On Thursday August 18, the Syrian Air Force struck several targets in the provincial capital of Hasakah in eastern Syria. It was the first time that President Bashar al-Assad used his air force against the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a powerful Kurdish militia linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that dominates the Hasakah region.
“On Thursday there were warning airstrikes, on Friday air strikes hit positions, also on Saturday there were airstrikes,” says the freelance journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, who is on the ground with Kurdish forces in Hasakah, when contacted on Sunday evening. “Today I am not sure, but fighting continues.”
For a moment, the Syrian air strikes threatened to bring the United States into battle, as U.S. fighter jets scrambled to the area. They did not in the end engage the Syrian aircraft, but the U.S. has upheld a wary watch since then, flying protective patrols around the city even as they allow the Syrian jets to continue attacking the YPG. The Pentagon seems to have moved primarily out of fears that the Syrian aircraft would hit U.S. troops embedded with the YPG, but it is uncertain whether American forces would move to protect their Kurdish allies as they fight a separate war with the Syrian government. Statements from the U.S. military have been threatening, but also somewhat ambiguous: “The Syrian regime would be well advised not to interfere with coalition forces or our partners,” said Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis to the New York Times.
Elsewhere in Syria, the government and the YPG, which forms the core of a U.S.-backed anti-jihadi coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, are on cold but non-hostile terms. Both sides cooperated in driving Sunni Arab rebel factions and the self-declared Islamic State out of Hasakah city in 2015 and although they have since then jostled for control over neighborhoods and roads, the divided city has been tense but mostly peaceful. The recent air strikes do not seem to have tipped the balance against the Kurds, who appear far stronger than Assad’s government in eastern Syria and are threatening to evict the government from Hasakah. A ceasefire may still be reached, but the fighting the fighting comes at a sensitive time and may have implications for Assad’s relations to regional states.
A War Over Militias, Tribes, and Patronage
The origin of the clashes are unclear. Whether on orders from higher-ups or as the result of a street-level dispute, they seem to have begun as a skirmish between a pro-Assad Arab tribal militia and the Kurdish-run Asayish police force. The small army contingent kept by Assad in Hasakah then intervened on the side of the militia, firing heavy weapons and mortars against Kurdish positions. The YPG in turn struck back on behalf of the Asayish, cutting roads to the city and mobilizing troops throughout the area. The government then raised the stakes further by sending its air force to attack Asayish bases, killing and wounding several people—including, according to the YPG, many civilians.
Except for the involvement of the air force, this is similar to a previous round of infighting in Hasakah, which erupted in January 2015. Then, too, the fighting was reportedly related to a quarrel over checkpoints and, perhaps, to the rising visibility of a new pro-Arab militia that had unnerved Kurdish commanders. After about a week of serious violence, followed by some stray clashes, the fighting subsided and the parties negotiated a new modus vivendi. It seems possible that this is what will happen this time around, too. There are already reports of Russian mediation to end the dispute. But the government is far weaker this time around, while the YPG is stronger and has developed new priorities since their earlier round of combat. Though still very much a vehicle for Kurdish communal interests, the YPG now seeks influence in areas and communities that were previously seen as a Baathist preserve.
Like much of the Syrian east, Hasakah is tribal country. Its Arab population hails from Bedouin communities that are sometimes recently urbanized or even semi-nomadic, and remain strongly structured by tribal culture and allegiances. According to Haian Dukhan, a PhD candidate working on state-tribe relations at the Centre for Syrian Studies of the University of St. Andrews, who was interviewed online for Syria in Crisis, many of the Arab Bedouin tribes in eastern Syria region support the Syrian government for historical and political reasons. Although some, like factions of the Shammar and the Jaiss, have joined forces with the Kurdish YPG in the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition, and others joined opposition groups or the so-called Islamic State, the Baath Party and the Syrian intelligence services have been able to stand up several local Arab militias. For example, Assad’s main militia umbrella, which is known as the National Defense Forces, includes many members of the Tayy tribe in Qamishli, on the Turkish border, and the Jabbour tribe in Hasakah City.
The Syrian government seems to have played the tribal game quite efficiently during the conflict, drawing on decades of experience and old connections, on the services and resources still available to Damascus, and on the fear among some Arabs of a Kurdish takeover. But the Baathist security apparatus is now substantially weakened in Hasakah, and the government is desperately short on money and resources to pay its allies.
