x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Dozens killed as Syria's Arabs and Kurds turn on each other

Fresh clashes in the majority Kurdish province of Hasakeh on Friday between Kurds and Arab fighters raise fears that competing factions could further destablise Syria.

URFA, TURKEY // A deepening conflict between Kurds and Arabs in northern Syria is spinning further out of control, after a car bomb killed a prominent Kurdish politician and the latest efforts to negotiate an end to hostilities failed.

Fresh clashes in the majority Kurdish province of Hasakeh early on Friday between Kurd fighters and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) killed at least 12 of the Sunni militants, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Over the past few days 22 Kurdish militia members have been killed in fighting with ISIS, an Al Qaeda affiliate over the past few days.

Kurdish groups have sought to take control over parts of Hasakeh and neighbouring Raqqa province after forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al Assad withdrew last year, bringing them into conflict with Arab-dominated rebel forces also trying to take control of territory.

Arab and Kurd leaders met twice this week in the border city of Tal Abyad and exchanged the bodies of 30 people killed in recent fighting between armed Kurdish factions and Sunni Arab tribes.

Hopes that a localised political settlement or temporary ceasefire could be agreed at the same time came to nothing however and, on Thursday, Kurdish residents of Tal Abyad, a town in Raqqa province on the Syrian-Turkish frontier, were packing up and fleeing their homes ahead of a widely anticipated resumption of fighting, according to residents of the area.

"The situation is very bad, in the coming days we expect there will be big battles, the Kurds in Tal Abyad are fleeing," said an Arab from Raqqa province in close contact with residents of the border town.

An influential Arab tribal figure said people in the area were preparing for war.

"Everyone is picking up arms to fight against the Kurds. It's uniting all of the divided [Arab] groups and this has not happened before, the Arabs are as one against the Kurds," he said.

Well-organised politically, although split into different factions, Syria's Kurds announced last month their intention to set up an independent council to govern areas of northern Syria with a Kurdish population.

Should the move go ahead it would be a significant step towards autonomy for the Kurds in Syria.

Syrian Arabs living in the mixed Kurd-Arab zones said they believed most Kurds wanted to live in peace but also aspired to an independent Kurdish state, something Arabs and Syrian nationalists could not agree to.

On Tuesday, Isa Huso, a prominent Kurdish politician, was killed by a bomb in the northern town of Qamishli. No one has claimed responsibility, but Kurdish factions blamed Islamic militants linked to the ISIS.

Previous outbreaks of violence have broadly pitted radical Islamist groups, including members of Jabhat Al Nusra and the ISIS, against Kurdish militia associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Both Al Nusra and the PKK are considered terrorist organisations by the US and some European states.

That narrower conflict now appears to be spreading to encompass Syrian Arab and Kurds more widely

According to Arab tribal factions, some of the corpses given to them for burial this week had been "desecrated", a claim that could not be independently verified.

Arab tribal leaders said the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG) a powerful militia, insisted they must administer a swathe of territory including Tal Abyad and Ras Al Ain, two large districts running along the Syrian-Turkish border.

These areas are home to a mixed population of Arabs and Kurds.

The Kurds want to control Tal Abyad but the majority of people in the town are Arabs so that is unacceptable," said Nawaf Al Bashir, the leading sheikh of the Bagara tribe, Syria's largest Arab tribal grouping.

"We do not fight the Kurds as a people but we will fight the PYD if they try to cut up Syria," he said.

"How can they make a Kurdish country in a place that is by majority Arab, it is not just. We want a democratic civil state in which everyone has equal rights, " he said.

Assad regime forces withdrew without a fight from areas dominated by the PYD and YPG in July last year, prompting claims the Kurdish bloc was in alliance with the authorities, rather than supporting the rebellion.

The Turkish government, many Syrian Arabs and some independent analysts say there are close links between the PKK, the PYD and YPG, although they are officially distinct organisations.

Arab tribal leaders say Kurdish militia forces receive weapons, cash and intelligence from the Syrian regime, and cite incidents during recent clashes in which Kurdish units apparently called in air strikes by regime jets against opposing Arab positions.

However, Kurds in parts of northern Syria have been attacked by regime forces on occasion, indicating the complex, sometimes contradictory web of alliances and animosities shaping the war.

Kurds maintain they are fighting in the Syrian-Turkish border region to defend their villages from the ISIS and Al Nusra, a prominent group in Raqqa.

The involvement of Al Nusra in recent fighting was confirmed by Arab tribal leaders in Raqqa, although they described the group's role as "minor" and said tribal forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) - which is seeking weapons supplies from the US government - played a more significant part in the clashes.

"We decided we would not lift a hand against the Kurds and they will not do anything against us. It's not a Kurdish issue, it's specifically the PKK and those with the PKK will be held accountable," said Belikh Al Tehry, a prominent Arab tribal sheikh from Tal Abyad who took part in the recent Arab-Kurd meetings.

He referred to the PKK directly insisting there was no real distinction between it and the PYD or YPG

A Kurdish member of the FSA, who has fought in Damascus and Deir Ezzor, said he faced growing criticism from other Kurds for siding with opposition rebels against the Assad regime.

 

The fighter said an independent Kurdish state would never materialise and that it was, therefore, better to work to form a democratic state.

"The revolution is off track, the situation is getting worse and worse," he said, referring to fighting between Arabs and Kurds, the opposition's failure to properly organise and external interference.

"It's hard to see how this can end well anymore," he said.

 

psands@thenational.ae