By Joseph Sax
An important instance of unity among counter-ISIS forces has emerged in Northern Syria, possibly galvanized by recent effective operations against ISIS in Iraq by local Iraqi forces with the support of U.S. airstrikes. The Kurdish YPG, Jabhat al-Akrad [The Kurdish Front], and numerous FSA-affiliated rebel groups announced the formation of the “Euphrates Volcano” joint operations room in Northern Aleppo and Raqqa Provinces on September 10, the most significant rebel-YPG coordination to date. The video statement announcing the formation of the operations room declared the intent liberate to Qarah Qawzaq, Sireen, and Jarablus in addition to Manbij, Raqqa, and their surroundings, and called for material support from the international community in the fight against ISIS. The joint force appears to have immediately initiated operations against ISIS, claiming responsibility for a VBIED targeting an ISIS vehicle in the village of Qarah Qawzaq in the northeastern Aleppo countryside on September 11. A second VBIED in the ISIS-held city of Tabqa west of Raqqa went unclaimed, but is likely to have been conducted by groups within the operations room.
The formation of a joint Arab-Kurdish operations room against ISIS in Northern Syria is a significant inflection that is likely to force a shift in ISIS’s calculus. Significantly, the YPG is also involved in the fight against ISIS near Azaz, where a rebel coalition including FSA groups, Jabhat al-Akrad, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), and Islamic Front groups appear to have been initially successful in blunting the momentum of ISIS’s advance against a key rebel supply line near the Turkish border. Furthermore, in Hasaka province, the YPG has made a number of recent gains against ISIS. The YPG successfully recaptured the town of Jaza’a near the Iraqi border, which had been seized by ISIS forces on August 19. In addition, a YPG offensive against the ISIS stronghold of Tel Hamis is currently underway, and initial reports indicate a successful advance by the YPG.
The Euphrates Volcano Joint Operations Room is an important case study for how the rebel landscape in a given area can be expected to interact with U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, if such airstrikes are to be conducted. Airstrikes alone are unlikely to be successful in defeating ISIS. However, it is possible that rebel action against ISIS on the ground may make considerable gains while ISIS forces are under pressure. While it is too early to examine the battlefield effectiveness of this joint Kurdish-Rebel force, clashes between the YPG and ISIS in the summer of 2014 provide a crucial lens into the force the YPG is able to bring to bear as a member of the new alliance. While they have taken notable losses, YPG forces have consistently been successful in resisting ISIS advances. Furthermore, activity in the months preceding the formation of the operations room sheds light on how ISIS is likely to perceive this new threat to its “border.” An instance of cooperation between YPG rebel forces against ISIS in Northern Syria in March provoked immediate aggression from ISIS, which moved quickly to reassert its control over its own critical terrain.
Background: the Syrian Kurdish Dynamic
The Syrian Civil War placed Syrian Kurds in a position of both extreme risk and unprecedented opportunity. Taking advantage of the regime’s decreasing control, Kurdish leaders from the Democratic Union Party (PYD) formed an armed wing titled the People’s Protection Units (YPG) with the intent of securing control of predominantly ethnic Kurdish areas in Northern and Eastern Syria. Throughout 2012, the PYD assumed administrative and military control over large parts of northern and northeastern Syria. However, the PYD continued to cooperate locally with the Syrian regime, and YPG forces have shared joint control with the regime over Qamishli and Hasaka cities. As a result of this cooperation, Islamist and rebel groups in Eastern Syria frequently clashed with the YPG, including prominent advances by JN, Islamist rebel groups, and ISIS deep into Hasaka province in early 2013.
In a highly successful operation titled the Serekeniye Martyrs’ Offensive, YPG forces expelled JN and ISIS forces from the border town of Ras al-Ayn and its surrounding countryside in July 2013. During these clashes, the YPG proved itself to be a capable fighting force able to evict coalitions of rebel groups from predominantly Kurdish territory. The success of the offensive was closely followed by PYD’s declaration of the Self-Rule Transitional Government, which conferred de-facto autonomy to the Kurdish-majority “cantons” of Afrin and Kobane, in Aleppo province, and Jazira, in Hasaka province.
