Posts Tagged With: FreeSyrianArmy

Rojava: What about the Arabs?

An article I wrote for Al-Monitor in October 2013. Kurdish autonomy in north-east Syria will struggle if Syria’s Kurdish forces do not reach an understanding with local Arab residents. (Forget about the nonsense title given to this piece on Al-Monitor: the content has nothing to do with the PYD’s rise…no comment 🙂

a Syrian beduin woman source ICRC

RAS AL-AIN, Syria — The Mesopotamian Al-Jazira plain is populated by a majority of Arabs, but the northern districts of the province of Hasakah, including the two main cities Qamishli and Hasakah, will soon see the first steps of a Kurdish-led administrative and political decentralization. Arabs here hold different views on Kurdish autonomy, ranging from support to skepticism and opposition. Regardless of the political shape of these regions, it is urgently necessary to reconcile both communities and solve the land disputes caused by the presence of Arab settlers, in order to ward off a Kirkuk-like ethnic strife.

“The self-management plan won’t discriminate among the different communities,” said Ahmad al-Ahmad, an Arab staff member in the Ministry of Education from al-Jabriyya, a village next to Amuda. “Therefore, I support it. We want to see locals, whether Arabs or Kurds, managing and developing these regions,” he told Al-Monitor. Ahmad is originally from Tabqa in Raqqa province and he settled in al-Jabriyya 37 years ago. He belongs to the so-called maghmurin, “flooded,” Arab tribes resettled by the government along the northern border of the province of Hasakah in the 1970s, in order to compensate them for the loss of their lands flooded by the construction of the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates between 1968 and 1973. It was part of the Arabization plan drafted by Hasakah’s police chief, Mohammad Talab Hilal, in 1963 to change the demographic balance at the expense of Kurds.

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University students forced to drop classes due to Syrian conflict

A report I wrote for Al-Monitor on the aftermaths of the ongoing conflict on the daily lives of university students in the province of Hasakeh. 

Syrian Conflict Keeps
University Students at Home


AMUDA Syria — “The governorate of Hasakeh is a swamp, I need to get out of here,” said red-bearded Abu Wa’el, the commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Dir’ al-Muslimin (Armor of Muslims) brigade in Ras al-Ain. FSA fighters crave fighting with the regime, but they remain stuck in the barracks most of the time because the front line is elsewhere. Themujahedeen are not the only ones burdened by inertia in one of the regions largely spared from government shelling, as thousands of university students waste at least one year without attending classes.

Even if their situation were not comparable to their compatriots under the bombs in Aleppo or Homs, where thousands of schools have been destroyed or converted into shelters for refugees, the students in Hasakeh are often left with the only option of migration.

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Free Syrian Army neglects health sector in Ras al-‘Ayn (Sere Kanye)

A piece I wrote from Syria for the Swiss weekly WOZ Die Wochenzeitung : it is based on the account of a doctor in Ras al-‘Ayn (Sere Kanye in Kurdish), who accused the Arab armed opposition of neglecting the health sector. The response I got from the Free Syrian Army’s commander in Hasakeh is that weapons come before medicines in the current situation. For those of you who don’t read German (like me;), here is the original English version. Photo taken by my friend Bahzad Hajj Hammo, who writes for the Syrian weekly Jisr.

Free Syrian Army: In a stateless country weapons have the priority over medicines


By Andrea Glioti

Ras al-‘Ayn (Hasakeh-Syria)- April 29, 2013

Over the last year, the Syrian armed opposition has expanded significantly its area of influence at the expenses of the regime. However, since the State hospitals stopped functioning in the hands of the rebels, people need to cope with the lack of drugs and medical personnel. In such dire conditions, the phalanges of the opposition are blamed for living in luxury at the expenses of the neglected health sector.

On April 22, the European Union lifted the oil embargo on Syria with the declared aim to help the uprising in coordination with the most-widely recognized opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), whose armed wing is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). For the opposition, the condition to restart selling oil is the formation of a transitional Government in the liberated areas, but who will ensure that oil revenues will not enrich arm dealers only?

Located in the north-eastern province of al-Hasakeh, the Arab-Kurdish town of Ras al-‘Ayn (Serê Kaniyê in Kurdish) is a crucial border passage to Turkey, which was taken over by the Arab opposition in October 2012.

In February, it has been the battlefield of two-weeks of clashes between the Arab opposition and the Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Units, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), the armed wing of the PKK-tied PYD (Democratic Union Party, Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat). A truce signed on February 17 is still holding, but the situation is likely to explode again soon. “We are committed to the agreement, but we don’t consider liberated the areas under the control of the Pyd, as there is no revolutionary flag waving over them,” affirms maj. Muntasir al-Khalid, commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Military Council of the province of Hasakeh.

Echoing the position of most Kurdish opposition parties, the PYD avoided Government shelling by keeping aloof from Arab rebels, while profiting from the regime’s need to count on a Kurdish buffer zone to deter any possible Turkish interference in support of the FSA. The result is that most Kurdish areas enjoy now a de-facto autonomy and the Pyd refuses categorically to hand them over to the FSA.

In such a volatile context, Ghuraba’ al-Sham’s Wa’el Abu Ahmad is one of the few active doctors. Despite having a stable occupation in Russia, he decided to return to fight and heal the wounded in Aleppo: in his words, “the gun in one hand and the first-aid kit in the other.”

Six months ago, when Ras al-‘Ayn fell in the hands of the opposition, Abu Ahmad settled there to open his ‘clinic’: two tiny rooms, whose floors are scattered with unpacked drugs and potato sacks. “We received used  and half-empty medicine stocks from the Turkish border passage and, overall, around one fourth of the medicines are expired,” complains Abu Ahmad, while pointing at the date stated on the boxes.

