But the eruption of violence exposed little-noticed frictions that have been building between the mostly Arab Syrian opposition forces seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian Kurds, who increasingly see the revolt as an opportunity to extend their long-standing aspirations for the autonomy — and perhaps independence — of Kurdish areas across the region.
“This is setting the stage for a conflict that is going to come,” said Joost Hiltermann, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group. And unless Syria’s already divided opposition takes steps to address Kurdish aspirations in a meaningful way, chances are high that a wider Arab-Kurdish war could follow any regime change in Damascus, he said.
The clashes have been small compared with the unchecked battles engulfing the country between the rebels and Assad loyalists. The opposition Local Coordination Committees said at least 104 people were killed Wednesday, many in airstrikes the government is increasingly relying on to try to crush the revolt. A bomb killed seven near the Sayeda Zeinab shrine, an important Shiite religious site on the edge of Damascus. Iraqi Shiites have warnedthat damage to the shrine could draw them deeper into the battle for Syria.
The Kurdish-Arab fighting only adds a new dimension to a conflict that risks embroiling Syria’s neighbors, including Turkey, which has expressed growing alarm at the assertiveness of Syria’s Kurds since Assad’s army withdrew from northeastern Syria in August, effectively giving Kurds control over the area.
The fighting first flared Friday after what appears to have been a misunderstanding between the Free Syrian Army units battling to drive government forces out of the northern city of Aleppo and the main Syrian Kurdish militia, which has steadily been asserting its control over Kurdish areas across the north.
Free Syrian Army rebels had entered the Kurdish neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh the previous day under what they said at the time was an agreement with the military wing of the Kurdish movement PYD, or Democratic Union Party, which is allied with Kurdish militants across the border in Turkey.
On Friday, Kurds staged demonstrations against the rebels, fearing that their presence would invite retaliation from the government in the form of airstrikes and artillery barrages. The two sides give conflicting accounts of exactly how the fighting flared, but a video posted online by a Kurdish news channel makes clear that shots were fired at the demonstrators, prompting retaliation by the PYD that ended only after 30 rebels and 15 Kurdish fighters were killed and the rebels were ejected from the neighborhood.