Fighting between rebel forces and the YPG also occurred in northern Aleppo province. In August of 2013, a coalition of Syrian groups including ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and local groups from the town of Shuyukh announced that they were placing Ayn al-Arab under siege “to liberate the highway between Manbij and Hasaka from PKK [a derogatory reference to Kurdish forces by groups hostile to the YPG] checkpoints.” Nevertheless, rebel forces and the YPG were brought in alignment against ISIS in Northern Syria in the aftermath of the counter-ISIS offensive in January 2014 spearheaded by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.
YPG support for rebels in Aleppo provokes ISIS containment operations
In the Spring of 2014, ISIS escalated hostilities against the YPG in northeastern Aleppo Province. The timing, geographical distribution, and intensity of ISIS attacks indicate three ISIS objectives. First, ISIS wanted to push back YPG positions in order to establish a buffer zone between the YPG’s area of free movement and the “borders” of ISIS’s infant Aleppo Wilayat [Governorate]. Second, ISIS sought to protect key terrain essential to the congruity of ISIS territory in Syria; specifically, the towns of Sarrin, Zawr Maghar, and Upper and Lower Shuyukh. Finally, ISIS sought to deter future YPG aggression against potential ISIS vulnerabilities surrounding the canton of Kobane.
A decision by the YPG to join an attack by the Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front against the ISIS stronghold of Sarrin on March 14 appears to have provoked a shift in ISIS’s disposition toward the YPG and is likely to have encouraged the subsequent ISIS assault against the YPG in Northern Aleppo province. ISIS had seized the towns of Sarrin and Shuyukh Fawqani in the southernmost outskirts of the Kobane canton on March 10 and 11 respectively, allowing it to secure two major crossings north of the Euphrates and more effectively link its control zone north of Aleppo to those in northern Raqqa province. A strategically located town, Sarrin provides access to the Qarah Qozaq bridge and is therefore critical to ISIS’s freedom of mobility in the area. Wresting the bridge from ISIS control would have allowed the YPG and other rebel groups to cut an ISIS ground line of communication (GLOC) between Manbij and Tel Abyad, forcing ISIS to rely on a circuitous route south through the contested Tishrin Dam region.
By participating in the attack, the YPG proved it posed a threat to the not-yet-hardened periphery of ISIS’s Aleppo region. In response, ISIS forces launched an offensive operation to force a contraction of the YPG’s area of operations and deter future aggression. According to Kurdish news site Welati, 700 ISIS fighters arrived in Sireen on March 18 after further clashes erupted between ISIS and YPG-backed rebels. On March 19, the YPG Central Command announced a general mobilization on its website, indicating that reinforcements from other cantons would be moved to Kobane to assist against “inhuman attacks from the ISIS gang.” Shortly thereafter, during Friday prayers on March 21, ISIS-affiliated preachers in Raqqa province declared Ayn al-Arab to be “inside ISIS’s borders.”
Likely seeking to relieve pressure near Sireen, ISIS forces based near Tel Abyad on the Turkish border in northern Raqqa province opened a second front against YPG forces in Kobane. As clashes west of Tel Abyad continued on March 29, ISIS launched its first of three nighttime raids on the town of Zawr Maghar, located just east of Jarablus on the Turkish border. A second attack on Zawr Maghar on April 3 prompted an alarmed statement from the PYD, calling the attacks “the most violent since ISIS began its siege on Kobane.” A third nighttime raid, rumored to have been staged from Khirab Ato, against Zawr Maghar was reported by the YPG on April 17 amidst continued ISIS shelling in eastern Kobane, the last major ISIS operation in the initial ISIS effort to encircle and contain the canton of Kobane in 2014.
