Can the Syrian regime expel Kurdish forces out of Aleppo?

Despite the recent success of the Syrian regime in capturing the opposition-held areas of eastern Aleppo, the regime does not completely control the city. Kurdish forces still control several neighbourhoods and reports indicate the attention of the regime shifted to these areas. Despite allegations about close coordination between Kurdish forces and the Syrian regime, days after capturing the city the regime demanded Kurdish forces retreat from the eastern pockets. Kurdish forces refused and instead swore to defend against any future attack. The question remains, will the Syrian regime launch an attack to control Aleppo city in its entirety?

The Syrian regime forces withdrew from Kurdish-held northern areas in the beginning of the uprising to focus on fighting rebel groups. A small contingent of soldiers oversaw regime bases there instead. Many believed that when the Syrian army left Kurdish-held areas, it was in coordination with the Democratic Union Party (PYD, the ruling party of the Kurdish territories) and was an attempt to keep the Kurds from joining the uprising.

Analysts pointed toward a coordination of convenience between the Syrian regime and Kurdish forces despite profound differences and occasional clashes  across Syria. Opposition groups see Kurdish forces as regime allies which led to mistrust and clashes. The Kurdish forces also perceive opposition groups, especially Islamists, as an existential threat due to their ideology and affiliation with Turkey. The PYD is also viewed as a national security threat to Turkey due to its affiliation with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The coordination with the Syrian regime is stronger in Aleppo and is essential for the survival of Kurdish forces based in Aleppo city and rural Aleppo in Efrin. Kurdish forces in Aleppo province are isolated from the majority of Kurdish-held areas in the east and surrounded by hostile rebel groups. Kurdish forces and the Syrian regime coordinated or at least timed some attacks to distract and force rebels to fight on multiple frontlines. The coordination also included some air cover protection provided by the Syrian regime or Russia Air Force.

During the recent offensive on eastern Aleppo, Kurdish forces were accused of fighting alongside the regime against opposition forces. “The relationship between the regime and Kurdish forces is more complicated than the commonly used term ‘allies.’ They do not trust each other, but they cooperate sometimes because it is the best available pragmatic option. What happened in Aleppo was not a joint offensive but rather a race between the regime and the PYD to fill the void left by their swift collapse of rebel groups,” said Wasim Mohammed, a Kurdish activist based in Efrin. The coordinated offensive on eastern Aleppo allowed the Kurdish forces to capture a number of neighbourhoods including Hellok, Bustan al-Basha, Heydarieh, Hanunu, Sheikh Faris, Baidin, Ain El Tel and Inziraa.

Expelling the rebels out of Aleppo city has changed the balance of power in the city and encouraged the regime to compete with Kurdish forces over territory. Reports indicate the Syrian regime demanded the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from recently captured areas in eastern Aleppo. “The government had entrusted the PYD with these areas and now the government wants them back. Their (PYD’s) work in confronting the terrorists has been completed,” General Haitham Hassoun of the Syrian army told Rudaw News. This issue was under reported as all parties involved had interests in solving it discreetly and peacefully. The Kurdish forces seem to have withdrawn their forces from some of the captured areas which are not strategic or not highly populated such as Hanunu and Sheikh Faris. Although this withdrawal has not been reported, a close look at the Liveuamap Website, an interactive mapping tool, shows that the Kurdish forces no longer control areas they previously held.

The Syrian regime seems intent on reasserting power far beyond the newly captured areas in eastern Aleppo such as in Sheikh Maksoud, a Kurdish majority area, which has been under Kurdish control for a few years. According to Syrian journalist Muhammad Bello, 70 fighters from the Kurdish forces withdrew from Sheikh Maksoud to Efrin as an attempt to decrease tension with the regime. Some Kurdish activists stated that these fighters were needed on the frontlines with the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh). Kurdish commanders also reiterated their commitment to defend this area if the regime insists on taking it over.

Reports indicate that Russia is trying to solve this issue by regulating relations between the autonomous Kurdish administration and the Syrian regime. According to Rudaw News, on December 27, 2016 Russia hosted and mediated a meeting in which the Syrian regime demanded all Kurdish areas return to the state. Although the details of the meeting are still unclear, there were reports of a small group of Russian military forces deployed in Sheikh Maksoud on December 27 in order to oversee the security situation however this information has not been independently verified. A few days prior to that, Russia also announced the deployment of military police to keep order in Aleppo. The Russian military forces were perceived as a peace keeping force between the Syrian regime and the Kurdish forces.

It is still not clear how this situation will evolve, but the status quo in the city will likely continue. Kurdish forces have made it clear they will defend their areas in Aleppo city. The Syrian regime cannot afford fighting Kurdish forces in Aleppo because this fighting could spread to other shared front lines with Kurdish forces. Russia, moreover, will continue to work on de-escalating this tension and solving it peacefully.

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist, researcher, and Chatham House Associate Fellow who focuses on security policy, conflict studies, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22

Image: Photo: Kurdish civilians gather in celebration after it was reported that Kurdish forces took control of the Syrian town of Kobani, in Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood of Aleppo January 27, 2015. REUTERS/Hosam Katan