How Arab allies became enemies and then joined the Kurds
Nearly five years into Syria's civil war, lines between allies and enemies have become so blurred that in northern Syria Arabs are now fighting Arabs at the behest of Kurds.
In recent weeks, under the cover of both US and Russian jets, Syrian Kurds fighting with the YPG have managed to expand their control over much of the region.
As they have advanced into Marea and towards Azaz, the YPG has been joined by its allies in the 40,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed militia that includes Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Assyrians as well as majority Sunni Arab groups like Jaysh al-Thuwwar (JaT) and the al-Sanadid Forces.
Last May, JaT was founded as an amalgamation of Aleppo-based opposition groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner against President Bashar al-Assad's government and the Islamic State (IS).
Less than a year later – and to the confusion of observers who long for clear divisions in the conflict - JaT finds itself aligned with the YPG, a move the group says it was forced to make with the rise of militant groups like al-Nusra Front.
Analysts, however, say the group is attempting to curry favour with the US, and former rebel allies, like Ahrar al-Sham, have quickly branded the fighters "infidels". Jaish al-Islam leader Mohammed Alloush has called for fighters to disobey orders and defect from the group.
Regardless of its intentions, JaT's side-switching highlights a war that has become so fragmented that it is hard to disentangle enemy from ally and has left many civilians caught in the subsequent crossfire.
JaT was formed to fight both the Assad government and IS, and initially joined the opposition Fatah Haleb operations room coordinating fighting against Assad and IS in Aleppo, but soon the group was expelled over disagreements and clashes with other rebel groups.
The alliance with the YPG has its origins in the Euphrates Volcano operations room, which saw the YPG and other allied groups successfully defend the border town of Kobane from the advance of IS in January 2015.
Translation: Arab and Kurdish fighters from the Euphrates Volcano stand together for a press statement
In November, JaT merged with the SDF with the intention of fighting “terrorism represented by the Islamic State, its sister [organisations] and the criminal Baathist regime”.
Tariq Abu Zayd, a JaT spokesperson, told Middle East Eye that the rise of groups like al-Nusra Front has necessitated an alliance with the YPG.
He said that al-Nusra “attacked several opposition factions last year and drove them out of Syria” and these factions “managed to re-enter the country under the protection of the YPG, which they then allied with".
“Our aim is for Syria to be free and democratic, ruled by justice and equality between the different elements that make up our society,” he said.
He added that JaT was also “fighting on a number of fronts against the Assad regime”.
JaT’s reputation among other Syrian opposition groups, however, has often been deeply negative, primarily due to their association with the YPG and their attacks on other opposition groups.
The SDF’s attacks on other opposition groups have deepened a perception that it is ultimately aligned with the Assad government or is acting as a proxy of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and seeks to splinter the country along ethnic lines.
On Wednesday, Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian envoy to the UN, stated that the YPG was “supported by the Syrian government".
The YPG and its allies counter that the opposition in Syria has become hijacked by hardline militants such as IS, the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front and Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sham.
Religious conservatives have also been rankled at the YPG’s Marxist and anarchist-inspired philosophy, which has been labelled atheistic.
'Dogs and agents of the PKK'
Considering the hostility that JaT has faced from other Arab rebel groups, there has been much speculation over its decision to join with the YPG.
“They are successful, they are effective, they are getting recognition, so this becomes a central attraction for many groups,” said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish analyst based in Washington.
He argued that the rise of religious fundamentalism in Syria had driven secular groups into the arms of the YPG.
"So many people left out, left voiceless, who don’t want to be part of the radical Islam movement, they need somewhere to address themselves, this provides them with an opportunity,” he told MEE.
SDF supporters have also pointed out that in contrast to the largely homogenous Sunni Arab opposition, the areas under SDF influence have a wide range of ethnicities.
Senior figures have also been drawn from minority groups, such as spokesperson Talal Selo, who is an ethnic Turkman, or Hussein Taza al-Azam, the Arab co-vice president of Jazira canton.
“The other side is fragmented, it lost motivation, they have no hope and they were swallowed by al-Nusra, IS and other extremists,” said Civiroglu. “So there is no alternative.”
'Halal to extremists'
"The 47th," a Syrian analyst originally from Homs, told MEE that ultimately JaT was pursuing a self-defeating strategy, comparable to that pursued by the US-backed Southern Front, which later saw support withdrawn.
“They are desperate, and they hate even moderate Islamists,” he said. “And by way of who they are cooperating with, they have just made themselves halal meat to extremists.”
He said the JaT strategy in joining the SDF was to prove themselves “indispensible” to the US, particularly in light of any push against the IS “capital” of Raqqa. After that they would be able to “push their agenda” and shape further policy in Syria.
“Desperation” and the severing of ties with other rebel groups also meant they had few options left.
“Turkey and Qatar and Saudi are out of the question anyway,” said the 47th. “So they either had America or [crowd-funding site] indigogo.”
“I know how tough it is for them. But there were better options. A trip to Jordan or meeting Saudis would have worked out.”
Search for unity
In spite of what the group views as an apparent lack of options, just last week a JaT spokesperson spoke of the “willingness to unite” with other Free Syrian Army groups in a statement to pro-opposition Smart News last week.
But though JaT claims to be in conflict only with al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, it has repeatedly clashed with other groups that bear the FSA banner, including those vetted by the CIA.
The seizure of the Menagh military airport last week involved JaT clashes with Jabhat al-Shamiya, a group listed among the potential “moderate” anti-IS forces by the Brookings analyst Charles Lister.
Clashes between JaT and other rebel groups over a series of villages in north Aleppo in November highlighted the absurdity of the situation even further, with a video released on YouTube showing fighters in the village of Keshtar from Liwa Suqour al Jabal - another FSA group reportedly vetted by the CIA - burning SDF flags while chanting “Allahu Akbar!”
Another group of men burn a Jaish al-Thuwwar flag, saying in the video: "This is the banner of Jaysh al-Thuwwar, the dogs and agents of the PKK and the Kurds!"
Ankara blast fallout
Following a bomb attack in Ankara on Wednesday - blamed by the Turkish government on the YPG, but denied by the group - tensions have risen ever more sharply between Turkey and the US over its support for the SDF, with analysts criticising US support for the SDF and its impact on US relations in the Middle East.
“It is quite extraordinary that Obama administration policy these days seems to be favouring a Kurdish militia group that is incontrovertibly linked to the terrorism-designated PKK over and above a fellow NATO ally, Turkey,” said Charles Lister in a statement on Thursday.
“Tactical interests notwithstanding, those are the kind of missteps that malign our reputation in the region and provide invaluable opportunities for our adversaries.”
Protests broke out in Aleppo in February criticising the lack of unity among rebel groups. In response, several groups agreed to operate under the command of Hashem al-Sheikh, a former Ahrar al-Sham commander.
But it looks unlikely that any such gestures will include the Arab fighters allied with the YPG, and the fighting is likely to continue on multiple fronts, even between groups who profess to claim the banner of "Free Syrian Army."
“While Turkey is looking for ways to justify getting a ground force into Syria and stopping the Kurds from uniting their territories, civilians of the conflict are finding themselves trapped between Islamic State, regime, YPG, and opposition forces,” wrote S. Kelesoglu, a humanitarian worker, writing on the Atlantic Council website.
“Each side is trying to capture the northern corridor for its own purposes, but it is the civilians who are caught in the middle of the fighting.”