New Cold War.org, April 26, 2016
Enclosed are three recent articles published in Al-Monitor:
- Shelling of Aleppo neighborhood threatens to stir up Arab-Kurdish strife, April 22, 2016
- Syrian Kurds expand diplomatic network in Europe, April 22, 2016
- What’s next for Aleppo? , April 25, 2016
Shelling of Aleppo neighbourhood threatens to stir up Arab-Kurdish strife
By Sardar Mlla Drwish, Al-Monitor, April 22, 2016
Since February, the Syrian armed opposition has been shelling Aleppo’s Kurdish Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood, where the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and about 25 armed opposition factions have been fighting.
The armed Syrian opposition’s ongoing shelling on the Kurdish-majority Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood of Aleppo risks potential strife between Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
The opposition is using locally made improvised weapons — such as the Hell cannon, Hamim missiles and mortars, in addition to other heavy weapons — against civilians. Shelling the neighborhood, where nearly 40,000 people reside, is a violation of the Syrian truce reached after the UN Security Council unanimously voted in favor of a cease-fire. Nidal Hannan, a journalist residing in the neighborhood, told Al-Monitor that April 5 was one of the deadliest days, as “the shelling resulted in the death of dozens of civilians.”
Hannan denounced the Syrian political opposition’s silence on the Sheikh Maksoud incidents. A number of Kurdish and Syrian journalists and activists, including Hannan, issued a statement April 9 calling on international human rights organizations to take quick and responsible action to end the shellings, which “rise to the level of war crimes.” The statement also called for countering the actions of the armed factions, “which misrepresent the Syrian people’s aspiration for freedom, dignity and human rights, and [harm] the principle of coexistence between Kurds and Arabs.”
Human Rights Watch issued a report April 12 about the attacks against civilians.
The armed opposition, represented by Fastaqim Union (also known as Fatah Halab), blamed the increased attacks on the YPG, which it accused of opening a passageway to link the Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood with regime-controlled areas. But Imad Daoud, chairman of the civil administration in Sheikh Maksoud, denied any agreement between Kurdish fighters and the Syrian regime, saying, “The said passageway was opened in coordination between the Kurdish Red Crescent and the Syrian Red Crescent to meet the needs of civilians and help the wounded and sick.”
Ward Furati, a member of Fastaqim Union’s political bureau, told Al-Monitor that what happened was due to the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) control over the neighborhood. He accused the PYD of using the Russian intervention against the Syrian revolution, and coordinating with the Syrian regime to take over “liberated areas.”
He said the battles began at a time when hostilities between the two parties were supposed to cease. Furati said Fastaqim Union issued a statement March 3 calling on the YPG to stop targeting civilians on the main road connecting the opposition-controlled areas to Aleppo’s northern countryside. The statement also called for “putting an end to the use of heavy artillery and rockets, which have killed dozens of civilians.”
Daoud, the neighborhood administrator, told Al-Monitor the armed opposition factions are blaming the PYD as a ruse to avoid admitting they have intentionally bombarded civilians. He said the attacks, which killed more than 100 civilians and injured around 700 others, were designed to implement regional and international agendas; he was referring to Turkey’s support for the armed factions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A video posted online showed the Syrian Turkmen Brigades shelling the neighborhood with rockets bearing messages in Turkish, saying the attack was conducted to avenge the victims of Ankara and Istanbul.
According to Daoud, opposition factions, which deny attacking civilians, tried to break into the neighborhood from five different points and failed. The civilians, he noted, are situated about 300 meters (328 yards) away from the YPG’s military positions.
On April 7, Jaish al-Islam admitted using prohibited weapons when targeting Sheikh Maksoud. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon subsequently called for an investigation into reports of the use of chemicals.
Furati told Al-Monitor that a group affiliated with Jaish al-Islam had used Grad multiple-fire, truck-mounted rocket launchers, saying, “Grad rockets are not internationally prohibited, but the FSA [Free Syrian Army] leaders in Aleppo banned their use and the use of artillery in operations against Sheikh Maksoud to ensure the safety of civilians.”
Daoud said that the opposition is using weapons containing toxic substances. Moreover, activists posted videos April 12 that include testimonies by civilians and a nurse at the Kurdish Red Crescent Hospital in the neighborhood, accusing the opposition of using toxic substances. The opposition denied the allegation April 15.
The conflict in Sheikh Maksoud serves as a warning against increased tension between Kurds and Arabs.