According to the doctor’s experience, the ongoing conflict has led to the outbreak of lungs inflammation, due to the exhalations of corpses and waste, besides the scorches caused by the homemade refining of fuel oil (mazout). Moreover, during the Arab-Kurdish clashes, numerous dogs contracted rabies after eating the corpses left in the streets, but Abu Ahmad lacks the serum needed to heal those bitten.

“Three months ago, fourteen people died of kidney diseases, because the State hospital was closed and the necessary equipment got stolen,” continues a disappointed Abu Ahmad.

A patient from Deyr az-Zor wrote a message on the clinic’s wall: “If every mujahidin gave 1kg of wheat for the treatment he receives for free.” Dr. Abu Ahmad works as a volunteer and blames the FSA Military Council for keeping making promises without allocating anything out of the profits derived from the seizure of barns in Ras al-‘Ayn.

As a matter of fact, maj. Muntasir al-Khalid confirms that 3 to 4 million dollars in wheat were sold solely by the FSA Military Council to buy weapons at the Iraqi and Turkish border, following the clashes with the PYD.

“The opposition took over oil wells, poultry, cows and we cannot even afford a 8000 Syp power generator,” continues Abu Ahmad, “1000Syp from every fighter would be enough to satisfy our needs, but they prefer to spend hundreds of dollars in cigarettes, banquets, cars and weapons.”

The FSA blunt response is that, under the light of the current situation, the priority goes to weapons rather than doctors. “The health sector requires a State support, whereas our capabilities are modest,” affirms a peeved maj. Muntasir al-Khalid, “weapons and cars are essential and we’re paying them from our pockets, so that at the moment they come before medical support.” The FSA major laughs at the doctor’s allegations of luxury, “This is what you call luxury?” he says pointing at a pack of  few Syrian banknotes on the mattress where he is lying. A few minutes before, a young bearded mujahidin from the FSA-affiliated brigade Dir’ al-muslimin has entered the room to boast about the group’s latest achievements with another journalist: “We are making progresses…Cars, weapons, you saw Abu Wa’el’s new Jeep?”

The list of dr. Abu Ahmad’s complaints is still long. “Both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Military Council have ambulances, but they don’t allow me to use them,” asserts the doctor, “I need to arrange trips to reach villages 40Km away by renting a motorcycle without any sort of protection.”

On the clinic’s walls there are YPG graffiti and Christian icons: the doctor shows them as evidence that everyone receives medical treatment, despite the Islamist orientation of Ghuraba’ al-Sham. Nevertheless, on the battleground there is no echo of these principles. “We received several aid offers from the YPG, but I cannot accept, as the Arab opposition would accuse me of being their agent,” reports Abu Ahmad, “in their eyes, a Kurdish house is a red line I shouldn’t cross to help.”

This is the context where the EU plans to inject oil revenues. At the moment, the oil fields are divided between several different militias, including some outside the SNC umbrella, hence the coalition is against reopening the oil trade.  “We’re against selling oil under the current circumstances, there is no dialogue between the different forces in control of the oil wells,” reassures Muntasir al-Khalid, “the oil trade remains dependent on the formation of an interim government on the Syrian ground”

On the other hand, dr. Abu Ahmad remains sharply critical of the future Syrian partner of EU oil imports. “You can call it the National Coalition of thieves: millions coming from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been amassed in Reyhanli [N/A:Turkish refugee camp] and we haven’t seen anything,” maintains the doctor, “I just want those responsible of exploiting the mujahidin to be held accountable.”

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The dispute over energy reserves in North-Eastern Syria

An article I wrote for Al-Monitor after a set of interviews with warring factions, engineers and normal people, who are not even getting electricity out of all these energy reserves.

Syrian Oil Becomes Fault Line
In War

A man works at a makeshift oil refinery site in al-Mansoura village in Raqqa














By: Andrea Glioti for Al-Monitor Posted on May 16.

MALEKIYYAH, Al-HASSAKAH PROVINCE, Syria — The province of Hassakah is the Syrian oil tank. Before the revolution, its 170,000 barrels per day accounted for more than half of the country’s oil production, thus representing the backbone of those oil exports covering a third of national export revenues. Syrian oil engineers working in the province told Al-Monitorthat the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — currently controls around 60% of the oil fields, leaving the remaining 40% in the hands of several factions of the Arab opposition. Since the conflict engulfed the route of the pipelines to the refineries, however, the drills have stopped working.

Despite such a fragmented context, the European Union on April 22 decided to lift the oil embargo on liberated regions in Syria in an attempt to support the opposition. The move, though, is likely to stir up Kurdish-Arab strife and catalyze regime raids on a region that has largely remained immune to the conflict so far. The war for control of Syria’s energy resources has not even started, but mutual allegations are already circulating between the parties involved, which accuse each other of cutting power supplies and dealing with the regime.

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Clashes between Arabs and Kurds in Syria (October-November 2012)- Faida arabo-curda in Siria (ott-nov 2012)

The first piece (published on November 5, 2012) was written for Taz.die Tageszeitung It was translated in German, but I wrote in English, here’s the original version. I wrote it in early October upon my return from Iraqi Kurdistan, before clashes started between Arab and Kurdish factions in Northern Syria. 

L’ho anche tradotto in Italiano.

The second piece was published by The Majalla later on (Nov 26, 2012), when the clashes had already started. 

Syrian Kurds ready to fight Arabs once Asad is gone

By Andrea Glioti

ERBIL (Iraqi Kurdistan), 17 October 2012.

On July 11, the main Syrian Kurdish factions signed an agreement in Erbil to reassure Turkey of their peaceful aspirations and to reach unity for a possible confrontation with the Arab opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA), after the downfall of Bashar al-Asad. However, these two aims are likely to collide, being the FSA hosted and sponsored by Turkey. The risk of a transnational conflict is high and both Turkey and Syria have interests in provoking a conflict between Arabs and Kurds.

No trust in the (Arab) Free Syrian Army

The North-Eastern Kurdish areas in Syria are not anymore under the control of Damascus, despite the presence of security officials: the regime has prioritized the fight against the Arab opposition in the two main cities, Aleppo and Damascus, while allowing Kurdish parties to manage their regions.

