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Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War
Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
Report 155 / Middle East & North Africa

Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War

Syria is sliding toward unending war between an autocratic, sectarian regime and the even more autocratic, more sectarian jihadi group that has made dramatic gains in both Syria and Iraq. Without either a ceasefire in Aleppo or greater support from its state backers, the mainstream opposition is likely to suffer a defeat that will dash chances of a political resolution for the foreseeable future.

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Executive Summary

As Aleppo goes, so goes Syria’s rebellion. The city is crucial to the mainstream opposition’s military viability as well as its morale, thus to halting the advance of the Islamic State (IS). After an alliance of armed rebel factions seized its eastern half in July 2012, Aleppo for a time symbolised the opposition’s optimism and momentum; in the following months, it exposed the rebels’ limits, as their progress slowed, and they struggled to win over the local population. Today, locked in a two-front war against the regime and IS, their position is more precarious than at any time since the fighting began. Urgent action is required to prevent the mainstream opposition’s defeat: either for Iran and Russia to press the regime for de-escalation, to showcase their willingness to confront IS instead of exploiting its presence to further strengthen Damascus; or, more realistically, for the U.S., Europe and regional allies to qualitatively and quantitatively improve support to local, non-jihadi rebel factions in Aleppo. Any eventual possibility of a negotiated resolution of the war depends on one course or the other being followed.

Rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo remain the most valuable of the mainstream opposition’s dwindling assets. Sensing weakness, the regime and its allies have invested significant resources in trying to retake the city; they now appear to be on the verge of severing the last rebel supply line linking it to Turkey. Still, the rebels maintain certain advantages. The armed factions in and around the city include some of the rebellion’s most powerful and popular. The location near the Turkish border facilitates the flow of supplies and communication. The regime’s task is thus more difficult than at Homs and Damascus, where brutal siege tactics compelled acceptance of truces on its terms. Yet, even a partial siege of the rebel-held parts of Aleppo could deal an enormous blow.

To its east, the mainstream opposition faces a second deadly foe: IS, formerly ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, riding high after victories in western Iraq and eastern Syria. In January 2014, Aleppo was ground-zero for IS’s most humiliating setback, when rebels drove it from the city and its western and northern hinterlands, forcing it further east. But today, with much of the rebel force tied down on one front against the regime, IS is making headway north of the city, toward the heartland of northern Syria’s most prominent mainstream rebel factions.

A combination of regime and IS victories in and around Aleppo would be devastating not only to local rebels, but to the Syrian opposition as a whole. The loss of territory and morale would reverberate throughout the country, pushing many to give up the fight or join a more powerful militant force: IS.

The regime and IS are not bedfellows, though mutual restraint in the first five months of 2014 gave some that impression. Rather, and despite recent clashes, they share some short- and medium-term interests: chiefly the defeat of mainstream rebel groups backed by the opposition’s state sponsors, in particular those credible with local populations. For the regime, their defeat would eliminate what remains of the only existential threat it has feared: the prospect of robust Western military support to armed opponents. For IS, it would remove most of its meaningful competition, so it could eventually establish a monopoly on armed resistance to an unpopular Iranian-backed dictator, much as in Iraq.

At stake in Aleppo is not regime victory but opposition defeat. The war would continue should that occur, pitting regime and allied forces that lack the capacity to reconquer chunks of northern and eastern Syria or to subdue them through compromise against an emboldened IS that would gain strength by attracting rebel remnants. Between such antagonists, there would be no prospect of a political resolution and little hope of restoring the integrity of Syrian and Iraqi borders.

The situation is grim, but all is not yet lost. The bulk of the armed opposition is dominated by groups that, unlike IS, have demonstrated responsiveness to local populations and state sponsors. Their shortcomings are manifold and performance uneven, but the most successful of them have begun to show political pragmatism needed not only for continued viability but also to resolve the war.

It is past time for state supporters on both sides to acknowledge that the status quo leads to disaster. For Iran and Russia, this means recognising that – lip service to a negotiated solution and counter-terrorism notwithstanding – the regime strategy they facilitate renders resolution impossible and strengthens the jihadis it claims to combat. For the mainstream opposition’s principal backers – the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – it means acknowledging that their tough words, meagre support and strategic incoherence have helped produce the current desperation. Recent modest increases in support for armed groups will not prevent their defeat, though they may shift the political and ideological balance among them. Syria is sliding toward unending war between an autocratic, sectarian regime and an even more autocratic, more sectarian jihadi group that, on present trends, will potentially destabilise the Middle East well beyond Syria and Iraq.

