North Africa, West Asia

Don't do It: why attacking Afrin city would be a major blunder for the Syrian rebels

To attack a major Kurdish population centre alongside the forces of a historical adversary is a mistake firstly in terms of principle.

Omar Sabbour
26 January 2018

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army, FSA, fighters in the Syrian town of Azez near the border with Turkey. Picture by: Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved. More than six months after it was first touted, Turkey has declared the start of an offensive on Afrin, a Kurdish ‘canton’ held by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkish president Erdogan has announced that the offensive will be an extension of ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’, a major Turkish backed military campaign launched in 2016 by a broad coalition of Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, aimed at taking territories from ISIS and the YPG/SDF in the province of Aleppo. Erdogan has also declared that the operation would extend to the major Arab-majority centre of Manbij, held by the SDF since 2016 with US and Russian protection, and the site of brief clashes between the FSA and US Special Forces.

However, it is still yet unclear whether the offensive will extend to the city of and not merely parts of the canton, and if so, which rebel factions will join in. Many rebel factions may baulk at the notion of attacking the city, a heavily-populated Kurdish stronghold, and seek to limit their advances to Arab-majority towns and villages in the city’s eastern environs, such as Mennagh and Tel Rifaat, captured by the SDF from rebels in 2016 under Russian air cover. The taking of a corridor alongside Tel Rifaat would also link the Euphrates Shield areas to rebels currently cut off in the western countryside of Aleppo and Idlib.

Much less is known about the nature of the FSA-SDF conflict in recent years

Whilst Turkey’s motives for attempting to crush the Kurds is well known – with Turkey having arguably forced the rebels to surrender the city of Aleppo as part of an anti-YPG trade off with Russia – much less is known about the nature of the FSA-SDF conflict in recent years.


The anger of many rebels towards the YPG should be understood in the local context of the province of Aleppo. Following their exile by a heavily-armed ISIS in 2014 (particularly following the seizure of heavy US weapons stockpiles from the Iraqi Army in Mosul), the armed brigades and local councils of dozens of towns and villages in the province of Aleppo were prevented from returning to liberate their territory from ISIS by US diktat. Contrary to lax media coverage, the only groups which would receive US air support against ISIS were those which would explicitly commit not to fight the regime, prime amongst them the SDF (these would commonly referred to as ‘US backed rebels’, despite the condition not to ‘rebel’). Here, not only did the US itself refuse to support the anti-Assad FSA against ISIS – despite the FSA being the first force on record to have inflicted severe defeats against ISIS – the US would even blockade attempts by third parties to support rebel offensives against ISIS.

Until the entry of thousands of exiled FSA fighters from Turkey as part of Operation ‘Euphrates Shield' in 2016, the local revolutionaries of towns and villages across the province of Aleppo would look on from exile as the US effectively handed over their territories to the YPG (later under the banner of the SDF). Within a few months of the launching of Euphrates Shield, the rebels would liberate thousands of square kilometres of territory from ISIS and recapture more than 200 towns and villages.

Post by Omar Sabbour | "US essentially stole vast swathes of Syria," gave it to YPG

— James Miller (@Millermena) August 15, 2016

Thus, the reality is that much of the territory controlled by the YPG/SDF consists of effective theft of territory from the FSA - both directly under Russian air-cover and indirectly under US air-cover. This is the source of much of the antipathy between FSA factions and the YPG/SDF. Furthermore under the subsequent SDF occupation, the new authorities of areas such as Tel Rifaat and Mennagh reached ‘reconciliation agreements’ with the regime, whilst expelled residents also spoke of their dire circumstances in refugee camps following their by the YPG/SDF. Other former rebel strongholds taken by the SDF such as Manbij have since similarly rebelled against SDF rule (indeed in the space of a few years, Manbij’s revolutionary locals have organised general strikes against the regime, ISIS and the SDF).

General strike in Menbij, east Aleppo, on Sunday 14 January 2018, in protest at the killing of two young men detained by PYD militants who control the city
Manage#سوريا #داعش #قسد #الأسد #عشائر #إضراب #روجآفا #SYRIA #MENBIJ #ALEPPO #ISIS #SDF #PKK #YPG #PYD #ROJAVA

— Northern Syria Observer (@NSO_SY) January 14, 2018

It goes without saying that an attack on Afrin or its environs (whether accompanied with abuses or not) will not be portrayed with much sympathy in western media, both ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’. The YPG is probably the most popular guerrilla force in the world today, enjoying widespread backing and sympathy from both western establishments (not least both the US and Russia) as well as ‘anti-establishment’ social movements (stretching from the far-right to the far-left).

