BEIRUT, Lebanon – Aras Xani, a spokesperson for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which control Syria’s Kurdish northeast, says he has one wish for Newroz: That the war with al-Qaeda and other jihadist forces comes to an end.
As long as the violence continues, he says, "the Syrian people are the only losers."
Xani claims that the YPG has been making military gains against the al-Qaeda splinter Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in fighting along the border with Turkey. "We've been able to liberate villages where ISIS has been stationed and was posing a threat to the region," he says, referring to a cluster of villages just south of Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye in Kurdish).
But analysts say that, on the battlefield, the two sides are at a stalemate. Recent advances like these, they note, have turned out to be temporary at best.
Less than a month after Kurdish forces recaptured the town of Tal Barak near Ras al-Ayn in Hasakah province, hailing it as a major strategic victory, Islamists swept back to undo the YPG gains, notes Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on Iraq and Syrian jihadists at Britain’s Oxford University.
"It’s been a back-and-forth between ISIS and YPG for the past few months," says the analyst, who has been closely following the daily gains and losses in Syria’s Kurdish regions. “Neither side has been able to secure territory for a lasting time as a stronghold."
Kurdish forces are having trouble advancing, Tamimi says, because of distrust within towns and villages with large Arab populations.
“The problem for the YPG in trying to launch these counteroffensives is, these aren't mainly ethnically Kurdish areas,” he says. “The indication is that for local Arabs, if they're going to make a choice between the YPG and ISIS, they prefer ISIS."
The ISIS has been accused of public executions and beheadings in the territories it controls. But Tamimi hears similar accusations against the Kurdish troops fighting to oust the Islamists. “They accuse the YPG of crimes against local Arabs, stealing property and killing civilians."
Late last month, the YPG declared it was halting military operations against the Islamists, following apparent allegations of arrests and human rights violations against local residents after the offensive on Tal Barak.
It said it was suspending military operations in the three “cantons” of Cizire, Kobani and Afrin, created by its political overseer, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The YPG said its decision was aimed at avoiding Kurdish-Arab tensions after the offensive. However, it vowed to crush any attempts “to disturb peace” in Rojava, or Syria’s Kurdish regions, where the YPG has been instrumental in keeping out ISIS and al-Qaeda groups.
Syria’s Kurdish regions have remained largely protected from the civil war between the Damascus regime and opposition forces, which has raged for nearly three years. The complex civil war has been further muddied by jihadist groups fighting alongside the opposition.
ISIS is trying to break the stalemate in part by increasingly using suicide bombers against Kurdish targets, analysts say, most recently in the town of Qamishli on the Turkish border. A triple suicide bombing last week left nine dead and more than a dozen wounded. The attack targeted the Hadaya hotel in the city's center, a building in use for municipal purposes.
"In Qamishli it is to demoralize the YPG and any regime presence there," Tamimi says about the use of human bombs, which he adds are typical of the group's overall strategy. “They're trying to hurt morale and maybe take out a commander or two."
It appears to be working.
Residents in Qashmili say they feel less safe now, and complain about the maze of checkpoints set up after the most recent attack.
The territory being fought over, Syria’s Kurdish northeast, is strategically important to both groups. For the PYD, it is the seat of their newly formed administration. For ISIS, here lie key supply routes into Iraq, an increasingly important base of operations for the group.
Kirk Sowell of Uticensis Risk Services, a political risk analysis firm based in the Jordanian capital, says ISIS needs the territories because it has been squeezed out of supply routes goring through Dier Azzor because of clashes with rival Islamist rebel group, and local al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
For ISIS, the next-best supply route for guns and troops, between Raqqa in central eastern Syria and across the border into Iraq, are Syria's Kurdish regions. Politically, this is helping the PYD expand its dominance.
“The fact that the jihadists are attacking them simply reinforces PYD dominance," Sowell says, "simply because when you're under attack from an outside force that wants to kill or repress you, why would you be involved in internal disagreements?"
The YPG says that in Qamishli, the town recently targeted by ISIS suicide bombs, it is amplifying security ahead of planned celebrations for Newroz.