Syrian Kurdish fighter in Hasakah, Syria Kurdistan. AFP photo.
A week after the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated Manbij from Islamic State (ISIS) the Syrian Kurds have been bombed by regime warplanes for the first time in the city of Hasakah. Escalation of regime bombings and clashes between the regime and the Kurds run the risk of relieving the pressure on ISIS following one its most significant losses in Syria in months.
On Thursday and Friday clashes between Syrian Kurdish forces with the remaining regime-controlled enclave in that Kurdish-majority city saw scores killed and thousands of civilians evacuated from the city. This serious escalation risks breaking out into open conflict between the regime and the Kurds, an outcome which could well give ISIS a strategic windfall at a critical moment in this war – since the Kurds would have to divert manpower and resources to fight off the regime instead of mount offensives against those militants.
On the ground in Syria the SDF, of which the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) is the primary component, is the most formidable force by far in the battle against ISIS in Syria. The Syrian regimes only attempt to mount an offensive against ISIS last June was completely repelled by the militants, meaning no ground force will be able to mount major offensives against ISIS in Syria if the regime and the Kurds end up going to war.
Given its concentration on the ongoing battle for Aleppo the regime in Damascus will unlikely be able to do more than bombard Kurdish forces in Hasakah and Qamishlo with the remainder of their forces in those areas and airstrikes. They could, however, threaten YPG forces in Aleppo’s Kurdish majority Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood and possibly even the northwestern Kurdish Afrin Canton in the foreseeable future. The two most vulnerable areas the Syrian Kurds in the northeast want to be able to access and protect.
A much better outcome for both sides would be a ceasefire. The YPG have clashed, sometimes violently, with these remaining regime forces in Syria Kurdistan (Rojava) before. None of those clashes escalated into full-fledged war since it has been in neither sides interests to divert resources into fighting each other when they face adversaries much closer to home. Consequently a largely successful, especially by Syrian standards, de-facto ceasefire between them has largely remained in place for about five-years now.
If that comes to an end before ISIS is defeated in Syria then those militants will likely manage to survive and retain hold over territory, including cities, in Syria’s east. Without working in tandem with allied ground forces airstrikes alone won’t be able to completely destroy ISIS in these areas.
The US will unlikely seek to establish a full-fledged long-term no-fly zone against the regimes warplanes, or bomb the regimes ground forces to prevent them entering Rojava. Turkey may well oppose the US warplanes protecting a group they view as part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from its strategically-important southeastern Incirlik Airbase – from where the US, UK and France (until 1998) policed the no-fly zones over Iraqi Kurdistan back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
That would mean the US would have to fly from bases in the Persian Gulf from about 2,000 kilometers away – flying jet fighters from aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean or Red Sea would entail flying over regime-held territory if Turkey disallowed use of its airspace for such an endeavor – which would make it very difficult to maintain a round-the-clock protective aerial umbrella over Rojava.
Also such a move would run the dangerous risk of clashing with Russia. The Kremlin’s ally in Damascus has voiced its opposition to the deployment of western special forces soldiers to train the SDF. Russian fighter bombers already bombed a base in southeastern Syria, near the Jordanian border, where American and British special forces were training the New Syrian Army anti-ISIS militia, twice last June 16th.
Russia officially claimed the incident was an accident. However it could be reasonably interpreted as a warning against the western powers which have deployed these advisory military forces to Syria, especially given the fact that they bombed a day after British special forces advisors left that very base.
Given the difficulties and risks the coalition will face if they try to forcibly protect its most reliable, by far, on the ground partner against ISIS in Syria the importance of averting war between the regime and the Kurds is all the more crucial. Damascus and Qamishlo need to quell the current hostilities in recognition of the fact that neither of them, at least for now, have anything to gain from going to war with each other.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region