The Islamic State’s spectacular killings of American journalists, persecution of various non-Sunni religious groups and victories against Kurdish forces in Iraq have overshadowed its activities in the lands where it claimed its first victories — northeastern Syria. Yet the struggle continues there, and the manner in which forces on the ground are resisting the Islamic State is laying bare alliances among local forces and the Syrian government. Many of these alliances accord with political science orthodoxy about civil wars, while others raise important questions about how civil war processes should be understood. (...)
Groups organized around regional identities – between the national level narrative of sectarian conflict and town or neighborhood level enmities – play a central role in the fighting in Syria’s northeast, a role that has not been extensively studied by political scientists. The continued importance of these regional identities during the conflict suggests a degree of structure and continuity to the fight for Syria’s northeast that should surprise observers of the conflict and political scientists studying civil wars alike. (...)
Many actors fighting alongside the Syrian government are doing so only to defend their locality, and the same can be said of groups pledging loyalty to the Islamic State or the Free Syrian Army. This point should give policymakers pause in expecting aid to localized forces allied with a particular side in the conflict to produce desired change on a broader scale. (...)
Also emergent in the conflict are several new actors formed in response to weakened state control over much of the northeast. First, the most powerful Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has set up its own army, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Syrian government withdrew from most of the Kurdish areas of the country in July 2012, which allowed the PYD to control the territory. Members of the other principal non-Arab ethnic group in the northeast, Syriac Christians, have set up a security organization called Sutoro. Far smaller than the Kurdish forces – unsurprising given the relatively smaller size of the Syriac population and its lack of a political apparatus equivalent to the PYD – Sutoro coordinates its activity closely with the PYD.
In addition, National Defense Forces (NDF) militias operate in areas outside of PYD and Islamic State control. These militia groups defend the locality from which they are recruited, rather than venturing to faraway frontlines, and are organized under the umbrella of the Syrian government. Their emergence has been a gradual response to increasing violence in Syria. When violence first began to threaten their neighborhoods, residents of many Syrian cities set up popular committees (lijan shabiya) to defend their local areas. As fighting deepened, these groups were turned into NDF militias. The militias receive uniforms and arms from the central government. (...)
The “master cleavage” of the Syrian conflict suggests that the Kurds and tribes (both of which, religiously speaking, are nearly all Sunni Muslim) should align against the incumbent, minority-held Syrian government. Syriac Christians, by contrast, should seek the state’s protection. The micro-level theories suggest that, because no group is powerful enough to dominate the others independently, alliances between fighting groups should be fluid and the identity-based justifications for them (e.g. “We are Arabs combating a Kurdish threat,” “We are Sunnis fighting unbelievers”) ephemeral. On the ground in Syria’s northeast is something between these extremes; identities below the level of the Alawite-Sunni division and above the level of local grudges between neighborhoods are a driving force in the current conflict.
The fighting in Hasakah, the epicenter of the Islamic State’s bid to enlarge its area of control, exemplifies this dynamic. Hasakah, the capital of Syria’s far northeastern province of the same name, is the intersection of several social groupings. The majority of the population is of Arab tribal background, and the city has significant Kurdish and Christian populations as well.
Historically, the Baathist Syrian government has ruled Hasakah as a colonial power might: By working through intermediaries and treating the groups the intermediaries represent differentially. The Syrian government never sought a direct relationship with its subjects in the northeast, preferring to deal with local leaders and important tribal figures. (...)
In the present conflict, this intermediate, regional level of social relations between the state and local populations continues to structure the flow of political events, as a recent battle for control of a major military base in Hasakah shows. In late July, the Islamic State began an assault on the headquarters of the Maylabiya Battalion (Fawj al-Maylabiya). Army forces in the base were unable to withstand the assault and withdrew, leaving a number of soldiers stranded in the base. With its nearest reinforcements also under siege, the government turned to the NDF to liberate the remaining soldiers, and the PYD sent its military forces (YPG) to fight the Islamic State there as well. Once the Islamic State took full control of Fawj al-Maylabiya, NDF and YPG forces surrounded the base to cut off supplies to the Islamic State fighters controlling it. In the aftermath of the events, the government set up a shared operations room coordinating the operations of the army, the state’s four security agencies, Sutoro, YPG and NDF forces, and a parallel tribal militia called the Dignity Army.
These surprising constellations of actors fighting the Islamic State are marriages of convenience, not based on ideology or personal ties of elites. There is no natural affinity between the parties. First, the official Baathist, Arabist doctrine denies that Kurds and Syriacs are legitimate residents of the ostensible Arab homeland they are defending alongside the Syrian “Arab” Army. Second, though the PYD is widely accused of collaborating with the Syrian government, there is no direct evidence of any agreement and the organization has all the reason to despise the government. The government had long hosted Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) out of which the PYD emerged, and expelled him in 1998 when seeking rapprochement with Turkey. He was captured by Turkey soon thereafter, and the Syrian government began arresting and harassing Syrians associated with the PKK. (...)
The various groups cooperating with the Syrian government are not maximizing their control of territory and resources but defending their territory, their region. As soon as Fawj al-Maylabiya fell, several groups rushed to prevent the Islamic State from taking control of the city. NDF and Sutoro forces secured their respective neighborhoods, and the YPG set up checkpoints on the periphery of the city and within many neighborhoods. The controversy over whether the NDF allowed Alawite army officers to be slaughtered by the Islamic State at Fawj al-Maylabiya further suggests the importance of region; NDF fighters rallied to hold a military base protecting their area but made little effort to save officers unconnected to their local area.
O texto é anterior à intervenção ocidental e dos países árabes conservadores simultaneamente contra o Estado Islâmico e a Frente al-Nusra ter tornado isto ainda mais confuso.