Introduction: Solidifying Stalemate
The small town of Yaroubiya in north-east Syria (Hasakah governorate) on the border with Iraq recently came to media attention in light of the takeover of the locality by the YPG- a Kurdish militia affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This resulted in the expulsion of the al-Qa'ida affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), among other fighters
To be sure, in the grand scheme of things in the conflict between the YPG and rival rebel factions, the takeover of Yaroubiya does not represent a decisive turning point but a further step towards the most likely overall outcome: namely, consolidation of existing positions.
Generally, since the outbreak of wider conflict following the YPG's expulsion of ISIS from Ras al-Ayn in July, the YPG has retained its strongholds in Hasakah governorate- where Kurds form a continuum of populated territory in much of the area- and expanded its control to an increasing degree.
In the case of Ras al-Ayn, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), ISIS and Ahrar ash-Sham have repeatedly failed to advance beyond the outskirts since July, and have at best only launched mortar strikes on the town center.
In contrast, in Aleppo and Raqqa governorates, where Kurds form pockets of population, the YPG has suffered serious losses, such as expulsion in August from the town of Tel Abyaḍ in northern Raqqa on the border with Turkey.
The Situation in Yaroubiya
The case of Yaroubiya stands out for its wider analytical implications. Just before the YPG takeover, the town was under the control of ISIS/JN and two other groups: Ansar al-Khilafa and Liwa al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad.
Some comment is needed here on the JN-ISIS relationship in these eastern borderlands: it would appear that the boundaries between the two remain unclear.
Thus, consider the photographic evidence below. The town of Yaroubiya features JN graffiti that has not been erased, but from the same period of the YPG offensive on the town photos of captured vehicles with the ISIS banner were released. Certainly for the YPG the two names and banners are interchangeable. This is similarly the case with reports from jihadi sources on the Yaroubiya area.
Perhaps the lack of clear boundaries between ISIS and JN in these border areas is not so surprising, where mujahideen both Syrian and foreign will naturally tie the struggles of eastern Syria and the Sunni protestors and insurgents in Anbar and Ninawa governorates in Iraq to one unified cause.
Figure 1: Entry to the market in Yaroubiya, featuring JN graffiti on the wall to the right (cf. this video at around 1:30 minutes in).
Figure 2: Vehicle captured by the YPG featuring the ISIS banner. Photo released on 24 October.
Figure 3: A graphic put out by a YPG fighter equating JN and ISIS- seen as one entity- with the gates of Hell.
According to a pro-ISIS source in Hasakah interviewed for this piece, Ansar al-Khilafa and Liwa al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad are aligned with ISIS/JN, but Liwa al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad was a very small battalion in Yaroubiya. The town was also home to a rebel group drawn from local Arab Shammar tribesmen: Liwa Ahrar al-Jazira (LAJ). The battalion was expelled from Yaroubiya in mid-Octoberon ISIS/JN allegations of corruption. The price of flour for distribution to local inhabitants was then lowered to consolidate control over the town.
Figure 4: Photo of an Ansar al-Khilafa fighter at the Yaroubiya border gate on October 26. The town fell into YPG hands towards the end of the day. It should be pointed out that multiple groups in Syria use the name Ansar al-Khilafa. This group in Yaroubiya- extending into the Qamishli area- is distinct from Ansar al-Khilafa in Aleppo governorate affiliated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Figure 5: Liwa al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad fighters in Yaroubiya on October 26, showing that they had not been driven out just yet.
Key to the narrative put out by jihadi supporters over the fall of Yaroubiya is the notion of 'betrayal' in the sense of collaboration between the local tribesmen, the Iraqi army under the Maliki government, and the Assad regime.
Though LAJ stayed out of the fighting and put up an announcement on Facebook immediately after the fall of Yaroubiya denouncing an alleged Iraqi army presence in the town, a report from theIraqi Kurdish outlet Rudaw-corroborated by our local Hasakah source- has shown that LAJ has tried to reach out to the YPG for a power-sharing deal.
Figure 6: Photo distributed by LAJ, among others, allegedly showing Iraqi army vehicles in Yaroubiya. However, they do not actually belong to the Iraqi army, but the YPG.
In contrast, ISIS/JN, Ansar al-Khilafa and Liwa al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad are on the outskirts trying to regain control, aided by the Salafist battalion Ahrar ash-Sham's firing mortar rounds at the YPG, accused by Ahrar ash-Sham of being "agents" of Iran, Assad and Israel.
