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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 Kurds: A Divided Future?
The Kurds: A Divided Future?
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 Kurds: A Divided Future?

Originally published in The New York Review of Books

The Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq are linked by a thin and fragile thread, a two-lane highway that passes camps filled with refugees from the wars ravaging these lands. The road is bisected by the Tigris, the international frontier that separates not only Syria from Iraq but also Kurds from Kurds. This was the border that first took shape one hundred years ago this week with the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France—the first of a series of negotiations aimed at dividing the former Ottoman territories of the Levant between the two European powers. And while ISIS has made its hostility to the Anglo-French map well known, it is arguably the Kurds who have been most affected by the modern state system that has emerged from it.

Just how divided the more than 30 million Kurds continue to be was made clear to me this spring, when I crossed this border from Iraq to Syria. The crossing itself is not difficult: on the Iraqi side, an immigration officer of the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil checks with her supervisors, fills out a form, and gives the green light. The whole procedure takes less than fifteen minutes. A small boat then ferries you across to Syria, where an employee of the newly-minted Autonomous Administration of the Syrian Kurdish region enters your information, and gives you a stamped piece of paper attesting to your right to enter. You are then free to drive westward to Qamishli, the first major Syrian Kurdish town. On neither side of the border can one find evidence that the sovereign governments in Baghdad and Damascus are exercising their authority here.

Easy procedures, yet complex politics. The Kurds may have thrown off central rule in Iraq and Syria but the border is still there: despite the Kurds or, perhaps more accurately, because of them. The Kurds have long talked of reuniting their people in a greater Kurdistan, but today their population is carved up between not only Syria and Iraq, but also Turkey and Iran, which have sizable numbers of their own. These different national populations have discovered over time that what sets them apart may be more significant than what they have in common: differences in dialect, tribal affiliation, leadership, ideology, historical experience. And Kurdish parties on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border are reaffirming these differences every day with remarkable bureaucratic fastidiousness. What’s more, the Kurdish parties seem to have internalized the very nation-states they scorn: in Syria, their leadership and members are almost exclusively Syrian Kurds; in Iraq, Iraqi Kurds; and in Iran, Iranian Kurds. Only the Kurdish movement in Turkey, which has pan-Kurdish ambitions, includes Kurds from neighboring states, though the top leadership is from Turkey (and some only speak Turkish). 

All this is apart from the deep political divisions that exist among the respective national populations. In Iraq, for example, the Kurdish leadership has developed strong relations with Turkey, which has become a principal source of investment and trade; while in Syria, the dominant Kurdish party, the PYD, is a sworn enemy of the Turkish government through its close links with the PKK, the militant Kurdish movement in Turkey that is now at war with the government. And within both Kurdish regions, the dominant parties face strong opposition from a number of other factions. 

Here is the quandary in which the Kurds find themselves when they make their claim for independence: Whose claim exactly? And how to realize it? To what territory, and under whose authority? As these questions remain unanswered, the old borders are proving stubbornly persistent—by the Kurds’ own hands.

In many ways, Syria’s Kurds today appear to be reliving what their Iraqi counterparts experienced at the end of the Gulf War in 1991: the same economic desolation; the same combination of military control and security provided by rebel Kurdish parties that are prized for their ability to maintain law and order but enjoy only lukewarm local support; the same deep relief that a hated regime no longer has much say in their affairs; in both cases, a measure of unexpected support from the US; the same upswell of hope now that they are finally achieving some autonomy; and the same nagging fear that an oppressive central government—whether the current one in Damascus or a future incarnation—will return to impose its will.

But looking across the Tigris, Syria’s Kurds regard their Iraqi compatriots’ twenty-five-year-old experiment in self-government as only a partial success. The Iraqi Kurds’ opportunity arose from serendipity: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and subsequent defeat there left a political vacuum, but the regime rebounded, brutally suppressing their rebellion. Then, the United States and its Gulf War allies bailed them out, establishing a safe haven. Freed of the regime, the Kurds ruled their quasi-independent enclave for twelve years. After the 2003 invasion, Washington compensated them for their loyal support by securing them a place in Baghdad and helping them consolidate their autonomy. Oil and gas exploration and trade with Turkey and Iran gave the Kurdish region’s economy an enormous lift. Looking at the troubles to their south, Kurdish leaders called themselves “the other Iraq.”

But amid this remarkable progress, there have been continuous setbacks. Between 1994 and 1998, the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), fought a civil war in which Barzani opened the gates of Erbil, the region’s capital, to Saddam’s forces in order to defeat Talabani. The conflict was brought to an end by US mediation in 1998, and the two parties agreed to form a unity government in 2005. This brought stability and prosperity, but also allowed the two ruling families to split up the oil bonanza between them. Economic growth came with rampant corruption, which, when oil prices plummeted a year ago, has landed the two parties in a profound crisis of legitimacy. Instead of progress, Kurds have suddenly faced drastic reductions in public-sector salaries, while their protests have been suppressed or preempted through intimidation by the KRG’s party-led security police.