Furati said the FSA does not distinguish between Syrians, as “a good number of Kurdish fighters are within our ranks.” He accused the PYD of paving the way for a separatist project (in reference to the federal system announced by the Kurdish-led autonomous areas of northern Syria in March), saying that the attempt to separate the Kurds from the Syrian people “will not succeed.”
Hannan found it strange that armed factions would attempt to hide the truth of targeting civilians and limiting the conflict to the Kurdish party, even as the factions target a Kurdish-majority neighborhood.
On April 9, the factions issued a statement, which they attributed to the FSA, calling for “distancing and moving civilians out of the neighborhood into safe places and bringing them back after the military operations are over.”
Hannan, however, said the Kurds rejected the idea, seeing it as an attempt to force Kurdish civilians out of the neighborhood.
Daoud described the statement as a war crime and ethnic cleansing against the Kurds. He said all the neighborhood’s residents, be they Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens or Christians, have rejected the statement, which stirs up strife between the Kurds and Arabs.
Furati said that the statement came in response to calls made by Sheikh Maksoud’s residents, who are “trapped by the PYD.”
An Arab resident of the neighborhood told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the residents “do not trust a party that calls for distancing them while it is the one bombarding them.” He called on the parties to the conflict not to involve civilians.
Sardar Mlla Drwish is a Syrian journalist working in written, audio and electronic media. He holds a degree in media from Damascus University.
Syrian Kurds expand diplomatic network in Europe
By Fehim Tastekin, Al-Monitor, April 22, 2016
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long insisted that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are terror organizations that are more dangerous than the Islamic State (IS). If one day he sees YPG flags in the corridors of the European Parliament, Erdogan will swear never to return to Brussels. Remember 2009, when he silenced Israeli President Shimon Peres with his now infamous upbraiding, announcing, “I do not think I will be coming back to Davos after this.”
Northern Syria’s PYD and YPG are steadily expanding their legitimacy in Europe. The YPG flags on the doors and walls of the European Parliament are but a small indicator that Ankara’s protests have made no impact.
The political and military actors of Syrian Kurdistan, known as Rojava, have succeeded in opening representative offices in various corners of Europe despite stern warnings from Ankara. A turning point came for the Kurds on Feb. 8, 2015, when French President Francois Hollande hosted a meeting with Asya Abdullah, the co-chair of the PYD, and Nesrin Abdullah, the commander of YPG’s female branch, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
The Syrian Kurds, who are treated warmly both by the Russians and the West, opened their Moscow office not in the name of the PYD, but that of the Rojava administration on Feb. 10. They are diplomatically active in Brussels, which houses NATO, the European Commission and European Parliament. They have already opened offices in Prague and Stockholm. Copenhagen is next.
Erdogan had reacted sharply to the opening of the Moscow office, saying, “I am calling on countries supporting the PYD: If you have a conflict with them, these people will come and attack you with bombs like [IS]. From here I am warning Russia. They think that because they allowed the opening of the PYD office, they will be safe from them. They are wrong. There will be operations in Russia.”
On Feb. 16, in Ankara, Erdogan warned the West: “I want to call on our Western friends again. The PYD and YPG are terror organizations. History will not forgive those who enabled these terror organizations to get organized as such.”
These warnings did not yield any results. On April 3, the YPG-YPJ opened their Prague office in the presence of Kobani Canton’s foreign relations official Idris Nassan, Jazeera canton’s foreign relations official Abdulkerim Omer, YPJ commander Nesrin Abdullah and representatives of the Czech government.
The Prague office is managed by Iman Dervis of the YPJ and Servan Hasan of the PYD. Speaking to Al-Monitor, Hasan said that the opening of the office implies political recognition.
Asked about the choice of Prague, he said, “We opened this office not only for the Czech Republic, but for all of Europe. The reason why we opened in Prague first is because it is the first city Nesrin Abdullah visited. She met with officials of the Defense Ministry. Czechs, who lived under the sovereignty of different powers, represent a European society that comprehends the situation of the Kurds. They are interested in our efforts to build an administration that respects democratic and human rights. Moreover, our struggle against the Islamic State is greatly appreciated. They are all aware that IS is threatening not only the Middle East but also Europe. That is why there is much interest in the YPG and YPJ. Europeans support our struggle against radical Islamists. The Czech Republic has close relations with the Arab world. They follow developments in the region closely.”
