A campaign is underway to destabilise the “Rojava” area of north-eastern Syria, ruled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a composite force wholly dominated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally-designated terrorist organisation whose operatives use the banner of the People’s Protection Forces (YPG) in Syria. The SDF/PKK captured a lot of Arab-majority areas as a side-effect of the American-led war against the Islamic State (IS), which deputised the SDF as its ground force in Syria. It was always clear that these inhabitants did not wish to be ruled by an authoritarian Kurdish nationalist party with Marxist inflections and a cult around its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. There was, however, a chance that the goodwill of that comes with liberation could be converted, with the right adjustments, the SDF model could become a durable settlement. It appears the trendline is now running the other way, toward a disintegration of this structure.
Earlier today, Ibrahim Muhammad al-Diyar, a lawyer and high-profile member of the “Raqqa Civil Council” (RCC), the PKK’s governance body in the city, died in hospital in Qamishli. According to the RCC, al-Diyar had “suffered from a respiratory disease for a long time,” and “his health began to deteriorate roughly fifteen days ago”. However, a relative told Syria Direct that al-Diyar was poisoned and a Syrian opposition outlet carried the same story. Whether or not al-Diyar was assassinated, Ahmad Kobani, an SDF commander, was assassinated today on the road between Jarniya and Tabqa.
There have been multiple attempted assassinations over the last six months or so against Rojava regime officials:
- 1 November 2017: Muhammad Abu Adel, the commander of the “Minbij Military Council” (MMC), the PKK cut-out ruling that city, was nearly killed by a bomb in his car.
- 11 January 2018: Ibrahim al-Hassan, the deputy head of SDF/PKK’s Raqqa’s Reconstruction Committee, was shot four times while travelling in northern Raqqa province. Al-Hassan was transferred to Minbij. Al-Hassan, a Turkoman lawyer, had been in the area for the second constituent assembly meeting that restructured his committee.
- 15 February 2018: Ibrahim Ahmad al-Salama, the lawyer who negotiatedthe deal between the PKK and IS under which IS withdrew from Tabqa in May 2017, was assassinated in his home in the city. Al-Salama lost both his legs in an IS suicide bombing that attempted to resist the Tabqa agreement. Al-Salama was again the key intermediary for the much more controversial deal that allowed hundreds of IS jihadists to leave Raqqa city.
- 14 March 2018: Omar Alloush, a key RCC official engaged in outreach to Arab populations and the point-man in the Raqqa deal that let IS’s remaining forces go, was shot dead with a silenced pistol in his home in Tel Abyad.
- 24 March 2018: Sharfan Darwish, the MMC spokesman, was nearly assassinated east of Minbij, hit by two bullets.
Harakat al-Qiyam announced itself on 15 October 2017, declaring it was a resistance group against the YPG/PKK:
After the suffering experienced by our Syrian people … and from our concern for the territorial integrity of Syria and its people, inside and outside [the country], and all of their components, religions, and races, we have formed Harakat al-Qiyam, which aims to stand against the separatist and imperialist project from the treacherous terrorist-separatist parties [YPG/PKK] because it threatens to divide Syria and its people. We promise our Syrian people that our struggle will continue until the return of the displaced people to their country and the departure of the colonialist, separatist traitors [the PKK] from their land.
It appears that between 11 and 14 October 2017, before it was formally founded, Harakat al-Qiyam conducted a series of operations that killed five SDF/PKK officials.
The exact nature of Harakat al-Qiyam remains unclear. The Institute for the Study of War says the group is “likely backed by Turkey”. Others have said the organisation is “basically Turkey’s Syrian proxy assassination squad”. A Turkish connection to Harakat al-Qiyam is plausible: for as long as the U.S. continues to place all its chips on the YPG/PKK, Turkey has every incentive to destabilise the Rojava structure and has a vast intelligence apparatus in northern Syria with which to conduct such operations after years of war. It is most likely, though, that multiple actors are at work in this series of assassination.
In addition to Harakat al-Qiyam and Turkey, others suspects are: (1) Arab residents and tribes who resent the PKK’s rule; (2) IS; (3) other Islamists, including al-Qaeda, who have moved into the void after IS; (4) Iran or Asad regime operatives who want the Americans out; and (5) the PKK itself, which liquidated hundreds of its own people over the years for dissent, real and imagined. These seven options allow of overlap, of course.
In the case of Alloush, it transpires he was planning to start a new party and “the killing of Omar may be related to his plans to establish [a] new party”. Such independence of thought is indeed the kind of thing that has gotten people killed by the PKK before now. Alloush was also a witness, like al-Salama, to the dirtier side of the war against IS, namely these deals that—in opposition to the U.S.’s stated policy of “annihilation tactics”—allowed the jihadists to surrender and move out. The killing of al-Salama was widely suspected to be the work of the PKK. Alloush had many more enemies, so it is less clear, but it could easily be part of the same effort to tie up loose ends.
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UPDATE: Syria has produced some of the strangest war footage in modern history, but a strong contender for the most surreal was entered on 9 May 2018 when Harakat al-Qiyam put out a video on their Twitter page of an assassination of a YPG/PKK operative. The video began with footage from Pac-Man eating its way through the rats dressed in YPG/PKK uniforms and the logos of the Kurdish group. It then proceeded to the assassination as the song, “Bang Bang”, played in the background.