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.
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.