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Syria's Kurds wage their own war, and weaken rebels

July 30, 2013 at 3:52 PM   |   Comments

BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 30 (UPI) -- In recent days, Syria's Kurdish rebels have been fighting hard-line Islamists in an internecine mini-war in what seems to be part of their effort to carve out a Kurdish self-rule statelet in the northeastern corner of the battle-ravaged country.

It's one of several such conflicts among rival rebel groups, divided by religious, ideological or ethnic differences, that are undeniably weakening the disparate rebel forces fighting to bring down the minority Alawite regime of President Bashar Assad.

And this is raising suspicions that Assad, along with his Iranian and Hezbollah allies, is exploiting these differences to one degree or another to weaken his already fractious opponents while his forces are mounting a new offensive and retaking ground they lost in earlier fighting.

With the United States and Western powers dithering over what they should do to expedite Assad's ouster, leaving the rebels reliant on Assad's Arab enemies but still badly outgunned by a regime that's heavily backed by its allies, the Syrian president's playing a devious game to keep his enemies divided.

Syria's Kurds, finally rising against the regime after decades of discrimination and bending the knee to Damascus' diktat, now seem to be determined to use the civil war to establish their own statelet, much as their cousins in neighboring Iraq are doing.

The Kurdish Democratic Union, the most powerful Kurdish group in Syria and known as the PYD, underlined how the uprising against Assad is splintering into private wars over territory, ethnicity or economic assets by unveiling plans July 18 for self government in the regions it controls in the northeast.

The PYD said it planned a new independent governing council to provide social services and defense, a step that many fear will intensify the turf wars that are breaking out among rival groups in areas that are visibly beyond Damascus' control, such as the northeast.

"The opposition is growing ever more fractious as it runs short of weapons and comes under increasing military pressure from the much better-armed regime," observed analyst Michael Peel in the Financial Times.

"The rebels are also gripped by deepening fratricidal political battles, as groups desperate for Western arms try to distance themselves from jihadist elements that have grown increasingly influential on the battlefield."

The PYD's move is widely perceived as another twist in the complex power struggle raging among rebel factions in northern Syria, where, as Peel observes, "the Kurds have at different times fought with the opposition and against them."

The PYD's growing desire for de facto autonomy in a territory that contains some of Syria's modest oil reserves is one of the reasons behind the recent surge in fighting with the jihadist al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq, two groups that have become the most effective rebel forces in the war.

The Kurds seems to have come out ahead, seizing some territory, in particular pushing the Islamists out of the flashpoint town of Ras al-Ain near the Turkish border.

But they took some losses. Jihadist suicide bombers attacked one of their headquarters and killed PYD leader Walid Abu Hanzalah July 19.

There also have been clashes around the oil and gas fields in Hakasa province where there have been long-simmering tensions between rival factions, some ideological but more commonly over territory and resources, like the region's oil.

The jihadists are also scrapping with the Free Syrian Army, the main non-jihadist organization following the killing last week of a top FSA commander by a group affiliated with al-Qaida.

Secular groups have been striving to distance themselves from the jihadists, hoping to encourage the Americans and their allies to provide them with weapons, particularly anti-aircraft missiles to counter Assad's air force, one of his most potent weapons.

The PYD's fight and its move toward Kurdish self-rule in the northeast around the Jazeera Plain, including plans for a 150-member Parliament, can only deepen the gaping rifts within the opposition.

This has also antagonized anti-Assad Turkey, because the PYD has close links to Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been fighting Ankara for autonomy since 1984.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's been trying to broker a peace deal with the PKK, is incensed by the PYD. Last Friday he warned its leader, Saleh Muslim, his party's moves were "wrong and dangerous."

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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