On the recent clashes in Qamishlo
More of the same or the start of things to come?
There have been numerous relatively small clashes between NDF/ GPF troops and Asayish security forces in Hasakah as well as in Qamishlo. But the recent clashes that started on April 20th seem much bigger than previous clashes. Three things are different: Firstly the YPG has been sent to the city, instead of leaving it to the Asayish security forces. The second is that these clashes usually calmed after a few hours. This time they are already going on for the second day after a failed truce. The third difference is that actual territory changed hands. Allaya prison, an automated bakery as well as a barracks building have been taken by the YPG. It is possible that these clashes are foreshadowing the SDF trying to push loyalist forces out of Northern Syria.
In a recent interview Salih Muslim, leader of the PYD said „the YPG is ready to fight Assad under the banner of secularism and democracy“. This statement followed the unilateral proclamation of Rojava as a federal region, which was rejected by various Baath party officials (as well as the rebels). So while the loyalists and the YPG (as well as the later SDF) had something aching to an unspoken ceasefire for most of the war, politically they always were at odds. The centralization component of Baath ideology clashes on a principal level with an autonomous region within Syria.
If we speculate for a minute something must have changed for the YPG to lead these clashes in this intensity. The thing that may have changed is, the USA are according to rumours pretty unhappy about the failures of Turkish backed rebel troops in Northern Aleppo against the Islamic State. It is possible that the USA struck a deal with the SDF/ YPG that they will protect them from Turkish repercussions if they completely break with Assad, and by extension Russia. This would mean that the SDF can push west and connect the cantons, something Turkey has been heavily opposed to. When the Afrin canton took territory from the Northern Aleppo rebels in February 2016 the USA too condemned it and told them publically to stop this offensive. Another gain for the YPG would be to finally end the tense situation with the government pockets in Hasakah and Qamishlo.
On the other hand Afrin canton (and Sheik Maksood even more) would be in a pretty problematic spot if hostilities with the loyalists start. They would be surrounded by enemies and isolated from help. It is also arguable if the USA would protect them from Syrian or Russian Airforce strikes, as shooting loyalist planes down would completely escalate the war with huge unforeseeable consequences. But this is a situation that nether the USA nor Russia wants. There is still the possibility that Russia and the USA see common ground for Northern Syria and the SDF.
If this is true, one question remains to be asked: Why aren’t they attacking both enclaves at the same time in a large coordinated attack? My opinion is that the leadership wants to keep plausible deniability that this isn’t a planned ouster of Assads forces. They can still frame it as an escalated conflict that forced them to act and they decided that the situation of the divided city isn’t working out anymore. The YPG might isolate loyalist forces in Qamishlo airport for now, where they have no control over the city left.
For now, these tendencies and developments aren’t set in stone. Since the start of the civil war the PYD leadership has always been very pragmatic and tried to keep their options open. This move would bind them to the USA without a chance to turn back. But as I see it, a conflict between Assad and SDF leadership is very probable at some point, their conceptions for a future Syria are too far apart and it is doubtful that the Baath party changes their stance so much as to make way for an autonomous region within Syria. The decade long oppression of the Kurdish population in Assadist Syria carries a lot of bad blood and mistrust between the two parties. The only way I see how Assad and the Baath party are going to accept an autonomous Rojava is if Russia reins them in and forces them to. But this is a big question mark, Assad is still Russias main ally in the Middle East.