Reports of ISIS-YPG clashes in Kobane largely died down in early April, with local sources claiming the ISIS offensive had been thwarted. A YPG commander declared on April 19 that ISIS “not in a condition to advance now” and had been “entirely broken.” Overall, ISIS forces had been able to secure the valuable Qarah Qozaq bridge, but failed to decisively punish and deter the YPG. In fact, the YPG announced “a new resistance campaign against attacks” on April 25, launching immediate attacks against ISIS southwest of Ayn al-Arab city. More importantly, the YPG continued to support rebel groups fighting ISIS in Sarrin as late as May 1, clearly demonstrating ISIS’ failure to contain the YPG and prevent it from threatening critical lines of communication. By the beginning of May, the only ISIS aggression reported in Kobane were isolated firefights along front-line positions, other than ISIS’ brief capture of a hill that was reportedly quickly retaken by the YPG.
After failing in its first attempt to deter the YPG through direct military action, ISIS changed tactics, launching a wave of kidnappings targeting the Kobane canton as well as groups of Kurdish civilians travelling through Aleppo province. On May 21, ISIS fighters abducted 15 Kurdish civilians from the town of Kun Eftar, located along the road between Shuyukh at Sarrin and reported to have been on the frontline between the YPG and ISIS. ISIS’s kidnapping campaign expanded significantly in late May, with ISIS fighters kidnapping 200 Kurds from the town of Qabasin in Aleppo province on May 30. It is possible that ISIS conducted these kidnappings with the intent of conducting swaps for captured fighters and remains. YPG spokesman Redur Xelil confirmed in an interview with McClatchy on June 21 that the YPG was “waiting for their demands to determine if there should be a prisoner swap.” Additionally, Kurdish journalist Multu Civiroglu suggested in an email sent to McClatchy DC that ISIS hoped to use the captured students as a “bargaining chip to pressure YPG.” However, it is also possible the attacks were simply punitive. The Guardian reported that over the following months ISIS tried to “brainwash” the captives and induct them into ISIS ranks, sparking intense fear within the Kurdish population.
A second ISIS offensive against western Kobane began in late June. On June 23, the YPG and Kurdish media reported a renewed ISIS ground offensive on Zawr Maghar. On July 3, ISIS finally succeeded in capturing Zawr Maghar, which had been the target of ISIS attacks since March. A YPG statement published on July 4 announced the YPG’s withdrawal from Zawr Maghar, Bayadi, and Ziyara, temporarily granting ISIS a buffer zone. In addition to denying the YPG the ability to target Jarablus with indirect fire, the capture of Zawr Maghar allowed ISIS to broaden its offensive against the YPG, paving the way for ISIS’s capture of Bayadiya on July 6. Similar to its previous attacks on Kobane, ISIS opened a second front against the YPG staged from northern Raqqa. On July 8, ISIS attacked a YPG cordon around the village of Abdi Kuwi, east of Ayn al-Arab along the Turkish border, and detonated a VBIED against a YPG checkpoint at a cement factory on the road between Sireen and Ayn Issa. This ISIS front appears to have been successful, and the YPG released an official admission on July 9 that its forces had withdrawn from the villages of Kiri Sor, Afdouki, and Kendal as ISIS claimed to have broken the YPG siege of Abdi Kuwi following massive bombardment with tanks and artillery.
However, YPG resistance continued. According to ARANews, the YPG recaptured Jubb al-Faraj, east of Shuyukh Fawqani, and Khirab Ato by July 6.. On July 11, the YPG announced an attack on ISIS-controlled Shuyukh Tahtani, situated along the road linking the key ISIS bridgeheads of Shuyukh Fawqani and Sireen. In mid-July, reports surfaced indicating that the PYD in the Hasaka “Jazira” canton had begun debating instituting compulsory service in the YPG, possibly for purposes of redeployment to Ayn al-Arab. However, the proposed law never came to a vote,, and instead upwards of 800 Turkish Kurds arrived from PKK training camps in Turkey to join the YPG’s fight against ISIS in mid-July. ISIS captured the village of Fiyunta in Eastern Kobane from the YPG two days after the arrival of the PKK reinforcements, but the fresh forces allowed the YPG to stabilize their defenses and begin to push ISIS forces back. On the western front, the YPG halted ISIS’s advance at the town of Jebneh, east of Bayadiya. By July 23, the YPG had recaptured the towns of Jel Oghlu and Darbazin, and took Katsh, Jabb al-Faraj and Kjel a week later, giving the YPG the positioning needed to attack the town of Shuyukh.
