BEIRUT — Infighting has escalated in recent days among Syria’s rebel forces as Arab opposition fighters clash with ethnic Kurds bent on carving out an independent administrative region in Syria’s northeast.
Underscoring the tension, a coalition of Islamist rebel groups vowed Wednesday to “cleanse” the flash-point northeastern town of Ras al-Ayn of fighters affiliated with the dominant Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The groups accused it of working in the interests of the Syrian government — a charge its leader denies.
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.
In addition to Jabhat al-Nusra, the statement was signed by the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade and the Islamic Kurdish Front, in an indication of a widening conflict on the opposition side. A video posted online also showed a military convoy from the Farouq Brigades, which the cameraman said was heading to Hasaka to fight “the dogs of Assad and their helpers” — although it did not explicitly mention the Kurds or the PYD.
The infighting has spread geographically, embroiling the town of Tal Abyad in the north-central province of Raqqah, where the PYD said it was forced to release a captured commander from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Levant in a prisoner swap this week after fighters from the group kidnapped hundreds of Kurdish civilians in retaliation.
Analysts say that although both sides paint the fight as an ideological struggle, it is more of a battle over resources marked by tit-for-tat revenge attacks.
“It’s really about border crossings into Turkey, strategic pieces of infrastructure and oil fields,” said Aron Lund, an independent Middle East analyst based in Sweden.
The PYD’s Mohammed said the party plans to set up a committee of 30 to 40 people to lay the groundwork for elections for a roughly 150-seat parliament, which he said will represent minorities in the region including Arabs, Turkmens and Assyrians. Analysts say, however, that the Kurds are proceeding cautiously with their autonomy plans to avoid angering either the Syrian government or the opposition.
“They are adopting a pragmatic wait-and-see policy,” said James Denselow, a research associate with the Foreign Policy Center in London. “If they do anything more, they risk cutting off money that still comes in from Damascus and annoying the opposition.”
If Syria’s Kurds hope to follow the Iraqi Kurds’ example and set up an autonomous region, they will face challenges, he said.
There is an old saying among Kurds that they have “no friends but the mountains,” but Syrian Kurds lack even that. The Jazira plain where they are concentrated doesn’t have the rugged terrain that the Iraqi Kurds used to their advantage, or the no-fly zone that protected them from Saddam Hussein’s airstrikes.
Adding to the complications is the Syrian Kurds’ infighting. Before the clashes with the Islamists, anger had been brewing over the killing of six Kurdish anti-PYD demonstrators in Kurdish-controlled Amuda and the detention of scores of others in the town using what the State Department has condemned as “brutal tactics.” Jawad Mella, head of the Kurdistan National Congress, a politically independent umbrella group that works for a united Kurdistan, said that his organization backs the plans for elections but that the PYD’s political rivals in Syria are split.
Still, the PYD hopes the fighting with rebel factions might unify the Kurds. According to Mohammed, 300 recruits have joined the party’s militia in the past week, and he called on others to take up arms.
“We must protect ourselves,” he said.
Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.