The Role of Sheikh Maqsoud during the Battle for Aleppo

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Sheikh Maqsoud is a district in the northern part of Aleppo city with a Kurdish majority population. Except for its northern section, the district consists of a relatively dense urban environment that rests upon a hilltop overlooking the famous Castello road – a major thoroughfare that constituted the last supply line for Aleppo’s rebel groups before they were besieged by government forces in 2016. For much of the conflict, it has been under the military control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Until recently, the district attempted to remain neutral, choosing to ally with neither the government nor the rebels. However, at various times they have cooperated with both in opposing the other.1.Bellingcat

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This changed in February 2016 when the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Afrin began their offensive against the rebels in Northern Aleppo. Following this, relations between the YPG and rebel militants in Aleppo city soured. In response, various rebel groups repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled Sheikh Maqsoud, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians.2.“Armed opposition groups committing war crimes in Aleppo city” : Amnesty 3.https://www.reddit.com/r/syriancivilwar/comments/4e570z/discussion_who_is_targeting_sheikh_maqsoud/

The Tactical Layer

In September 2016 during the initial government offensive on Castello road that succeeded in besieging Eastern Aleppo, it was rumoured that the YPG had worked together with government forces. The YPG had captured the Bani Zaid youth housing complex from the rebels, though it is unclear if they coordinated efforts or if the YPG acted independently to secure a perimeter around Sheikh Maqsoud to prevent further rebel shelling.4.“The regime forces reach al-Jandoul roundabout area and the violent clashes continue in Aleppo city” : SOHR

More recently it is clear that the YPG cooperated with government forces to eliminate the remaining rebel pocket in Aleppo. Videos have surfaced showing YPG soldiers several kilometres away from Sheikh Maqsoud in former rebel held territory, often alongside government troops. These areas include the disticts of Bustan al Pasha, Hellok, the Ayn at-Tal Industrial area, Sheik Kheder, and Sakhur, all of which lie to the east of Sheikh Maqsoud.5.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRS53OjVn9c6.https://twitter.com/CivilWarMap/status/801921530099888128 7.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZilaTtWDlM 8.https://twitter.com/CivilWarMap/status/802901079255982080 9.https://twitter.com/DrPartizan_/status/803274414271827968 10.https://twitter.com/CivilWarMap/status/802927009387134978 In addition, pictures and videos have been made showing YPG and government flags flying alongside each other in several of the captured areas.11.https://twitter.com/sayed_ridha/status/803247655778328576 12.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kDKgbKhvMY The YPG hasn’t officially confirmed any cooperation and in interviews with the Middle East Eye, several officials have denied any cooperation with government forces.13.“The Kurdish ‘frenemies’ aiding Assad in Aleppo: Middle East Eye

Sheikh Maqsoud has been the recipient of large numbers of refugees. According to Imad Daoud, Chairman of the local Council of Sheikh Maqsoud, the district’s residences took in approximately 45,000 refugees by January 2015. This amounts to roughly half the district’s population.14.“Aleppo’s displaced find refuge in Kurdish regions” : Al-Monitor The fighting in Eastern Aleppo led to more people seeking refuge in Sheikh Maqsoud. The General Command of the YPG states that an additional 6000 refugees have recently arrived.15.“YPG command rescues 6,000 civilians from eastern Aleppo” : ANHA
16.“Civilians in Eastern Aleppo city fear revenge attacks” : Amnesty However, there is a lack of independent sources confirming these numbers.

