Jennie Matthew, AFP
Last updated: 30 October, 2012

Rebel-Kurd tensions boil over in Syria’s north

Mohammed Hafar was killed at dawn, shot while reportedly trying to rescue his brother Faisal, mortally wounded, from the latest gunbattles between Sunni Arab rebels and Kurdish militia in Syria.

It was the second clash in 48 hours and killed up to four Arabs near the Kurdish village of Yazi Bah, close to the Turkish border in northern Syria, according to Arab rebel fighters in their nearby bastion of Aazaz.

Angry, upset men and fighters dressed in fatigues totting Kalashnikovs gathered outside his house to pay their respects. Few wanted to talk to a Western reporter. The sense of loss and anger was palpable.

They carried Hafar’s body through the rubbish-strewn streets to the graveyard, firing into the air and shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) in a cortege of mourners on foot and wounded Arab rebels limping on crutches.

One of them was Fahad, 20, nursing a shattered arm in a sling and a heavily bandaged right foot injured, he says, in fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the northern city of Aleppo.

“The enemy is now the PKK (Kurdish militia) because they’re Assad’s dogs,” he mutters, slumped in a plastic chair outside Hafar’s home, waiting for the funeral procession to begin. “When they kill us, we’ll kill them.”

Fellow fighter Abu Sabri agrees.

“We will punish them. I can’t say now, but in the coming days, you’ll see.”

But on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a Kurd tortured by rebels died after being captured near the northern village of Hayan.

Tensions run deep between the PYD — the Syrian branch of the leftist and secular Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which the rebels accuse of being lackeys of the regime — and the rebels, who often say they want an Islamic government.

Analysts say clashes in the north, where the country’s 15 percent Kurdish population is heavily concentrated, stem not just from distrust, but from a struggle for power and control with Syria’s future deeply uncertain.

Some rebels say they are anxious to keep a ceasefire and nervous about opening a second front in a war they are struggling to win without international support.

But there are reports of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel group, sending reinforcements to Al-Kastal, the checkpoint where Hafar was killed.

Any escalation would be all the more worrying after 30 people were reported killed in Aleppo on Friday in the deadliest FSA-PYD clashes of the uprising.

Abu Shaaban, 50, who has had a shop selling car seats since before Hafar was born, says he is devastated that the young boy he watched grow up has been killed.

“He was like a son to me,” he says. “We’re sad for them (the family) because they (Hafar and his fellow fighters) were so young. God bless them.”

Like the others, he says he has no problem with the Kurds.

“The Kurdish people used to be with us all day here,” he says. But asked what had changed, he says he doesn’t know and doesn’t want to talk about it.

Since the war began, life has changed for Kurds in northern Syria.

In the town of Afrin, an AFP reporter saw in August how they were able to experience their first hint of self-administration.

According to Kurds, they banned the rebels from entering their region armed, and cut a deal that saw Assad’s troops withdraw, although a security facility, complete with a portrait of the president remained in Afrin.

But for diehard FSA supporters, the PYD are nothing more than henchmen from the regime — armed and paid by the regime to keep the rebels at bay. Arab guides travelling with AFP say it is no longer safe for them to visit the Kurdish villages.

Peter Harling, analyst at the International Crisis Group, says the PYD has successfully exploited the uprising, creating friction with the armed opposition particularly in the all-important Turkey border area.

“There is a lot of competition between these opposition armed groups over the weapons transit route. That fact that many of the border points are in fact controlled by the Kurds, has created some tension with the Kurds too,” he says.

Harling believes the PYD wants to stay out of the conflict as far as possible, essentially neutral, but determined to profit whatever the outcome.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman says armed groups have adopted practices of the regime and voiced fears that communal tensions may grow in the north.

“In areas where rebels have forced the regime out, there is a security vacuum. Some of the fighters don’t want democracy at all, they’re just warlords who are taking advantage of the chaos,” says Abdel Rahman.