Following the closure of the remaining entry point that Syrian militant and rebel groups had into Aleppo’s east last month it seemed the regime might prevail in that key city.
Clashes are continuing and after an organized counter-offensive the opposition claim they have broken the regime’s siege on the city’s east. It’s not clear what the outcome of this latest phase of the four-year-old battle for that city will be. Nor is it clear what it will mean for the future of the 30,000 Kurds who live in its Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood.
To date the Kurds there have endured a series of attacks by predominately militant Islamist groups who have fired rockets into the neighborhood in their bid to overrun it, subdue the Kurds and use that territory as a launchpad to advance further into Aleppo. Amnesty International said the groups who are attacking Aleppo generally display “a shameful disregard for human life.”
Last February when the Syrian regime launched a large-scale offensive against Aleppo, with Russian air support, the Kurds launched an offensive of their own to relieve pressure and attacks against their isolated Afrin Canton in the west by launching an offensive eastward to seize the Menagh Air Base from the Levant Front Islamist group.
Many opposition groups allege that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is aligned with the regime and that the Peoples Protection Units’ (YPG) presence in Aleppo is merely there to help Assad in the city, not to protect the Kurds there.
Given the fact that the primary threat to Sheikh Maqsoud at present is clearly militant attacks would an Assad victory therefore be more beneficial to the Kurds there?
Samuel Heller, a writer and analyst on the situation in Syria, believes the Kurds in Aleppo have entered a state of open war with Assad’s opponents from which there is no foreseeable return.
“Until relatively recently, al-Sheikh Maqsoud was regarded as part of rebel Aleppo, even if it was somewhat apart politically. But relations between Sheikh Maqsoud and the rest of rebel-held Aleppo began to deteriorate last year, and since early this year – February, really – we've gotten to a point of open war between the YPG and Aleppo rebels from which I don't think there's really any going back,” Heller told Rudaw English.
“If al-Sheikh Maqsoud were to be surrounded by hostile rebels, that would likely be disastrous for them,” he added.
Heller thinks the PYD might have “arrived at some sort of quiet settlement,” with the Assad regime, “at minimum, a modus vivendi.”
“But you never really know when that could sour, either because the YPG in al-Sheikh Maqsoud tries to take territory the regime sees as its own or because of problems between the regime and the Asayish security forces in, say, Qamishli,” Heller said, referring to clashes which took place between regime and YPG forces in the Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli last April.
“Ultimately, al-Sheikh Maqsoud's problem is that it's the most isolated, exposed area of PYD/YPG control in the country. That means that whenever anyone – whether the regime or the opposition – wants to inflict pain on the PYD and YPG, al-Sheikh Maqsoud is the pressure point,” Heller warned.
Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, also thinks that Assad is the lesser of two evils for the Kurds of Aleppo and that the PYD certainly believes it benefits most “from the pro-Assad coalition prevailing in Aleppo.”
“Perhaps the PYD has come to an accommodation with Assad or the Russians on linking up its cantons in the east with Afrin, and thus the crushing of the rebellion would be to the PYD's advantage, at least in the short-term,” Orton told Rudaw English.
“But even in that scenario, it protracts the war - there will still be plenty of people not prepared to lay down arms even if the rebels are denied control of eastern Aleppo City - and it would cause great bitterness against the PYD and the Kurds more broadly if they collaborate in this,” he added.
Orton doesn’t think that the PYD is a proxy of the regime as some in the Syrian opposition have alleged, arguing that it’s a self-interested actor whose interests at present just happen to converge with those of the regime. However that convergence won’t necessarily be long-lasting as circumstances on the ground in Syria change.
“Another possibility,” Orton said, “is that the PYD has no such deal with the Assadists - or the Assadists break it - and once the pro-regime coalition suppresses the uprising in Aleppo, it moves to re-conquer Rojava.”
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.