Syrian Kurd Kiymet Ergun, 56, standing at the Turkey-Syria border in 2014, watches while thick smoke rises following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition in Kobane. A State Department official visted Kobane for the first time this weekend. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

A top U.S. official has made a rare visit to Syria, crossing into the Kurdish-held north of the country over the weekend to meet with Kurdish officials and fighters who are battling the Islamic State, U.S. and Kurdish officials said Sunday.

The visit by President Obama’s special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, Brett McGurk, was the first by a senior U.S. official to the Syrian war zone and came as the U.S. military increasingly directs the focus of its fight against Islamic militants toward the front line in Syria and the Islamic State’s self-
proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

It also coincides with growing regional and global tensions over the status of Syria’s Kurds, who have been carving out an autonomous enclave of their own in the process of battling the Islamic State.

Russia has been competing with United States for influence over the Syrian Kurds, who have made most of their recent territorial gains with the help of U.S. airstrikes. Turkey has meanwhile expressed mounting alarm at the growing muscle of the Syrian Kurds, dispatching tanks and troops to reinforce its border and threatening military action to prevent the emergence of a new Kurdish entity.

A State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject said McGurk spent two days in the self-proclaimed northern Kurdish enclave of Rojava.

“This visit and the discussions he had are in keeping with the special envoy’s efforts to continue looking for ways to increase coalition pressure on ISIL,” the official said, using a common abbreviation for the Islamic State.

It was the first known visit to Syria by a senior U.S. official since the ambassador, Robert Ford, departed the capital, Damascus, in 2012 amid the turmoil of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. and Syrian governments have had no direct communications, though they have on occasion interacted through intermediaries.

Among the places McGurk visited, the State Department official said, was the small town of Kobane, which captured world headlines a little over a year ago for its battle against Islamic State forces.

The ferocity of the battle prompted the first intervention by U.S. warplanes on behalf of the Kurds, opening the door to a deepening relationship with the main Kurdish fighting force, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which is central to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

Relations between the YPG and the United States have nonetheless been tempered by the disapproval of Turkey and by the complexities of the wider Syria war. McGurk’s visit may have been intended, at least in part, to mollify Kurdish anger that Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party, the YPG’s political wing, was not invited to participate in the fraught Syrian peace talks underway in Geneva.

Muslim had shown up in Geneva anyway, but was discreetly asked to leave Saturday by U.S. officials after Turkey threatened to disrupt the talks if he was allowed to remain in town, according to Western diplomats attending the talks.