The countryside north of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, is the latest crucial battlefield in the Syrian civil war — and it could also become the place where the United States' strategy to combat the so-called Islamic State in Syria falls apart.
The US-led coalition had been backing Aleppo rebels who were trying to capture the last stretch of border with Turkey controlled by the Islamic State, but those rebels were left stranded after a new offensive by Syrian regime forces earlier this month cut them off from other rebel areas. Now the Kurdish forces that have been the United States' closest allies in the fight against the Islamic State have seized the opportunity to attack these US-backed rebels, in an attempt to seize what's left of the territory they control in north Aleppo.
The fight in north Aleppo has also turned into a heated proxy battle between Russia and Turkey, who are not firing directly on each other but are going after each others' Syrian allies. The Kurds and their allies, who are enemies of Turkey, are advancing thanks to the same overwhelming Russian airstrikes that enabled the regime's recent gains. Turkey started shelling Kurdish positions inside Aleppo on Saturday, but the Kurds, apparently undeterred, have continued to seize new rebel-held towns.
The Islamic State, meanwhile, seems to be sitting back and watching its enemies tear each other apart.
A State Department official told VICE News on Sunday that the United States had reached out to both Turkey and the Kurdish units' political wing to urge them not to escalate tensions. So far American entreaties seem to have had little impact.
"All these [foreign] projects have turned against the opposition and the Free Syrian Army," Haitham Abu Hammou, media representative for Aleppo rebel faction al-Jabhah al-Shamiyyah, told VICE News over a messaging app. "It's like … the interests of countries against each other have converged at our expense."
These Kurdish forces are the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker's Party's (PKK), and are just one of the hundreds of armed factions that have proliferated since the start of Syria's war. Unlike Syria's mostly Arab rebels and jihadists, however, the PYD has made clear it is interested in pursuing Kurdish autonomy rather than toppling the Assad regime. They have taken near-sole control of Syria's northern Kurdish areas and, for the West, have become a key partner against the Islamic State.
Along with some smaller affiliates, Kurdish forces recently rebranded themselves as the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, giving themselves an inclusive, multi-ethnic sheen. Yet Kurdish officials have not moderated their calls for Kurdish self-rule and their desire to link Kurds' disconnected cantons in northern Syria. The Kurds now fighting in north Aleppo are breaking out of Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in northwest Aleppo surrounded by Turkish territory and by territory held by Syrian rebels.
"The Kurds are our people, and we need to defend them and their identity," said Abu Hammou. "But the PKK and the SDF are involved in foreign plots to divide Syria."
Spokespeople for Kurdish forces and the SDF did not respond to requests for comment.
"What we see is that Russian jets are bombing villages in the northern countryside"
Turkey, meanwhile, has fought a decades-long war with the PKK and is now attempting to suppress an insurgency by PKK-linked militias in southeastern Turkey. It has said it will not allow the Kurds to join their Syrian territories into one single entity that would occupy most of the territory opposite Turkey's southern border.
Tareq Abu Zeid, spokesman for Arab SDF affiliate Jeish al-Thuwar, told VICE News that the US-led coalition has only provided close air support to SDF forces fighting the Islamic State in eastern Syria, not to the SDF in Afrin. In Aleppo, the coalition has instead backed Arab and Turkmen (ethnic Turks who live in Syria and Iraq) rebels against the Islamic State.
Now the regime's forces have mostly turned south, attempting to encircle rebel-held Aleppo city, but Afrin's Kurds have taken advantage of the chaos to move on the rebel areas that separate them from the Islamic State. As of Tuesday, they have reportedly broken through to the front lines with Islamic State, which positions them to seize Islamic State-held eastern Aleppo and use it to link all of Syria's Kurdish areas.
Kurdish forces in Afrin also seem to have found a new superpower patron. Although the exact nature of coordination between the SDF and Russia is unclear, rebels say it is Russian airstrikes that are clearing the way for the SDF's advances. A spokesman for Arab SDF affiliate Jeish al-Thuwar denied any coordination with Russia, and said Russia was bombing in cooperation with the regime. Aleppo residents were skeptical, however.
