SPEAKING FREELY Syria's war within a war
By Hannah Stuart
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The new front opening up in the Syrian conflict between Kurdish militants and al-Qaeda elements not only reopens Kurdish aspirations for independence but brings new threats to regional stability. As fighting between the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and the al-Qaeda affiliates al-Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant enters its second week, the options for the West become increasingly narrow. While British Prime Minister David Cameron talks less assuredly about British hopes of arming the "good guys", Syria's new war within a war looks
increasingly like the bad guys versus the bad guys.
The YPG, the armed wing of the increasingly powerful Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), have expelled al-Nusrah fighters from Ras al-Ayn and Tall al-Abyad, two strategic towns on the Syrian border with Turkey, thereby gaining control of primary supply routes into north-eastern Syria. Fighting is on-going as both sides seek control of local communities and the region's sizable oil-fields.
Previously, there's been no love lost between the PYD and other Syrian Kurdish groups, but the growing belligerence of al-Qaeda fighters and their brazen attempts to establish mini-Islamist emirates in the region have recently provided a rallying point for the disparate Kurdish groups. As one Kurdish spokesperson recently alluded, having helped the opposition resist President Assad's forces, the Kurds will not allow al-Qaeda to replace a secular dictator with a jihadist one.
With the PYD now calling for an autonomous Kurdish region within north-eastern Syria and voicing intentions to hold elections in six months, the international players in the conflict face ever starker choices. Turkey is concerned about the PYD's affiliations to the Turkish Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK), with whom it entered into fragile peace talks late last year.
Fearing an autonomous Kurdish region could embolden its own Kurdish population, Ankara has taken an uncompromising position. The deputy Prime Minister stated publicly that Turkey would not tolerate a de facto Kurdish region, and the Foreign Minister warned that the consequences of such a move would be worse than the current situation.
Despite Turkey's strident position towards Kurdish independence, it has been a long-standing and vital supporter of Syrian self-determination - maintaining a porous border allowing both weapons transfers into Syria and the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) to use Turkish border towns from which to co-ordinate the resistance.
There are those who believe Turkish support has indirectly enabled Syria's jihadists. Certainly now, just as the Kurdish groups are putting aside their differences to resist al-Qaeda, the fractured opposition - including Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist brigades as well as al-Nusrah - are now fighting alongside one another, preferring Islamist rule to a breakaway Kurdish movement.
For its part, the Syrian regime has deliberately fomented ethnic and ideological fragmentation within its borders. At the beginning of the revolution, Assad granted the Kurds Syrian citizenship in an attempt to secure their loyalty - a move that backfired when the Kurds supported the opposition-in-exile's pluralistic agenda. Regime forces all but withdrew from north-eastern Syria, creating a power vacuum ripe for extremist exploitation. Towns found themselves under the uneasy control of both unofficial Kurdish councils and punitive al-Nusrah sharia committees, pitting Kurds against Arabs in what Assad predicted would become an increasingly sectarian conflict.
In the absence of a sizable FSA presence or even regime forces, the current options for north-eastern Syria are the PYD or al-Nusrah - both of which are terrorist-affiliated organizations at the very least. This stark choice will no doubt spur those who support as well as those who decry Western intervention. For some, it is further evidence of the need to revive the beleaguered FSA and restore the opposition's democratic aims; for others, it underlines the difficulty of avoiding weapons proliferation among the "bad guys". Either way, this latest development demonstrates once again that there are more than just two sides to every Syrian story.
Hannah Stuart is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign affairs think tank in London.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.