This reflects the general tendency whereby organized rebel battalions- whether under the FSA-banner or Islamist coalitions-will not side with the YPG against ISIS. The rule of thumb here is partly rooted in the widespread perception of the PYD as a regime agent, though a more accurate characterization is that the PYD is determined to hold on to Kurdish areas at least and to this end is willing to cooperate or fight with regime forces and rebels depending on the circumstances at a local level.
In any case, tribal locals and other civilians- even of Arab ethnicity- differ from the organized rebel battalions in that they may prefer the YPG as the lesser of two evils, such that the YPG has now organized an "Arab Citizens' Battalions" military unit.
Perhaps more important is the question of the Iraqi government role. It is certainly true that the Iraqi army reinforced their own side of the border, but there is no evidence of active Iraqi military aid to the YPG. Nor is there evidence for Assad forces' assistance to the YPG in this case, despite the clear pleasure shown by pro-Assad channel Sama TV at the YPG takeover.
Figure 7: Screenshot from a video currently being circulated in jihadi social media purporting to show an Iraqi army Humvee on the Iraqi side of the border across from Yaroubiya.
Rather, the Iraqi aim was to stop the ISIS fighters in particular from slipping into Ninawa province, where, as a report from Baghdad's newspaper al-Aalem has shown, ISIS fighters have frequently retreated in the face of rout at the hands of the YPG and/or regime forces as a launching pad to head back into Syria. Mosul in particular- where ISIS has an extensive financial network- serves as an apt base for recuperation. Of course, the YPG will also have an interest in preventing ISIS fighters from having border crossings whereby they can retreat into Iraq to launch new incursions into their territory in Syria.
Yaroubiya and Kurdish Rivalries
Unsurprisingly, this coinciding of interests on the part of the YPG and Iraqi government has won praise for Baghdad from some Syrian Kurdish figures. For example, Shelal Kedo- a member of the Syrian Kurdish Council- told Iraqi outlet al-Sumaria News that the takeover of Yaroubiya marked a turning point for the better in relations between Syrian Kurds and Iraq.
At the same time, a member of the West Kurdistan Council (NB West Kurdistan- Syrian Kurdistan) denied active Iraqi assistance in the takeover of Yaroubiya. In any event, the positive outlook on the alignment of interests between Baghdad and the YPG contrasts notably with the tensions between the PYD and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government under Massoud Barzani, whoseties with Turkey are viewed with strong dislike by the PYD. The PYD sees Ankara as supporting jihadis against Syrian Kurds. Some YPG commanders have also voiced disaffection at a perceived lack of support from Arbil for the fight against the jihadis.
Far from bringing about Kurdish political unity in the face of a perceived common threat, therefore, the Yaroubiya affair may actually help solidify divisions among Kurds and hinder the long-term prospects of an oft-touted merger of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Indeed, it is apparent that in its conflict with other rebel groups, the YPG has been able to bolster the PYD's image as protector of Syrian Kurds, to the detriment of rival Kurdish factions.
Recently the YPG released a statement accusing several factions of committing aggression on YPG territory. Besides usual suspects such as ISIS, Ahrar ash-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid (all of whom were part of a joint statement in August calling for the purging of the 'PKK'- interchangeable with YPG here- from the Manbij-Hasakah highway), the YPG also singled out the Kurdish Islamic Front and the Salah ad-Din Kurdish brigade.
The Kurdish Islamic Front is a Salafist group that supports ISIS in its fight with the PYD and runs a number of schools according to Shari'a for Kurdish children in Aleppo, among other areas. It should also be noted in this context that the Kurdistan Islamic Union Party in Iraq has confirmed that some 30 Iraqi Kurds from Sulaymaniya have gone to join the ranks of JN/ISIS. The Salah ad-Din brigade was accused by the PYD last year of coordinating an attack with Jabhat al-Nusra on a Kurdish area of Aleppo.
Figure 8: Logo of the Kurdish Islamic Front.
On the political level, affiliates of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which rivals the PYD, are hurt by association with the opposition-in-exile coalition, which after the takeover of Yaroubiya released a statement condemning the YPG for expelling the 'FSA' from the town (even as there were no FSA groups in the town by the time of the YPG takeover) with supposed Iraqi military assistance. Such detachment from reality can do the KNC no good to win Syrian Kurdish support.
In short, the Yaroubiya affair reflects a hardening of divisions, not only in territory between the YPG and other rebels, but also among the Kurdish political factions of Syria and Iraq. The events should further illustrate that the role of political ideology in the Syrian conflict cannot be down-played as analysis cannot be reduced to single paradigms of ethnicity or who simply has more money and arms.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Fadel al-Kifa'ee is an Iraqi political analyst. Follow on Twitter @ajaltamimi and @fadelalkifaee