The fall of greater Aleppo to regime and IS forces would do much to bring this about. There are two means of avoiding it:

  • Best would be through immediate negotiation and implementation of a local ceasefire between the regime and anti-IS rebel forces in Aleppo. This would allow the latter to dedicate their resources to halting and eventually reversing IS gains. It would require a dramatic shift in regime strategy: from prioritising defeat of the mainstream opposition to prioritising the fight against IS, and recognising that IS cannot be defeated without conceding a role to the mainstream opposition. If the regime and its allies are serious about weakening jihadis, they should immediately show willingness to halt their offensives in Aleppo and withdraw to positions from which their forces no longer threaten the main rebel supply line to the city. If such a ceasefire is offered, mainstream rebels in Aleppo should accept it and ensure that their anti-IS jihadi allies do the same. The mainstream opposition’s state backers should pressure them to do so.
     
  • Such a regime shift appears unlikely. In its absence, the only realistic alternative is for the opposition’s state backers to improve support, qualitatively and quantitatively, to credible non-jihadi rebel groups with roots in Aleppo. That could become more costly to the regime and its allies than a local deal, as some of the support would inevitably be deployed against regime forces. The option would also carry costs for the opposition’s backers. To be effective, it would entail, at minimum, an increase in cash, ammunition and anti-tank weapons delivered to mainstream rebel factions – some of which could end up in jihadi hands; it would also require a higher level of investment by the U.S. and of cooperation among Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Even if successful, this effort would not tilt the military balance in favour of the mainstream opposition – but it could prevent its defeat, halt IS gains on a key front and thus preserve the chance for an eventual political resolution.

Other prominent options at the centre of the Western policy debate would likely be counterproductive. Calls for partnership with the Assad regime against jihadis are ill-conceived. Until regime forces fundamentally revise their posture and abandon the habit of exploiting jihadi gains for their own benefit, they have little to offer in the fight against IS. Their current dependence on indiscriminate tactics and Iran-backed militias is fuel for jihadi flames. Proposals to expand U.S. airstrikes against IS into Syria are incomplete tactical prescriptions in search of a strategy. IS gains can only be halted and eventually reversed through the empowerment of credible Sunni alternatives, both locally and within the context of national governance. In the absence of a broader strategy to accomplish that, airstrikes against IS would accomplish little; indeed, the propaganda benefits that would accrue to the group could be more important than the tactical setbacks it would suffer.

There are, of course, risks in the two more promising policies outlined above. But the failure of any and all parties to take some risk will lead only to disaster.

Beirut/Brussels 9 September 2014

The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria

Originally published in Middle East Eye

Directly arming one mainly Kurdish faction in Syria makes U.S. partly responsible for the fate of Syria’s Kurds. Given Ankara’s bitter opposition to the group, Washington should push its Kurdish partner to focus on regional autonomy in Syria, not its insurgency in Turkey.

With its 9 May announcement that it has decided to directly arm the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, Washington has inserted itself even further into one of the region’s oldest and bloodiest conflicts: the 33-year-long fight between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is the mother organisation of the YPG and a group deemed a terrorist group by not only Turkey but by the US itself.

In fighting the Islamic State (IS), Washington has been supporting the YPG indirectly for several years and meeting with its commanders. But the decision to provide arms directly further elevates the PKK’s Syrian branch’s status. By doing so the US risks a deep, immediate rift with Turkey, its sometimes difficult but critical NATO partner of 60 years.

Playing sponsor to the YPG also means that the US is at least partly responsible for what may happen to Syria’s Kurds if and when the tide of the Syrian war turns against them.

Playing sponsor to the YPG also means that the US is at least partly responsible for what may happen to Syria’s Kurds if and when the tide of the Syrian war turns against them. It would therefore do well to use its enhanced leverage to push its Kurdish partner to make the right choices.

For the US, any assessment should begin with a sober assessment of who the YPG is. US officials privately concede that the difference between the YPG and its civilian arm (the Party of Democratic Unity, or PYD) on the one hand and the PKK on the other amounts to little more than a useful fiction.

While the rank and file is mostly Syrian, the YPG’s upper command levels are heavily dominated by cadres trained in the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq and steeped in the party’s ideology.

Likewise, the idea that it would be possible to support the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their advance against IS without simultaneously strengthening the YPG, who form the alliance’s core fighting force and top command, as previously claimed, has little bearing on reality.

