by: Christopher Kozak and Genevieve Casagrande
Key Takeaway: YPG forces supported by FSA-affiliated rebel forces and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes seized the ISIS-held border crossing of Tel Abyad in northern ar-Raqqa Province on June 15, 2015, in a major victory for Syrian Kurds and the international anti-ISIS coalition. These gains successfully connect the Kurdish cantons of Kobani and Hasakah into one contiguous zone of YPG control along the Turkish border and optimally positioned joint YPG-FSA forces for an eventual advance south towards the ISIS stronghold of ar-Raqqa City. Kurdish forces cooperated with a coalition of Arab tribes, Assyrian paramilitary forces, and FSA-affiliated rebel factions to enable its rapid advance, although sustained accusations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the YPG of Arab civilians may disrupt wider coordination with the Syrian opposition. Recent YPG gains will also likely exacerbate tensions between Syrian Kurds, the Turkish government, and the Assad regime in a way which limits the options available to both the YPG and the U.S. in the fight against ISIS in northern and eastern Syria.
Syrian Kurdish YPG forces supported by FSA-affiliated rebel forces and U.S.-led international coalition airstrikes seized the ISIS-held border town of Tel Abyad in northern ar-Raqqa Province on June 15, 2015. This victory marks the culmination of a new YPG-led campaign to reverse ISIS’s gains against the three Kurdish cantons of northern Syria, including Hasakah, Kobani, and Afrin; to limit the flow of direct ISIS reinforcement through the Tel Abyad border crossing to ar-Raqqa City and eastern Syria; and to establish a contiguous Kurdish region stretching from Kobani to Hasakah Province. Tel Abyad is a border town on the Syrian-Turkish border between two Kurdish areas, Hasakah and Kobani that lies immediately north of ISIS-held Raqqa city. Tel Abyad and its surrounding villages represented a pocket of ISIS-held terrain which blocked transit between the Hasakah and Kobani cantons and simultaneously provided ISIS with direct supply lines for reinforcement and resupply between the Turkish border and the self-declared ISIS capital city of ar-Raqqa. Although ISIS steadily lost ground to joint Kurdish and rebel forces in eastern Aleppo Province in the immediate aftermath of the failure of its Kobani offensive in March 2015, ISIS forces managed to establish relatively stable defensive lines to protect Tel Abyad from the west. ISIS even achieved limited gains in Hasakah Province to the east, where Kurdish and regime forces maintain an informal alliance to cooperate in securing the province against ISIS advances.
The new YPG operation, announced on May 6 under the name Operation Martyr Rubar Qamishlo after a fallen YPG commander who died fighting ISIS, sought to reverse this dynamic and roll back the remaining ISIS presence in northern Syria. The operation began in Hasakah Province with a YPG push south from the Turkish border crossing at Ras al-Ayn east of Tel Abyad, directed tosecure numerous villages recently threatened by ISIS, including the crossroads town of Tel Tamir, the Assyrian villages of the Khabour River Valley, and the entirety of the Abdul Aziz mountain range west of Hasakah City. The YPG conducted this phase of the operation with the assistance of local Assyrian militia formations. Once the YPG had secured the western flank of Hasakah Province, YPG forces began the advance west towards Tel Abyad and seized the town of Mabrouka southwest of Ras al-Ayn on May 26 after receiving a “green light” from the U.S.-led air coalition to seize the entirely of the Kobani – Hasakah road along the Turkish border. This decision signaled U.S. support for some form of contiguous Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria despite continuing Turkish reservations regarding the expansion of YPG influence on its southern border.
In response, ISIS launched an offensive against regime positions south of Hasakah City on May 30 in an apparent attempt to divert Kurdish resources and disrupt the ongoing YPG offensive. However, ISIS’s effort failed to draw significant numbers of Kurdish fighters towards Hasakah City, and YPG forces supported by FSA-affiliated rebels subsequently seized dozens of villages west and east of Tel Abyad in a consolidated effort to envelope the border city. These advances culminated in the seizure of the town of Suluk 20 kilometers southeast of Tel Abyad on June 14. The next day, YPG and FSA forces penetrated Tel Abyad from the southeast and quickly overwhelmed the small, unreinforced ISIS force that remained in the town, prompting them to surrender to Turkish forces at the border or flee south towards Ayn Issa and ar-Raqqa City. YPG and rebel commanders have since messaged that the next phase of anti-ISIS operations will involve a joint YPG-FSA offensive south from Tel Abyad to seize Ayn Issa, sever interior ISIS lines of communication, and threaten ar-Raqqa City. This operation could potentially enable anti-ISIS forces to penetrate into ISIS’s core stronghold in Syria in a development which may produce positive ramifications for other anti-ISIS operations across Iraq and Syria.
The YPG leveraged a coalition of allied forces in order to buttress its offensives in northern Syria and promote its inclusiveness to non-Kurdish populations in the region. In Hasakah Province to the east, YPG forces resisting ISIS’s advances in Tel Tamir and the majority-Assyrian villages along the Khabour River Valley received assistance from a number of Assyrian paramilitary formations, including local residents enrolled in the ‘Khabour Guards’ as well as fighters from the greater Syriac Military Council (MFS). YPG units in Hasakah Province also cooperated closely with Jaysh al-Sanadid, an Arab tribal militia commanded by Sheikh Hamidi Daham al-Hadi of the historically pro-Kurdish Shammar tribe of northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Although these groups remain driven largely by local concerns and have not played noticeable roles in the YPG offensive on Tel Abyad, their presence enables the YPG to deploy manpower towards offensive action without compromising security in its rear areas.
