The chaos created by the Russian-backed government offensive in Aleppo has given rise to an entirely new conflict in northern Syria between opposition and Kurdish militias.
As pro-government forces supported by heavy Russian airstrikes drive to sever vital rebel supply lines between Syria’s northernmost city and Turkey, Syrian Kurdish groups are pushing to expand their autonomous area of control.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of armed groups led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been shelling opposition-held towns ever since the government began its push to lift the rebel siege on the Shiite towns of Nubul and Zahraa some three weeks ago.
YPG units, in coordination with the broader SDF alliance and with overt Russian air support, captured the strategic rebel-held town of Tal Rifaat last week and are now besieging the neighboring town of Marea, in an effort to take the entirety of the Azaz corridor – the last remaining rebel-held supply route between Aleppo and Turkey.
Earlier this month, YPG and SDF forces seized the Menagh air base, a Syrian air-force installation, from the Levant Front group with the help of some 30 Russian airstrikes.
Under attack from Russian airstrikes, pro-government militias and the SDF, the opposition’s only remaining strongholds are the towns of Marea and Azaz.
Marea has been under a three-sided siege by the YPG, pro-government forces and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) for the past three months. Its only supply line has been under constant bombardment by SDF.
All three groups have also heavily bombarded Azaz, the last remaining rebel stronghold on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Turkey, a main backer of the Syrian opposition groups, has said it will never allow the town of Azaz to fall into Kurdish hands, and has consistently shelled SDF militants in northern Syria since February 13.
Ankara views the SDF as a front for the YPG and thus as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in pursuit of greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
“Azaz has been under repeated attack. During the first one, the Syrian Democratic Forces were able to get through the western side of Azaz and take control of a Free Syrian Army [FSA] military point,” said Mujahid Abu al-Jod, a media activist living in Azaz, speaking about the SDF’s recent attempts to take over the strategic town. “The continuous shelling with mortars has led to the shutting down of the only field hospital in the town.”
The opposition fighters were later able to regain control over the military points and push SDF militants out of the town.
As a border town that has seen relative peace in the past four years, Azaz is heavily populated with internally displaced Syrians, and residents worry that increased bombardment by the SDF might lead to high civilian casualties.
Al-Jod rejected claims made by Russia and the SDF that al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, had a presence in the town.
“We, as activists, deny that allegation,” he said. “Since its liberation from the regime, the Free Syrian Army is the only group present in the city.”
Ma’aouf Abu Bahr, a military leader of the FSA’s Ahfad Hamza brigades, said heavy government and Russian bombardments in Aleppo’s northern countryside have prevented opposition forces from getting close to Azaz or Marea.
“Opposition factions headed toward these areas to repel the regime’s attacks – backed by Russian airstrikes and a number of Iranian and Lebanese militants – however, the heavy bombardment forced us to withdraw from these areas, even though we caused the regime forces great damages,” he added.
“We were taken by surprise when the SDF started moving from Afrin, despite the signed truce between them and the opposition in the northern countryside,” explained Abu Bahr. “They began to gain control over Afrin’s neighboring villages, using the opposition’s preoccupation with the regime forces and ISIS from different sides.”
Fierce battles are still raging on in Marea and Andan between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces. “They insist on saying that they’re fighting Jabhat al-Nusra, but we assure that northern Aleppo has not seen Jabhat al-Nusrah for a very long time now. They have their own agenda and they want to execute it under the name of the Syrian revolution, but everyone knows their lies by now.”
The increase in violence across northern Aleppo has forced thousands of families to flee their towns toward the closed Turkish border. Thousands of tents have been set up to accommodate more than 100,000 people and to attempt to protect them from the harsh winter weather.
Abu Bahr explains that the Free Syrian Army is now trying to absorb the shock and gather its forces from both Aleppo and its countryside. “We assure you that there is no Jabhat al-Nusra in any of these areas. And we, as the Free Syrian Army, will regain all of these areas in the near future, and return the peace and calm to our people in Aleppo.”
Top image: A Kurdish fighter peers at an Islamic State group position in Kobani on Nov. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Jake Simkin)