Syrian Kurds' military gains stir unease

Syrian Kurds' military gains stir unease

BEIRUT/ARBIL - With a string of military gains across northeastern Syria, a Kurdish militia is solidifying a geographic and political presence in the war-torn country, posing a dilemma for regional powers.

Long oppressed under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him, Kurds view the civil war as an opportunity to gain the kind of autonomy enjoyed by their ethnic kin in neighbouring Iraq.

But their offensive has stirred mixed feelings, globally, regionally and locally, even among some fellow Kurds, who say the Kurdish fighters have drifted into a regional axis supporting Assad, something they deny.

To Assad and his Shi'ite allies, their gains mean more territory out of Sunni rebel hands two and a half years into a revolt against his rule.

Foreign powers supporting the opposition, meanwhile, hope they will deliver a blow to al Qaeda-linked fighters, whose rising power in northern Syria had gone unchecked for months.

"The advance has basically been accepted by all," said Piroz Perik, a Kurdish activist from the town of Qamishli.

Such statements overlook widespread concerns over the impact of the Kurdish militia gains in a conflict that not only threatens Syria's unity, but the stability of neighbouring countries with similar ethnic and sectarian divisions.

Numbering more than 25 million, non-Arab Kurds are often described as the world's largest ethnic group without a state. Territories where they predominate, which they call Kurdistan, span parts of Turkey and Iran as well as Syria and Iraq.

Turkey began digging foundations for a wall along part of its border with Syria last month, citing security reasons but prompting protests from Kurds who said it was aimed at preventing closer cross-border ties between their communities.

Rising Kurdish assertiveness in Syria puts Turkey in a particularly tough position as it tries to make peace on its own soil with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which fought for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.

The power grab by the Syrian Kurdish militia associated with the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, could embolden the PKK, with which it is closely aligned. But Turkey is also uneasy with having al Qaeda-linked groups on its doorstep.

"What you are going to see is a clearer division of northern Syria between the PYD and Islamist rebel forces," said Kurdish activist Perik.

Redur Xelil, a spokesman for Kurdish militias linked to the PYD, said more than two-thirds of Syrian Kurdish territory had been captured, mostly in northern Hassaka province, where Kurds make up 70 per cent of the population and Arabs the rest.

Xelil also hinted the militia could try to take northern towns where Kurds are a minority compared to Arabs, such as the strategic border towns of Jarablus and Azaz that rebels have used as supply routes from Turkey.

Such a move would likely prompt a fierce response from the mostly-Sunni Arab rebels.

"I'm not saying we will do it. Let's take things as they come. We are waiting to see if the armed groups (rebels) will ensure safe movement for Kurds in that region first," he said.

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