Dispatch

Can’t We All Just Get Along and March on Raqqa?

Kurdish troops have advanced to within 30 miles of the Islamic State's capital city. But to push on they’ll have to stop fighting with the Free Syrian Army first.

Member of Liwa (Brigade) Salahadin, a Kurdish military unit fighting along side rebel fighters, monitor the area in the besieged district of Karmel al-Jabl in eastern Aleppo, on December 6, 2012. Protests in Syria's northern city Aleppo against the Free Syrian Army highlight the waning influence of mainstream rebel groups and the rise of more disciplined and better-equipped radical Islamists. AFP PHOTO/JAVIER MANZANO        (Photo credit should read Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images)
Member of Liwa (Brigade) Salahadin, a Kurdish military unit fighting along side rebel fighters, monitor the area in the besieged district of Karmel al-Jabl in eastern Aleppo, on December 6, 2012. Protests in Syria's northern city Aleppo against the Free Syrian Army highlight the waning influence of mainstream rebel groups and the rise of more disciplined and better-equipped radical Islamists. AFP PHOTO/JAVIER MANZANO (Photo credit should read Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images)

SANLIURFA, Turkey — After years of being besieged from all sides, this could finally be Syrian Kurdish leader Salih Muslim’s moment. He wants the world to know that he’s not going to squander it.

“The people should trust us. We are not going to make any mistakes,” he told Foreign Policy. “We stand for the unity of the people and for living together.”

Kurdish forces are advancing in the region they refer to as Rojava, the Kurdish areas of northern Syria. Last week, they seized the border town of Tal Abyad from the Islamic State, depriving the jihadi group of a key supply line for fighters and economic goods. They have continued to push south, overrunning the Brigade 93 base on Monday night and, today, capturing the town of Ain Issa, putting them only 30 miles from the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa.

Whether the Islamic State suffers a major defeat in this crucial part of northern Syria, however, depends on the Kurds’ success in navigating their relationship with Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups and their powerful neighbor, Turkey. In this, Muslim and his fellow leaders face no easy task.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia in the area, has fought alongside an alliance of FSA-affiliated brigades called the “Euphrates Volcano.” That group would likely have to take the lead in any offensive on Raqqa; Muslim said it would be difficult for the YPG alone to launch an offensive on the city, but said that if the FSA-affiliated groups decided to try to liberate it, “I think the YPG should be helping them.”

The Kurds’ ties to the Syrian rebel groups, however, are increasingly under strain. More than a dozen rebel brigades last week signed a statement accusing the Kurds of “ethnic cleansing” by displacing Arabs and Turkmens in Tal Abyad. Many Arab refugees on the Turkish side of the border echoed these allegations, saying that they had fled the Kurdish advance.

Kurdish officials vehemently deny that Arabs or Turkmens have been targeted in order to change the demographic makeup of the area. Thousands of refugees have also returned to Tal Abyad and the neighboring villages over the past week, including Arab civilians.

Muslim suggested that any instances of the burning of Arabs’ homes in the area were actually retribution against Islamic State supporters. “Maybe some individuals and families who were killing the people, and fighting alongside Daesh, maybe they are afraid of judgment,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Of course, all the people — not just the Kurds — wouldn’t allow such criminals to go without any punishment.”

Reaching a common understanding on what occurred in Tal Abyad, however, has been hindered by the Kurds’ feud with the mainstream Syrian opposition. Yesterday, Kurdish forces prevented a fact-finding mission from the Syrian National Coalition tasked with investigating the truth of the claims from entering the retaken city.

The coalition’s hostility toward the Syrian Kurds, Muslim said, was the reason that they had been refused access to the area. The people in Tal Abyad, he said, “don’t trust this coalition, because they have made many statements supporting Daesh.”

The mistrust, however, goes both ways. In a cafe in the southern Turkish city of Sanliurfa, Abu Ali, the leader of the FSA-affiliated Jaysh al-Qassas brigade, described how his alliance with the Kurdish forces had fallen apart.

“The Kurds are like the devil,” said the former primary schoolteacher from the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. “They show you their beautiful side and hide the ugly side.”

Abu Ali commands a brigade of roughly 500 men, many of whom had been driven out of their hometowns by the advance of the Islamic State. Seeking to regain a foothold in the country, he had committed some of his men to fighting alongside the Kurds in Tal Abyad.

The alliance, however, fractured when Kurdish forces removed the revolutionary Syrian flag over Tal Abyad, replacing it with the yellow YPG standard. The move, Abu Ali said, violated an agreement between the two sides that both flags would fly there: As a result, one day after the liberation of the town, he told his brigade that they would be returning to Turkey.

“We sacrificed so many martyrs for this flag,” he said. “Would you accept your flag being insulted in this way?”

For Abu Ali and his men, the battle in this corner of Syria is over — he says that his men will receive some much-needed rest before returning to fight on another front. He admits that many FSA-affiliated groups will remain fighting, saying that they have received weapons and funds from the Kurds and are now beholden to them.

Muslim and his fellow Kurdish leaders are trying to ensure that defections like this are a rarity. If they succeed, the Islamic State could find itself under threat in an area that it has long considered its home base. Muslim, for his part, has even larger ambitions: “The model that we established in Rojava could be a model for all Syria,” he said.

Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

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