x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Kurds talk of intervention in Syria, raising danger of escalation

Kurdish group's warning after clashes with Syrian rebels raises spectre of Turkey being dragged into the fighting.

A Syrian rebel fires shots during the funeral of Mohammed Hafar, 20, in the northern Syrian town of Azaz. Mr Hafar and his brother were killed during clashes between Kurds and Free Syrian Army fighters near the village of Al Kastal close to the border with Turkey, amid rising communal tensions.
A Syrian rebel fires shots during the funeral of Mohammed Hafar, 20, in the northern Syrian town of Azaz. Mr Hafar and his brother were killed during clashes between Kurds and Free Syrian Army fighters near the village of Al Kastal close to the border with Turkey, amid rising communal tensions.

ISTANBUL // Clashes between Syrian-Arab insurgents and Kurds in northern Syria and threats by a major Kurdish rebel force to send its fighters to the region have raised the spectre of further escalation and intervention by Turkey.

The fighting in the northern city of Aleppo last Friday was the first known case of Syrian-Arab rebels exchanging fire with Syrian Kurds, who number around two million people - about 10 per cent of the country's population.

The Kurds have largely stayed out of the conflict between the opposition and the regime of Bashar Al Assad in which an estimated 30,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March last year.

After the Aleppo clashes, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a rebel group that has been fighting for Kurdish self rule in Turkey since 1984 and has several thousand armed fighters, said it might intervene militarily in that part of Syria.

Speaking about the Aleppo clashes yesterday, Bassam Imadi, a leading member of the Syrian opposition in exile, said: "This is a very dangerous development."

He said there was a danger of a new front opening up in Syria. "It will create a diversion that will hurt everyone," he said. "It diverts attention from the fight against the regime."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group, said 30 people were killed in the violence in Aleppo.

"Clashes took place between fighters from the Arab rebel groups and members of the Kurdish popular defence units, which are under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)", the group said in a statement on its Facebook page. It also reported that Arab fighters released about 120 Kurds they had taken prisoner during the fighting.

The PYD is the Syrian branch of the PKK. Turkey accuses the PKK of trying to gain a foothold in Kurdish areas of northern Syria and has warned it will not tolerate a strong PKK presence on the other side of its border with Syria.

There are deep tensions between the PYD, which has been seen as doing the regime's bidding, and the rebels, seen by the Kurds as being influenced by an Islamist agenda.

In a statement carried on Sunday by the Firat News Agency, a PKK mouthpiece, a Kurdish umbrella group led by the PKK said the Arab groups involved in the fighting in Aleppo had launched attacks "trusting the Turkish state".

"If they are insistent in these attacks, they should know that we, as the Kurdistan Freedom Movement, may be obliged to make a stand for our people in West Kurdistan and send military support," said the statement by the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), in reference to northern Syria.

The KCK, which was founded by the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and is chaired by leading PKK commander Murat Karayilan, accused Turkey of being behind the recent escalation.

"No one should enter into the game of the Turkish state and fight against the Kurdish people," the statement said. "The whole Kurdish people is behind the people of West Kurdistan."

Turkey and the Syrian opposition in exile say the PKK had used the chaos produced by the fighting in much of Syria to build up its presence in the country's northern parts and had sometimes acted in coordination with the Assad government.

"The Kurdish PKK and its sister party, the PYD, have been with the regime and against the revolution," said Mr Imadi, a member of the foreign relations committee of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition umbrella group.

Neighbouring Turkey, a foe of Mr Al Assad and supporter of the opposition, was unlikely to remain passive if the escalation continued, Mr Imadi said. "I don't think that Turkey will remain silent if the PKK tries to control areas inhabited by Kurds" in Syria, he said.

The Turkish daily Milliyet reported yesterday that PKK units had taken over several border posts near Turkey from the Syrian military. There was no official confirmation. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said in July his country was prepared to attack PKK fighters inside Syria.

Mr Imadi said local mediation efforts in Aleppo were continuing. He said he hoped for a speedy resolution of tensions there, which he characterised as "some individual matters", as opposed to a more deep-running conflict.

"Things have quieted down now," he said.

tseibert@thenational.ae