ISTANBUL, TURKEY - President Barack Obama told reporters Monday at the Pentagon his strategy for defeating Islamic State (IS) militants will take time to work, and there is no substitute for working through indigenous forces in the region.
One of the biggest challenges for Washington, however, is getting those indigenous forces to trust each other, and political activists say that is getting harder in Syria.
Mutual suspicion between mainly Arab rebel militias and Kurds is deepening as Kurdish-led forces go beyond their home territory and reach into traditional Arab villages as they seek to roll back Islamic extremists.
Some rebel commanders and other opposition leaders say the distrust risks flaring into open hostility and clashes.
“When we are more into the endgame with Daesh, then it will be a fight between Arabs and Kurds in northern Syria,” said activist Ahmad Abdulkader, using the Arab acronym for IS.
Abdulkader, who oversees a network of anti-Daesh activists called Eye-On-The-Homeland, is not alone in predicting that outcome. Militia commanders aligned with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, as well as more powerful Islamist brigades, have become increasingly wary of the Kurds, whom they accuse of seeking a land grab. They also distrust the Kurds’ denials of wanting to establish a breakaway state for themselves in the northeast of the country.
Monday, Syrian Turkmen Assembly chief Abdel Rahman Mustafa told the Turkish news agency Anadolu: “Turkmen fighting groups in Syria have taken the decision to offer greater support to each other and work to create a Turkmen army, if conditions permit.” He spoke as the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, which has close ties to the Turkish government, met in southern Turkey.
IS propagandists have been eagerly fomenting discord between their Arab and Kurdish foes, promoting the idea that Kurds loot captured Arab villages and are engineering a demographic change along the border with Turkey.
In the lead-up to the mainly Kurdish capture of the Syrian border town of Tal Abayad last month, Islamic extremists panicked the town’s Arab population by warning that fighters with the YPG, People’s Protection Units, which are dominated by Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), would run amok. This prompted thousands of Arab residents to flee to Turkey.
Reassuring appeals by the Kurds for the refugees to return have been only partly heeded; many Arabs remain fearful.
Turkish officials have not helped, with accusations of “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs and Turkmen, as well as claims the PYD wants to carve out a corridor along the border with Turkey to have access to the Mediterranean. The Kurds will break away from Syria if given the chance, Ankara has claimed, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an has warned he won’t accept.
But PYD leaders deny that claim.
“Some circles are trying to ignite a Kurdish-Arab military conflict,” PYD leader Salih Muslim recently told CNN. During the interview he also vehemently denied allegations that his forces have been engaging in ethnic cleansing and insisted that he has support of neutral figures.
In an interview last month after Tal Abayad fell to Kurdish-led forces, Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights, a London-based rights network of political activists opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, told German human rights workers there has been no “ethnic cleansing” in the border town.
He also said he has not heard of ethnic cleansing cases in villages further east, around the city of Qamishli, where the Kurds have been in control since the early stages of the four-year-long civil war.
“There are dozens of Arabic villages near Qamishli," Abdulrahman said. "The Arabs are still living there and are also protected by the YPG. Indeed, there are civilian casualties in the fights between YPG and IS, but there is no specific and systematic persecution on account of a certain religion or ethnicity by YPG."
But Tarik Sulo, spokesman for northern Syria’s minority Turkmen, said YPG forces and the U.S. airstrikes "are changing the demography of the area,” and that Turkmen "are losing lands where they have been living for centuries.”
YPG fighters, who asked not to named for this article, admitted to VOA in Skype calls that there has been looting in Arab villages that have clearly had a high proportion of IS sympathizers, to which their own YPG commanders turn a blind eye. But they also said there is no policy to drive Arabs from their homes.
The situation is further complicated, they added, by the need to make sure no IS supporters are left in villages they have captured, and to ensure that mines and booby-trap bombs are cleared before villagers are encouraged to return.
But this does not satisfy Syrian rebel militias. Several issued a collective statement in June, saying, “YPG and PYD have carried out a new campaign of sectarian and ethnic cleansing against the Sunni Arabs and Turkmen in the west of al-Hasakah and Tal Abyad under U.S.-led coalition air cover, which participate in shelling to terrorize the civilians and push them to leave their villages.”
U.S. officials say the airstrikes are not intended to strike at civilians and a high proportion of raids are canceled at the last minute for fears of civilian casualties. They say they are investigating allegations of ethnic cleansing.
The rebels have long harbored resentment toward the PYD, going back to the early stages when the party refused to join in the fight against Assad’s forces.
Assad withdrew many of his forces from Kurdish areas in the early months of the civil war, and an uneasy co-existence was maintained between the remaining government troops in northeastern Syria and the Kurds, allowing them to organize a parallel system of government and establish defense committees under the umbrella of the YPG.
The lack of open conflict with Assad prompted the rebel charge that the Kurds were in league with the Syrian government and ultimately hostile to revolution, a charge that was redoubled when the Kurds announced in late 2013 a declaration of regional self-rule in the territory they call Rojava.
“In the end they do what is good just for themselves,” said Abu Mohammed, a rebel commander with an Islamist faction. “We now have as great a fear of the Kurds as Daesh. They have betrayed us many times. When it suits their purposes they work with Assad, and when it does not, they stop. They would not stand with us when the revolution started.”
PYD officials say they are eager to prevent an Arab-Kurdish conflict, and they insist their aim is not to break up Syria. The party’s supporters don’t disguise their hope, though, for self-rule in northeastern Syria.