Kurds Syria
A Kurdish boy walks in a damaged building in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on March 22, 2015.Getty

The US has disgraced itself with how it has handled the crisis in Syria. One of the consequences is that nearly six years into the bloody civil war, different US-backed groups are now fighting over the same territory.

Over the last week, Kurdish-led forces made significant gains in northern Syria, where they captured the town of Tel Riffat, advanced into Marea, and towards Azaz. Almost the entire border of Turkey is now under the control of Kurdish forces and the dream of a united Rojava (Western Kurdistan) seems to be within reach.

But in order to unite Rojava's three cantons – Jazira, Kobani and Afrin – they must first capture territory currently under the control of anti-Assad rebels, some of which are backed by the US-led coalition or by individual coalition member states, like Turkey and Qatar.

With lines blurred between allies and enemies, Kurdish-led forces stand accused of stealing majority-Arab villages from moderate Syrian opposition groups under the cover of Russian air strikes and to the advantage of the Syrian regime.

But it is not quite as simple as that.

Kurds seek any willing allies

The Syrian opposition is fragmented and weak, often forced into strategic partnerships with hardline Islamist and jihadi groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.

There is a tendency among supporters of the Syrian opposition to sanitise the nature of some of the opposition groups to make the anti-Assad coalition look more respectable and viable to partner with. But just because groups like Ahrar al-Sham are not as brutal as the Islamic State (Isis), does not make them moderates. It just makes them less extreme extremists.

Take Marea as a case in point. In December 2015, the Marea Operations Room, an umbrella organisation mainly comprised of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), fought with Jaysh al-Thuwwar (JaT) over control of the city. The Marea Operations Room eventually managed to gain the upper hand, supported by Ahrar al-Sham.

Meanwhile, JaT joined the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed umbrella organisation. By its own account, JaT's split with the Sunni Arab anti-Assad opposition was the result of increased cooperation with extremist groups.

It is difficult to see how one can accuse the Kurdish-led forces of sectarianism, when they have shown willingness to work with Assyrian Christians, Druze, Turkmen as well as Sunni Arabs, while selling rebels like Ahrar al Sham – Islamists, who live and breathe sectarianism – as respectable partners on the ground. It was Ahrar al-Sham that declared JaT "infidels" after they split with the homogenous Sunni opposition and partnered with fighters of different faiths and ethnicities.

Kurdish fighters are the best weapon against Islamic State

It would be simplistic and erroneous to dismiss the Kurdish-led forces in Syria as an instrument of Russia. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People's Defence Units (YPG), as well as the SDF, have manoeuvred themselves into a unique position – they are backed by both Washington and Moscow.

On 21 February, the town of al-Shaddadah, where Yazidi women were sold as sex slaves, was liberated by the YPG under the cover of US air strikes. The US-led coalition has relied on Kurdish groups many times in the past to re-capture territory and no other group has proven as effective a weapon in the fight against IS as they have.

The allegiance between the US and those groups has deeply offended the Turkish government and Ankara insists that the US must choose between Turkey or PKK-affiliated groups in Syria, a choice that Washington is not willing to make.

Pressure increased over recent days, after US-backed Kurdish-led forces entered into direct confrontation with opposition groups supported by Turkey and Qatar. In other words, the US-led coalition is at war with itself.

Kurds look after themselves when allies falter

The situation was bad before, but now it is a catastrophe. How can the US-led coalition implement a coherent strategy in Syria when it is torn apart from inside? The power vacuum has further emboldened President Putin and sent the worst signals possible to our allies on the ground. In the absence of leadership, the Kurds are doing what everyone else is doing in Syria – looking after their own interests. They are not to blame for our incompetence.

There is no denying that Assad is a brutal dictator responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. A butcher, who drops barrel bombs on schools and kindergartens and poisons his own people with chemical weapons; an opportunist, who draws support from terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and the Iranian al-Quds Force. Every person with a moral conscience wants him out of power and brought to justice for the unspeakable crimes that he has committed.

But just to be anti-Assad is not good enough. Opposition to the Syrian regime cannot justify the moral myopia when it comes to the Syrian opposition.

Are all anti-Assad rebels Islamists and jihadists? Of course not. Some opposition groups have heroically withstood any pressure to join forces with extremists. But the truth is that after years of war and little and no support for the secular opposition, the revolution is primarily in the hands of reactionary forces.

The FSA is the last remaining exception among the big players, but even they have teamed-up with groups not worthy of our assistance. The opposition is riddled with groups no better than IS, which represent the same poisonous ideology that threatens the stability of the entire region and beyond.

Under such dire circumstances, it would be fatal to withdraw support for the Kurdish-led forces, which have demonstrated their willingness and ability to cooperate with people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Every inch of land not controlled by religious reactionaries or the Syrian regime is a victory for us all.


Julie Lenarz is the Executive Director of the Human Security Centre.