Kurdish-Islamist fighting spreads in Syria

Kurdish fighters seize control of Syrian town on the border with Turkey

Kurdish fighters have seized control of a Syrian town on the border with Turkey and are battling Islamist rebel groups linked to al-Qaeda for control of oilfields in the northeast of the country.

The fighting is further evidence that the conflict between rebels and president Bashar al-Assad's forces that has engulfed Syria since early 2011 has splintered into turf wars that have little to do with removing him.

The capture of Ras al-Ain by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party with links to Kurdish militants in Turkey, rang alarm bells in Ankara.

The Turkish government fears the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria could embolden homegrown militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is fighting for autonomy in Turkey.

In a statement late yesterday, the Turkish military said Ras al-Ain had fallen under the control of the PYD, which it described as a “separatist terrorist organisation”. Fighting in the town had now stopped.

Turkish troops had shot at PYD fighters in Syria after two rocket-propelled grenades fired from Syria struck a border post on the Turkish side of the frontier.

It was the second time in as many days the military has answered in kind after several stray bullets from Syria struck the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar on Tuesday. The military has now strengthened security along that part of the border.

Fighting spreads

Clashes in Ras al-Ain between Kurdish militias, who broadly support an autonomous Kurdish region, and Islamist fighters of the Nusra Front broke out on Tuesday after Nusra fighters attacked a Kurdish patrol and captured a gunman, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Observatory, a pro-opposition monitoring group, said fighting had now spread deeper into the largely Kurdish province of Hassakeh and battles were raging around the Rumeilan oil field, about 200 km (125 miles) east of Ras al-Ain.

The field had mostly been shut down, opposition activists said, but a few of its pipelines may still be supplying refineries in the government-held cities of Homs and Baniyas.

Since March 2011, when the uprising against Dr Assad began, Syria’s overall oil production has fallen by nearly 60 per cent to 153,000 barrels per day last October, the US Energy Information Administration estimates.

The Observatory said at least 29 people had been killed since fighting between Islamists and Kurds erupted on the border on Tuesday night, but it believed the toll would be much higher once final counts are sent in.

Kurdish units have seized an oil field area called Suwaidiya 20 and there are clashes in Suwaidiya oil region 3, according to the Observatory.

It said the Nusra Front and other al-Qaeda-linked fighters were shelling Ras al-Ain from nearby positions

“Part of the reason for the spread is just anger at the Kurdish consolidation of control in Ras al-Ain, it’s like revenge and punishment,” said one activist who works with the rebels and who asked not to be named because the subject is controversial.

Growing struggle

“But I also believe there this is part of a growing struggle for control of oil and gas in the region and the rebels are using this as an opportunity.”

Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish PYD, said the Kurds would fight back fiercely to maintain the autonomous zone they had set up in the area.

“We fought hard to drive out the repressive regime and its army and we liberated the area from oppression. We will not allow either regime control or these al Qaeda-linked groups.

“What is pushing them to fight us is their antagonism against our autonomous rule in Kurdish areas. I believe their other goal is Rumeilan because it is an important oil resource.”

The fighting indicated the collapse of a deal, negotiated by prominent Syrian opposition leader Michel Kilo, under which both sides in the area had cooperated peacefully for months.

Further south in Syria, the Observatory reported heavy shelling in the Damascus countryside, where government forces are confronting rebels.

There was also further shelling of the city of Homs, where fighting has raged for the past three weeks. Clashes erupted in the towns of Deraa and Quneitra in southern Syria, the Observatory said.

The Syrian opposition's political leader, Ahmed Jarba, today met with Crown Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia, a major backer of the rebels, in Jeddah.

The Crown Prince “stressed the kingdom’s fixed position on the need to put an end to all forms of extermination and hunger the Syrian people are subject to,” the Saudi state news agency, SPA, reported.