Leadership and Democracy LabWestern Social Science

Kurds, ISIS, and Syria

The Kurds, the Islamic State and the Syrian Conflict

January 26, 2015 

This article has been produced by the efforts of the following members: 

Yessica Sambra-Bressler – Team Member studying Leadership in Syria 

Significant developments are underway in Syria concerning the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Unite (YPG), the Islamic State and fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Asaad.

Recent clashes between the YPG and fighters supportive of Asaad’s regime have significantly altered the political landscape in the city of Hasakah. On January 16, the fighting effectively put an end to a long-standing truce between Asaad’s government and the YPG, who had joined forces in the summer of 2014 to confront the Islamic State, which controls a significant portion of the countryside around Hasakah. Feeling threatened by the rapidly growing power of the Islamic State, the YPG opted to cooperate with Assad’s army and the Arab militias in order to quell the jihadis. Until now, the city persisted divided through a system of checkpoints defining the territory of each group, with agreements in place to secure the passage across town of local goods, aid convoys and trade.

Speculation over the reasons for the recent clashes abound. While some reports indicate that the clashes are merely a result of a turf war, other reports indicate that tensions rose as a result of Asaad’s government’s effort to transfer security responsibilities to Arab tribal leaders and Baathists in Hasakah. This would have unsettled the YPG given the Baath Party’s anti-Kurdish policies as well as the historical suffering of the Kurds at the hands of some of these groups. Significantly, speculators also assert that recent tensions between the two groups are the result of the YPG’s close relationship with the West since the summer of 2014. Indeed, the U.S. Air Force currently backs Kurdish fighters in Kobane in their fight against the Islamic State. Nevertheless, while Kurdish-Arab fighting is not new, ongoing hostilities may have a significant impact on the military balance in Hasakah. Pointedly, the YPG’s breaking of relations with Asaad’s regime and closer relationship with the West indicates a possible gain for those who wish to topple Asaad’s government.

More recently, on January 26 Kurdish militia drove Islamic State militants from the Syrian border town of Kobane. Backed by powerful US-led airstrikes, the Kurdish fighters successfully pushed the Islamic State out of Kobane, signifying a major loss for the jihadis. The siege seems close to ending in defeat for the Islamic State in Syria, which would result in a dramatic shift of the political landscape in the region. Certainly, the loss of Kobane is both a symbolic and strategic blow for the Islamic State, which set its sights on the town in order to strengthen its control over the Syrian-Turkish border.