"What a joke," said Aleppo journalist Muhammad al-Khatib. "You mean, these Russian airstrikes on the positions the SDF is attacking are just some coincidence?"
"Honestly, we don't know if there's coordination between [the SDF and Russia]," said Col. Ahmed Uthman, the military commander of a local armed faction called Firqat al-Sultan Mourad. "But what we see is that Russian jets are bombing villages in the northern countryside, and after they're destroyed, the SDF takes control of them."
Unlike Kurdish forces, the SDF's Jeish al-Thuwar ("the Army of Revolutionaries") still claims to represent the revolution against the Syrian regime. For now, though, it seems to be exclusively attacking Aleppo rebels it calls terrorists and members of al-Qaeda. (Aleppo rebels say that Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusrah, has only a few platoons in the area, although some other hardline brigades are present.)
Jeish al-Thuwar spokesman Tareq Abu Zeid told VICE News that his brigade wanted to eliminate terrorism, wherever it is, and that it was fighting to reach the front lines against the Islamic State.
Jeish al-Thuwar reportedly includes members of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Harakat Hazm, and the 30thDivision. All three were US- and Western-backed factions that were destroyed by Jabhat al-Nusrah as other factions mostly stood aside. In that sense, the Aleppo offensive may partly be the revenge of America's old, discarded proxies against its new ones.
Abu Zeid denied that his brigade's fight with Aleppo's rebels might be personal: "Jeish al-Thuwar has members from every faction. We don't talk about 'vendettas'," he said.
Abu Yousef al-Muhajir, military spokesman and former Aleppo province commander for the hardline Ahrar al-Sham, disagreed. "They have a vendetta with the whole revolution. The men who joined Jeish al-Thuwar are the worst members of those factions."
Now the question is how far the Kurdish-led SDF forces can push east and how hard Turkey will try to stop it. Some rebels said they thought Turkey would not let the SDF capture north Aleppo's main border crossing, but so far Turkish artillery strikes have not prevented the SDF from taking more ground.
Watch the VICE News documentary Jihadists vs. the Assad Regime: Syria's Rebel Advance here:
In the meantime, the rebels' front lines with the Islamic State are their quietest in the northern countryside, although Aleppo sources expect that will be temporary.
"This chill on the fronts with Da'esh is very strange," said an Aleppo journalist who requested anonymity, using the common Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "There'll be some move by them while everyone is fighting the regime and Jeish al-Thuwar."
Aleppo sources told VICE News that local rebels had rejected the offer a truce from the Islamic State. Still, rebels say they have more urgent priorities than the Islamic State — for now.
According to Col. Uthman of Firqat al-Sultan Mourad, "When we recapture the villages the regime seized, then we'll go to work on the fronts with Da'esh and expel them from the northern countryside with the international coalition."
A US Department of Defense official who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity said that US and coalition strategy remains unchanged. "We will continue to target ISIL [Islamic State] and to support moderate forces who are working to defeat ISIL," he said over e-mail.
But it is unclear what is left of that strategy in Aleppo. At this point, the Afrin Kurds seems to have a closer working relationship with Russia than America, and it is Russia helping them liquidate America's Arab and Turkmen allies on the ground in Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Kurds' offensive could push Turkey into a dangerous escalation against America's Kurdish partners against the Islamic State — and that could upturn US and coalition strategy not just in Aleppo, but in all of Syria.
The mainstream Syrian opposition may end up losing out regardless. As Ward Furati, political officer in Aleppo brigade Tajammu' Fastaqim Kama Umirt, told VICE News, "We don't understand how it's in the world's interest for terrorist extremists to win, whether from Da'esh or from these Communists [the Kurds] or the Iranians, against the factions of the patriotic Syrian revolution."
And whatever happens, many Syrian rebels don't see the United States as steering events.
"Honestly, America hasn't dealt with the Syrian crisis like a great power," said Col. Uthman. "In all the world's crises, America directs the international community — except for Syria."