Fighting between Arab and Kurds raises spectre of escalating conflict in northern Syria

 

Beirut

The leader of a Kurdish faction embroiled in clashes with the Syrian rebels has vowed to repel further aggravation, as fighting between Arab and Kurds raises the spectre of a new front in an increasingly multifaceted conflict.

Kurdish representatives today remained locked in negotiations with elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) after clashes in northern Syria which killed dozens and sparked mass kidnappings. Around 50 Kurdish hostages are still being held by a rebel brigade, according to several Kurdish politicians. 

"We will defend ourselves, we will defend our people" said Saleh Muslim Mohammed, the head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which is fighting a separatist guerrilla war in Turkey. "There are parts of the Free Syrian Army who seem to be working for Turkey and have a strategy to hurt the Kurds."

The clashes heighten concern that the fight will increasingly become a proxy war gouged along ethnic and sectarian lines, in what some have described as the "Lebanonisation" of Syria - a reference to its smaller neighbour's bloody 15-year civil war.

Turkey has expressed concern that the PYD has seized control over Syria's Kurdish areas, raising the risk of Ankara stepping up involvement if Kurds - who so far have largely stood back from the conflict - becoming increasingly embroiled.

The fighting first erupted a week ago when FSA members entered Aleppo's Kurdish area of Ashrafiya. Details are disputed but the following day thousands of residents took to the streets calling for them to leave. A video from the demonstration shows the crowd chanting as they march down a hill, before gunfire breaks out.

Mr Mohammed claims that ten civilians were killed by FSA gunmen. "There was no other way, so our forces attacked them and killed nineteen of them," he said. 

Though he denies the PYD has an armed wing, Mr Mohammed regularly refers to the militants in the Popular Protection Units  - a fighting force which he says numbers over 1,000 soldiers - as "our men" and other Kurdish factions maintain they are affiliated. 

The fighting was followed by reprisal kidnappings of Kurds on the road between Aleppo and the Kurdish town of Afrin, with as many as 300 taken captive, most of whom have now been released.

Mr Mohammed says the PYD enjoys cordial relations with some elements of the FSA, blaming the kidnappings on the Northern Storm Brigade, led by the controversial Ammar al-Dadikhi. The PYD also pointed the finger at the group for an attack on the Kurdish village of Kastal Jendo, where fighting continued into this week.

Senior FSA figures have expressed regret the clashes took place, but with the leadership unable to assert control over the fragmented armed groups, events have the potential to spiral.

Further complicating the situation is intra-Kurdish rivalries.

Other parties claim they are sidelined by the PYD and accuse it of collaborating with the Assad regime. "We have many problems with the PYD.. any party that is against the Free Syrian Army is against the freedom of Syria," said Abdul Hakim Bashar, head of the rival Kurdish National Council in Syria.

"The Kurds can't unite themselves because of these tensions," said Yussef Anwar, an executive member of the Kurdish Patriotic Movement, which promotes unity between various Kurdish factions. "The situation is worsening, it's chaos now."

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