Syria: Sunni Arabs and Kurds Temporarily Align Against the Regime
Syrian rebels with the Kurdish flag (R) and the pre-Baath Syrian flag
Another alliance is forming against the Alawite troops still loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. After several weeks of clashes, the Democratic Union Party, the dominant Kurdish faction in Syria, commonly referred to as the PYD, and the Syrian Sunni Arab rebels that lead the Free Syrian Army signed the agreement Feb. 19. Although numerous parties, including the Turkish government, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, the Free Syrian Army and various Syrian Kurdish factions, have an interest in seeing the Democratic Union Party cooperate with the Free Syrian Army, the alliance will likely end up being a temporary alliance of convenience.
The Democratic Union Party is the strongest Kurdish faction in Syria. It claims a force of 10,000 fighters, which are organized under the Popular Protection Units, and has a robust civilian following that has built up political support through local councils in northern Syria.
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The Democratic Union Party is also highly controversial among the Syrian opposition. Since the summer of 2012, when Barzani tried to unite Syria’s Kurdish factions, the Democratic Union Party nominally has been part of the Kurdish Supreme Council, a coalition of some 15 other Kurdish groups, including the Barzani-backed Kurdish National Council.
Despite inclusion in the coalition, the Democratic Union Party has clashed regularly with other Kurdish coalition members as well as with Sunni Arab rebels from the Free Syrian Army. In its efforts to sever Alawite supply lines into Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army has encroached on Kurdish territory. Resultant Democratic Union Party attacks on the Free Syrian Army have led to allegations that the Democratic Union Party was aligned with Alawite government forces to distract the Free Syrian Army from its offensive against the regime.
Turkey, meanwhile, has deep concerns that a fortified Democratic Union Party in Syria will further radicalize the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey (the Democratic Union Party has close ties to the group), with which the Turkish government is already struggling to negotiate a peace deal. The last thing Ankara needs is more hawkish Syrian Kurdish members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party derailing these talks and heightening the Kurdish militant threat in Turkey. As the leading figure in the Iraqi Kurdish political scene, Barzani is trying to demonstrate that he can rein in the Democratic Union Party to further its negotiations with Turkey that focus on creating alternative export routes for energy developed in Iraq’s predominantly Kurdish north.
The Next Conflict
Thus for several reasons, there are many parties interested in co-opting the Democratic Union Party. The group appears to have made a strategic decision to cooperate for now, but this cease-fire agreement with the Free Syrian Army is likely to be short-lived. The Democratic Union Party does not want to risk degrading its capabilities and influence at this point in the Syrian conflict by engaging in sustained clashes with the Free Syrian Army rebels. After all, the Democratic Union Party is under no illusions that Turkey is trying to channel its support for the Free Syrian Army to contain the Democratic Union Party. And while it is the most prominent Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party is not immune to fissures within the broader Kurdish landscape or to attempts by other Kurdish groups to challenge its position in the north.
Finally, the Democratic Union Party understands that it must preserve its strength for a post-al Assad conflict, in which Kurds and other minorities will become the common adversary of Sunni Arabs. Ultimately, the Kurdish minority is more threatened by a Sunni Arab majority in Syria than it is by a smaller Arab minority like the Alawites. By agreeing to a cease-fire with the Free Syrian Army, the Democratic Union Party appears to be leaning toward an assumption that the al Assad regime is coming to an end. Cooling relations with the Free Syrian Army for now will help the Democratic Union Party prepare for a much more intense conflict with the Sunni Arabs down the line. The Democratic Union Party could also benefit from the support that the Free Syrian Army receives from foreign backers through this agreement.
Unsurprisingly, the Democratic Union Party has placed several conditions on the cease-fire. Rather than agreeing to join forces with the Free Syrian Army against Alawite forces wherever the rebels need reinforcement, the Democratic Union Party was clear in stating that it will only defend Kurdish areas jointly. It will not send its forces to Sunni Arab conflict zones, such as Hama or Homs. The Democratic Union Party will try to avoid drawing Alawite aggression to the Kurdish areas and will balance its relations with the Alawites and the Free Syrian Army.
Notably, this is not a strategy unique to the Kurds. A recent decision to form a Druze battalion in league with the Free Syrian Army was also designed primarily to defend Druze territory on the southern rebel approach to Damascus and balance between the Alawites and Sunnis. The minority interest in Syria is to favor minority Alawite rule over majority Sunni rule, but if the Alawites are unlikely to sustain their hold on Damascus, then a more nuanced strategy with flexible alliances is needed. The Democratic Union Party alliance with the Free Syrian Army is thus a strategic move, but also a temporary one.