The agreement sponsored by the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Mas’ud Barzani, was thus signed in a critical phase of military escalation in the rest of Syria and led to the formation of the Kurdish Supreme Committee. Such a coalition is formed by the pro-Barzani (i.e. pro-Turkish) Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Popular Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), the body comprising the PKK-proxy Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Even the more moderate KNC has no sympathy at all for the Arab Free Syrian Army. “Our [Kurdish] regions reject terror, hence the FSA cannot hide there,” affirms Nuri Brimo, head of KNC media and one of the signatories of the Erbil Agreement.  According to Brimo, the rapprochement with the PYD, despite skirmishes and different regional allegiances, was a consequence of the “chauvinist approach” of the Arab opposition with the Kurds, who were allegedly refused recognition as a people during the conference held in Cairo in July.

“We are not scared by the strength of the [Arab] opposition, but by its ideas, its dictatorial conduct,” adds Mohammad Rasho, the Ocalan-looking PCWK representative in Iraqi Kurdistan, who seems to hint at the PYD’s readiness to clash with the FSA.  Nuri Brimo is even more explicit: “24 hours after the downfall of the regime, the language will be a different one from the peaceful adopted so far [by the Kurds]: if we need to, we will get ready to fight and defend our regions.”

Syrian Kurds are already ahead in their preparation: the number of fighters trained in the two camps set up in January by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the Iraqi Governorate of Duhok will reach soon 3700. Dilshad*, a 38-year-old Syrian from Qamishli, had previously joined the FSA, but he quit due to its “Islamist, racist behavior” against religious and ethnic minorities and joined the Kurdish training camp last February.  “We are trained in street guerrilla by the PKK in order to face the Free Syrian Army in the future,” whispers Dilshad over the phone, walking away from his companions to avoid being overheard.  The PKK was originally recruited to work under the surveillance of Barzani’s armed forces (peshmerga), however, the Kurdish internal divisions began to surface in the last days, when all the militiamen outside the control of the President were expelled from the camps. Dilshad informed me today that he was also forced to leave, adding that “the situation is changing and internal Kurdish strife might break out in Qamishli [A/N: strategic city in Syrian Kurdistan].”

Syrian and Turkish interference

The possibility of a confrontation between Kurdish and Arab opposition is clearly in the interests of the Syrian Government, who could hope to drag the PKK and Turkey in the conflict. As a matter of fact, Damascus is periodically interfering in the neighboring countries in an attempt to find salvation in the internationalization of the crisis.

The unprecedented suicidal bombing occurred in Qamishli on September 30 seems to confirm the Syrian role in fostering tensions between Arabs and Kurds. “The Syrian intelligence staged the explosion […] in order to convince Kurds that the Free Syrian Army entered Qamishli,” reveals Dlshad, the Syrian Kurdish military trainee. Damascus is also capable of exploiting its historical ties with the PYD-PKK, if it wishes to cause Kurdish-Arab strife.

For what concerns Turkey, both the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish parties are aware that Ankara is watching closely their moves, therefore even Barzani’s KDP prefers denying the existence of the military camp where Syrian Kurds are trained by the PKK.  “There is only the Domiz refugee camp and we didn’t set up any military camp,” says Abdul-Wahhab ‘Ali, the KDP spokesperson in Sulaymanya, “during the Kurdish revolution in 1961, Kurdish fighters came [to Iraq] from Syria and Iran, they earned a very good military knowledge and settled down here.”

On the other hand, the Erbil Agreement seems conceived to tame factions hostile to Turkey like the PYD. “We bring the PYD to think like us and we want recognition from Europe that we tried to drag the PKK away from Syria and Iran,” states proudly Nuri Brimo. Even though there is no explicit reference to Ankara, such an agenda aimed at changing the Pkk’s stances cannot be considered unrelated to Turkish pressures. Turkey has also been reassured about the lack of separatist ambitions by the text of the agreement. However, the PYD predictably refuses to recognize it signed a deal to please Turkish interests. “Turkey is opposed to unifying Kurdish parties,” objects Mohammad Rasho, “[Turkish FM] Davutoglu came here and visited only the Kurdish National Council to create division at the time of the Erbil Agreement.” Ankara remains wary of an agreement including the PYD and, according to Rasho, military intervention would be preferred, if there was enough international support. “The buffer zone [Ankara talks about] aims at limiting the achievement of Kurdish rights and not at supporting the Syrian revolution”, claims Rasho, “there are confirmed Turkish demands from the FSA to attack the PYD.” In June, an allegedly leaked document from the Turkish consulate in Erbil has been spread by the pro-PKK Firat News Agency to prove the Turkish attempts to bring the Syrian Kurdish regions under the FSA control. According to this reading of the situation, Turkey is pursuing a parallel agenda to the Erbil Agreement, based on backing the Arab opposition against the Kurdish factions hostile to Ankara.

Under these premises, Kurds risk to see the fight to defend their territories turned again into a greater conflict serving the interests of other actors. Remember all the Gulf Wars.

*A pseudonym has been used for security reasons.


Siria: una volta caduto Asad, ci si prepara per la faida curdo-araba


Di Andrea Glioti


ERBIL (Kurdistan Iracheno), 7 Ottobre 2012


L’undici luglio scorso, il Presidente del Governo Regionale del Kurdistan (Grk), Mas’ud Barzani, è riuscito a riconciliare le maggiori fazioni curdo-siriane, il Consiglio Nazionale Curdo (Cnc), vicino alla Turchia e a Barzani stesso, e il Consiglio Popolare del Kurdistan Occidentale (Cpko), comprendente l’ala siriana del Pkk, il Partito dell’Unione Democratica (Pud). Un accordo è stato firmato a Erbil, dando vita al Comitato Supremo Curdo (Csc).