Asked about military or financial assistance from the Czech Republic, Hasan said, “We have contacts with several ministries, but we haven’t received any weapons or money. As Kurds, we are fighting terrorists. In the field we are working with the United States. Our true function here is to establish diplomatic links and form strategic friendships.”
Kurds always advocate a model to their European contacts that will allow diverse ethnic and religious groups to coexist in the Middle East. Of note, there is serious European interest in the Kurdish canton system that allots women a political representation quota of 40%.
The next office was opened in Stockholm on April 18 in the name of the Rojava administration. The opening was attended by Nesrin Abdullah, Omer, the Rojava administration’s European representative Sinem Muhammed, the PYD’s representative in Sweden Siar Ali and Bassam Ishak, president of the Syriac National Council of Syria. A Swedish minister and several parliamentarians were also present.
In Stockholm, Nesrin Abdullah met with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist.
Zuhat Kobani, the PYD representative in Europe, told Al-Monitor the steps the group has taken there: “The office in Sweden represents Rojava, not the PYD. We will also open an office in Copenhagen. Politically, we have the support of the Danish government. We will open the office as soon as we find the right location. We are also working to open offices in Berlin and Paris. We have found a location in Paris.
“We are not officially recognized in Europe, but we have de facto recognition. Europeans allow us to open offices because they feel they must display political solidarity with our struggle in Rojava. We keep explaining our struggle with IS, our aspirations for democratic autonomy and democratic federalism. Europeans are slowly understanding our issues. We are not seeking assistance from European governments. Our goal is to ensure our legitimacy. These offices will develop relations with European institutions and provide information services.”
Denmark, which in the past has infuriated Turkey by allowing pro-Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) TV channels to broadcast there, appears ready to anger Turkey once more.
“It is very difficult for me to distinguish between the PKK and YPG,” said Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen, who had received much praise from the Turkish public — unlike his predecessor Martin Lidegaard, who had declared, “The PYD is not a terrorist organization. It is different from the PKK.”
Following the IS attacks in Europe, Rojava’s standing has changed. Last month, the Danish government announced it was ready to join the international coalition with F-16 jets and 400 soldiers.
There are now rumors that Denmark may even provide a military contribution to the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces, like the Americans.
To prevent the PYD and the YPG from gaining legitimacy in the West, Ankara is arguing that these two organizations are extensions of the PKK and will resort to terror when under pressure. It also claims they work for the Syrian regime and is carrying out ethnic cleansing against Arabs and Turkmens. But this futile approach at times backfires. While the YPG is praised for fighting against IS, Erdogan’s frequent outbursts accusing the PYD and YPG of terrorism give the impression that Turkey supports IS.
Erdogan might not have a problem explaining to his national constituency why countries like Denmark, which he had denounced as terror supporters, are allowing the PYD and YPG to operate in their territories. He is likely to describe it as “provocation” by anti-Turkish forces, and nobody in Turkey will think of asking where the Turkish government had gone wrong.
What’s next for Aleppo?
By Mona Alami, Al-Monitor, April 25, 2016
The Feb. 26 cessation of hostilities in Syria, which were followed by a conference in Geneva between warring parties on March 14, gave a glimmer of hope to the Syrian peace negotiations. This hope is now fading, with the resumption of clashes this month between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition in Aleppo conflating with the stalling of the ongoing peace process in the Swiss city. What are the various scenarios that might play out in Syria, and can a more realist median solution arise from the rubble?
Clashes resumed in Aleppo after the cessation of hostilities there, which raises questions anew on the future of the city and the overall peace process.
Despite multiple breaches, the level of violence across Syria dropped dramatically over the last few months. “There is a feeling of normalcy in Daraa in spite of clashes with the Yarmouk Brigade, which is affiliated with the Islamic State [IS],” says a fighter from Ahrar al-Sham, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.
The fragile cease-fire seems to be now collapsing, nonetheless. Syrian opposition factions including the groups Salafist Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam declared a counteroffensive on the regime forces on April 18 dubbed Rad al-Mazalem (Facing Oppression). Aleppo also witnessed an escalation in fighting in the last few weeks around mid-April, as Syrian forces backed by the Russian air force continued their offensive on the city. The area was also the scene of intense clashes between rebels and IS, according to Free Syrian Army Lt. Hassan Hamadeh, who spoke to Al-Monitor. “The rebels are under pressure both from the regime and IS,” he added. The recent fighting between the rebels and the regime has already allowed IS to recapture areas it had lost in northern Aleppo around al-Rai. In addition, a regime airstrike in the area of Maarat al-Numan killed around 40 people this week.
