Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Post-ISIS Insurgency Looms in Northern Syria

By Genevieve Casagrande and the ISW Syria Team

Key Takeaway: Resistance to the Kurdish political project in northern Syria is increasing the risk of an insurgency that would reverse U.S. gains against ISIS and facilitate the return of Salafi-jihadi groups to the area. Turkey and ISIS are exacerbating tensions between local Sunni Arabs and the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which dominates the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkish support to anti-Kurdish insurgent groups in SDF-held areas may support the reemergence of Al Qaeda, which also seeks to exploit ethnic strife and hostility toward the SDF, in northern Syria.

The continued dominance of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and its political project in northern Syria is driving local hostility toward the anti-ISIS Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Locals held demonstrations and closed shops to protest a recent SDF conscription law in Manbij City and neighboring towns in Eastern Aleppo Province from November 3 - 5. Turkish-backed rebels also held demonstrations in solidarity with Manbij in Jarablus in Northern Aleppo and areas west of Manbij. The SDF sent reinforcements from Ayn al Arab to Manbij, reportedly to force store owners to reopen their shops. The SDF Legislative Council and local tribal leaders agreed to the conscription law on November 2.  However, some local Arab tribal leaders reportedly refused to attend the discussions, one of whom SDF-affiliated security forces temporarily arrested. The conscription law will reportedly begin in early 2018 and calls for mandatory “self-defense” service for Manbij residents between the ages of 18 and 30.  The protests follow reports of the arrests of “dozens” of civilians in Manbij over recent months for forced military service. The demonstrations threaten to exacerbate grievances between Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Manbij that could facilitate the return of ISIS or Al-Qaeda.

Post-ISIS tensions between the SDF and local Sunni Arabs have also escalated in areas of ar-Raqqah City, where SDF fighters fired upon a civilian protest demanding re-entry to their homes in the Mashlab District on October 26. Residents of Mashlab were later allowed to return to the district on November 5. The incident will nonetheless deepen the pre-existing tensions between the mostly Arab residents of Ar-Raqqa City and the SDF, particularly after the YPG displayed in public a large photo of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Turkish- and U.S.-designated terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), on October 20. Continued YPG prominence in the city will likely inflame tensions and may lead to insurgent violence against the SDF in Ar-Raqqa City.

Turkey and allied militant organizations seek to further fuel instability in SDF-held areas by supporting targeted violence and protests against the SDF. Anti-YPG insurgent group Harakat al Qiyam released a statement in solidarity with ongoing demonstrations against the Syrian Kurdish YPG and SDF in Manbij City on November 5. Harakat al Qiyam is likely backed by Turkey and is active in SDF-held areas of Eastern Aleppo and Raqqa Provinces. The group appears relatively small in size, but has carried out a series of targeted attacks against the YPG, primarily via motorcycle, since early October 2017. Harakat al Qiyam claimed an attempted assassination of Manbij Military Council leader Mohammad Abu Adel in Manbij on November 1, for example. Turkey, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda all likely intend to support or form militant groups similar to Harakat al Qiyam to undermine security in SDF-held areas in Northern Syria. Small insurgent groups like Harakat al Qiyam could be directed by Al-Qaeda or ISIS or facilitate their return to ar-Raqqa.

ISIS likewise seeks to drive further hostility between local Arabs and Syrian Kurds through spectacular attacks against civilians. ISIS detonated an SVBIED near a makeshift IDP camp near the SDF-held Conoco and Al Isbah gas fields east of Deir ez Zour City on November 4, killing 75 and wounding over 140 others. ISIS had previously launched a joint SVBIED-SVEST attack against another SDF-held IDP camp in Southern Hasakah Province on October 12, killing over 50. ISIS may seek to leverage spectacular attacks against these IDP camps to demonstrate that the SDF is either unable or unwilling to provide security for Arabs in Kurdish-held terrain.