While President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been bolstered by militants from Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, helping them gain the upper hand in central and southern Syria, the hard-pressed rebels appear to be increasingly embroiled in power plays and factional disputes in the northern areas beyond government control.
As fighting has engulfed the rest of the country over the past two years, Syria’s Kurds, who make up about 15 percent of the population and are a traditional bastion of opposition to the government, have been quietly building their own institutions of state in the far northeastern region of Hasaka, including a militia whose fighters are estimated to number in the thousands. But PYD leader Saleh Muslim Mohammed acknowledged that plans to formalize self-governance with a new constitution and elections for a local council will open them up to further clashes with jihadist rebel groups, who have their sights set on the region’s oil resources and lucrative border crossings.
“We will not accept them in the Kurdish areas,” Mohammed said of the jihadists. “They want to establish Islamic rule, and for the Kurds this is not acceptable.”
The United States and Turkey have voiced concerns about the Kurdish party setting up a quasi-state in Syria. The PYD has close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Washington and Ankara designate a terrorist organization and which has carried out a three-decade-long separatist insurgency in Turkey. The State Department described the plans this week as “highly provocative,” adding that they would only add to Kurdish-Arab tension.
On Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Syria’s Kurds should not try to set up an autonomous region, warning that “these steps they are taking are wrong and dangerous,” Reuters news service reported.
The PYD contends that Turkey, fearing incitement of its Kurdish population, has encouraged Syrian rebel groups to work against the party’s interests. However, Wednesday’s statement from four opposition groups portrayed the clashes as a fight against the PYD rather than Kurds as a whole.
“In our war, we do not discriminate against Arabs or Kurds, we fight everyone who helped this criminal regime, and we consider them a legitimate target for us, and for all the rebel battalions,” the statement said. It added that the Kurdish militia had “crossed the line” when it captured Ras al-Ayn last week, pushing out fighters with the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra.