Assad Shifts Strategy, Attacks Kurdish Rebel Group in Syria

The Syrian dictator has so far left the Kurds alone. What changed his mind is anyone’s guess.

Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad have for the first time bombarded Kurdish rebel positions in the northeast of the country, marking a shift in the regime’s strategy.

The largely Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) claims that regime forces carried out airstrikes in the Al-Hasakah Governorate and attacked urban areas with artillery, killing and injuring dozens.

CNN reports that American officials were nearby when the attack occurred.

The United States support the YPG in their fight against the self-declared Islamic State, a fanatical Sunni Islamist group that occupies territory in between the Assad regime’s and the Kurds.

Splitting Assad’s opponents

Assad had so far left his Kurdish minority alone through more than five years of civil war, concentrating his efforts on putting down the mostly Sunni insurgency in the heavily populated western parts of Syria.

Russia, Assad’s protector, even hinted at helping the Kurds earlier this year. I argued at the time that it was trying to drive a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies. Both seek Assad’s downfall, but whereas European countries and the United States support the Kurds against the Islamic State — which has claimed responsibility for a slew of terror attacks in the West — Turkey fears Kurdish nationalism in Syria might inspire its own Kurdish minority to rise up.

Kurdish groups in Turkey with links to likeminded factions in Syria have recently taken up armed struggle against the Turkish state. Turkey calls the YPG a terrorist organization.

Curious timing

The strikes in Hasakah come only a week after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Saint Petersburg.

Relations between the two soured after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border last year. But in the wake of an attempted military coup in Ankara — in which Erdoğan’s supporters see the hand of the United States — the two strongmen appear to have patched things up.

Is there a connection? Who knows.

Russian airstrikes have enabled Assad to reconquer much of western Syria. Troops loyal to him — including Shia fighters from the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah — seldom engage the Islamic State’s, though. They do battle instead with Western-backed groups, like the YPG in Syria and the army in Iraq.