As the most intense rebel infighting since the start of the conflict raged between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front this week in Raqqa and Aleppo, fighters from all three groups continued to collaborate in their offensive against the PYD, a Kurdish militia group, near Qamishli.
We asked Valerie Szybala, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who focuses on Syrian Kurds, to explain why the groups are working together in the Kurdish province, while they do battle against each other in other parts of the country.
Syria Deeply: What exactly are we looking at in the Kurdish areas? Where’s the fighting taking place?
Valerie Szybala: You’re looking at the highway between Qamlishli and Hassakeh, which is to the south. The fighting is in villages that are to the eastern side of that highway. We’re talking about small villages that have been contested for quite a long time: the Kurdish militias have been doing really well in the last few months against ISIS, and also against [rebel brigade and Islamic Front member] Ahrar al-Sham. The real reason they continue to fight together is because they have been united against the Kurds, and it speaks to the localization of the conflict, the fact that there are a lot of ISIS units that are not under central control.
SD: Why would they still be working together here, as violence increases in Raqqa, Aleppo and into Deir Ezzor?
VS: This wouldn’t be first situation we’ve seen where ISIS fighters were doing different things in other parts of the country. In this context, it makes sense that battallions and units of men fighting against the Kurds wouldn’t just start turning around and shooting each other because of tensions elsewhere.
Qamishli and Hassakeh are pretty isolated. Syria in general, and the war goes in this direction, was a unified country, but all areas of it did not necessarily communicate with each other. I was in Syria when the war started and I realized that provincial capitals acted like city-states. These peripheral areas to the northeast of the country, besides having large populations, their infrastructure isn’t very good and they’re isolated. So of all the places that ISIS is located and is in conflict, the Kurdish region would not be acting like everywhere else.
I do believe that Ahrar al-Sham, although subject to the same localization problems, has more control over its own fighters than ISIS.
SD: But could the fighting near Qamishli pull ISIS fighters away to cities like Raqqa?
VS: The large Kurdish presence here means that it will remain a separate battle [from what's happening between ISIS and other rebel groups in Aleppo and Raqqa]. But I do think the other battles can pull fighters away from Qamishli, and that’s possibly already happened. ISIS is fighting back in Raqqa: this is what they’re choosing to defend as their stronghold because they’re [largely] unable to defend Aleppo. They appear to have taken control of Ahrar al-Sham’s headquarters. So it seems very possible that they pulled fighters out of Hassakeh and Deir Ezzor to reinforce Raqqa.
At the same time, the rumors that fly around are so hard to verify, and there were also rumors that Ahrar al-Sham had captured Tel Hamis, which led to rumors that Ahrar had made a deal with the [Kurdish party the] YPG, so that the YPG would end its [fighting] operations. Who knows? There doesn’t seem to have been a huge body count in Tel Hamis. This is just an example of how difficult it really is to confirm what’s happening there.
Another interesting thing about these areas is that villages like Tel Hamis or Tel Barak are isolated hamlets: some are just a few buildings on a crossroads between long-distance highways. It wouldn’t take a large mass of fighters to contest and win one. It’s not same-scale battle as taking a city like Aleppo. It’s a smaller engagement. That’s hard to represent when you see it in writing: “ISIS took over this, ISIS took over that,” but it’s probably a dozen guys taking out a dozen other guys.