ISTANBUL — A rogue al-Qaida offshoot abducted nearly 200 Kurdish villagers over the weekend in Syria’s Aleppo province, the latest sign of the growing conflict between primarily Arab Islamist rebels and an ethnic Kurdish militia that has established a de facto Kurdish state in northeastern Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, drawing on reports from a network of activists in the area, said that fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria entered the village of al Qbasin and began abducting residents. Qbasin is on the outskirts of the ISIS-controlled town of al Bab in northeastern Syria,
The Al Hassakeh network, a media organization with ties to a local Kurdish militant group, the Peoples Protection Units, which is better known by its Kurdish initials, YPG, confirmed the incident in a statement on Facebook. The YPG is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a Kurdish separatist political party and militia that has battled the Turkish government for Kurdish autonomy for decades.
Both the Hassakeh network and the observatory said that at least 193 civilians were taken from the village, one of the largest mass abductions since the start of the now multifaceted conflict in Syria, which includes vicious fighting between ISIS and the YPG for control over strategic areas in Aleppo province as well as the far northeast of the country near the border with Iraq.
Reports said the abductees ranged in age from 14 to 93.
A Twitter feed associated with ISIS reported that what it called a security operation against “infidel FSA/PKK elements” had taken place in the area.
The incident provides further insight into how complex the conflict in Syria has become. In addition to rebel forces fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, at least four other major conflicts are taking place in the country:
- The fight between so-called “moderate” rebel groups and ISIS over tactics and philosophy.
- The battle between radical Islamists over who can claim the mantle of ideological purity, with ISIS on one side and the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s official Syrian affiliate, on the other.
- An insurgency that pits ISIS and the Kurdish populations in areas ISIS controls in Syria’s northeast.
- The large-scale conventional warfare between ISIS and the YPG in areas where the Kurdish militant group currently reigns.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research center, said that some reports indicate that the majority of the hostages were Kurdish students moving through rebel lines to attend exams.
“(Some) were forced to return to Aleppo,” he said by email from inside Syria. “The others are still being held in a school in Manbij.”
Van Wilgenburg said that ISIS had begun kidnapping Kurdish civilians to trade for captured ISIS fighters. He said now is a particularly risky time for students, both high school and college, because they must travel to take required year-end exams.
Another analyst, Aymen al Tamimi, of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, said ISIS has been abducting anyone it deems members of “PKK sleeper cells” for some time.
Syrian Kurds — an ethnic group distinct from Syria’s primarily Arab population — have long agitated for independence and a chance to join the nascent Kurdish state forming in northern Iraq, which governs itself autonomously without interference from Baghdad. In the early days of the Syrian civil war, Kurdish militias came to agreements with Syrian government forces under which the government forces would stay on their bases while the Kurdish militias kept rebel forces at bay.
After fighting broke out between Islamist rebel groups — including ISIS, the Nusra Front and other allied groups — and the Kurdish militias, a cease-fire was eventually agreed on — but rejected by ISIS — to free the rebel groups to focus on fighting the regime. The YPG insisted that the most radical Islamist groups — ISIS and Nusra — not attempt to spread their influence to Kurdish areas.
But ISIS continued to press an offensive against the YPG, whose leftist ideology deeply offends ISIS medieval Islamist sensibilities. The ISIS offensive also attempts to seize control from YPG of strategic supply lines in Raqqa and Hasakah provinces in Syria’s east that control access to the portions of western Iraq that ISIS also controls.
“In the province of Hasakah, the main fight was over oil resources between Islamist rebel groups and the Kurds. The Kurds now control about 60 percent of Syria’s oil and they can use this for financial resources,” van Wilgenburg wrote. “This is one of the reasons why ISIS really wants to capture the oil resources (in Deir el Zour province) from Nusra/and other groups.”
The Kurds also have seized the Yarubiya crossing on the border with Iraq, van Wilgenburg said, and are using it to trade with the Iraqi government. The YPG also is pressing to take another ISIS-controlled town, Tal Abyad, whose capture would give the Kurds an unbroken area of control from Hasakah in the east to Ain al Arab, a Kurdish area in Aleppo province along the border with Turkey.