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War Within A War: Kurds, Arabs Battle In Northern Syria

The UN refugee agency has struggled to cope with the sudden influx of Kurdish refugees from Syria into Iraq.
The UN refugee agency has struggled to cope with the sudden influx of Kurdish refugees from Syria into Iraq.
Islamist and Kurdish militias are fighting a war within a war in Syria that is not just creating tens of thousands of new refugees. It's also increasingly becoming an ethnic-based conflict between Arabs and Kurds that gives new reasons to worry Syria will break apart.

A glimpse of the increasingly ethnic dimension of the combat in northern Syria comes as tens of thousands of mostly Kurdish refugees have crossed into Iraq since fighting broke out in the middle of last month.

One of the refugees told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that Arab Islamist groups regarded killing Kurds as "halal," or religiously condoned. "There is violence and killing and kidnapping in the Kurdish areas. They made Kurdish blood 'halal,'" he said.

The man, who did not give his name, is among the tens of thousands of people who have crossed into Iraq since August 15.

One young woman said she had personally seen the killings of Kurds in Qamishli, a mixed city of Kurds, Arabs, and Christians near the Turkish border. "We had no problems, we had our house, and my father and brother were working. We had no problems," she said. "But because of the situation, the killings and beheadings [we fled]. We saw a massacre with our own eyes in Qamishli."

Many refugees say that extremist Sunni Arab groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, which is linked to Al-Qaeda, are deliberately kidnapping and beheading Kurds to terrorize Kurdish civilians. The alleged killings, which cannot be independently confirmed, come as Islamist groups battle Kurdish militias for territory across northern Syria along the Turkish border.

Fighting For Resources

The crisis in northern Syria did not begin as an ethnic showdown. Instead, it began largely as a struggle between rival groups for control of the region's resources.

Marwan Kabalan, a Doha-based analyst who was formerly dean of the faculty of international relations at the University of Kalamoon in Damascus, says the region offers several prizes. "No. 1 is that [northeast Syria] is very rich in oil and gas. Most of the Syrian oil reserve is located in this area, so that is the economic factor," he notes. "The other factor is that this area also is a very important route for supplies which are coming from Turkey."

Sparsely populated northern Syria has been almost entirely out of the control of the regime of Bashar al-Assad for more than a year since government forces withdrew to focus on fighting rebels in Syria's biggest cities in the center and south of the country.

The few government troops who do remain keep a low profile. That has allowed the country's most powerful Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and the smaller Kurdish National Council to fill the power vacuum in Kurdish-dominated areas.

But in mixed-population areas, power grabs by both the Kurdish and Islamist groups have been stoking tensions for months. The sectarian Kurdish parties object to Islamist efforts to impose Shari'a law, while the Islamist groups accuse the Kurds of supporting Damascus, a charge they reject.

No End In Sight

Yet if the initial tensions were over political and ideological differences, both sides have increasingly cast the struggle as Arabs against Kurds since fighting broke out in earnest on July 16.

Kabalan says that speaking in ethnic terms helps Kurdish groups mobilize their supporters. Similarly, it enables the Islamist groups to strike otherwise unlikely alliances against the Kurds with other Arab-based rebel groups, including sectarian ones in the Free Syrian Army.

WATCH: Syrian Kurds pour into Iraq's Kurdish region.
Syrian Kurds Pour Into Iraq's Kurdish Region
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Ethnic tensions have also risen as Syrian Kurdish leaders have announced plans to set up their own interim administration until the end of the country's civil war. That alarms Syria's opposition, even though the Kurds say they have no plans to set up an independent Kurdistan that might lead to the break up of the country.

Still, analysts say the longer the fighting continues the greater the danger that a breakup will occur. "If this fighting continues, not only between the Kurds and the Arabs in this part of the country, but between Syrians in general, whether Kurds, Arabs, Sunni or Alawite, then people will start talking more about whether Syria can get out of this crisis with its unity intact," Kabalan says.

For now, there is no end in sight to the fighting in northern Syria. Neither side has sufficient military strength to defeat the other and both are skilled in waging protracted guerrilla war.

"The Kurdish militias are supported by the PKK (Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party), which has a lot of experience fighting a guerrilla insurgency against the Turkish state, so they have a lot of experience," says Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, a regional expert with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.

"On the other hand, the Islamist groups have Al-Qaeda proxies from Iraq, with a lot of experience in fighting against the Iraqi government and using suicide bombings, silencer killings, and other tactics. So, both sides have a lot of experience in fighting."

Van Wilgenburg says so far that has translated into an increasingly bloody stalemate across a broad swath of northern Syria that runs from Iraq in the east to Turkey in the West. "The Islamist groups or the Free Syrian Army really can't control areas that are more dominantly Kurdish. But they were able to take over some areas which were isolated Kurdish villages or small towns in Aleppo Province," he says. "So, it is a stalemate at the moment; both sides have losses and both sides have winnings."

With additional contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondents Samira Ali Mandi in Prague and Abdel Hamid Zebari in Irbil

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