A new front is opening in Syria’s devastating civil war as Kurds and al-Qaeda-inspired fighters take advantage of a power vacuum to fight for control of key northern towns.
Self-ruling in most of the north-east, the Kurdish autonomy project has been dealt a blow, as Islamists have emerged as a powerful group, attempting to establish a religious state in the north.
Clashes have engulfed two strategic towns on the Turkish border after Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad withdrew his forces to let both sides battle it out while he confronts the Free Syrian Army in other regions.
Battles for the two towns between Kurds and Islamist fighters are bringing rare unity to the fractious Kurds as they prepare for elections that will establish the basis of self-rule.
“This unity is crucial to the success of the implementation of an autonomous administration and proposed elections,” said Christian Sinclair, a Syria expert at the University of Arizona and also president of the Kurdish Studies Association.
Divided between Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, Kurds form the largest ethnic group without a state in the world and in Syria number nearly three million people.
|Kurds built another front in Syria's war
Syria’s Kurds took the first step towards full autonomy in July 2012, when Assad withdrew his army and bureaucrats from Kurdish territories in the north-east in a bid to bolster support as the uprising against him unfolded.
After decades of oppression, lack of recognition and assimilation, the Kurds hoisted the flag of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - the most powerful Kurdish party in Syria and the only one with an armed wing.
A year on Kurdish regions including Ayn al-Arab (Kobane in Kurdish) and Afrin in the west are now being administered by PYD committees, and the party’s leader Salih Muslim has announced elections for an interim local parliament, raising the stakes in the pursuit of self-rule.
Muslim told Al Jazeera that whatever the outcome of Syria’s civil war, the Kurds will retain their objective of autonomy and have no separatist ambitions.
“Autonomy was always our project and is now accepted by our people. Our measures taken now will always be valid,” he said.
“But we have never had a project to split from Syria for a separate state, we will always be under Syrian state authority. After the war, we will reach an agreement with all the parties in Syria for the future of our territory.”
Observers say that before the polls, the PYD is aiming to unite Kurdish territory separated by two towns on the Turkish border until recently controlled by Islamist rebels, Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad (Serê Kaniyê and Girê Sipî in Kurdish), which were partially Arabised under former president Hafez al-Assad.
Sinclair suggested that the idea of a temporary administration is largely defensive, to protect the borders of the Kurdish region and those living within it.
“The struggle for control of territory, however, has been increasingly marred by violence,” he said.
|Kurdish populated areas in yellow. Clashes continue in Rmaylan, al-Yarubiyah and Tel Abyad [Al Jazeera]
Since mid-July PYD forces have been battling to seize the towns – which are strategically important for Islamists as the gateway for supplies reportedly coming from Turkey.
Ras al-Ayn has been under the control of the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) – both branded terrorist organisations by the West. ISIL also controls most of Tel Abyad along with the non al-Qaeda Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham.
These towns are now the scenes of power struggle between PYD and various groups of Islamist fighters.
In Ras al-Ayn, al-Nusra captured some PYD members who were patrolling the territory. PYD forces eventually took control of most of Ras al-Ayn, including the border crossing with Turkey, but they continue to face mortar fire from al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
Two days after PYD seized Ras al-Ayn, clashes erupted in Tel Abyad. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting in Tel Abyad began after the al-Akrad Kurdish militia - which is close to the PYD but also fights under the command of the Free Syrian Army - encountered rebels trying to set explosives at one of their bases.
Clashes have intensified in the town, where the Ahrar al-Sham commander claims to have driven out Kurdish fighters and accuses the PYD of co-operating with Assad.
“We cannot accept the PYD here, they are capturing even Kurdish people. We are against any group who has ties to Assad regime,” the commander said.
Salih Muslim said the al-Akrad brigade is now fighting to protect the Kurdish people in the villages around western Tel Abyad.
“Islamist groups started to provoke us. And now al-Akrad is only trying to defend Kurds, as we defended Sere Kaniyê and cleared the town after al-Nusra targeted Kurds. The Kurds will defend themselves and resist any kind of attack.”
The threat of Jabhat al-Nusra can only serve to unite disparate interests of different Kurdish political groups.
Anonymous sources from al-Akrad front told Al Jazeera that their ultimate goal is to seize the town, where they battle together with PYD's fighters.
The ongoing struggle with al-Qaeda-linked fighters is achieving what many Kurdish leaders in northern Syria have long been unable to do, unifying under PYD and FSA command an ethnic group long divided about its future between at least 16 parties.
On July 25 all the Kurdish parties gathered in Irbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish territory in northern Iraq under President Masoud Barzani.
Signalling the new mood of unity, in Ras al-Ayn the PYD hoisted the flag of the Supreme Kurdish Council, an umbrella organisation of Kurdish parties in the country, co-founded by PYD.
The second co-founder is Kurdish National Committee, consisted of 15 other Syrian Kurdish political parties. The Supreme Council was formed on July 2012 by Barzani’s effort to unite the two, but was unavailing for a year.
Sinclair said “The threat of Jabhat al-Nusra can only serve to unite disparate interests of different Kurdish political groups.”
But to achieve meaningful autonomy, the PYD will have to deal with the country’s powerful neighbour Turkey, whose government has opposed PYD’s autonomy in northern Syria.
The Turkish government has been in touch with Kurdish National Committee as the legitimate Kurdish opposition instead of PYD.
Turkish resistance towards the PYD derives from its 30-year conflict with the PKK – a separatist Kurdish organisation branded terrorists by many countries including the US – who is affiliated with PYD.
Despite ties with the PKK, Muslim denies that he takes orders from its leader Abdullah Ocalan in a clear effort to pave the way for joining future Western negotiations on Syria’s future.
Although a peace process in Turkey began eight months ago and PKK fighters have been demobilising, Turkish authorities remain wary.
They claim that the PKK sends fighters and gives logistical support to the PYD, although this has not been confirmed.
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria
Salih Muslim has maintained a diplomatic position aimed at reassuring the Turkish government, and has made it clear that he is ready to negotiate.
His approach caused Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s announcement saying that Turkish officials are having talks with PYD . “The Turkish government doesn’t support radical groups in northern Syria,” Davutoglu said recently.
After the Irbil meeting and breaking the ice with the Kurdish National Committee, Muslim has gone to Istanbul, where he has meetings with Turkish officials.
While that future looks likely to be divided by bloodshed for a long time to come, for Syria’s Kurds at least it appears to be one of emerging unity and autonomy.
In northern Syria the struggle between al-Qaeda-linked fighters and stateless secular Kurds, will make the winner gain a lot more than two towns.
With files from Hozan Ibrahim in Antakya.
Follow Ece Goksedef on Twitter: @ecegoksedef