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Syria 1st-Hand: Kurdish Fighters Hoping to Balance Islamist Forces (Sergie)

Claimed footage of Saladin Brigade joining Free Syrian Army, October 2012

Mohammed Sergie writes for Syria Deeply:

Fighters of the Kurdish Saladin Brigade greet visitors with marhaba, hello, rather than the Islamic salam alikum. They lack the bushy beards that mark the more conservative Muslims who fight alongside them in the battlefields. It’s a marriage of convenience: secular Kurds joining with Islamist groups to gain more traction in the fight against President Bashar al Assad.

Saladin Brigade, which includes Arab members in its ranks, says its alliance with Islamists is a way to pay its dues to the revolution. Its leaders hope to bring down the Assad regime and play an influential, and moderating, role in a future Syria.

“We want a civil, democratic government which treats everyone equally,” said Colonel Shawqi Othman, 43, who heads the brigade.

Othman said that as a bid to gain strength and credibility, Saladin fighters split up and joined other rebel groups. Even though they don’t align on ideology, some are now embedded with some of the biggest Islamist fighting forces in Aleppo, like Tawhid, Al Fath and Ahrar Syria Brigades.

Othman said he met with Jabhat al Nusra fighters a few weeks ago, and the discussion turned toward the vision for a future Syria. “They want the Islamic Caliphate but we want democracy, and this is a clear difference of opinion,” he said.

The Saladin Brigade is small, with roughly 30 fighters and 200 in reserve, waiting for a weapon so they can join the battle. It’s part of the Kurdish Military Council, which is a member of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council. Their goal is to create a disciplined Kurdish unit of the future National Army; their hope is that such a unit could prevent the disintegration of the country and assuage the fears of minorities, who fear the rise of Islamist groups.

“We are working toward the fall of the regime but are planning beyond that,” Othman said.

Their choice to fight on the rebel side pits them against their ethnic brethren in the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is based in Turkey. The secessionist PKK is allied with the Assad regime and is in de facto control of Kurdish towns along Syria’s northern border. In the eyes of the U.S. and Turkish governments, the PKK is a designated terrorist group.

There’s been open conflict between PKK fighters and rebel groups along the border. And between the PKK and the Saladin Brigade, there’s clearly bad blood. One of the brigade’s founders, Captain Bewar Mustafa, 32, the first Kurdish officer to defect from the Assad regime, says he’s on the PKK’s hit list as are some of his comrades.

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