Le regioni curde nord-orientali della Siria non sono più sotto il controllo di Damasco, nonostante la presenza degli ufficiali delle forze di sicurezza: il regime ha dato la priorità alla battaglia contro l’opposizione araba nelle due maggiori città, Aleppo e Damasco, finendo per concedere ai partiti curdi di gestire le loro roccaforti.

L’accordo di Erbil tutela da una parte gli interessi turchi e dall’altra unifica gli schieramenti curdi in vista di un possibile scontro con la maggiore formazione armata dell’opposizione araba, l’Esercito Libero Siriano (Esl), all’indomani della caduta del regime di Asad. Tuttavia, questi due obiettivi non sono di certo compatibili e la precaria stabilità conseguita nelle regioni curde rischia di saltare da un momento all’altro, se si considera che l’Esl riceve supporto logistico e militare proprio dalla Turchia. Il rischio di un conflitto internazionale rimane alto, anche perché Turchia e Siria potrebbero trarre vantaggio dallo scoppio delle ostilità arabo-curde.


Nessuna fiducia nell’Esercito Libero Siriano (Arabo)


Persino il più moderato Consiglio Nazionale Curdo non ha alcuna simpatia per l’Esl. “Le nostre regioni [curde] ripudiano il terrorismo, di conseguenza l’Esl non vi si può nascondere,” afferma Nuri Brimo, responsabile dei media del Cnc e uno dei firmatari dell’accordo di Erbil. Stando alle sue parole, il riavvicinamento con il Partito dell’Unione Democratica, a dispetto degli scontri violenti e delle diverse alleanze regionali, è stato una conseguenza dell’ “atteggiamento sciovinista” dell’opposizione araba nei confronti dei curdi, ai quali è stato negato il riconoscimento come popolo durante la conferenza tenutasi al Cairo a inizio luglio.


“Non temiamo la forza dell’opposizione araba, ma le sue idee, il suo comportamento dittatoriale,” aggiunge Mohammad Rasho, il rappresentante del Consiglio Popolare del Kurdistan Occidentale nel Kurdistan iracheno, che esibisce dei folti baffi neri degni del suo mentore Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan. Rasho sembra pertanto alludere alla preparazione militare del Pud in caso di scontri con l’Esl. Nuri Brimo è addirittura più esplicito: “24 ore dopo la caduta del regime, sarà tutto un’altro discorso rispetto al pacifismo adottato finora [dai curdi]: se ne avremo bisogno, ci prepareremo a combattere e difendere le nostre regioni.”

I curdi siriani si stanno già preparando:  il numero di combattenti addestrati nei due campi allestiti a gennaio dal Partito Democratico del Kurdistan (PDK) di Barzani nel governatorato di Duhok raggiungerà presto i 3700 effettivi. Dlshad*, un siriano trentottenne di Qamishli, racconta di aver militato nell’Esl, per poi abbandonarlo a causa del suo “comportamento islamico e razzista” nei confronti delle minoranze etniche e religiose. Da febbraio si trova nel campo di addestramento curdo, dove i miliziani del PKK mettono a disposizione la loro esperienza, sotto la sorveglianza delle forze armate (peshmerga) di Barzani. Al telefono Dlshad parla sotto voce, dopo essersi allontanato dai suoi commilitoni per evitare di essere udito: “Veniamo addestrati per la guerriglia urbana dal PKK, al fine di affrontare l’Esl nel futuro.

Se si intromettono la Siria e la Turchia…

Il possibile scontro tra opposizione araba e curda è chiaramente negli interessi del governo siriano, che spera di trascinare il Pkk e la Turchia nel conflitto. Di fatto, l’esercito siriano continua a sconfinare nei Paesi vicini alla ricerca di una via di salvezza nell’internazionalizzazione della crisi.

Anche l’attentato suicida verificatosi per la prima volta a Qamishli (Kurdistan siriano) il 30 settembre sembra confermare il ruolo siriano nell’alimentare tensioni tra arabi e curdi. “L’intelligence siriana ha orchestrato l’esplosione […] per far credere ai curdi che l’Esercito Libero sia entrato a Qamishli,” rivela il miliziano Dlshad. Damasco è inoltre in grado di sfruttare i suoi legami storici con il Pkk-Pud, fondati sul contenimento della Turchia, per istigare un conflitto arabo-curdo.

Per quanto riguarda invece la Turchia, tutti i partiti curdi iracheni e siriani avvertono benissimo lo sguardo di Ankara sulle loro mosse, motivo per cui il Pdk di Barzani preferisce negare l’esistenza del suddetto campo militare coogestito con il Pkk. “Esiste solo il campo profughi di Domiz e non abbiamo allestito nessun accampamento militare,” afferma ‘Abdul-Wahhab ‘Ali, portavoce del Pdk a Sulaymanya, “durante la rivoluzione curda del ’61, i combattenti curdi sono arrivati [in Iraq] da Siria e Iran, hanno acquisito ottime competenze militari e si sono stabiliti qui.”

D’altra parte, l’accordo di Erbil sembra concepito per tenere sotto controllo le fazioni curde ostili ad Ankara come il Pud. “Facciamo in modo che il Pud la pensi come noi e vogliamo che l’Europa ci riconosca il merito di aver tentato di allontanare il Pkk da Siria e Iran,” afferma orgogliosamente Nuri Brimo del Consiglio Nazionale Curdo. Il riferimento non è esplicitamente alla Turchia, ma non si può certo escludere un nesso tra Ankara e un simile proposito di “addomesticamento” del Pkk. Senza dimenticare che la Turchia è stata rassicurata sull’assenza di ambizioni separatiste dal testo stesso dell’accordo.