Fateful choice

US support has enabled the SDF - and thus the YPG - to push way beyond the Kurdish-majority areas in Syria’s north-east. Working ever closer with the US-led international coalition against IS, the SDF is now closing in on Raqqa, the jihadist group’s unofficial capital.

Yet as it controls an ever-larger area, the YPG-PYD is rapidly approaching a fateful choice which Washington should seek to influence: whether to continue to back the PKK’s decades-old struggle with Turkey, or to devote its territorial gains and accumulated diplomatic credit to consolidating and protecting the status of de-facto self-rule it has achieved as a project in its own right.

Since 2012, the PKK and its Syrian affiliates have pursued a dual objective: improving their strategic position vis-a-vis Turkey by establishing a continuous militarised land belt along the Syria-Turkey border, and establishing what they refer to as “democratic self-administration” over the Kurdish and non-Kurdish communities that fell under their control.

Initially, those two objectives were mutually reinforcing: while the YPG-PYD worked to build “Rojava” (Kurdish for “West-Kurdistan”), the PKK exploited its affiliate’s gains to apply pressure on Turkey.

Yet this previously successful strategy of imposing facts on the ground and seizing territory under the cover of the anti-IS campaign has shown diminishing returns, and is now approaching a point where US military support today could leave the Kurdish militia dangerously exposed tomorrow.

Breaking point

Relentless territorial expansion means the YPG-PYD are now ruling over an ever-growing number of non-Kurdish communities, while the preoccupation with military matters has crippled their capacity to govern. Taking Raqqa, an overwhelmingly Arab city of 200,000, will likely stretch the governance model to breaking point.

Taking Raqqa, an overwhelmingly Arab city of 200,000, will likely stretch [the YPG-PYD's] governance model to breaking point.

More critically still, Turkish hostility has increased along with the SDF/YPG’s military gains. While officially aimed at ISIS, Ankara’s incursion north of Aleppo in August 2016 was for the most part geared to stem the PKK’s westward advance toward Kurd-populated Afrin. In April 2017, Turkey went further and bombed the group’s positions in northern Syria and northern Iraq, not withstanding US objections.

For the moment, the YPG-PYD feels itself protected by the alliance with the US Indeed, Turkey’s persistent opposition to Washington’s cooperation with the YPG has yielded little of substance. That the US is “aware” of Turkish security concerns and would control the use of the weapons it hands out apparently has made make little impression in Ankara: “Every weapon provided to the YPG is a threat to Turkey", said Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Yet once the YPG’s utility in fighting IS expires in the latter’s defeat, it is unclear whether the US will continue to devote resources to northern Syria, including post-IS stabilisation.

As a result, the YPG-PYD’s prospects could take a nosedive: trapped between a hostile Turkey to the north no longer hamstrung by the US and an opportunistic regime in Damascus waiting for the Kurdish areas to fall back in its lap, it will need new friends.

These are in short supply. Russia will almost certainly privilege its relationship with Damascus, and has shown itself unable to override a Turkish veto on the PYD’s participation in the Astana or Geneva talks.

YPG-controlled territories in Syria as an alternative supply route to its ally Hizbollah on the Mediterranean, but ultimately it remains committed to Syria’s territorial integrity and is therefore unlikely to support the YPG-PYD’s aspirations of regional autonomy.

This absence of a viable, long-term regional or international backer, and the pressure from hostile neighbours, makes the future of the PKK’s Syrian self-rule project uncertain. Between 2013-15, Ankara showed it might be willing to live with the PYD as a neighbour if the PKK were to suspend its fight and withdraw its militants, a position it would do well to restate.

Although the environment has changed a lot since then, it is conceivable that if Turkey’s main strategic concern – a PKK affiliate geared for military confrontation along its southern border – is addressed, Ankara might be willing to give regional autonomy in north-east Syria space to exist.

Risk of chaos

For this to happen, the PKK needs to allow the YPG-PYD to think beyond its parent organisation’s decades-long fight against Turkey, and instead invest in sustainable governance and regional autonomy that achieves Kurdish rights in Syria.

This will require giving up any ambition to forcibly link Kurdish territories in Syria, and to give its self-administration real power - rather than keeping it under the thumb of PKK-trained military cadres, as is the situation today. 

Unless it changes strategy, the group’s current accomplishments in northern Syria represent the maximum it can realistically hope to achieve, and pushing any further will likely put the project in existential danger. This risks plunging yet another, relatively stable, region of Syria into chaos.

The US has leverage to influence the YPG-PYD’s behaviour, and should use it.