Kurdish groups in northern Syria are preparing to declare their decision to unite in a semi-autonomous federal system, but efforts could be hampered by a new Kurdish faction backed by Turkey, creating the potential for a civil war and an impediment in the fight against Islamic State.
A pending announcement will outline the plan to unite three Syrian Kurdish controlled areas in northern Syria, which have essentially been operating independently of the government in the capital of Damascus since the Syrian civil war began. The areas are currently controlled by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a group which has not been party to the ongoing Syrian peace talks.
Turkey, which neighbors the Syrian Kurdish region to the north, has been vehemently opposed to any move by the PYD, which it sees as an affiliate to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group listed by the U.S. Department of State as a foreign terrorist organization. In an apparent bid to counter PYD advances, the Turkish government is backing its own Kurdish group known as the “Grandsons of Salahadin” who are actively fighting other Kurds in the region.
Kurdish infighting has a very real potential to create a distraction for the U.S. and its coalition fighting ISIS. The PYD’s military affiliate, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are actively supported by the U.S., yet the Grandsons of Salahadin also claim to be armed by the U.S. and have the blessing of Turkey, a U.S. ally. Both consider themselves part of the coalition fighting ISIS, yet discord between the two group may lead to infighting.
“Turkey doesn’t support us with arms. Our arms are American,” said Grandsons of Salahadin commander Mahmoud Abu Hamza to Middle East Eye, an Internet-based news site covering the conflict.
U.S. Army Col. Chris Garver, the chief of Operation Inherent Resolve’s public affairs, has denied a group using the name Grandsons of Salahadin is being armed by the U.S. “There is no group by that name receiving munitions from the U.S.,” said Garver.
Hamza believes the YPG is siding with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and is creating sectarian divisions between Kurds and Arabs.
“They [the YPG] are against the Kurds. These groups are trying to ignite a sectarian war between Arabs and Kurds and this won’t happen because we won’t allow it,” said Hamza. “This will be the beginning of the liberation of the rest of the Kurdish areas. Daesh [ISIS] will be expelled from this area very soon and will be expelled from all of Syria.”
Hamza warned if the YPG does not remove forces from two key areas in northern Syria, the Grandsons of Salahadin will attack them in ISIS-controlled territory between the Syrian cities of Jarabulus and Azaz.
The Grandsons of Salahadin are believed to only be around 600 fighters strong, however, it has been able to secure several Syrian towns and villages from ISIS thanks to artillery support from Turkish allies just over the border.
PYD leadership seems undeterred by any attempts to stop its plan to federalize, be they from Turkey or its new Kurdish affiliate.
“Federalism is the central demand of Kurds in Syria. Every step has been towards it and now it’s time to declare it,” said Idris Nassan, Syrian Kurdish official and a former PYD leader. The hope is that the upcoming announcement will lead to a “widening the framework of self-administration.”
U.S. State Department has said it will not recognize the new Syrian Kurdish plan.
“We have not and will not recognize any ‘self-rule’ semi-autonomous zone,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner in a statement Wednesday. “We remain committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria.”
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