Abbastanza prevedibilmente, il Pud si rifiuta di ammetter di aver firmato un patto in cui abbiano messo mano i turchi. “La Turchia è contraria all’unificazione dei partiti curdi,” obietta Mohammad Rasho, “ai tempi dell’accordo di Erbil, [il Ministro degli Esteri turco] Davutoglu è stato qui e ha visitato solamente il Consiglio Nazionale Curdo per creare divisione.” Non vi è dubbio che Ankara rimanga diffidente su un accordo che include il Pud e, secondo Rasho, opterebbe per un intervento militare, se solo esistesse il sostegno internazionale necessario. “La zona cuscinetto [a cui fa riferimento la Turchia] è finalizzata a limitare la conquista dei diritti curdi e non a supportare la rivoluzione siriana,” afferma Rasho, “esistono richieste confermate da parte della Turchia, affinché l’Esercito Libero attacchi il Pud.” A giugno, l’agenzia stampa vicina al Pkk, Firat News Agency, ha diffuso un documento presumibilmente trapelato dal consolato turco di Erbil, volto a dimostrare i tentativi di Ankara di portare le regioni curde sotto il controllo dell’Esl, tramite la mediazione di alcune figure politiche curdo-siriane. Secondo questa lettura della situazione, la Turchia starebbe lavorando su un piano parallelo all’accordo di Erbil e finalizzato al supporto dell’opposizione araba contro le fazioni curde ostili ad Ankara.

Con delle simili premesse, i curdi rischiano ancora una volta di vedere la lotta per la difesa dei loro territori trasformata in un conflitto più esteso al servizio degli interessi altrui. Si ricordino le tre guerre del Golfo.


*Pseudonimo utilizzato per ragioni di sicurezza

The Second Syrian Front: Arabs and Kurds

In the latest development in Syria’s unrest, Arab and Kurdish opposition groups are battling over the Kurdish territories in Syria’s North-East. The Kurds themselves are far from a united front, with different militia groups competing over control of Kurdish towns.

For several months now, the north-eastern, Kurdish areas of Syria have been shaking off the control of Damascus despite the continued presence of security officials. The Syrian government has prioritized the fight against the Arab opposition in Aleppo and Damascus, whilst Kurdish parties have been allowed to gain ground in their regions. This unwritten agreement between the Baathist government and the main Kurdish militia, a proxy for the Turkish Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) called the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has not gone unnoticed by some factions of the Arab opposition, culminating in clashes between the Arabs and the Kurds during the last month. The main group of Syrian Arab insurgents, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is sponsored by Turkey. The risk of a transnational conflict is becoming an ever more likely scenario, and both Ankara and Damascus can reap benefits from provoking Arab–Kurdish strife.

On 26 October, an armed Arab opposition group sought to deploy in Al-Ashrafiyeh, one of Aleppo’s Kurdish neighborhoods, despite the resistance from residents hoping to preserve security. Instead, the Syrian government shelled the quarter, targeting Arab militias, and nine Kurds were killed. The military attack ignited a cycle of reprisals on both sides as the PYD stepped in to defend Kurdish residents. On 19 November, Arab–Kurdish clashes followed the same script in the frontier town of Ras Al-Ayn, where the entrance of Arab rebels brought about another government offensive. The local head of the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK)—the Syrian body comprising the PYD—was assassinated on the same day by Arab militiamen.

In between these two episodes, five others have fallen victim to clashes between the PYD and the Islamist Northern Storm Brigade, after the latter allegedly attacked members of the Kurdish Yazidi religious minority in the countryside of Aleppo. Most of the Arab militias blamed for attacks on Kurds are Islamic hardliners such as the Al-Nusra Front, Ghuraba’ Al-Sham, and Jund Al-Sham. The Islamist bent amongst certain Arab opposition groups has made members of the Kurdish community wary to join their cause. Dilshad,* a 38-year-old Kurd from Qamishli, quit the FSA to join Kurdish military training camps along the Iraqi border due to what he considers to be the FSA’s “Islamist, racist behavior” against religious and ethnic minorities.

However, the nebulous structure of the Free Syrian Army means that any direct links between the FSA and radical groups cannot be ascertained. On 19 November, the PYD media representative ruled out any connection between the FSA and the Islamist perpetrators of the PCWK assassination in Ras Al-Ayn. Nonetheless, the PCWK official spokesperson accused snipers of belonging to the Free Syrian Army.

In the Kurdish arms race, Iraqi–Kurdish media outlets have argued that the pro-Western Kurdish National Council (KNC), the other main Syrian–Kurdish formation, may lose ground in favor of the more militarized PYD. However, the KNC has the military backing of its main sponsor, the pro-Turkish President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, to fill this gap. “On November 28, between 1,500 and 3,000 Syrian fighters trained by Barzani’s peshmergas (armed forces) will enter Syria from Iraq,” said Dilshad, although it remains to be seen whether Syrian peshmerga boots will arrive on the ground.

“The new Syrian peshmergas won’t cooperate with the PKK, they will stick to those cities where the PYD is weaker, like Al-Malikiyah and Qamishli,” continues Dilshad. Syrian–Kurdish unity appears a distant prospect, especially after the Erbil Agreement signed on 11 July between the KNC and the PYD proved to be a farce. On 29 October, the two main parties met in Erbil to discuss a shared response to the Arab–Kurdish clashes, but the summit proved unfruitful. Half-baked negotiations are in the making for the establishment of a joint Kurdish army, but divisions continue to mar efforts towards a united front.

Nevertheless, a shared enemy in the Arab opposition is perhaps the most powerful unifying force, since even the moderate KNC has no sympathy for the Free Syrian Army. “Our [Kurdish] regions reject terror, hence the FSA cannot hide there,” affirms Nuri Brimo, the head of KNC media. “If we need to, we will get ready to fight and defend our territories.”

Regardless of party politics, the growing militarization will reduce the space for peaceful Kurdish youth committees, who are not willing to “sacrifice” their revolution for an ethnic conflict. They are likely to be overrun by militias, just like their Arab counterparts.

The possibility of a confrontation between the Kurdish and Arab opposition is clearly in the interests of the Syrian government, who could hope to drag the PKK and Turkey into the conflict in an attempt to find salvation in the internationalization of the crisis.