The rise of the Syrian Democratic Forces, in which the YPG is the dominant faction, has not only empowered the Kurdish community in Hasakah. It has also deprived the Syrian government of its role as the city’s undisputed supreme arbiter of local disputes and as its primary source of patronage for clan and militia strongmen. As the Syrian Democratic Forces expands further into Sunni Arab regions, there has been increasing competition between the government and the Kurds over the loyalty of local Bedouin clans, who tend to operate pragmatically and seek ties to the stronger side. While the government has stronger historical ties to these clans and can exploit ethnic tension between Arabs and Kurds, the rise of the Syrian Democratic Forces and its control over lucrative oil wells and smuggling routes has changed the balance. The Syrian Democratic Forces and its Kurdish allies are now said to be paying significantly higher salaries than the Syrian government and its militia leaders, eroding the networks of the latter. This, too, seems to be a reason behind the clashes in Hasakah.
It is perhaps no coincidence that a primary demand of the YPG is that the National Defense Forces in Hasakah be dissolved. The militias have been a source of lawlessness and a constant irritant to the YPG and Asayish. But they also serve as a vehicle for Arab nationalist sentiment, rallying local Bedouin communities against the YPG and blocking Kurdish attempts to engage, coerce, or co-opt tribal leaders.
A Little Taste of Terror
The primary reason for the Syrian military’s decision to dispatch bombers to Hasakah is perhaps a very simple one: weakness. The Kurds are advancing and Damascus needed to shore up morale among its fighters, while demonstrating that although the Baathist government is weak on the ground, it has plenty of muscle in the air. It also shows that although Assad may not be able to save his hold on Hasakah, if the Kurds were to wage a determined campaign to finish off the Baathist security apparatus, he could make life in the city very unpleasant.
Thanks to the YPG’s unspoken pact of non-aggression with the army, many of Syria’s Kurdish areas have retained some access to useful services from the central government—including public sector salaries, health care, schools, travel by civilian airlines, and the issuing of government paperwork such as passports, identity cards, legal registers, and property records. This could all be lost, if the government is pushed out of the city. No less importantly, the Kurds have also been safe from the government air strikes that have sown terror throughout opposition-controlled Syria since 2012.
This state of affairs has benefited Kurdish civilians, but also the political project of the YPG. By pragmatically cooperating with or seizing control of functional government offices, while complementing them with some new institutions of their own, the Kurds have been able to establish an autonomous regional government in the area they refer to as Rojava, in northern Syria. Although the Baath Party has lost its political influence in these areas, it retains access and potential leverage through the residual institutional and economic ties that connect them to Damascus—which could be cut off. In addition, the Kurds are well aware of the incredible destruction wrought by the Syrian air force in areas held by Arab rebel groups. The bombing of Hasakah city since August 18 has already sent Kurdish civilians fleeing north toward Qamishli.
Apart from their potential impact on the military balance and the morale of Assad’s forces in Hasakah, the strikes seemed designed to show the Kurdish authorities that they have a choice to make: If they want to destroy the Baath Party government in Hasakah or other areas of Syrian Kurdistan, they can do that. The army cannot stop them. But such a choice would come with consequences: the civilian neighborhoods, economy, and institutions of Rojava could then suffer the same treatment as those in Homs, Daraa, and Aleppo.
Subtle Signaling to Turkey?
The government escalation may also have had other uses. As loyalists and often veteran members of the PKK, the Syrian Kurdish leaders maintain a laser-sharp focus on Turkey’s role in the region—the government in Ankara remains the primary enemy of the PKK, and a powerful force in Syria as well. In the past few months, Turkey has been realigning its foreign policy. Although Ankara remains hostile to Assad, there are some indications that it could seek a pragmatic understanding with him over the Kurdish issue. Iran and perhaps also Russia are eagerly seeking to encourage such ideas, with the Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers recently agreeing to work to preserve Syria’s “territorial integrity.”
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the PKK’s affiliate in Syria suspects a Turkish hand in the recent events in Hasakah. “The Syrian regime is apparently working with some regional countries and especially Turkey,” the Rojava authorities said in a statement, affirming: “This is an indication of coordination between Turkey, Iran, and the Baathist regime in Syria, to stop the implementation of the democratic project in northern Syria and Rojava.” The Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim similarly condemned the “Baathist mentality” and accused Assad of seeking to give “evidence of good behavior to Turkey, particularly after the recent Iranian move toward Ankara.” The YPG commander Lewend Rojava, who like Muslim blamed “the chauvinism of the Baathist regime” for the clashes, was somewhat more cautious in his analysis, as reported by the PKK-friendly ANHA news agency: “We are following the meetings that are held between the Syrian regime, Turkey and Iran, but we hope it will not make Turkey a part of these attacks, and we wish the Syrian regime would not take part in the Turkish plot against our forces.”