Yet the YPG is also a force which has allied with Assad, allowed US ground forces and military bases on Syrian territory, called in thousands of US airstrikes (at least one of which was cited by the Coalition to result in the Tohar massacre, and which have killed thousands of civilians overall), returned territory captured from ISIS to Assad's army, and even proposed joining that army in exchange for autonomy. It has supported both Russian and US airstrikes in Syria even after the heavy cost of civilian casualties became clearly apparent, and it has repeatedly condemned rebel criticisms of the civilian casualties by the US-led Coalition as ‘terrorist propaganda’, ‘exaggerated’ and ”helping ISIS”. In what is perhaps a microcosm of its foreign policy, it has raised the flags of both Russia and the US on its bases to defend itself from the FSA.

Whilst Human Rights monitors (including allegedly ‘pro-rebel’ sources, such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Violation Documentation Centre) attest that the YPG/SDF may have directly killed the least amount of Syrians in the conflict – that is, less than the armed opposition – its alliance with the three greatest killers of the Syrian people, respectively the Assad regime, Russia and the United States, is unpalatable. Whilst the longstanding demand and desperation for Kurdish autonomy is understandable and justified, and whilst the Syrian opposition is not free from a degree of Arab chauvinism in its approach towards the Kurds, the YPG has nonetheless been a model of opportunism in the Syrian war and a principal proponent of a ‘War on Terror’ paradigm.

Nonetheless, whilst the fawning attitude towards the YPG in both establishment and ‘anti-establishment’ western circles may be frustrating, it does not make an attack on Afrin wise.

The dangers of an offensive on the city

It should be noted first of all that there has been wider conflict generally within the Turkish-backed ‘Euphrates Shield’ factions. Last August, a Kurdish commander from the largest Kurdish FSA faction, Ahfad Salah al-Din (ASD), was reported to have been tortured at the hands of the Levant Front - another Turkish-backed FSA faction. Whilst both groups were part of the Euphrates Shield operation against ISIS and the YPG, ASD refused to be part of an offensive on the city of Afrin and was subsequently disbanded.

An offensive on Afrin may imperil the rebels in Idlib

The example set at the time by ASD’s refusal to participate in an attack on the city of Afrin is a wise one. As well as being a strategic blunder with potentially vengeful and ominous consequences, factions which would cross into the city of Afrin would have had their compass firmly diverted by Turkey away from the much larger enemy that is the regime. In the vicinity of Afrin, the city of Aleppo remains occupied by the regime – whilst an ongoing regime attempt to capture Idlib, if successful, would constitute a serious blow to the rebellion.

Indeed, an offensive on Afrin may imperil the rebels in Idlib. US officials have long warned that the presence of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (led by the former Jabhat al-Nusra) may entail heavy repercussions for the province (indeed, by some points in the conflict the US has bombed Nusra more than Russia did in the past). However recent reports being circulated have suggested that the US has countered Turkish threats by warning that an offensive on Afrin would be met with an SDF incursion into Idlib – that is, in coordination with the Assad regime’s ongoing offensive. Thus an attack on Afrin would not only stretch the manpower available to rebel forces , but may also invite an increase in US airstrikes on the province, citing the presence of HTS. Rebels in Idlib may thus find themselves at risk of being trapped between an SDF attack from the north and an ongoing regime-ISIS offensive from the south, whilst being subjected to US, regime and Russian airstrikes.

The cost of Turkish support for the rebels – motivated of course not by considerations of anger at the YPG’s collaboration with Assad, but Turkey’s own conflict with the Kurds – exceeds the potential damage caused by a rebel offensive on Afrin city, a major popular stronghold of the YPG. The nationalistic anti-Kurdish motives of the Turkish forces further risks distorting what is fundamentally a rebel disagreement with a political party, the PYD (the political arm of the YPG).

Rebel factions must remember their revolutionary principles which rise high above any temptation of revenge

To attack a major Kurdish population centre alongside the forces of a historical adversary is a mistake firstly in terms of principle – whilst despite it being true that the YPG has aided the regime in North West Syria, there are far more pressing priorities than the city of Afrin in terms of practice. Whilst recapturing Aleppo is a natural aspiration (though it is unlikely that Turkey will allow it), the entry of the Euphrates Shield factions into Idlib to help fight the ongoing regime-ISIS offensive should take precedence before all else. Otherwise, whilst ES factions are occupied battling on in Afrin, it may well be good night for Idlib.

Rebel factions must remember their revolutionary principles which rise high above any temptation of revenge, regardless of the actions of their opponents. Ultimately, their opposition to the YPG must first and foremost be about their relationship with the regime, not fuelled by Turkish/Arab nationalistic sentiments against ‘separatist Kurds’.

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