Meanwhile, Barzani has clung to power as the region’s president, even though his term in office has expired (twice)—and despite his failure to institute reforms. At the same time, the prospect of true independence for Iraqi Kurdistan looks agonizingly remote. This may explain Barzani’s recent renewed call for an independence referendum: more a gambit to shore up his flagging popularity than a concrete step toward fulfillment of the Kurdish dream.

For Syria’s Kurds, the lessons of Iraqi Kurdistan are in any case far from the immediate concerns of war. Unlike its counterpart in Iraq, Syria’s Kurdish population is separated into three cantons in two non-contiguous areas in the country’s north, and continues to face a constant threat from ISIS forces nearby. Also unlike the Iraqi Kurds, they are aided by their alliance with Turkey’s militant PKK, but this has brought challenges of its own. The civil war in Syria has revitalized the PKK, allowing it to effectively seize control of Syrian Kurdish areas through its Syrian affiliate, the PYD, expanding the territory under its command. But the collapse of peace talks between Ankara and the PKK last summer has meanwhile precipitated a new violent conflict in Turkey, causing the Turkish government in turn to put more pressure on Syrian Kurdish areas. (Since the peace talks broke down, Turkey has accused the PYD of sending arms across the border to support the PKK’s insurgency.) Today, the Turkish-PKK war is causing large-scale displacement in southeastern Turkey and giving no sign of letting up. It seemed paradoxical, standing safely in Qamishli in a Syria at war, to listen to the sounds of gunfire just across the border in Turkey.

Complicating matters further, while the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish leaderships have diametrically opposed relations with Turkey, both are now allied with the US in a joint struggle against the Islamic State—a struggle in which both Kurdish regions have proven notably effective. This has presented the Syrian Kurdish PYD with a tricky strategic choice: Should it seek to replicate the Iraqi Kurdish model of using American power as a vector for Kurdish ambitions? If it does so, it knows that Washington seems likely to limit those ambitions, providing some degree of Kurdish autonomy within a Syrian state that Washington hopes to rebuild through a peace process sponsored by the US and Russia. Or should Syria’s Kurds exploit the country’s disorder to expand the territory under their control and simultaneously escalate the war in Turkey in overall pursuit of the ultimate Kurdish goal: to gather up the four severed Kurdish parts and reconstitute them into a single “Greater Kurdistan”?

Though the motivations are very different, the long-term geographic aspirations of the Kurds are oddly similar to those of the jihadists they are fighting: both seem equally intent on erasing the old borders of the post-Ottoman order. When I drew this somewhat audacious parallel in conversation with a PYD official in northern Syria during a visit in March, there was a brief, uncomfortable silence. Then he flashed a bright smile and said: “Daesh threw the first bomb. We will reap the result.”

Syria’s Kurdish leaders are frank about their willingness to use conflict and chaos to their own advantage. The PYD’s fighting force, the YPG, having gained a sense of its value, and therefore leverage, as an indispensable ally in the fight against the Islamic State, doesn’t shy away from playing the big powers in the region—the US, Russia, Turkey, the regime of Bashar al-Assad—against each other, regardless of the cost. If Washington continues to treat the YPG as little more than a private security company, a hired hand to help it dislodge ISIS from the banks of the Euphrates, and refuses to help the YPG in its territorial ambition to unify the three Kurdish cantons (which are interspersed with Arab, Turkoman, and Christian populations), then the YPG believes it can use the prospect of a defacto alliance with Russia to get more support from the US.

Kurdish leaders say that Russian officials have told them that if the YPG tries to extend the area of northern Syria under its control all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean (where, incidentally, few if any Kurds can be found), Russia will not prevent it. This may help explain the PYD’s announcement of a federal region (under its control, and with boundaries not yet established) on the eve of the Kurdish New Year in March, a statement that lit up social media and electrified opinion throughout the dismembered Kurdish realm. Another reason for the timing of the announcement may have been the PYD’s wish to draw attention to its cause after it was excluded from the Geneva talks about Syria. Of course the announcement does not create a unified region—to unify the Kurdish areas would require a major military effort against both ISIS and Turkey, and US-backed rebels north of Aleppo. But the YPG is a disciplined and accomplished military force and, unimpeded by a major power, could make significant headway in realizing this goal.

What makes such consolidation of territory particularly dangerous is the possibility that it might draw in the Turkish military. Turkey has already warned that any move to connect the Kurdish canton of Afrin north of Aleppo with other Kurdish areas further east along Turkey’s border would be unacceptable. This is not only because it cannot countenance a large area of Syria’s border with Turkey controlled by Kurds allied with the PKK. It is also because such a move would sever the only remaining supply line to rebel groups in Aleppo that are backed by Turkey. A Turkish military counter-move against the YPG, if not done by proxy, might in turn trigger Russian airstrikes, and from that point on, given Turkey’s likely invocation of its NATO membership, further international intervention could derail efforts to wind down the Syrian war.

