U.S.-backed allies in northern Syria appear set for a major clash even as they both race to liberate a strategic town from Islamic State (IS) terror group.
Both Kurdish-dominated militias and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, who are backed by Turkey, are targeting the town of al-Bab, northeast of the besieged city of Aleppo. This complicates already testy relations between Washington and Ankara, and adds stress to an already unstable anti-IS alliance featuring an array of proxies and partners who are bitter foes.
Neither side — the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), nor FSA factions and their Islamist allies — are ready to give way to each other. Both have announced the start of campaigns to capture al-Bab, the only major town currently held by the jihadists in Aleppo province.
They aren’t the only ones eager to overrun the town, which before the Syrian war had a population of 70,000, predominantly Arabs. Syrian regime forces are closer to al-Bab than either the SDF or FSA — and if they manage to seize the town first, it would help the government starve out the encircled rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo city.
Despite the danger posed by Syrian regime forces, the SDF and FSA are holding no negotiations to avoid a major clash. U.S. military officials are seeking to persuade their proxies to stop fighting each other. But those efforts may be forlorn, warn diplomatic observers, given that FSA militias are suspicious of U.S. intentions and the YPG is determined to expand territory it controls in northern Syria.
Converging on al-Bab
The depth of FSA suspicion was displayed dramatically last week when FSA fighters chased a group of U.S. commandos from the Syrian border village of al-Rai after threatening to kill them and accusing them of being “infidels.” The U.S. Special Forces team was allowed to return later after the intervention of Turkish officers.
Rebel commanders later said they were tired of Washington trying to play all sides in Syria — a reference to U.S. support of the YPG, which has been one of the most effective forces against IS. Their frustration was echoed Monday when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference: "Unfortunately, the behavior of U.S. officials has pushed the FSA to this point” — in apparent reference to U.S. support for the YPG.
Speaking in Istanbul before departing for New York where he was due to address the United Nations' General Assembly, Erdogan said FSA rebels and his own military are likely to extend their zone of control in northern Syria by targeting al-Bab.
A rebel commander confirmed to VOA al-Bab was now clearly in sight.
“We will be pushing on al-Bab,” Zakaria Malahefji, an official with an Aleppo-based FSA militia. “An offensive is coming, We are definitely headed to al-Bab,” he added.
But the SDF has no intention of backing down.
“Our troops will advance toward al-Bab,” Ahmed Sultan, deputy commander of the Army of Revolutionaries, an affiliate of the SDF, told the Al Monitor website. “This will be our next military target. We want to completely liberate this city. We will not allow the regime to advance, and we will also prevent the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army factions from taking part in the liberation of al-Bab and its countryside," he said.
Heading off a clash
Clashes have occurred often before between the Syrian Kurd-dominated forces, which also include some Arab and Turkmen militias, and FSA and Islamist rebels. During a blistering Russian-backed offensive by the Assad regime in February in northern Syria, YPG militiamen snatched several Arab villages from the FSA.
The raids prompted angry FSA accusations that the YPG was coordinating operations with Damascus. This was denied by Syrian Kurdish leaders, who claimed they were merely ensuring the villages didn’t fall into the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
And since August when the Turkish military launched its Operation Euphrates Shield intervention in northern Syria ostensibly aimed at helping the FSA clear IS from border villages, the bitter foes have skirmished repeatedly in northeast Aleppo Province, prompting U.S. exasperation and alarm. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that clashes between their two allies is unacceptable.
To try to calm tensions, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on a trip to Istanbul last month warned that the SDF risked losing Washington’s support if it failed to withdraw its forces east of the Euphrates. His warning came after the SDF seized from IS the town of Manbij, an ethnically mixed town 30 kilometers west of the river.
Both Turkish officials and rebel commanders say they have complained about the SDF flouting Washington’s instruction.
Turkey and FSA rebels fear that the YPG, the armed wing of the Syrian sister party of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is determined to carve out a mini state along the border with Turkey and unite four Kurdish-majority cantons. Part of the purpose of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield is to deny YPG territory.
As Arab-Kurdish tensions mount in northern Syria, all may not be well within the SDF. A senior-ranking defector from the alliance, Abdul Karim al-Obaid, who was a field officer with an Arab militia Liwa al-Tahrir, told Al Jazeera Television on Saturday that he expects a wave of Arab factions from the alliance in the coming days and weeks. He says that the SDF is totally dominated by the YPG and is not a real partnership between the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.
“The Arab factions have no impact on the decisions taken,” he said, adding, "The YPG has complete control. The other [ethnic] factions are used for media purposes; they are just a symbolic representation."