Though hardly an invitation to peace talks, Damascus has indeed been sending subtle signals to anyone who will listen in Turkey, using the sort of dog-whistle rhetoric so dear to the Baath Party. The Baathist governor of Hasakah, Mohammed Zaal al-Ali, recently issued a seemingly conciliatory statement calling on “all the military and political leaders of the PKK to adhere to their loyalty and belonging to their homeland.” The Political Directorate of the Syrian Arab Army has spoken out in comparatively measured tones to blame the fighting on the “PKK.” Those three letters are indeed a good description of the group they’re fighting in Hasakah, but it is not the term normally used by the Syrian government. Over the past five years, Damascus has more often referred to the pro-PKK factions in Syria by simply using their official names (such as YPG, Asayish, and so on) or by some quaintly patriotic workaround, such as “loyal Kurdish citizens.” It is rare for them to employ the “PKK” term and even rarer to blast it across state media.
That it is happening now, with Turkish-Iranian-Russian diplomacy in full flux, is not likely to be a coincidence, and the signals seem to be received loud and clear. “This is a new situation,” Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim told reporters on Saturday.“It is clear that the regime has understood the structure Kurds are trying to form in the north has started to become a threat for Syria too.” And, whether true or false, the Assad-friendly Lebanese newspaper al-Safir is now claiming that an aide to Turkey’s head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan, visited Damascus on Sunday to “to discuss the developments in northern Syria with a senior Syrian security official.”
Assad’s Hand Remains Weak
Is this all part of Assad’s plan, then? Probably not. Recent shifts in the Turkish rhetoric on Syria have obviously not escaped Damascus, and plans have certainly been hatched to exploit these changes. But the Syrian government primarily seems to be reacting to the threat it faces in Hasakah, and rather than a great conspiracy unfolding, we may witnessing a case of regional diplomacy piggy-backing on local militia scuffles. Whatever actually caused the clashes with the YPG, the Syrian government has nothing to lose from exploiting them politically.
In a best-case scenario for Assad, he will be able to leverage the Kurdish issue to slowly sway minds among the leadership in Ankara or at least cause disarray in the current pro-rebel policy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even if that does not happen, it is sure to send a chill down the spine of every PKK supporter, many of whom are understandably conditioned, because of their bitter history, to expect nothing but betrayal from the international community. The YPG lashed out angrily against the Syrian government statements about the PKK on Saturday, claiming that the “hopeless Baathist Syrian regime is distorting the facts and speak the logic of the Turkish state, by describing us as an extension of other parties of Kurdistan, while being aware of our independence.” An Assad-Erdogan pact against the Kurds seems somewhat unrealistic at this stage, but the fear that it could materialize in the future may still help the Syrian army in its ceasefire talks with the Kurds in Hasakah. Furthermore, as Europeans, Americans, Turks, Arabs, and others ponder their role in the Syrian war, any sign of flexibility and pragmatism from Assad is likely to serve him well.
Still, the hostility between Damascus and Ankara is so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to imagine any major changes in their relationship, despite the best efforts of Iran and Russia. What happens on the ground is far more important than what Syrian government officials say or do not say, and if the U.S. were to get involved on the Kurdish side, Assad’s remaining leverage could crumble quickly.
In addition, there are other ways of reading what just happened in Hasakah. It is quite possible that Turkish officials will look at the situation there and conclude that, far from being a potential ally in the struggle against the PKK, the Syrian army is by now too weak in the east and in the border areas to be of any use to anyone.
Earlier on Syria in Crisis:
- Syria’s Kurdish Army: An Interview With Redur Khalil (December 25, 2013)
- The People’s Rule: An Interview With Saleh Muslim, Part I (February 27, 2014)
- Knocking On Every Door: An Interview With Saleh Muslim, Part II (February 28, 2014)
- What’s Behind the Kurdish-Arab Clashes in East Syria? (January 23, 2015)
- Syria's Bedouin Tribes: An Interview With Dawn Chatty (July 2, 2015)
- Syria’s Kurds at the Center of America’s Anti-Jihadi Strategy (December 2, 2015)
- Manbij: A Dress Rehearsal for Raqqa? (August 10, 2016)