Some Kurdish fighters were among the FSA groups in northern Syria when Turkey launched its operation against the YPG in Afrin, and now 400 more are expected to join the fight.
A 600-strong force, including 400 ethnic Kurds, is set to enter Syria's Afrin to fight the YPG in support of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch. They are calling it the "Kurdish Falcons Brigade". But they are not the first ethnic Kurdish group to fight along with the Arab and Turkmen-majority Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Those Kurdish groups have been fighting against the Syrian regime under the umbrella of the FSA since 2011, when a popular uprising against the regime turned into an armed conflict after Syria's Bashar al Assad responded with military force.
Among them, there were three important Kurdish groups: Selahaddin Eyyubi Brigade, Yusuf al Azame Brigade and Mashaal Tammo Brigade, which is named after a prominent Kurdish human rights defender.
The groups, whose numbers of fighters have exceeded 700, were under the command of three Arab-Turkmen divisions: Sultan Murad, al Shamiya Front, and al Safwa Front. The Kurdish groups under the FSA were dispersed during the fight, but many of their fighters joined other groups under the FSA umbrella.
Why did they reject fighting along with the YPG?
In 2012, the YPG has been founded in Kurdish majority areas. They claimed that they were another opposition group. But the YPG’s real ambitions to carve out an enclave and establish an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria distinguished the group from the mainstream Syrian opposition.
Later, regime forces withdrew from some parts of northern Syria and the YPG's political wing, the PYD, declared its control over these areas without serious confrontation. That collaboration with the Syrian regime led the FSA to consider the group a bitter enemy of the mainstream Syrian opposition.
“We are calling for justice and equality between all Syrian people in rights and duties. We want recognition for the Kurdish language and culture, and we don’t want any ethnic discrimination,” Mahmoud Abu Hamza, one of the Kurdish commanders, whose group fought under the FSA, told Syria Direct in 2016.
“We are Syrians, but we are also Kurds and a Kurdish faction. Certainly, we reject the federalism announced by the PYD, but we agree with federalism were it to come about through an inclusive national agreement between all the social components of the Syrian people,” he said.
In late 2014, the US began arming the YPG as an ally on the ground to fight Daesh—a move that angered Turkey, which has been supporting the mainstream opposition since the beginning of the Syrian war. The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU, and the US.
The YPG-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was founded with the support of the US in 2015. It came after the US urged the YPG to rebrand itself to avoid Turkey's opposition.
In addition to the YPG, some Arab and Kurdish majority groups also joined the SDF in a bid to change the image of the group. But when they realised that the SDF was the same as the YPG, some of those groups left the SDF.
The Hamza Brigade, which includes the largest number of Kurdish fighters, left the SDF in 2016. It trained and equipped Kurdish and Arab fighters, and later joined the ranks of the FSA before Turkey's Euphrates Shield operation in August 2016.
They are still based in the Euphrates Shield area in the north Syria, which the Turkish-backed FSA cleared of Daesh.
Kurdish-dominated force, the Kurdish Falcons Brigade, which will join the Turkish forces and 25,000 FSA troops battling against the YPG in Afrin, will be made up of Hamza Brigade fighters.