The YPG attack on Shuyukh Tahtani was the climactic moment of the Kobane campagin. During the attack, 14 YPG and 35 ISIS fighters were reportedly killed in about 12 hours of fighting. The YPG did not take control of the town, but the takeaway was clear: the YPG could still place significant pressure on the Jarablus-Sireen GLOC and compel ISIS forces in Jarablus to detour around the Shuyukh Fawqani bridge. While sporadic clashes continued through August, these occurred on a much smaller scale with no major territories changing hands. By the beginning of September, ISIS had decisively accomplished one of its primary objectives and decidedly failed in the other two: ISIS had captured Zawr Maghar, pushed the YPG back from Sireen, and held onto Shuyukh, demonstrating ISIS’ ability to secure certain critical locations on the eastern border of its declared Aleppo region. ISIS failed, however, to create a buffer zone around Shuyukh or Zawr Maghar that would preclude subsequent YPG penetration into ISIS territory.
Analysis of the Kobane fight in the summer of 2014 reveals important aspects of ISIS strategy in Syria, indicative of an ISIS prioritization of continuity between its Syrian territories. It is clear that ISIS perceived the YPG to be a threat to important lines of communication that run close to the canton’s borders, and was willing to make a concerted effort to contract the YPG’s area of operations. ISIS specifically mentioned the proximity of Zawr Magharto the city of Jarablus in a report it published on the attack, confirming that ISIS considered YPG control of the town to be an untenable threat to the borders of its declared Aleppo region. The failure of the first phase of the offensive in March and April revealed that ISIS’ forces in the area lacked the strength to consistently make significant gains against the YPG. However, after the Mosul offensive in early June, newly strengthened ISIS forces made important gains, inducing panic in the Kurdish canton. This increased ISIS strength was likely the result of newly acquired indirect fire capabilities acquired from weapons depots in Mosul, and possibly the deployment of veteran fighters to supplement those based in the Aleppo area. The ISIS attack on Zawr Maghar began with days of sustained indirect fire bombardment, distinguished from previous attacks that had almost exclusively consisted of nighttime raids. Testament to this inflection, a YPG statement published on July 4 claimed that ISIS fired over three thousand mortar shells at the town. While the veracity of this claim is impossible to verify, the extent of ISIS’s weapons seizures in Iraq has been well documented.
Despite the reinvigoration of ISIS forces, the YPG was largely successful in defending its border against ISIS. The summer offensives therefore exhibit the ability of the YPG to resist ISIS gains, and to challenge the ISIS interior in a meaningful way. Newly united with rebel groups against ISIS within the Euphrates Volcano Operations Room, YPG forces are likely to contribute both effective fighters and critical staging capabilities that may lead to success against ISIS in the province. The joint operations room is a critical indicator of the possibilities for the formation of local counter-ISIS coalitions within Syria, and, if effective, may provide much-needed rebel momentum within the province. While insufficient to defeat ISIS, effective counter-ISIS action in Northern Syria may nonetheless encourage further exploration of local counter-ISIS alliances throughout Syria. However, the YPG’s participation has once again provoked a strong ISIS response. At the time of writing, an ISIS offensive against the Kobane canton has commenced and made sweeping initial gains. Thus the recent dynamics in Northern Syria illustrate that counter-ISIS movements face high risk in the short-term, and are likely to require additional assistance to be successful in resisting ISIS aggression.