Regarding Ankara’s moves, “there are confirmed Turkish demands to the FSA to attack the PYD,” claims Mohammad Rasho, a PCWK representative in Iraqi Kurdistan. Last June, an allegedly leaked document originating from the Turkish consulate in Erbil was distributed by the pro-PKK Firat News Agency, advertising the Turkish attempts to bring Syria’s Kurdish region under FSA control. “The Turkish government is aware that four high-ranking PKK officials have just entered Syria,” explains the military trainee, Dilshad, “and the PKK agenda is a region independent from ‘the Syrian entity.’”

Given these premises, Kurds are likely to see the fight to defend their territories turned into a greater conflict serving the interests of other actors: a flashback to all three previous Gulf Wars in Iraq.

*A pseudonym has been used for security reasons.

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Lebanese army beating Syrian migrants…only xenophobia?

A piece I wrote for IRIN. I tried to read the event from the political angle. The Ministry of Defense refused to meet me. I won’t try to organize a meeting with a minister anymore, it’s just a waste of time and money and you know what they’re going to say anyway.

Analysis: Catch-22 for Syrian migrants in Lebanon

syrians beaten by leb army


BEIRUT, 1 November 2012 (IRIN) – Syrians in Lebanon are increasingly coming under attack as lingering anti-Syrian sentiment intensifies amid the current conflict next door.

The Syrian imbroglio has polarized various sects and factions in Lebanon. While Sunni Lebanese in the north have welcomed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the last year and a half, Lebanese of other sects and in other parts of the county are less welcoming.

On the streets of Beirut’s Christian neighbourhood of Geitawi, a stronghold of the Lebanese Christian right, their intolerance of Syrian migrants, who have worked in Lebanon for years, is palpable:

“Syrians ruled us for 30 years, how can we like them?” protested Kamal Sa’ad, 48. “God willing, the war will kill them all. They’re an Arab people; we [Lebanese Christians] are Europeans.”

Residents of the neighbourhood have gathered around 60 signatures demanding the governor of Beirut take “the necessary security and legal measures” against Syrian workers who are perceived to pose a threat.

“We are sending this letter to warn the authorities that if they don’t intervene, we will organize ourselves and solve the situation through violence,” warned Cesar, a local butcher who preferred not to divulge his second name.

“Drunken Syrian workers are always around harassing women at night,” said Charbal Issa, 29. “You know what we will do? [Impose] a 6pm curfew for Syrians, so that they work and sleep – nothing else.”

Military raids and mob violence

The estimated 300,000 Syrian seasonal workers in Lebanon before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 were often the object of anti-Syrian sentiment – a legacy of Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon, starting in the 1970s.

“Following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon [in 2005], each bombing blamed on the Syrian regime was followed by the beating of some Syrian workers,” said Yara Chehayed, a member of the Beirut-based Anti-Racism Movement.

But since the conflict in neighbouring Syria, when Syrians started fleeing to Lebanon in large numbers, fears that the Syrian opposition will use Lebanon as a base for its own struggle – the way Palestinians did in the lead-up to the Lebanese civil war – have intensified pre-existing xenophobia. Military raids are now increasingly replacing the usual mob violence.

On 7 October, the Lebanese Army raided the apartments of around 70 Syrian, Egyptian and Sudanese workers living in Geitawi and another Christian neighbourhood in Beirut, Mar Mikhael, late at night. One week earlier, on 1 October, soldiers stormed a construction site where migrants worked and slept in the adjacent Ashrafieyeh neighbourhood, according to residents who toldHuman Rights Watch (HRW) they “heard screams from the building”. Several `mukhtars’, administrators of the neighbourhood, reportedly issued a statementencouraging more such raids.

On 17 October, in the coastal neighbourhood of Ramlet al-Baydah, a mob of more than 20 Lebanese men attacked Syrian workers with knives and sticks, injuring 10 people.

Targeting Syrian Sunni dissidents?

The military defended its operation in Geitawi, claiming it was responding to increased complaints about sexual harassment and crimes committed by foreign workers. Lebanese residents in the area blame Syrian workers for thefts, sexual harassment, fights and even murders.

The army said it detained 11 people, but HRW only witnessed the arrest of African migrants who presumably did not have legal residency documents. The army has not confirmed who was arrested or why. But according to HRW, the evidence against them is scarce and the military operation looked more like collective punishment than proper policing.

“No clear investigation has been carried out. Why didn’t the army look for specific suspects?” said Beirut-based Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle Eastern division of HRW. “We advocate the rule of law and police enforcement, not this kind of mob violence.”

The army also argued it was checking work permits, but Syrians are allowed to work in Lebanon without papers, as per a longstanding unwritten agreement.

Ahmad*, a Syrian tailor in his thirties, who arrived from Hama several years ago, said not a single Syrian was arrested on specific charges. Instead, he said, soldiers beat the Syrians, including minors, for nearly five hours, using electric shock batons until 2am. “They didn’t allow us to talk and started beating us straight away,” he said. He still bears the scars of the beating, a large haematoma covering half of his back.

Sectarian motives?

Syrians say they believe they were victims of a factional and sectarian army.

“While they were beating us, they asked us: ‘Don’t you know these punishments from the time you served in the Syrian army? Or are you with the [rebel] Free Syrian Army?’” said Ahmad. “They even checked our names to single out the Sunnis and, judging from their dialect, we suspect they were Alawis from Jebel Mohsen,” he said, referring to a neighbourhood in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli inhabited by people of the same sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The Lebanese military [intelligence] leadership is controlled by Christians and Shias and both sects are worried by the growing presence of the Syrian Sunni opposition in Lebanon,” explained Khaled*, a Syrian activist from Hama, who arrived at the building just after the 7 October raid to check on friends. “The operation was a message to Syrians: ‘Don’t think you’re protected; we know where you are’.”

Ahmad said the army took notes about where the migrants worked and for whom. “The army came with the intention of recording our names and checking if there was someone wanted in Syria,” he suggested.

