Tue, Aug 06, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Syrian Kurds inch toward autonomy

With Kurdish militias trying to tighten their grip on northern Syria, the country could be fragmenting into three distinct areas, and that could pose a problem for neighboring Turkey, which has battled Kurdish militants for decades

By Jonathon Burch  /  Reuters, CEYLANPINAR, Turkey

Illustration: Yusha

Looking back over the border at the Syrian hometown he fled, Adil is circumspect when he sees a Kurdish flag hoisted over its low-rise, breezeblock buildings.

The 33-year-old Kurd has seen victors come and go and it is far too soon to celebrate.

“First there was [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad and there was oppression, then came the rebel Free Syrian Army and it was little better, and now the Kurds have taken control,” he said.

“We’re undecided on what they will be like. We’ll have to wait and see, but whoever is in control is not important as long as there is security and justice. That’s all we want,” he said.

Kurdish militias have sought to consolidate their grip in northern Syria after exploiting the chaos of the country’s civil war over the past year by seizing control of districts as al-Assad’s forces focused elsewhere.


Their emerging self-rule is starting to echo the autonomy of Kurds in neighboring north Iraq, and highlights Syria’s slow fragmentation into a Kurdish northeast, mainly government-held areas around Damascus, Homs and the Mediterranean, and a rebel swathe leading from Aleppo along the Euphrates Valley to Iraq.

Ras al-Ain, a border town abutting Ceylanpinar in Turkey and an ethnic mix of Arabs, Kurds and others, has been a focus of the struggle for months, with Kurdish militias fighting for control against Arab rebel fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked hardline Sunni Islamist al-Nusra Front.

Two weeks ago, fighters allied to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the strongest local Kurdish group with its well-armed and effective militias, captured the town from Nusra fighters.

Days later, the PYD’s leader Saleh Muslim announced it would set up an independent council to run Kurdish areas of Syria until the war ends.

The Kurdish Supreme Committee, a newly formed umbrella group for Kurdish parties in Syria, including the PYD, has flown its flag over the town, but its hold is fragile.

Nusra fighters have regrouped in Tel Halaf, a settlement 4km to the west, from where they have been shelling and firing in an attempt to recoup their losses, although the Kurds appear to be holding their ground.

The clashes have reduced to the odd burst of gunfire, but days of heavy exchanges last month sent stray shells and bullets crashing onto the Turkish side. Three Turkish citizens were killed, including a 15-year-old boy by a bullet to the head.

The Turkish military, which has been returning fire into Syria when stray bullets or mortars land inside Turkey, said it had fired several shots across the frontier at Ceylanpinar on Thursday night last week after a bullet from Syria hit the town.

Daily clashes have continued between Kurds and Islamists across Syria’s north and in the early hours of Friday last week, PYD fighters killed 12 Islamist militants in the northeastern province of Hassake which borders Turkey and Iraq, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.


Divided between Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish people are often described as the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. Syria’s Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority, suffered government repression for decades.

Under al-Assad and his father before him, they were forbidden from learning their own language, frequently evicted from their land and even denied full Syrian citizenship. Their region is home to a chunk of Syria’s estimated 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, but Kurds enjoyed little benefit.

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