It need not come to this. If it does, it will be because the Obama administration, the one power that has leverage with both Turkey and the YPG, is so internally confused that it cannot accomplish either one of its strategic goals: a political transition to a post-Assad era in Syria and the defeat of the Islamic State. It is pursuit of these two aims that has seen some factions in the Obama administration pressing for greater support for Turkey-backed Syrian rebels in Aleppo and along a corridor to the Turkish border; and other factions that are championing a strengthening of the YPG as the US’s most effective auxiliary in the fight against the Islamic State, which it sees as the top US priority. The two approaches cannot be successfully pursued simultaneously.

The sensible way forward would be for the Obama administration to condition its support for the YPG on the latter’s willingness to rein in its territorial ambitions; the quid pro quo could be a promise of US support for Kurdish rights in Syria during a political transition and beyond. At the same time, the administration would need to nudge Erdoğan to return to peace talks with the PKK in exchange for US support of Turkish interests in northern Syria, including prevention of a unified PYD/YPG-run Kurdish region and an end to the YPG’s provision of weapons and other assistance to the PKK in southeastern Turkey.

Such a deal, a tall order by any reckoning, is further complicated by two issues. One is Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, including, in recent months, the intimidation, censorship, and detention of journalists and other critics, and the use of the fight against the PKK to try to push through constitutional amendments in Turkey to create a presidential system. The Turkish head of state may prove difficult to dissuade from the effort to erode his country’s democratic institutions, unless either military failure in the southeast or a popular uprising against his rule provides the necessary counter-pressure. The other issue is the Turkish perception that the PKK’s resurgence is part of a larger regional competition involving Iran. According to this view, Iran has stoked Kurdish irredentist nationalism in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria (but not at home) against those Kurds who are supported by Turkey and who are willing to work within the existing state system. The area in which this struggle has unfolded most dramatically is northern Iraq.

 “We are in a chess game in which we are the pieces, not the players,” observed Shaho Saeed, a philosophy teacher at the University of Sulaimani, in northern Iraq. In the past, the Kurds’ four hosts—Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria—used the Kurds’ geographic and ideological divisions to limit their aspirations in their own territory. Now, with Damascus preoccupied with greater threats and the government in Baghdad effectively neutralized, the Kurds have two enemies fewer to cope with, more time, and more terrain in which to lay the foundations of a future unified state. Their two other hosts, Turkey and Iran, remain strong, however, and despite their quarrel over who should rule Syria, both seek to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state.

Turkey’s proven method of influencing Iraq’s Kurds is economic: it uses its weight as an economic powerhouse to offer favorable trade, investment, and business contracts to northern Iraq. In return for their pliancy, Iraqi Kurds gain an export channel for their oil through Turkey, which secures what has become their principal revenue stream. This arrangement, in place since 2008, has worked well for both sides and has survived regional upheavals, at least until now. But neither Turkey nor Iraq’s Kurdish leadership has much to offer Syria’s own Kurds, at least as long the PYD remains in charge and subordinate to the PKK.

Iran’s method is to rule by dividing: to support one Kurd against another, and Baghdad against the Kurds. The main dividing line in northern Iraq lies between pro-Barzani Kurds near the Turkish border, who speak the Kurmanji dialect, and Surani-speaking pro-Talabani Kurds in areas closer to Iran. Notwithstanding the two parties’ strategic partnership and common enmity toward the Islamic State, Iran has handily exploited the historic competition between them, and has tried to bring its own favored Kurds—the PKK in Turkey, the PYD/YPG in Syria, and Talabani’s PUK in Iraq—into a broad alliance against Barzani’s KDP. For its part, the PUK is torn between its ideological predisposition and its economic interests: “Its heart belongs to the PKK but its pocket to the KDP,” as Shaho Saeed put it memorably.

In short, the Kurdish political landscape is no less fractured than the region around it. Iraqi Kurdistan may have ended its economic dependence on Baghdad but any notion it harbors of breaking away from Iraq can never amount to more than quasi-independence—shibeh istiqlaal in Arabic—as an opposition leader put it, as long as the region, floating on a sea of corruption and adrift in economic misery, lacks the economic resources, military power, and international recognition it would need. Were Barzani to press ahead with formal statehood, the Kurds, who would be a late addition to the family of nation-states, would be living in a newly independent failed state on the model of South Sudan. Heavily indebted to the oil companies that came in search of its riches, the new entity would be choked off economically by Turkey and wracked by internal conflicts stoked by Iran.

Having been denied a state for the last one hundred years, and now facing a collapse of the old post-Ottoman states in Baghdad and Damascus, many Kurds may dream of destroying the modern borders of the Middle East to finally create one. Yet they first have to contend with ISIS, which wants not just to erase the borders but to bring down the entire Middle East as we know it. Nor have the Kurds been very effective at changing any of the borders that obstruct them. What comes next may be determined less by Kurdish dreams and schemes than by what remains of Syria once Daesh leaves, and what protections for Kurds might be wrung from that. Paradoxically, to guarantee their autonomy—and their survival—the Kurds may end up needing Sykes-Picot just as much as their old overlords did.