Syria’s Kurds are battling jihadist fighters in northern Syria in a bid to protect and even extend the long-sought autonomy they have gained since the country’s conflict begin, experts say.
This week alone, at least 29 jihadist and Kurdish fighters have been killed in two days of fighting in the Ras al-Ain area of Hasakeh province in northeastern Syria.
The clashes ended with Kurdish forces pushing fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) out of Ras al-Ain and the nearby border crossing with Turkey.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the country’s Kurds have walked a fine line, seeking to antagonise neither the regime nor the rebels, focusing instead on building an autonomous region.
“The Kurds are pursuing their own interests, eliminating the obstacles to the establishment of a proto-state entity in the north of Syria,” according to Thomas Pierret, an expert on Syria and Islamist movements.
“The jihadists are one of the primary obstacles.
“The Kurds are taking advantage of a moment that is proving unfavourable for the jihadists, particularly with the growing hostility towards them on the part of the Free Syrian Army and much of the local population,” added Pierret, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
For weeks now, residents of towns across rebel-held areas have been protesting against what they see as abuses and heavy-handed behaviour by the jihadists.
Non-jihadist fighters have also engaged in clashes with members of the two groups in several areas.
But the clashes with the Kurds are tied to that community’s specific ambitions and ideology, experts say.
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, pointed out that the fighting in Ras al-Ain came shortly before a July 19 date set by the PYD Kurdish party for a declaration of autonomy over several parts of northern Syria.
The clashes also come around a year after the withdrawal of regime forces from the area, which allowed the PYD and its armed wing, the YPG, to take control of majority Kurdish areas.
The PYD is regarded as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which Turkey and several other nations regard as a “terrorist organisation”.
“The recent clashes are a result of competition for territorial control and also a clash over two competing ideologies,” Lister told AFP, pointing to the secular mores espoused by Syria’s Kurds.
“An intent to declare Kurdish autonomy in ‘liberated’ areas of northern Syria will have rung alarm bells in Islamist militants’ heads,” he said.
Hasakeh “has become more valuable for militants, particularly jihadists who can use its isolated position as a safe haven, and seek to control and benefit from its oilfields,” he added.
The growing presence of hardline jihadist groups such as Al-Nusra and ISIS, and their attempts to establish strongholds in northern Syria, jolted the Kurdish community, according to Faruq Haji Mustafa, a Syrian Kurdish writer and analyst.
“Statements by Islamists saying they wanted to create a state in the north of Syria terrified the Kurds, which is why they were ready to fight and to protect their oilfields from outsiders,” he said.
The Kurds and the jihadists “are ideologically incompatible, cater to different constituencies, and have opposing political goals, so relations are already bad across the board,” added Middle East expert Aron Lund.
Kurds account for around 15 percent of Syria’s population, and are largely concentrated in the north.
Like the Kurdish community in Iraq, they have been able to take advantage of the breakdown in the central authority in Syria to exert a long-sought autonomy in areas where they constitute a majority.
It remains to be seen whether the clashes in Hasakeh could spread to other Kurdish regions, including in Aleppo province, and whether non-jihadist rebels might be drawn in.
Mainstream rebel groups are increasingly uncomfortable with their jihadist counterparts, but have also been angered by a lack of explicit Kurdish support for the uprising.
Lund noted that opposition and Free Syrian Army chiefs have sought to distance themselves from the fighting.
“They basically deplored the clashes and told FSA fighters to keep out of it… but whether groups on the ground care, that’s another matter.”