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Syrian Kurds and rebels battle over town

January 19, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell

BEIRUT — Syrian rebel and Kurdish militiamen were battling Saturday for control of a northeastern Syrian town in a dramatic illustration of the deep fissures within Syria’s armed opposition.

A Kurdish umbrella group, the Kurdish National Council, called Saturday on the rebel leadership to exert influence with its fighters to cease their attack on Ras Ayn, along Syria’s remote northeast border with Turkey.

The Kurdish group demanded that the opposition leadership “put pressure on these armed groups to stop this criminal war, which is detrimental to the principles and objectives of the Syrian revolution.”

Whether the request will make any difference remains to be seen. Rebel combatants in Syria are heavily decentralized and generally follow no central command.

Several days of rebel-Kurdish clashes in Ras Ayn have left at least 33 combatants dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based pro-opposition monitoring group.

The Kurdish and Arab militiamen share a deep mistrust, though both profess to back the downfall of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic minority, say the Arab rebels are using tanks and artillery to attack Kurdish positions and civilian neighborhoods in Ras Ayn, about 450 miles northeast of Damascus, the capital. The Kurds also accuse the rebels of collaborating with neighboring Turkey, which has long fought a Kurdish rebellion, in a bid to crush emerging Kurdish leadership in northern Syria.

Ras Ayn, home to about 50,000 people before intense fighting broke out last year, is just across the border from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.

Arab rebels also harbor doubt about the Kurdish fighters. Some suspect that the Kurdish militiamen remain loyal to Assad. The president’s forces retreated in July from a vast swath of the Kurdish north, in effective ceding rule to Kurdish parties without a shot being fired. But the Kurdish groups in Ras Ayn deny being Assad backers and say they support the revolution.

Many secular Kurds also object to the ultraconservative Islamist bent of some of the Arab rebel battalions. Several Islamist militant groups, reportedly including Al Nusrah Front, with asserted links to Al Qaeda, are said to be among the rebel factions operating in Ras  Ayn. The Obama administration has labeled Al Nusrah Front a terrorist group.

Turkish authorities have allowed Syrian rebels to use Turkish territory to move personnel and weapons into Syria. But Turkish officials have expressed alarm about the rise of Kurdish factions inside Syria.

The Turkish government has been engaged in a decades-long war against the autonomous-minded Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Many Syrian Kurds support the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life term for treason in a Turkish prison. Some Syrian Kurds have even enlisted in the PKK.

Aside from Ras  Ayn, Kurdish and Arab fighters have also clashed elsewhere in the north, notably in the city of Aleppo.

Many Syrian Kurds view the prospect of Assad’s downfall as a chance to gain long-desired political autonomy. But some Arab rebels are hostile to Kurdish ambitions for autonomous rule, saying such a step could weaken a post-Assad Syria.

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Special correspondent Lava Selo contributed to this report.

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