In Kobani canton to the west of Tel Abyad, the YPG operates alongside a number of FSA-aligned Syrian rebel factions organized under the umbrella of the Burkan al-Firat (Euphrates Volcano) Operations Room. The Euphrates Volcano Operations Room was founded on September 10, 2014, with the expressed intent of expelling ISIS from eastern Aleppo and ar-Raqqa Provinces. The majority of the groups participating in the operations room consist of local brigades seeking to reclaim their home regions following losses to ISIS which forced them to seek shelter in Kurdish-held areas. The presence of these rebel fighters thus provides YPG forces with added legitimacy in their efforts to seize and administer Tel Abyad and the surrounding villages of northern ar-Raqqa Province, which are populated primarily by Arab and Turkmen civilians sympathetic to ISIS.
Despite its inclusion of FSA-affiliated rebel factions and other local paramilitary forces, prominent opposition actors have accused YPG forces of perpetrating a number of abuses against Arab civilians during the advance into northern ar-Raqqa Province. These allegations largely center upon claimed YPG involvement in the forced displacement of Arab civilians and the burning of Arab homes in an “ethnic cleansing” campaign designed to lay the foundation for the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. On May 30, as YPG forces began the advance towards Tel Abyad, the exiled Syrian National Coalition (SNC) released a statement accusing the YPG of committing “violations” against the local civilian population in Hasakah Province which served to “encourage sectarian and ethnic extremism.” In early June, Syrian opposition figures reaffirmed their concern over reports of YPG civilian abuses against Arab and Turkmen populations in light of the imminent fall of Tel Abyad. Former Syrian Military Council (SMC) chief of staff Salim Idriss stated his concern regarding Kurdish abuses against civilians, while Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and thirteen other prominent rebel brigades released a joint statement demanding that the YPG be listed as a “terrorist organization” due to its “ethnic cleansing” of Arab areas. Independent media organizations have also reported these allegations, although no clear evidence has yet been presented. These accusations may threaten to disrupt the current cooperation between Kurdish forces and the Syrian opposition amidst preparations for a FSA-led offensive towards ar-Raqqa City.
The YPG capture of Tel Abyad marks a major strategic victory for Kurdish forces and their efforts to form the governance structures of a self-declared Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria termed ‘Rojava.’ Kurdish control over Tel Abyad and its countryside provided a physical link between the Cizire (Hasakah) and Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) cantons for the first time, bolstering the YPG’s value to the international anti-ISIS coalition as well as Kurdish claims to self-governance. However, these gains also escalate tensions with two prominent actors: Turkey and the Assad regime. The Turkish government has repeatedly condemned the YPG as a “terrorist” group due to its connections with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Turkish President Recep Erdogan warned on June 14 that the YPG seizure of Tel Abyad “could lead to the creation of a structure [i.e. Rojava] that threatens our borders”. These concerns could ultimately drive the Turkish government to curtail or otherwise limit its participation in the international anti-ISIS coalition.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime maintains an uneasy balance with YPG forces in Hasakah Province, particularly in the cities of Hasakah and Qamishli, and remains unwilling to allow a Kurdish separation from Syria. Similarly, Syrian Kurds harbor no sympathy for the Assad regime following years of systemic repression and the removal of the remaining regime presence in Hasakah Province forms a necessary precondition for the formation of a truly autonomous Rojava, Although regime and YPG forces continue to informally cooperate in Hasakah Province, this engrained antipathy has resulted in numerous minor clashes between regime and YPG forces in northeastern Syria. In one recent incident, YPG forces refused to provide support to regime forces during an early June 2015 ISIS offensive against regime positions south of Hasakah City, prompting the state-owned Al-Watan newspaper to publish a critique of the “American project” to establish an independent Kurdish entity. One day after the fall of Tel Abyad, YPG and regime forces engaged in clashes throughout Qamishli which the YPG blamed on regime “provocations”. These tensions will likely intensify as the YPG continues to gain ground in northern Syria and the regime suffers additional losses in western Syria.
The YPG and its local allies retain an optimal position to threaten ISIS control over ar-Raqqa City and its surrounding countryside in the aftermath of the battle for Tel Abyad. Rebel fighters in the Euphrates Volcano Operations Room have identified ar-Raqqa City as their next objective and the YPG defense chief for Kobani canton confirmed that “Tel Abyad is only the end of a phase…we will pursue what remains of ISIS, no matter where.” ISIS appears to view a joint YPG-rebel advance on ar-Raqqa as a viable threat and reportedly directed residents of the city to stockpile food supplies in preparation for a potential siege. Any such offensive would require an attack by YPG and Euphrates Volcano fighters against the ISIS-held town of Ayn Issa and its associated Brigade 93 base, located south of Tel Abyad along the highway to ar-Raqqa City. However, the extent to which the YPG remains willing to advance outside of the Kurdish-majority regions of its envisioned Rojava remains unclear and Syrian Kurds may alternatively prioritize efforts against remaining direct threats to their own borders, such as the enduring ISIS presence in Sarrin southwest of Kobani or the regime remnants in Hasakah Province. Nevertheless, the ascendance of the YPG and the position it maintains between Syrian rebels and the regime will continue to form a key factor in dictating the options available to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria.