Syria’s Kurds: Civil Wars Within a Civil War

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Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

Members of the Free Syrian Army set up a fire to obscure Kurdish militants' vision while standing alert during a truce on a hilly mountain in the Kurdish area of al-Qaftal, overlooking the town of Azaz, Syria, on Oct. 31, 2012

Syria’s opposition needs to be more representative and inclusive, say U.S. officials mindful of the dangers of an increasingly sectarian civil war. But the scale of the challenge in creating an opposition that draws in ethnic and religious minorities sometimes more fearful of the rebellion than they are of the regime was highlighted in last week’s clashes in Aleppo, between units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and a local Kurdish militia.

Protests against the rebels erupted last Friday in several Kurdish-majority cities across Syria, following rumors (later proved false) that Nujin Derik, a leader of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) militia in Aleppo, was executed by FSA rebels after delivering the bodies of FSA men killed in a firefight with her group. Clashes between the FSA and the YPG erupted on Oct. 26 in Aleppo’s Ashrafiyeh neighborhood, after some 200 anti-Assad rebels entered the predominantly Kurdish area in the course of their battle for control of the city. Kurdish leaders claimed the deployment violated an unwritten agreement by the rebels to stay out of Kurdish areas. When Ashrafiyeh residents staged a protest march toward rebel positions, they were met by a hail of bullets — according to Salih Muslim, of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to which Derik’s militia is allegedly answerable. By firing on the protesters, the rebels left Kurdish militia “no choice but to retaliate against the FSA,” Muslim tells TIME. “They killed some of them, captured others and threw the others out of the area.” About 30 people died in the fighting.

(MORE: U.S. Seeks a New Opposition in Syria)

Despite ongoing reprisal attacks and tit-for-tat kidnappings in the days that followed, leaders on both sides attempted to defuse tensions. Last weekend, the two sides agreed to cease hostilities and exchange all prisoners, including Derik. Still, many fear that the underlying tensions between the rebels and the Kurds could erupt in new fighting, reinforcing the sectarian divisions that impair the rebellion and setting back its efforts to gain control of Aleppo — all of which helps the Assad regime stay in power.

Even if they oppose Assad, many Kurds, particularly those aligned with the PYD, see the rebels as Islamist thugs acting on behalf of neighboring Turkey to control a post-Assad Syria. Many insurgents, meanwhile, resent the PYD and its armed supporters for staying out of the war against Assad, accusing it of being a cat’s paw for the regime. The PYD is also accused of being a front for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has spent the past three decades waging a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state. (The PKK, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. and the E.U., received material aid from the Syrians for the better half of the ’80s and ’90s.) Suspicions have multiplied since July, when Syrian troops pulled out of several Kurdish-majority areas in the country’s north, allowing PYD-led militias to take control — much to Turkey’s alarm.

Muslim confirms that even if his PYD patched up differences with the rebels, it would remain focused on consolidating its gains rather than joining the offensive against Assad. “We have always been with the revolution, but we have our own strategy,” he says. “We don’t want to be part of the fighting. We are just defending our people from the government forces and other armed groups in the area.”

The PYD’s determination to remain neutral in the fight between Assad and the rebels is driven by a political agenda that defines Kurdish interests as separate from those of the rebellion. Syria’s 2 million long-suffering Kurds would gain nothing from an alliance with an Arab opposition that ignores Kurdish demands for autonomy, Muslim explains. “Whom should I be with to fight against the regime?” he asks. “The Free Syrian Army, which is supported by Turkey, which is killing the Kurds, or al-Qaeda, which is destroying everything in Syria, or the other parts of the FSA?”

The situation in predominantly Kurdish areas of Syria is made even more complex by tensions between the PYD and rival Kurdish factions. Rudaw, a Kurdish paper based in northern Iraq, recently quoted a PYD leader suggesting that members of a rival Kurdish alliance — the Kurdish National Council (KNC) — had fought alongside the FSA against the PYD’s militia in Ashrafiyeh. Other reports suggested that at least some of the FSA fighters involved were part of the Salahuddin Ayubi Brigade, a Kurdish-majority outfit fighting under the FSA banner. That prompted warnings from the PYD that the KNC and the brigade would be held accountable for their role in the clashes.

(PHOTOS: Inside Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

In theory, at least, the rival Syrian Kurdish factions had been reconciled in July, when Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani forged an agreement between the PYD and the dozen-plus parties composing the KNC. The pact, intended to keep both regime forces and the FSA out of Kurdish-majority areas, threatened to unravel long before last week’s clashes. “There were three aims for this treaty,” Abdul Hakim Bashar, head of the KNC, tells TIME from northern Iraq. “To cut off the PYD from the Syrian regime, to prevent Kurdish-Kurdish war and to prevent fighting with the Arab people.” The PYD, he claims, “has not respected this treaty.”

The intra-Kurdish split is more about methods than goals, since Syrian Kurds broadly support the demand for autonomy. The PYD is accused of being intolerant of dissent and willing to use violence to silence its critics. Its detractors often admit to being more afraid of the PYD than of the Syrian regime. To many of them, Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in neighboring Iraq, is the only Kurdish leader capable of challenging the increasingly powerful PYD.

Earlier this summer, Barzani acknowledged that his government had trained up to 3,000 Kurdish defectors from Assad’s army. According to Falah Mustafa, head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, these units are ready to be deployed “in case there’s a collapse of the regime or of institutions, or if there’s chaos.” But, he adds, “They do not have any intention to attack, to create problems. Their sole responsibility would be to protect people and facilities — pipelines, schools, hospitals, public buildings.”

If tensions between the PYD and its Kurdish opponents continue to increase, however, the fighters trained in Iraq could be drawn into a fight against fellow Syrian Kurds. According to KNC chief Bashar, “If we feel that it’s necessary for them to go back to our areas, to defend them from anyone seeking problems, and if the PYD refuses, it will be responsible for the conflict that comes.”

If reconciling Kurd and Kurd is hard, then reconciling Arab and Kurd might prove even harder. The Arab-led opposition remains opposed to the prospect of Kurdish self-rule in a post-Assad Syria. The Kurds, meanwhile, having had a taste of partial autonomy for the first time in generations, will be in no mood to give any of it back.

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