An unnecessary fight against Kurds betrays Syrian struggle

By attacking a Kurdish town rather than regime forces, certain elements in Syria are letting themselves be distracted from the principal issue.

The Syrian regime has been making significant advances in key neighbourhoods in Homs and Aleppo and in the south in Deraa and Rif Dimashq. Meanwhile, the rebels' attention seems to be shifting towards unnecessary battles.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army, jihadist groups unaffiliated with the FSA and several other fighting factions joined forces last week to attack Serekaniye, or Ras Al Ayn, a Kurdish city in the country's north with a predominately Kurdish population of over 55,000. Around 17 disparate groups, backed by four tanks and mortars, were said to have taken part in the attack. That is rare coordination among such ideologically diverse groups, even in battles against regime forces.

The attack is deeply worrying for a variety of reasons: Turkey allegedly allowed these forces to move across its border, and Syrian tribal figures from the area were reportedly involved. Most of all, the hostilities were clearly unnecessary, yet swiftly gained momentum on both sides.

The city had been the scene of similar attacks in the past, but FSA rebels had agreed on a ceasefire last month with the People's Defence Units (YPG) - the local militias affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria (PYD).

"Even the biggest rivals of the PYD now call for the expelling of 'terrorist groups' from Ras Al Ayn and call on the FSA and Islamic groups to focus on Damascus," says Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a writer for the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw and an analyst for the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation. "Abdulhakim Bashar, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, the biggest rival of the PYD, called for expelling the armed groups, although he often accuses the PYD and YPG of working with [Bashar Al] Assad."

Kurdish activists maintain that Arab tribal figures from the region, including Nawaf Al Bashir, a chief of the million-member Baggara confederation who is now based in Istanbul, sponsored the attacks with Turkish backing. This is not the first time Mr Al Bashir has been mentioned in relation to disputes with Kurdish groups.

In July last year, he impeded attempts to reach a consensus on Kurdish rights after delivering an inflammatory speech during a landmark meeting in Cairo that was meant to unite the opposition and draw a road map for a transitional period. A fist-fight then ensued after Murshid Al Khaznawi, a prominent Kurdish leader, stood up and responded to the attack.

According to Avend Akreyi, a member of the Kurdish Youth Movement, Turkey hosted a conference last month in the city of Urfa to discuss "peace-achieving in Hasaka province" in north-east Syria, which was attended by Mr Al Bashir, Turkish intelligence officers and FSA fighters.

"Turkey is now even directly intervening in the clashes in favour of FSA armed groups by providing different kinds of weapons (including rockets that look like Katyusha missiles) and aid," he said.

Mr Al Bashir represents a mindset in eastern Syria that is quick to perceive any Kurdish demand as a threat to the area or to the country at large, sometimes without considering the legitimacy of the demands. Many fail to understand the merit of concepts such as decentralised governance, federalism or autonomy. The idea of "taqseem" - any form of social or national divisiveness - has long been employed by tyrants as a way to suppress dissidents.

The question of how to deal with the regime's displacement of Kurds from Kurdish-majority areas four decades ago also complicates the issue and adds to concerns, as some Kurds now call for relocating settled Arab families. The recently attacked town of Serekaniye is seen by many as the nucleus of a Syrian Kurdistan, for a Kurdish population that makes up around 9 per cent of the country.

The opposition figures from the eastern region who have been involved in such hostilities will find that they have common interests with Kurdish groups to ensure justice in their area. For decades, the Baathist regime has pitted Arab tribes against Kurds in eastern Syria to suppress both parties; this latest episode is symptomatic of those policies.

The rebels' coordinated attack on Serekaniye is a harbinger of what awaits the country as the political opposition fails to deal with such divisive issues. The political opposition still has tenuous links to the armed elements on the ground, rather than being able to effectively lead them.

"What we are seeing now in Ras Al Ayn is only one scene taken from the movie we are going to see in future Syria," says Shadi Al Khesh, a UAE-based member of the opposition's National Coalition.

A political solution reconciling the Kurdish identity with regional and national interests is possible, but it might take time for the different sides to understand each other. Also, Kurdish rights must not be subject to the whims of the political opposition - the "National Convention" signed in Cairo that guaranteed rights for Kurds is now a meaningless document because the newly formed National Coalition abrogated the convention instead of endorsing it. Meaningless moves such as the formation of a ritualistic peace mission to solve these issues echo the regime's ways of dealing with this conflict.

Kurds have the right to demand guarantees for their future and their identity. The latest showdown suggests that they simply cannot rely on the goodwill of their Arab neighbours.

On Twitter: @hhassan140