The Strategic Layer

An analysis of Sheikh Maqsoud’s role during the Aleppo portion of the war reveals that it became increasingly cooperative with Syrian government forces as they besieged the city. Despite a lack of any official acknowledgement, there is strong evidence towards this perception. This contrasts with rumours that YPG and government relations had broken down over fighting in Hasakah and Qamishlo in August of 2016.17.“Have Syria’s Kurds had a change of heart?” : Huffington Post
18.http://syriancivilwarmap.com/another-round-of-fighting-in-hasakah/ The territorial parts making up Rojava, which is held by the SDF which includes the YPG as its biggest component, are relatively autonomous in their decision making. Therefore, it would be incorrect to directly extrapolate Sheikh Maqsoud’s cooperation with the government as general SDF policy. On the other hand, their cooperation in Aleppo is not the only instance where common ground has been reached. For example, fighting between them in Hasakah and Qamishlo always ended quickly in ceasefires and compromises. During the February offensive against the rebels by the Afrin Canton, the SDF both benefited from the concurrent government offensive and may have even coordinated directly with the Russian air-force. Russia has also proposed that the autonomy of SDF-held Rojava be officially acknowledged.19.“Syria rejects Russian proposal for Kurdish federation” : Al-Monitor Both the SDF and the Syrian government also share a common interest in opposing Turkey’s objectives in Syria. The Syrian government wants Turkey to desist in supplying various rebel groups, and also wishes to prevent them from building a long-term base of operations in Northern Aleppo and now Idlib. For the SDF, Turkey is the main impediment to connecting the Rojava cantons via the city of Al-Bab.

In the author’s opinion there are two possible outcomes for this situation. The Syrian government and the SDF could forge a lasting political solution and cooperate in their opposition to Turkey’s designs in Northern Syria. Alternatively, it could be Turkey that finds common ground with the Syrian government, dropping their support for the rebels in return for cooperation in opposing Rojava and the SDF, a close ally of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There is no scenario where all three factions’ goals can be accommodated simultaneously, nor is any one of them strong enough, militarily or diplomatically, to completely go it alone.

For now, Sheikh Maqsoud is quiet. It has been a little more than a year since the rebel coalition departed from Aleppo, and reconstruction efforts, while slow, have been proceeding throughout the city. The question of who will control Sheikh Maqsoud remains in the air; recently, images posted on social media showed Syrian government flags being raised over civic and public buildings in the district, insinuating that deals had been reached between local authorities and officials of the government.20.https://www.facebook.com/kareemtebii/photos/pcb.652517044872433/652516988205772/?type=3&theater While nothing concrete has emerged yet, many in Aleppo remain hopeful that any future cooperation with the government will yield stability and security for the recovering district.

Sebastian Gonano

Sebastian is a history student currently doing his master at TU Dresden. His focus at the International Review is the Syrian and Iraqi Civil wars, terrorism and the geopolitics surrounding it.

References   [ + ]

1. Bellingcat
2. “Armed opposition groups committing war crimes in Aleppo city” : Amnesty
3. https://www.reddit.com/r/syriancivilwar/comments/4e570z/discussion_who_is_targeting_sheikh_maqsoud/
4. “The regime forces reach al-Jandoul roundabout area and the violent clashes continue in Aleppo city” : SOHR
5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRS53OjVn9c
6. https://twitter.com/CivilWarMap/status/801921530099888128
7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZilaTtWDlM
8. https://twitter.com/CivilWarMap/status/802901079255982080
9. https://twitter.com/DrPartizan_/status/803274414271827968
10. https://twitter.com/CivilWarMap/status/802927009387134978
11. https://twitter.com/sayed_ridha/status/803247655778328576
12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kDKgbKhvMY
13. “The Kurdish ‘frenemies’ aiding Assad in Aleppo: Middle East Eye
14. “Aleppo’s displaced find refuge in Kurdish regions” : Al-Monitor
15. “YPG command rescues 6,000 civilians from eastern Aleppo” : ANHA
16. “Civilians in Eastern Aleppo city fear revenge attacks” : Amnesty
17. “Have Syria’s Kurds had a change of heart?” : Huffington Post
18. http://syriancivilwarmap.com/another-round-of-fighting-in-hasakah/
19. “Syria rejects Russian proposal for Kurdish federation” : Al-Monitor
20. https://www.facebook.com/kareemtebii/photos/pcb.652517044872433/652516988205772/?type=3&theater