Kurds tighten grip on Syria's northeast

Groups aligned with the PKK move to clear pockets of Al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups from a major oil-producing province

Syrian-Kurdish women take part in a training session organized by the Kurdish Defense Units on Oct. 19, 2013, in the northeastern province of Hasakeh.
Fabio Bucciarelli/AFP/Getty Images

Kurdish fighters moved to consolidate their control of an oil-producing province in northeastern Syria on Sunday after seizing a border crossing with Iraq from rebels linked to Al-Qaeda, activists said. Observers say the fighting deepens sectarian and ethnic fault lines in Syria, and threatens to draw neighboring powers into the country's civil war.

Fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought the government of neighboring Turkey for decades, were clearing pockets of resistance posed by fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as well as al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham in the border town of Yarubiya, Syrian opposition sources said.

"The Kurds are now in control of the Yarubiya border post. They now have a clear route to market the region's oil, which should belong to all Syrians. Thousands of the Arabs have fled," said Yasser Farhan, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

Click for more news and analysis on Syria's war.

The northeastern province of Hasakah, which borders Turkey and Iraq, has a population of over a million, about 70 percent of whom are Kurds and 30 percent are Arabs.

A statement by the Syrian National Coalition said Iraqi ground forces attacked Yarubiya on Saturday in coordination with the Kurdish fighters. Syrian rebel sources said Syrian warplanes had also bombarded the town.

"The Iraqi government has committed a grave error by its unprecedented interference in Syrian affairs," the statement said, adding that the Shia-dominated Baghdad government had been aiding the transfer to Syria of Iraqi Shia fighters who are battling alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

An Iraqi security official denied involvement in the capture of Yarubiya. "The last thing we need is to get dragged into a military combat inside Syria. We will not engage in any way," he said.

Other Iraqi officials said some wounded Kurdish fighters had been evacuated in Iraqi army Humvees and taken to areas under the control of Iraqi Kurdish fighters, then over the border into Iraq.

Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said Kurdish fighters had taken over 90 percent of Yarubiya town.

Video footage released by the group showed Kurdish fighters manning a tower at the crossing, and others carrying the flag of the Kurdistan People's Protection Units.

Syria divided

Kurds in Syria have played a complex role in the country’s nearly three-year civil war, which has pitted mostly Sunni Muslim rebel fighters against Assad's largely Alawite-dominated government.

Different Kurdish groups have fought on both sides while the rise of Al-Qaeda has bolstered support for armed Kurdish groups linked to the PKK, which has been traditionally opposed by non-violent Kurdish political parties.

Kurds comprise around 10 percent of Syria's 23 million population. They are concentrated in Hasakah, in parts of Damascus and in Ifrin province north of Aleppo, where there has also been intense fighting between Kurds and Arab rebel units.

Since the uprising, Assad has pulled many of his forces from the mostly Kurdish northeast but kept a presence for his intelligence and secret police units in Qamishli and Hasakah, the two major cities in the area, activists said.

Massoud Akko, a prominent Kurdish dissident living in exile in Norway, said it was normal for the Kurds to try to secure as much territory as they could in their home region.

"Syria is already becoming divided. The Islamists and the Free Syrian Army have much of the north and east, while Assad and his loyalists are holding out in the center and the coast," he said.

Akko said that while the Kurdish community had misgivings about the PKK and its allies, they were regarded as a bulwark against Al-Qaeda.

"With the Syrian National Coalition remaining silent on Al-Qaeda and economic conditions deteriorating in the northeast, the Kurds have no one to turn to except the PKK and its allies, and the Iraqi Kurdistan government," he said.


Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter