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 Inter-Kurdish tensions mounting against Free Syrian Army

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Inter-Kurdish tensions mounting against Free Syrian Army  20.11.2012  
By Lauren Williams - The Daily Star Lebanon

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November 20, 2012

DUHOK, Kurdistan region 'Iraq',— Unwilling to fight alongside the Syrian Army while they targeted civilians, young Kurdish conscript Novin defected, fleeing his hometown of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan to Iraqi Kurdistan, where he ended up in the Diwan refugee camp.

Now, he proudly wears a crisp new uniform of a different kind – with the Kurdistan flag, with its yellow sun – sewn on the sleeve.

Novin, one of two new officers of the so-called “Syrian Peshmerga,” spoke to The Daily Star from the outskirts of one of the new training camps established by the president of semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, in the northern Duhok region bordering Syria.

Barzani confirmed his government has provided training to Syrian Kurds to protect Kurdish areas in the event of a security vacuum in Syria. There have been conflicting reports, however, as to the number of recruits and whether any have yet entered Syria.

Novin, who between seven hours a day of military training also serves policing duties at the nearby Dormiz refugee camp, said he trains with around 700 others and claimed a number of his training colleagues had returned to Syria.

He said he is eager to get back to Syria as soon as possible “to defend and protect our Kurdish lands.”

“We volunteered with the Peshmerga to protect our people,” Novin said.

Just who they are protecting their people from is a complex matter that is threatening to destabilize all Syrian Kurdistan and perhaps even pit Kurd against Kurd in an increasingly factional civil war.

Syrian government forces have largely ceded control in a number of Kurdish cities in northeastern Syria in recent months. The largely bloodless abandonment of the oil-rich region has fueled suspicions that the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD), affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – a 50,000-strong guerilla organization branded a terrorist group by the U.S. that has fought a decades-long war with Turkey on the southeast – is working with the regime to provoke Turkey.

Turkey has accused the Assad regime of arming PKK militants in Syria and, despite talks on Monday, has warned it will not tolerate an increased PKK presence in Syria.

Recently the PYD, with their affiliated civilian militia, the People’s Protection Committees (YPG), has further consolidated control of Kurdish territories, expelling Syrian government forces from the city of Malikieh last week.

YPG forces there overran intelligence headquarters, announcing they had “liberated” the city. Residents told The Daily Star the move was to prevent giving the Free Syrian Army a pretext to enter the city.

The PYD push has been at least partially prompted by a flare-up of tensions between mainly Arab Free Syrian Army fighters and PYD forces in Kurdish areas of Aleppo and at the ethnically mixed city of Ras al-Ain bordering Turkey. Clashes there have killed dozens in the last 10 days and continued Monday, when the local leader of the Higher Kurdish Council was reportedly up to 20 people killed.

Later Monday, Kurdish leaders announced a cease-fire between FSA rebels and Kurdish militia had come into force in Ras al-Ain to ease tension.

The Kurds, Syria’s largest minority, have suffered decades of repression and statelessness under the Baath party and hold historic enmity for the Assad regime. But they fear an Islamist-led Arab opposition would be no more sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations.

The oil-rich Eastern region from Hassakeh to Qamishli in the north has been the subject of decades of land dispute between Arabs and Kurds under Baathist land redistribution policies.

While support for the PYD varies across Kurdish territory, growing fears of an FSA onslaught and the absence of any alternative force appears to be strengthening support for the group in Kurdish areas.

At the remote border crossing of Faysh Khabour in northern Syria managed by YPG forces, Hassan, a refugee fleeing the fighting in Ras al-Ain to Iraqi Kurdistan told The Daily Star his opinion on the group had changed.

“I used to hate the PYD. I thought they were just another dictatorship. But they defended us at Seri Caniyeh [Ras al-Ain], and I am grateful,” he said.

In Qamishli, a strategic, ethnically mixed but majority Kurdish city on the far northeastern border with Turkey, tensions were mounting this week amid rumors of an imminent move by the FSA to move in to the area.

An opposition activist opposed to the PYD told The Daily Star hundreds of YPG fighters had been sent to Ras al-Ain from the city.

On Tuesday, the head of a Free Syrian Army battalion in Deir al-Zor, using the first name of “Mohannad” told The Daily Star, “we will take Qamishli this week,” but said he did not anticipate any clashes with Kurdish forces.

Leader of the Democratic Society Movement, affiliated with the PYD and head of the Higher Kurdish Council, Aldar Khalil told the The Daily Star that an operational plan in the works for “months” had been enacted and that the PYD was positioning itself to “defend Qamishli.”

“We don’t see the FSA as an enemy, but the people see them as a plan made by Turkey. We have an enemy of 50 years in the regime, but Turkey is our historic enemy,” he explained.

He said until now, there had been no need to call on the offer of intervention from PKK fighters – who he claimed were not in Syria. The Daily Star spoke to several PYD-affiliated militia who said they had fought with the PKK against Turkey in the Qandil mountain area of Iraq.

“For now the YPG can defend our cities, and we have not asked anyone to help ... but we don’t know what will happen in the future. When the enemies of the Kurds attack the Kurds, there are forces that will assist. But for now we don’t want any intervention from anyone.”

The move by the PYD to consolidate control of Kurdish territory is worrying others and inflaming inter-Kurdish tensions.

Disagreements within a coalition of Kurdish opposition parties, the Kurdish National Council, largely based in Iraqi Kurdistan, meant the group never joined the former Turkish-backed mainstream Syrian opposition bloc, the Syrian National Council. Some factions of the KNC accuse the PYD of working with the Assad regime, while the militarily stronger PYD has repeatedly refused to cooperate with the council.

But under sponsorship by Barzani, who is allied with Turkey, the group did forge a tenuous unity agreement with the PYD, setting up the Supreme Kurdish Council in Irbil in July.

But with Kurds on the ground being increasingly drawn in to the battlefront, the paper agreement looks increasingly redundant in the face of the superior military power of the PYD forces.

In an interview at a hotel in Irbil, the head of the Azadi Party and secretary-general of the KNC, Mustafa Jama’a, who was recently arrested and released by the PYD, accused the group of breaching the agreement to share control of Kurdish regions and repeated claims the group is armed by the Syrian regime.

He voiced fears that “Kurds will start killing Kurds.”

As yet, the KNC has not responded officially to the PYD-FSA clashes, but Jama’a said urgent agreement was needed with the FSA.

“It’s natural that the people are backing the PYD because they are scared now. We can’t do anything at the moment because we don’t have our own militia,” he said, adding that plans to join FSA forces with the Peshmerga-trained units had not eventuated after the PYD expelled the units.

Barzani, allied with Turkey, has denied the Syrian Peshmerga had entered Syria, while the PYD leadership also denied it had expelled the KRG-trained Kurds from Kurdish cities.

“With an agreement with the FSA we could defend the Kurdish cities from our mutual enemy, Assad.”

“We are ready to send 1,000 to 1,500 Syrian Peshmerga to Syria,” he said.

“But we know that if we do, we will be fighting the PYD. We will be Kurds killing Kurds.”

On his way to evening training, Syrian Peshmerga officer Novin’s sentiment made the political power play for Free Kurdistan seem remote.

“Assad is better than the PYD, and we hate them. But they are protecting our areas from the FSA. If the new Arab regime gives us our rights we have no problem. Otherwise, we will fight them as well.”

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