Tensions continue to mount in Syria’s northeastern region as opposition fighters repeatedly battled Kurdish militias this past week, adding fresh ethnic dimensions to a bloody civil war.
The violence, centred in the frontier town of Ras al-Ayn, pitted Free Syrian Army (FSA) militants against Kurdish militiamen and sent waves of refugees scurrying through razor wire barricades into neighbouring Turkey, raising fears that an internecine power struggle may engulf Syria’s mixed Arab-Kurd northeast.
Syria’s Kurds, around 10 per cent of the population and concentrated mostly in the northeast, have an uneasy relationship with the largely Sunni Arab opposition, who are seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but have taken on an increasingly steely Islamicist hue.
The fighting began this week after Kurdish protesters demanded opposition forces – who overran Ras al-Ayn last week, prompting a sustained aerial bombardment by Assad’s warplanes – leave the town, situated just south of the Turkish frontier. Fighting intensified following the assassination of a local Kurdish leader, Abed Khalil, by an FSA sniper.
A ceasefire was negotiated on Tuesday, but collapsed the next day as reinforcements for both sides poured into the city, triggering fresh waves of brutal street combat.
“I’m afraid of the airstrikes and the fighting,” said 44-year-old Ali Essa, a resident of Ras al-Ayn who fled across the Turkish frontier into Ceylanpinar with 15 of his family members.
“Both sides are being careful not to kill civilians, but the fighting must stop. There is no electricity, no food. Nothing.”
Mortar rounds, tank blasts and machine gun fire could be heard in the past 24 hours, before a fresh and strained ceasefire had again been reached.
Some FSA fighters feel the Kurds will try to carve out an independent state as chaos reigns throughout Syria, driving up resentment.
“Kurds are stupid people; this country is for Arabs,” said one Ras al-Ayn refugee, while sitting in a Ceylanpinar cafe.
“They think they can have their own country in Syria. But the Arab people brought the Kurds down from the mountains and taught them how to be [real] people.”
The Kurdish fighters are affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a major Kurdish political faction, further complicating matters.
The PYD is linked to a militant separatist group in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which has conducted a bloody three-decade insurgency for Kurdish rights in Turkey. Both are believed to be receiving support from Damascus.
Kurdish factions have largely avoided being sucked into the rebellion against Assad’s regime, which has left more than 20,000 dead, according to estimates, but the rebellion has crossed into areas with substantial Kurdish populations, igniting conflict in Ras al-Ayn and the northern city of Aleppo.
The almost 20-month conflict in Syria has repeatedly spilled over into neighbouring Turkey. The two nations share an almost 800km border, with once brisk cross-border trade.
On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confirmed that Nato member states would provide Turkey with the Patriot missile defence system, to be deployed along the border with Syria.
The move comes after months of escalating tension along the Syrian frontier, underscoring Ankara and Damascus’ increasingly sour relationship and raising fears of a regional conflagration.