"They say I am a traitor because I joined the Kurds; they say that I've forgotten my origins, and who I am”, complains Mohammed, an Arab fighter who defected the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to join the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG). "The FSA has forgotten its core mission, fighting the regime. Now some members are looting and threatening civilians”, explains this 22 years old from Aleppo.
The Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG) were set up last July, when the Kurdistan West Democratic Movement (TEV-DEM) –the umbrella body of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main party among the Syrian Kurds, and other organizations close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)–, took control of some areas of northern Syria as well as Aleppo´s predominantly Kurdish districts of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyeh.
Although most of the Kurdish militia is made up women and men of Kurdish origin, it´s not infrequent to find fighters of different ethnicities and religions among their ranks. In Qamishlo –680 kilometres northeast of Damascus– there is a significant number of Christian combatants within the YPG and the enlistment of young Arabs men in Aleppo has increased in recent weeks. Several Arab militiamen living in Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieyh told Al Jazeera that they had joined the YPG because it is the only armed group in the district and, therefore, “the only way to defend their homes and businesses”.
However, there are also cases of young Arabs from other parts of the city that have decided to join the Kurdish militia because they are disappointed with FSA´s attitude. This is the case of Ahmed, a 20 years old man from Salahaddin neighbourhood –southwest Aleppo- Just a few days ago he was fighting Bashar al-Assad regime from rebel ranks. "When the revolt reached the doors of my house in July, I decided to join the Free Syrian Army. To get the best positions in the frontline, the FSA drove out many families of their homes and several people were killed. It was so hard, many of them were my neighbours since I was a child”, explains this militiaman with his face hidden under a keffiyeh- a local strap.
"A month ago I decided to leave the FSA and hid in Ashrafiyeh. After meeting some YPG members I decided to integrate into their units. I feel welcome because the YPG doesn´t make distinctions among different ethnic groups, we all get the same treatment”, says the fighter.
"What they called the “Free Army”, is actually not a free army. They raped our women and killed our children instead of protecting us. We came here and found that the people here are better and consider us part of them. There's no difference between them and any other citizen from Syria", claims this new YPG militiaman.
Recently, the British The Guardian has detailed how looting and divided loyalties threaten to destroy the unity of FSA. The arrival of the winter and the lack of captured ammunition from the Syrian Army posed a new challenge for the rebel fighters. Looting and black market have turned into an important way of financing for certain rebel brigades. Furthermore, in a video released by The New York Times shows how civilians in an Aleppo’s bakery shout against the FSA, accusing them of stealing while supporting the establishment of an Islamic army.
Tension between YPG and rebel groups
These are the first documented cases of Free Syrian Army defectors that have joined Kurdish militia. Since now, those who have left FSA had been mainly motivated by religious convictions and had been integrated into Islamists militias like Al-Nusra Front or Ghuraba al-Sham. Allegedly linked with Al Qaida, these two groups are fighting against YPG in the northern city of Ras al-Ayn, just on the Turkish border.
"Recently some groups have been coming from elsewhere, from outside the border, boasting a political agenda that is different from ours. Those groups that are coming from outside are religious, Salafist, Jihadists... They are trying to stir tensions among the Syrians especially between the Kurds and the Arabs”, explains Hassan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) main political leader in Aleppo. “These groups have a Turkish agenda. Ankara is backing them in order to quell Kurdish struggle in Syria and Western Kurdistan”, he adds.
The prospect of Kurdish autonomy, as enjoyed in Iraq, raises alarm bells for Turkey, one of the key state backers of the rebels trying to overthrow Assad and a country where Kurdish rebels have been fighting a violent struggle for self-rule for the last 28 years.
Turkey is increasingly worried that the chaos in Syria will open up a new base for Kurdish rebels to press their struggle for self-rule. The PKK has been fighting for the rights of the Kurds for more than thirty years.
"I support the YPG because their priority is to defend civilian people and for this reason I will be with them until the war is over", says Ali, a young Arab fighter from Sukkari neighbourhood, in southern Aleppo. Many like him have decided to switch sides, something which often leads to breaking family ties and friendship in a “non-return” way. Most of the anti-regime fighters claim the YPG is fighting alongside Assad's forces, therefore, enlisting in the Kurdish armed militia is interpreted as an act of high treason.
"For newcomers it‘s easy to feel integrated because commanders tried to give communications and all the instructions in Arabic to avoid misunderstandings”, recalls Faiq, a fighter manning a checkpoint in Aleppo´s Ashrafiye district.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the PYD has emphasized its opposition to the regime and, in the case of Aleppo, YPG has opted for a defensive strategy to prevent fighting between the regime and FSA hitting Ahsrafiyeh and Sheikh Maqsoud. However, fierce clashes were reported last October between FSA Salahaddin brigade and Kurdish militia in Ashrafiyeh neighbourhood. Near 20 people were killed and there were dozens of prisoners from both sides. "The Kurdish fighters of this brigade are mercenaries supported by Turkey”, complains PYD chief commander Hassan. Weeks after a ceasefire agreement was signed, tensions are still high between the FSA and YPG.
"People know the reason we're fighting for, therefore, any Syrian Arabic, Kurdish, Armenian, man or woman who shares our goals are welcome. This is not a sectarian struggle. It’s ideological, concludes Hassan from the office in Sheikh Maqsoud.
* This article originally published in David Meseguer's own website: www.davidmeseguer.com
A Spanish version of this article appeared in Gara (http://gara.naiz.info/paperezkoa/20130107/381348/es/Decepcionados-rebeldes-desertores-ELS-unen-milicia-kurda)