Published by Syria in Crisis – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – 5 May 2014

Since summer 2013, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish political group, has been engaged in armed conflict with jihadist groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known by the acronym ISIS) to retain control of Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria.

So far, the YPG has fared well in this struggle. The fighting along the front south and southeast of Qamishli is contained for the moment. Since autumn 2013, the oil fields around Rmeilan have been safely in YPG hands, as has the border crossing at al-Yarubiya that is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) further south along the Iraqi border. As the fighting has moved into Arab-majority territories, both the YPG and its opponents have increasingly relied on support from local Arab tribes to tip the balance.

The Capture of Al-Yarubiya

Early in 2013, a local group, the Ahrar al-Jazeera, took up arms against Syrian regime forces in the town of al-Yarubiya on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The group could not accomplish much on its own, but after reinforcements arrived from the Nusra Front, the jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham, and the Syrian Salafi faction Ghuraba al-Sham, the town fell in early March.

After some infighting, the various groups came together again when the ISIS-YPG conflict took off in earnest in mid-July. The town became one of the main staging points for military advances and car bomb attacks on the Kurdish areas. Ahrar al-Jazeera later fell out of favor with the Nusra Front and was expelled from the town—its leader Abdulrahman Nawaf al-Assi reportedly disappeared.

Most of the local population fled from al-Yarubiya and nearby villages to the YPG-controlled areas further north over the course of the year, either during the fighting or later because of the harsh rule and lack of services under ISIS. When a delegation of 90 leading tribesmen went to ask the YPG to drive out the occupants, its request did not fall on deaf ears. Local people guided the advancing YPG forces into the area, and al-Yarubiya came under YPG control in late October 2013.

The Disaster at Tel Hamis

Sixty kilometers (37 miles) west of al-Yarubiya, the town of Tel Hamis provides a suitable staging point for attacks on the Kurdish areas. Several months after capturing al-Yarubiya, the YPG moved in to control Tel Brak and Tel Hamis, surrounding Tel Hamis on three sides. While many local inhabitants had already fled to the Kurdish areas, presumably for the same reasons as those who fled from al-Yarubiya, others stayed and offered their support to the jihadist and rebel groups. Unlike in al-Yarubiya, there was no delegation of prominent tribesmen from Tel Hamis offering assistance to the YPG—but the attack on the town went ahead anyway in early January 2014.

Although there are conflicting accounts of what exactly happened, it is clear that the YPG forces suffered heavy losses after they walked into an ambush. Some YPG members claim that local Arab tribesmen pretending to be on their side were responsible. Forces from ISIS, the Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham then recaptured Tel Brak as well as several villages north of Tel Hamis. While the YPG took back Tel Brak in February, no further attempts have been made to capture Tel Hamis.

The Shammar and the Sharabiya

According to figures received from the Asayish—a Kurdish police force—in al-Yarubiya, about 20 percent of the prewar population of the town was Kurdish, while the remaining 80 percent was made up of Arabs from no fewer than 20 different tribes. The largest of these tribes was the Shammar, representing about 20 percent of the total population. After al-Yarubiya fell to the Nusra Front and its allies, it was the tribe of Shammar that sent out a delegation to the YPG, supported its advance, and even gave financial assistance.

Hussein al-Kadaan, one of the Shammar leaders, claims that the tribe arrived to the area around al-Yarubiya in 1916 and that relations with local Kurds have always been good. The Kurds have supported the Shammar in times of conflict with other tribes, and the Shammar tribesmen have reciprocated in turn. Indeed, several local sources confirm that the Shammar was the only tribe that refused to attack the Kurds during the Kurdish uprising against the Syrian regime in March 2004.

In and around Tel Hamis, however, the largest Arab tribe is the Sharabia, a longtime rival of the Shammar. Most Sharabia tribsemen arrived to the area around al-Yarubiya from Raqqa in the 1970s and were placed as settlers on land that was taken from local Kurds. This project was part of the Syrian regime’s “Arab belt” policy, designed to weaken the demographic dominance of the Kurds in their traditional heartland. Sharabia tribesmen took part in attacks on the Kurds in 2004. This history of conflict with both the Kurds and the Shammar goes some way to explain why the inhabitants of Tel Hamis appear to have been less inclined to back the YPG than the residents of al-Yarubiya.

While the example of the Shammar and the Sharabia may demonstrate how intertribal conflicts play a role in producing political allegiances, the dividing lines are not clear-cut, as the existence of intratribal rivalry means that there are often several leaders to choose from. It should be noted that Ahrar al-Jazeera belongs to the Shammar tribe, as does Ahmad Jarba, currently head of the main Syrian opposition group in exile Syrian National Coalition, which supported a united front that included ISIS against the YPG in Tel Hamis. Meanwhile, some Sharabia tribesmen have joined the YPG as fighters.

Gaining the Upper Hand

While some of the Arabs in the Jazeera area are principled supporters of one of the contending actors (today mainly the YPG and ISIS), others are simply opportunists. Meanwhile, the majority just tries to stay out of trouble and waits for the conflicts to blow over. Most Arab inhabitants of this region will pick sides only if they have to, and they are always prepared to turn their coats if the wind changes direction.

In the ongoing struggle for local support, ISIS has some advantages. First of all, its forces have no qualms about killing anyone standing in the organization’s way. Even in YPG-controlled areas, there is a risk that ISIS will come back and take revenge on collaborators. Secondly, there is an undercurrent of Sunni Arab chauvinism in the area that thrives on anti-Kurdish sentiments. The importance of secular or religious ideology is probably overstated in this context—if yesterday former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was the hero, today it is ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Third, many of the “Arab belt” settlers probably fear that the Kurds will eventually want to evict them and take back their property.

While everyone fears ISIS, the YPG has found a more successful way to win the hearts and minds of the local population: to leave them alone. Instead of harassing, torturing, or killing people, the YPG offers protection and basic services indiscriminately. In order to maintain and expand its support base, including among the Arabs, the key for the YPG is to continue to win on the battlefield and convince local people that they can be protected from ISIS.

The Battle for Hearts and Minds

While the continuing ISIS presence in Tel Hamis poses a containable hazard for the YPG, it seems that both sides are currently diverting more resources to the ongoing fighting around Tel Abyad, another ISIS stronghold with an Arab majority, located in a contested stretch of territory 230 kilometers (143 miles) west of Qamishli. This town is currently more strategically important than Tel Hamis, as it gives ISIS access to a border crossing with Turkey while separating two of the three autonomous Kurdish cantons.

After a drawn-out series of battles around Tel Abyad and further west, it appears that the YPG currently has the upper hand. However, the most crucial issue regarding both Tel Hamis and Tel Abyad is not if they will eventually be captured but whether the YPG will be able to muster the local support needed to successfully govern and maintain security. If the YPG is seen as an occupying force and met with resistance, this hard-fought victory might prove Pyrrhic.

Carl Drott is a Swedish freelance journalist.

Published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – 5 May 2014