached between the Syrian army and Kurdish rebels of the YPG. But the situation strains the already complex relationship between neighbouring Turkey and YPG backers, the US.

Hasakeh is in the north of Syria, not far from the Turkish border, and it is one of the few places in that region where the Syrian army does have some influence.

“The City of Hasakeh has different quarters, which are under the control of the government and also under the control of Kurdish militias,” explains Guenter Mayer of the University of Mainz.

“There has been an incident a few weeks ago when soldiers of the government were arrested by the Kurdish troops here. And after negotiations the government soldiers were released again. Now the Kurds in Hasakeh obviously tried to oust the government forces and the government is retaliating,” he says.

The flare-up of hostilities makes the situation in that specific area possibly even more complex than in the rest of Syria because the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia is backed by the United States and at the same time Ankara is afraid of the Kurds becoming too successful.

“The area was actually designed for them in an agreement between the American troops and Turkey,” says Mayer.

“A so-called “red line” from the Turkish perspective was the Euphrates. Turkey wants to prevent that the two major Kurdish areas in the north-east and in the North West are uniting and form a separate autonomous region within Syria. South of the Turkish border.”

The situation affects the relationship between the US and Turkey, both NATO members. Turkey is hostile towards the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish group saying that they help the Turkish PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, that is fighting a war against Ankara inside Turkey.

“The cooperation between Turkey and the US has been very minimal,” says Joost Jongerden, a Kurdistan specialist with the University of Wageningen in The Netherlands.

“Turkey has been quite reluctant in its support to the American policies, because Turkey has its own agenda, an agenda which is mainly related to jihadi groups in the region.”

“So the collaboration became more strained as a result of the increasing involvement of the Americans in the activities of the YPG. Since a couple of months, US Special Forces are active next to YPG forces in their fight against the Islamic State,” he says.

But in the end, he says, they won’t really jeopardise their military ties, as both can’t do anything without the help of the other. The US needs Turkey’s air bases, and Turkey needs US support and technology when it comes to maintaining its own military.

Meanwhile, Turkish fears of a Kurdish drive for an independent or autonomous state, along the lines of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, are not founded.

“The YPG, have already since the beginning of 2011 and 2012, expressed quite clearly that they want to move towards a federal Syria,” says Jongerden.

“The YPG has been quite successful in winning over Syrian Christians in the region, in winning over Arab tribes, to think along similar lines.”

“They try to develop forms of self-governance by the Arab population, so I think they are very serious with this agenda of developing a new Syria.”