Syrian Kurdish Militia YPG Raises Russian Flag in Afrin to Avoid Attacks by Turkey

The Russian flag raised in the YPG-held Afrin, Azaz/Parsa mountain area of northern Syria. Photo: Dogan News Agency

  • Syrian Kurdish militia YPG has been using the raising of foreign flags as a tactic to prevent attacks or airstrikes by Turkey or Turkish-backed rebels in Syria.
  • In the latest such move, YPG has raised a Russian flag in the town of Afrin on the Syrian-Turkish border.
  • YPG appear to have been cooperating with Russia east of the Euphrates River, and with the US west of the river as part of an alleged informal US-Russian deal made in December 2015.
  • Turkish President Erdogan raised the issue of Russian forces potential cooperation with the YPG (deemed a terrorist group by Turkey) during his last week’s meeting with Putin.
  • Putin has denied the possibility that Russian forces might be cooperating with the Syrian forces.
  • YPG and the US-backed force it is part of, the Syrian Democratic Forces, have taken the Tabqa Dam, moving a step closer to launching an attack against Raqqa, the capital of ISIS, which is the reason the US recently decided to arm them.

The armed militia of the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, has raised a Russian flag in the town of Afrin in Northwest Syria as a tactic designed to prevent attacks by Turkey or the Turkish-backed rebel group, the Free Syrian Army.

The forces of the Syrian Kurds are emerging as more and more important in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, as is their mutual enmity with Turkey, as US President Donald Trump just decided to arm them so they can conquer Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS terrorist group.

Because of that Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan has criticized the US, while nonetheless expressing optimism about US – Turkish relations, while his government ministers earlier used a stronger tone when they slammed Trump’s decision to provide weapons to the Kurds in Syria.

The American plan to arm the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG (“People’s Protection Units”), which makes up the bulk of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, was approved by Trump in spite of protests by Turkey, a key US ally in NATO.

Turkey’s armed forces recently clashed with the YPG along the Turkish-Syrian border.

In the ongoing civil war in Syria, Turkey backs a rebel group that it has been sponsoring, the Free Syrian Army. It has repeatedly offered the United States to recognize and switch its support to the Free Syrian Army, rather than the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (which also include the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) fighters).

It has also accused the United States of supplying heavy weaponry to the Syrian Kurds, an accusation denied by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Turkey views the YPG and its political wing, PYD (“Democratic Union Party”) as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a group blacklisted as a terrorist organization for using violence to fight for the independence of the Kurds living in Southeast Turkey.

The PKK has been waging a guerilla war and committing terrorist attacks against Turkey since 1984, in a conflict which has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Turkey has also been carrying out air strikes against alleged PKK and YPG positions in North Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain region, and in Northeast Syria.

In addition to Turkey, large ethnic Kurdish communities also live in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The Kurds in Iraq enjoy an autonomy in the former of the Kurdistan Regional Government, also known as Iraqi Kurdistan, an entity the size of Scotland which might decide to seek formal independence.

Turkey’s government has had good relations with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan but not with the political and military organizations of the Kurds in Syria, which have been opposing its forces and allies in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

While it makes up the bulk of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but fights mostly against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG also appears to have established cooperation with Russia, to which Turkey has reacted strongly.

The Turkish government recently said it had completed “successfully” a major military operation in its war-torn neighbor Syria but that it would not be withdrawing its forces.

Soldiers of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia stand next to a US eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicles, near al-Ghanamya village, al-Darbasiyah town at the Syrian-Turkish border, Syria, 29 April 2017. Photo: Youssef Rabie Youssef/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Foreign Flag Raising as Defense Tactic

The YPG, i.e. the Kurdish militia “People’s Protection Units” and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party PYD raised a Russian flag in Syria’s Afrin town on the Turkish-Syrian border on Thursday, a Turkish newspaper, The Daily Sabah, reported.

The raising of the Russian flag by the Syrian Kurds in Afrin came a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin denied during his meeting with Turkish President Recep Erdogan that Russia was cooperating with the YPG / PYD.

News agency photos showed a Russian flag raised in the PYD-held Azaz/Parsa mountain area of northern Syria, near Turkey’s Kilis province.

Last week, Turkey’s President Erdogan told reporters on his return from a state visit to Russia’ that he had expressed his concerns to Putin regarding photos of Russian soldiers beside YPG  forces in Syria’s Afrin.

The Russian president reportedly assured him that he would look into the photos. Erdogan even quoted Putin as saying Russian soldiers could not be in cooperation with such groups.

This is not the first time the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG has used other countries’ flags in the region amid efforts to prevent offensives by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA), or airstrikes by the Turkish Air Force.

YPG previously flew U.S. flags on their vehicles while patrolling in Manbij and flew Assad regime flags in an offensive against Aleppo.

Afrin is the westernmost region controlled by the Kurds in Syria. Since December 2015, the US and Russia are believed to have been adhering for the most part to an unofficial deal known as the Euphrates Agreement under which the Euphrates River divides Syria into a zones of Russian and American presence. The Russian zone is west of the river, and the American zone is east of it.

Thus, the Kurdish forces YPG, and the wider Syrian Democratic Army, which cooperates with both the USA and Russia, work with the Americans east of the Euphrates River, and with the Russians west of the river, depending on the location of the YPG / SDA troops.

Tabqa Dam Liberated

A day before the raising of the Russian flag in Afrin, on Wednesday, the Syrian Kurdish forces and the Syrian Democratic Army announced they had “fully liberated” the Tabqa Dam, and were prepared to launch an assault on Raqqa, the capital of ISIS, Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported.

“Syrian Democratic Forces have fully liberated Tabqah Dam. Security operations continue in the area,” read a tweet from the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG).

YPG and Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) members dually comprise the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the US-led international coalition has been supporting in the fight against ISIS.

“[his forces ‘achieved victory and completely liberated Tabqa city and the dam.’ Combing operations [are] ongoing,” said SDF spokesperson Talal Silo, as cited by AFP.

The SDF later formally announced its celebrations after recapturing Tabqa in a tweet.

The US-led international Coalition had announced earlier on Wednesday that a few neighborhoods in Tabqa still contained ISIS resistance.

“SDF and [the] Syrian Arab Coalition have successfully liberated the vast majority of Tabqah and continue to clear the final two neighborhoods,” wrote the Coalition’s spokesperson US Col. John Dorrian in a tweet.

Tabqa is strategic because of its dam between Lake Assad, which connects to the Euphrates River. An air field is also located south of the city, which the SDF took control on March 27.

The securing of Tabqa is seen as one of the final hurdles prior to commencing operations to retake ISIS’s de facto capital city of Raqqa.

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