The situation appears to also be devolving on the political side. In Geneva, a source within the opposition told Syrian newswire Alsourianet that it had asked UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to postpone the current round of negotiations. “The regime has not taken seriously the negotiations; they are creating diversions to avoid speaking of the transition phase,” Syrian opposition delegate to the UN Najib Ghadban told Al-Monitor. Independently of the UN-led peace negotiations in Geneva, the regime also held parliamentary elections on April 13.
“The regime believes that whatever happens, it will not lose the support of Russia and Iran,” says Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In parallel, the Syrian opposition and its Gulf backers will not accept any power-sharing agreement with Assad. On April 16, a source close to the opposition told Al-Monitor that Assad envoy Riad Daoudi had suggested to de Mistura that Assad was willing to share executive powers with three vice presidents from the opposition — a leak later confirmed by the media and that, according to the source, had been devised by a Washington think tank.
With the cease-fire and negotiations taking a turn for the worse every day, the conflict in Syria appears to be for the long haul, further devastating a country where more than 470,000 people have already died from the fighting over the last five years and half the population has been displaced.
Three possible scenarios appear to be emerging in the wake of the recent breakdown in the peace process. The first — and gloomiest — would entail the conflict regaining full intensity. “While Saudi Arabia and Turkey are not in the best financial condition, they may still beef up their support to the Syrian opposition brigades; they will also want Secretary of State John Kerry to make good on his promise to train and equip rebels if negotiations fail,” Sinan Hatahet, a researcher at the Turkey-based Omran Dirasat, told Al-Monitor.
The second scenario would be maintaining a relative freeze of most demarcation lines, with the exception of a few — including Aleppo. “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would remain in control of Damascus, the Latakia belt and large urban hubs falling in his turf. The rebels would maintain control over southern Syria, the northwest of the country, and pockets around Aleppo and Damascus, while the Kurds would secure the northern areas,” explains Balanche. In such a framework, international and local military offensives would be maintained against IS areas, according to Balanche. Such a scenario is highly probable given the manpower problem faced by regime forces, which are stretched thin and have to be moved from one battle front to the other.
The last and most positive scenario would entail realism prevailing on the Syrian political scene: the absence of a clear victory in favor of any of the warring sides, the manpower issue the regime is facing, combined with the end of Barack Obama’s presidency next November, who could be replaced by a more hawkish contender, opening a window of opportunities for a compromise. “There is no balance of power in Syria; it is a balance of weaknesses. No one can win,” says Hatahet.
Local and international parties also have their own calculations. “President Assad would prefer to have a solution on Syria this summer, because they know that a deal under President Barack Obama would be in their favor [as opposed to] the next administration,” says Balanche. Europe is also pressed by time with the refugee crisis with more than 1 million people reaching the shores of the European Union in 2015 and around 4,000 people dying while crossing the Mediterranean.
Europe is also keen on stabilizing Syria, the war there and in Iraq, reverberating across countries with a multiplication of terror attacks in various European capitals, the latest of which injured over 300 people and killed 35 in Brussels.
Ultimately, the cease-fire and the second round of Geneva conferences have demonstrated the leverage that external players such as Russia and the United States — which backed both initiatives — have on Syrian protagonists. “We need to keep an eye on the Russian-US talks,” advises Ghadban.
Moscow remains the joker in this game of cards, showing its ability to reign in the regime’s ambitions when needed while continuing, at least officially, to show support for a negotiated solution. Such a solution may be far from a full-fledged peace deal and could entail re-establishing a cease-fire and power-sharing agreement by region while working toward an exit strategy, where the divisive issue of Assad’s departure would be the last phase to be tackled by the political track. A final option would be the application of the power sharing agreement suggested by de Mistura last week, allowing for Assad to be stripped of executive powers, which would be transferred to a transitional body. It remains to be seen if Assad’s powerful backers Russia and Iran would agree to such a deal and if it could be implemented in real terms, given that the preservation of the security apparatus would allow Assad to still wield significant power, more specifically on his political enemies.
Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese journalist and a non-resident fellow at the Rafic Hariri Middle East center at the Atlantic Council. She writes about political and economic issues in the Arab world, namely in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan and the UAE.
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