“Politics are always behind these aggressions, even if they tell you it was all about harassments,” said Chehayed, of the Anti-Racism Movement. She compared it to an incident last November, when Lebanese Armenians assaulted Syrian Kurds in an Armenian majority neighbourhood in the suburbs of Beirut for their role, she said, in the Armenian genocide under the Ottomans.

Others dispute this version of events, saying the army did indeed round up suspects and ask Lebanese women to identify those who were guilty of harassment.

Nevertheless, observers are more hesitant to confirm a political agenda. “Two months ago we documented an instance where the army rounded up Syrian workers, looking for someone who had purchased a satellite device,” admitted HRW’s Houry, “but I think in Geitawi, it was more of a provocation than a political interrogation: if it was purely political they wouldn’t have rounded up also Egyptians and Sudanese.”

The Syrians, Ahmad and Khaled, disagreed, saying the round-up of other nationalities was “a cover for the real aim of the operation.”


Some residents of Geitawi show no prejudice against Syrians and they reject the fabrication of an easy scapegoat.

“There is no problem with Syrians. The scoundrels [responsible for theft and harassment] come from all sorts of countries: Sudan, Sri Lanka, Egypt,” said Rami al-Abyad, a barber in his sixties. “Not all the migrants are bullies.”

Even Ahmad, the Syrian tailor who was beaten, pointed to the good relations he has always had with his Lebanese landlords: “The house-owners were upset by the military operation and they even hid some Egyptians in their apartments.” Others don’t conceal their politically biased racism against Syrians.

“The irony is that many of these workers support the Syrian opposition,” said HRW’s Houry. “They have always been double victims: the regime didn’t offer them job opportunities and in Lebanon they were seen as part of the Syrian occupation, even if Beirut has been rebuilt on cheap Syrian labour.”

Local landlords are also profiting from the increased Syrian presence, Lebanese residents admitted.

The untouchable army

HRW is calling for a transparent investigation into the 7 October raid, but the army said any possible violation would be dealt with internally. The Ministry of Defence did not respond to IRIN’s request for information.

“There is a [lack of] accountability of all security forces, including the army,” said Houry. As the only respected security force in Lebanon amid many sectarian militias, the army is considered something of a sacred, less-easily criticized institution.

Syrian workers who appeared on TV to comment on the raid say they have been threatened by the military, but feel they have no recourse, given the links between large parts of the Lebanese government and their ally in Damascus.

“Since the revolution started, no one defends us and I cannot go to the Syrian embassy to complain about what happened,” said Ahmad.

*not a real name



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Tripoli (Lebanon) and the repercussions of the Syrian uprising

A long analysis I wrote for IRIN on Tripoli’s clashes between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and its Alawi  ‘counterpart’ Jabal Mohsen.

Analysis: Bound by conflict, the Syrian-Lebanon crisis

tabbaneh mohsen

TRIPOLI, LEBANON, 25 June 2012 (IRIN) – For more than a generation, the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli has been a divided city, home to most of Lebanon’s Shia Alawi community, but also a stronghold of Sunni conservatism.
The two sects, in their respective neighbourhoods of Jebel Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, have been at odds since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, with hundreds dying in the worst bloodshed in 1986. The road separating the two entrenched factions – appropriately called Syria Street – is the only demarcation line that still exists in Lebanon 22 years after the war ended.

In recent months, the outbreak of conflict in Syria and the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has renewed and increased those tensions between Shia Alawis generally supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Sunni sympathizers of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the opposition.

More than 30 Lebanese from both sides have been killed in fighting between the two communities since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. While a fragile ceasefire in Tripoli – agreed in early June – seems to be generally holding, sporadic clashes happen on a daily basis and it is common to see civilians carrying weapons.

While there are clear risks of Lebanon being caught up in the Syrian conflict, the reverse is also true: Syrian antagonists are equally in danger of being dragged into age-old Lebanese sectarianism.

The Syrian conflict has already killed at least 10,000, according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and displaced as many as 500,000 people inside the country, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and another 86,000 are registered refugees in neighbouring countries. Basic services are not running properly, and the economy has been hard hit, not only by the conflict, but by far-reaching economic sanctions, pushing up unemployment and the price of food. Lebanon, which has already suffered decades of war, is rife with poverty and political instability. Both countries have much to lose.

Socio-economic factors and politics

Sectarianism and political antagonism in Tripoli have already had very real consequences for ordinary people on both sides.

Mahmud, a local vendor in the alleyways of Tripoli’s market, points to the Alawi-owned shop next door, recently set on fire.

“The owner of this burnt shop paid the price of feuds between rogues,” he explains.

“If these unbelievers want Bashar al-Assad, they can go to Syria,” bursts out Omar, a long-bearded youngster, when asked about the shop. The risks for civilians here are large, with some Sunnis openly admitting that Alawi civilians could be further targeted.

“Now they don’t dare to leave their mountain, we would beat them again,” boasts Faysal, a talkative shopkeeper in Tripoli’s market, who praises his cousin fighting in Bab al-Tabbaneh. “Those Alawis who are still in the city centre are Syrian workers, not Lebanese,” he continues. “No one would harm them. But in case of a civil war, they will be killed, because wars know no ethical rules.”

If history is anything to go by, those made destitute by the clashes are more likely to be dragged into violence. As the International Crisis Group put it in abriefing in October 2010, for many Sunni youngsters in Bab-Tebbaneh, joining one of the many Islamist groups which have spread relatively freely since Syria’s military withdrawal provides an attractive alternative to idleness and social failure.”

Lebanese politicians have been accused of exploiting the frustration of these poor neighbourhoods, supplying them with weapons.
“External actors transferred their conflicts there [in Tripoli], backing local fighters in a struggle that was less costly, and more easily managed, than would be open warfare in the capital…, just as… local fighters use their struggles… to attract important outside support,” the 2010 Crisis Group briefing said.

