Kurdish Enclaves in Syria Battle Islamist Militant Groups
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 9
The main Kurdish militia in Syria, the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG – Kurdish People’s Protection Units), has survived a siege of the town of Kobani (Arabic: Ayn al-Arab) by Islamist extremists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The siege of the Kurdish-controlled town near the Turkish border began on March 10.
ISIS was not able to manage to force the Kurds into submission and the Kurds now say ISIS has ended its attempt to capture Kobani, moving most of their forces to the town of Tel Hamis (close to Qamishli), which will lead to more suicide attacks in the Hasakah governorate (Firat News, April 18). Lacking any Syrian Kurdish support, ISIS was unable to overcome the YPG and their efforts only increased support for the YPG among Syrian Kurds despite shortages of food, weapons and other supplies.
The main problem for the Syrian Kurds is that the areas where they attempt to build administrations border ISIS strongholds. The ISIS siege of Kobani from three sides was an attempt to weaken the Kurdish threat to their areas of control.
ISIS is trying to use Arab tribes settled in the Kurdish areas and fear a Kurdish takeover of areas currently under their control, such as al-Qahtaniya, Qamishli and Ras al-Ayn. ISIS has carried out several suicide attacks in Hasaka governorate that led to campaigns by Kurdish security forces to arrest ISIS sleeper cells in Arab neighbourhoods and villages. The Syrian government is also trying to use the same tribes to create ethnic tensions, says YPG spokesperson Redur Xelil. 
Turkey is opposed to the newly established Kurdish administrations in Syria since they are dominated by parties close to the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK – Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Syrian Kurds, therefore, often accuse Turkey of supporting Islamist rebels against them (Firat News Agency, April 18, 2014).
The YPG captured the formerly ISIS-controlled Syrian-Iraqi border crossing in Yarubiyah in late October 2013, cutting one of their main access points to Iraq (VOA, October 26, 2013). The YPG plans to control the town of Tel Abyad, close to the Turkish border, to connect the Kurdish enclaves in Kobani and Hasakah, which threaten ISIS access to the Turkish border. Since the Kurdish areas are divided into three enclaves and are not geographically contiguous, the YPG tries to enter and capture ISIS-controlled areas such as in Tel Ebyad, Jarabulus and Manbij.
ISIS felt further threatened by a new alliance between the YPG and anti-ISIS rebel groups. Although, most anti-Assad rebels fought against the Kurds in the summer of 2013 and expelled Kurdish forces from some areas in the countryside of Raqqah and Aleppo, these operations broke down in January. Since then, the YPG has fought only ISIS.
As a result of these changing alliances, new opportunities opened up for the Kurds to cooperate with other groups against the ISIS. Jabhat al-Akrad (Kurdish Front), a militia supported by the YPG, cooperated with groups such as Liwa al-Tawhid and Liwa Asifat al-Shamal (Northern Storm Brigade) in taking the border town of Azaz after ISIS withdrew on February 28 (Guardian, March 4). A group of some 200 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters were also reported to have taken part in the operation, though both al-Nusra and the Kurdish groups routinely deny any cooperation (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 1).
Moreover, there is cooperation between some armed opposition groups and Kurdish militias against ISIS in the countryside of Raqqah and Aleppo governorates, while the YPG engages in clashes with ISIS in Hasakah governorate. This led to accusations by ISIS that the al-Qaeda-allied al-Nusra works with the PKK, but so far it seems this is unlikely and only part of the ideological fight between the two groups.
While the YPG has accused the Turkish state of supporting armed rebel groups against them in the past, the movement has increasingly blamed Iran and Bashar al-Assad for not accepting a Kurdish administration in Syria. Like other Syrian opposition groups, they suggest the regime and ISIS deliberately do not attack each other and that the regime allows Islamist groups to flourish in order to prevent Western support for the opposition.  Sipan Hemo, the Afrin-based commander of the YPG made similar allegations, saying the YPG had information “that there was secret coordination between ISIS, the Syrian regime and Iran. The attacks against Kobani were attacks carried out by these three [entities] using ISIS” (Firat News Agency, April 18).
Tensions between regime security forces and the YPG have increased in the run-up to the country’s June presidential elections. The regime has beefed up its security presence in Hasakah governorate after the failure of the Geneva II talks and has clashed with Kurdish forces several times in the cities of Hasakah and Qamishli. Recently, there was a small fire-fight between the Kurdish security police and the regime’s security forces in Qamishli on April 26 (Welati.net, April 27).
On March 11, one day before the anniversary of the 2004 Kurdish uprising, Syrian security forces killed an unarmed YPG fighter in a bakery, leading to brief clashes. “It was a message from them that we are ready to attack you. The Kurds now have the YPG. We are not like the Kurds of 2004, we are ready to answer them,” said Heval Abu Faruq, a YPG fighter in Qamishli. 
The fact that Kurds are planning their own elections in the three Kurdish enclaves under their control might also lead to new clashes between Syrian security forces and Kurdish militias.
PKK-affiliated Kurdish fighters have managed to withstand armed attacks by Syrian rebel groups against their positions in three Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. The recent infighting between rebel groups and ISIS has resulted in new cooperation between the opposition rebels and the YPG against ISIS. This new cooperation resulted in an end of the siege on the YPG-controlled area of Afrin in the province of Aleppo and the relief of Kobani. Nevertheless, ISIS will continue to attempt to carry out suicide bombings in Kurdish areas, especially in Hasakah governorate. Furthermore, we will see an increase of clashes between Kurds and Syrian security forces in the run-up to Syria’s presidential election in June.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst specializing in issues concerning Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey with a particular focus on Kurdish politics.
1. Author’s interview with YPG spokesperson Redur Xelil, March 26, 2014.
2. Author’s interview with YPG fighters in Qamishli, March 30, 2014.