Kurdish and Arab militias waged a bitter battle for three months in the northern city of Ras Al Ayn, in Hassakeh province. Now, they’ve reached a truce that has managed to last into a third week, marking an early success for a nascent group of peacekeepers led by famed Christian dissident Michel Kilo.
Syria’s northern towns and villages, with their complex ethnic and religious divisions, are a tinderbox for internecine fighting. They contain fault lines between ethnic groups, Kurds and Arabs, and among competing forces within each group — battle lines that could trigger a disintegration of the Syrian state. Ras Al Ayn is a microcosm of them, arguably the most complex town in the region.
The months of fighting in Ras Al Ayn killed nearly 300 people. It took a diverse group of men and women, Kurds and Arabs, Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, tribal leaders and urbanites to broker Feb. 17’s tenuous peace.
“We tried to have all sects represented,” said Ata Kaml Ata, a member of the Committee for the Protection of the Civil Peace and Revolution, a new group formed by Kilo. In a sign of the anti-partisanship for which Kilo strives, Ata, a Sunni from Homs and a member of the Syrian Democratic Party, said the committee was formed through consensus. Its members were chosen specifically because they weren’t biased to the parties embroiled in the conflict.
Abdul Bari Uthman, another member and the head of the Kurdish Syrian Revolutionary Movement in Qamishli, told Syria Deeply that the “committee was a national initiative for mediation by Syrians with no ties to the National Coalition,” the main opposition umbrella group led by Moaz al Khatib. In other words, this was an independent effort.
The other members in the committee include: Yasser Iyadda of the Syrian Tribal Coalition; Walid al-Tamer of the Tayy tribe; Fadia Shaker, an Alawite from Latakia; Tamim Muhammad Zahid, an activist from Hama; and Hasan Kamel, the leader of the Barati Kurdish Democratic Party.
Ras Al Ayn, a city of over 50,000, has a Kurdish majority and significant ethnic minorities of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Circassians, Assyrians, and Turkmen along with Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Yezidi religious groups. Prior to the clashes, its residents say the city was an example of co-existence and tolerance in Syria.
Straddling the Turkish border and connected to the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, the town’s diversity is highlighted by the fact that it has three different names: Ras Al Ayn in Arabic, Serekaniye in Kurdish, and Reish ‘Eino in Assyrian.
But lurking beneath its tolerant crust are the competing interests of the various ethnic, tribal and religious affiliations of its neighbors in Syria and in Turkey, which vigilantly opposes aspirations of many Kurds to create an independent homeland.
Jehad Saleh, a Syrian Kurdish journalist based in Washington, said a rivalry between Kurds and the large Baggara tribe went back generations. “The Baggara and the Kurds fought wars in this area during the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire and in the 1940s, and Nawaf al-Bashir [the head of the tribe] carries with him this hostility,” he said. He added that not all of Bashir’s tribesmen shared the leader’s view.
The Syrian revolution further complicated the scene. Ras Al Ayn was the first Kurdish-majority city to protest peacefully against the regime on April 4, 2011, and, as other Kurdish cities and towns in the north, it fell under control of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (or PYD, notoriously affiliated with the militant Kurdish Workers Party, known as the PKK) after the Syrian military withdrew from the area in July.
Rebels opposed to the Assad regime largely ignored Ras Al Ayn for months, but entered the city on Nov. 8. Kurdish journalist Muhyideen Isso said residents welcomed the Free Syrian Army at first, but then the Assad regime launched air strikes on the city and the rebels were asked to leave.
The FSA ignored the request and in a display of the increasingly Islamist nature of those fighting the Syrian government, the rebels burned down liquor stores and a church, Isso said.
The PYD and other Kurdish militias decided to fight back.
Ras Al Ayn was soon mired in a complicated conflict rooted in decades of Arab-Kurdish disputes, Islamist agendas and regime air strikes. Seventeen rebel brigades, mostly from surrounding areas of Hassekeh, descended on the city. Salafi Islamists militias, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (the U.S.-designated terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq), Ghoraba al-Sham and the Allahu Akbar Brigades fought alongside tribal and secular groups including the Thuwwar Ghwayran brigade and Nawaf al-Bashir’s Liberation of the Furat Brigades.
Bashir admitted that his tribe was involved in the fighting, and referred to the PYD as agents of the Assad regime that have no place in the oil-rich regions of Syria.
A ceasefire was brokered in late November but didn’t hold. Prominent opposition figures like Abdelbasset Sida urged calm, saying that such battles which don’t include the Syrian military could only benefit the Assad regime. President Bashar al-Assad seemed to confirm this point in a speech on Jan. 6, when he praised “the valiant young men” of Ras Al Ayn for confronting and forcing out “the terrorists who came from Turkey.”
But the National Coalition remained distant, and fighting flared up again in late January. Some Kurdish groups said Arab rebels entered Ras Al Ayn through Turkish territory.
On the morning of Feb. 5, Kilo’s committee entered Ras Al Ayn and sat down with Ahmed Soliman, the spokesman for the Supreme Kurdish Council; Abdul Salim Ahmed and Sinam Muhammad, spokesmen for the PYD’s People’s Assembly of Western Kurdistan; Aldar Khalil of the Supreme Kurdish Council; and another member of the Kurdish National Council. After speaking to the Kurdish groups, they visited the local jihadist leaders from Jabhat al-Nusra, Ghoraba al-Sham, and other tribal-affiliated brigades.
Alan Semo, the PYD’s London-based spokesman, told Syria Deeply that Kilo was “chosen because he is an independent national figure who both sides could trust… unlike the National Coalition, which couldn’t control its troops.”
Talks paid off, and an agreement was signed on Feb. 17 by the PYD and most rebel and Islamist brigades, including Ghoraba al-Sham. Although Jabhat al-Nusra did not sign the agreement, it agreed to halt the fighting, Kilo told AFP.
The eight-point treaty called for the removal of all armed groups from the city, a pledge by the FSA and Islamist groups to consider the rest of the Kurdish-majority areas controlled by the Supreme Kurdish Council (specifically Derbassiyeh, Amuda, Tel-Temer and Grike Lege and Dere) as “liberated,” and the cooperation and coordination between the Kurdish and rebel fighters to liberate other cities that are still under regime control.
After this initial foray into peacekeeping, Kilo’s committee is seeking a broader role in quelling internal clashes between Syrian communities. “Our next priority is in Houran [as the southern plains of Daraa are known], regarding the kidnapped people between Houran and Swaida,” said committee member Ata.