Distrust in Lebanese army, intelligence

An enormous banner hanging in one of Tripoli’s main squares, al-Tell, reads: “In defence of the security and stability of Tripoli”. The whole city is plastered with these kinds of slogans. But behind the confident veneer, some residents are skeptical of the army’s ability to maintain the peace.

From behind a small stand on a street corner, a coffee vendor named Khaled says he doesn’t have much faith in the military.

“What do you want them to do? They stand aside!” he says laughing.

Weapons and Koranic commentaries pack the living room in the flat of Sheikh Bilal al-Masri, a Sunni leader fighting on Bab al-Tabbaneh’s front line. He says the army – which usually limits itself to standing between both sides – started doing its job when, on one occasion recently, it responded to gunfire coming from Alawi-majority Jebel Mohsen. But he stresses that the military remains divided by political rivalries.

Residents of Jebel Mohsen are also skeptical of the army’s ability to ensure their security.

“To us, [weapons] are more important than food,” Rifa’at ‘Eid, head of the pro-Assad Arab Democratic Party (ADP), told the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. “We have confidence in the army, but it cannot ensure our safety under certain conditions.”

The Lebanese army is generally considered a “spectator” in armed clashes, because party militias such as Hezbollah are much better equipped, and because Lebanese politics are so divided. Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s current government, as well as the Military Intelligence (mukhabarat al-jaysh) and theGeneral Security (al-amn al-‘aam) are believed to be aligned with Damascus, whereas the Internal Security Forces (quwwat al-amn al-dakhili) and its Information Branch (far’ al-ma’lumat) are closer to the opposition Saudi-backed 14 March coalition, analysts say.

Syrian opposition and Lebanese Sunnis: between sympathy and military alliance

In Tripoli’s government hospital, the tension is palpable. A nurse at the hospital showed IRIN bullet holes on the wall of one of the rooms overlooking Jebel Mohsen, suggesting the targets were the Sunni Syrian patients. The latter do not dare poke their heads out the window, for fear of being shot. The 50 Syrians in the hospital claim to be civilians, but the line between the armed opposition and the peace demonstrators is increasingly blurred.

Still, Tripoli remains one of the safest destinations in Lebanon for mostly Sunni Syrian refugees, due to the Sunni support for the uprising; and Lebanon has been a transit route for relief supplies into Syria. But analysts are increasingly questioning whether the ties between Lebanese and Syrian Sunnis go beyond mutual sympathy to military cooperation.
Samir*, a 23-old Syrian from Homs, now a member of a Syrian grouping of humanitarian and civil society organizations in Lebanon called Watan (Homeland), says there are clear boundaries to his involvement in the Bab al-Tabbaneh-Jebel Mohsen clashes: “If a Lebanese civil war breaks out, we will leave. We’re not here to export our revolution. We need Lebanon as a basis for our activities.”

Walid*, 27, who works for another humanitarian group, the Coordination Committees for Syrian Refugees’ Affairs in Lebanon, holds different views on the relations between Syrians and Bab al-Tabbaneh: “I wanted to volunteer as a fighter in Bab al-Tabbaneh, but they rejected me.

“I wanted to do it, because the Alawis from Jebel Mohsen were involved in killing demonstrators in my city, Homs,” explains Walid. “They came to support Alawis in Homs and slaughtered our people.”

Al-Masri, the Sunni leader, confirmed having turned away Syrian volunteers. But he says the links between pro-Syrian government forces on both sides of the border are stronger. He says Lebanese Alawis are supplied with weapons and supported on the ground by Syrian and Hezbollah officers.

Pro-Syria media give a different view of the situation, with an article in pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar accusing Riyadh al-Asaad, commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, of visiting Tripoli to survey the territory, looking for an “ideal buffer zone”.

Al-Masri denies both the existence of a 300-man Lebanese-Sunni unit within the FSA in Syria (as recently reported by Nicholas Blanford, Middle East analyst and author) and the presence of FSA camps in Lebanon. “We sent our men to Syria and they were rejected. They told us: ‘We don’t need you, but give us weapons, if it’s possible’.” He does admit to smuggling weapons and food to the FSA across the Lebanese border, by bribing Syrian officials.

Both the FSA and the pro-Syrian alignment led by Hezbollah have their reasons to deny having trespassed national borders. The first fears being blamed for igniting the existing tensions within Lebanon; the latter wants to prevent a new explosion of Sunni resentment. In a nutshell, no one wants to be blamed for a new Lebanese civil war.

But in the absence of a quick settlement with Jebel Mohsen, tensions in both countries are becoming increasingly intertwined, with analysts predicting that Lebanese Sunnis will eventually make use of their brethren across the border to fight their domestic enemies, namely Hezbollah. Already, tit-for-tat kidnappings have blurred the lines between the two conflicts, with Syrian Sunnis involved in kidnapping Lebanese Shias; Syrian officers involved in kidnapping Lebanese Sunnis; and Lebanese Sunnis involved in kidnapping Lebanese Alawis.

Who benefits from the clashes?

Analysts say both sides in Lebanon have something to gain from the clashes.

The anti-Syrian Future Movement (FM), headed by the former Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad al-Hariri, forced out of office in January 2011, has used the clashes as an opportunity to call for the current Prime Minister’s resignation, arguing he has not been able to ensure Tripoli’s security.

But in the eyes of Bab al-Tabbaneh’s fighters, as well as many analysts, the Syrian government has more to gain.

“The first interest of the Syrian regime is distracting the attention of the media from what’s going on in Syria,” al-Masri says. “Secondly, Bashar wants to pressure the international community by saying he’s capable of causing a civil war in Lebanon.”

Both Bab al-Tabbaneh’s fighters and ADP’s spokespersons told the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star that Hezbollah is supplying weapons to both Alawis and Sunnis in Tripoli, suggesting that the goal is to destabilize Lebanon – regardless of the victor – in order to draw attention away from the situation in Syria.

*not real names








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