Kurds say they’ll stop Islamist rebels from moving along Syria’s border with Turkey


McClatchy Newspapers

A tense truce between Syrian rebels and a Kurdish militia held Tuesday in the city of Ras al Ayn, fast against the border with Turkey. But neither side hid its disdain for the other, and both continued to hold prisoners in a standoff that suggests rebel hopes to push their control further east faces an all but certain challenge.

Ras al Ayn fell to the rebels almost two weeks ago, the first rebel victory in the country’s predominantly Kurdish northeast. But that did not end fighting here. At least five members of a Kurdish political party, the United Democratic Party, known locally as the PYD, were killed last week when they exchanged fire with the rebels, whom the Kurds asked to leave. Kurds make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population but are a majority in Hasaka province, where Ras al Ayn is located.

With the rebels saying they intend to move from Ras al Ayn east to the city of Qamishli, PYD’s militia on Monday set up 10 checkpoints between Ras al Ayn and the largely Kurdish city of Dar Basiyeh, about 40 miles to the east.

Khabad Ibrahim, one of the militia’s commanders, said that the group would allow some rebel fighters to pass but that members of Islamist groups who have been at the forefront of recent rebel victories would be kept back. He referred to them as “al Qaida” – a distinction that became clearer during the fight for Ras al Ayn.

The rebels in Ras al Ayn largely fall into two camps: those who call themselves the Free Syrian Army and operate under the nominal command of military councils that have been set up in each of the country’s 14 provinces, generally under the leadership of a defected Syrian army officer; and the mujahedeen, as they call themselves, who are members of conservative Islamist groups who espouse a post-Assad Syria characterized by Islamic Shariah law.

In Ras al Ayn, the two groups worked in a pattern that repeats itself across the country – the mujahedeen do the heaviest fighting and make up the majority of frontline soldiers, while the military councils act as a rear guard, moving in to control territory behind the conservative rebels’ offensive.

The military councils offer a vision of a democratic Syria and complain that the mujahedeen receive more support from donors abroad than the councils do, further increasing the Islamist fighters’ influence.

On Monday, it was clear that one of the Islamist groups, Jabhat al Nusra, has no plans to withdraw from Ras al Ayn. It also appears to have close operational links with the military council in Ras al Ayn, as well as Ghroba al Sham, the largest group of fighters in the city. Ghroba al Sham is considered by other rebel groups as having an ideology similar to Jabhat al Nusra’s. It operates outside the command of a military council.

At Jabhat al Nusra’s base in Ras al Ayn, the group’s leader apologized to a waiting journalist. He said he didn’t have time for an interview because he had to meet with PYD representatives to discuss a cease-fire agreement.

Hassan Abdullah, the commander of the local military council, said that meetings were taking place to create a civilian body to administer Ras al Ayn, whose residents largely fled when the fighting here began and have yet to return. There have been complaints of looting in the lawlessness that followed.

“What can we do? We are trapped between two sides,” asked one man who had returned to his home on Monday to check on it and said he planned to leave the city again before the end of the day. He declined to give his name.

As for rebel and Kurdish tensions, they are likely to get worse. The rebels suspect that the PYD is in fact a cover for continued control of the northeast by the government of President Bashar Assad, whose troops withdrew from the Kurdish areas four months ago, ceding control to the PYD.

But other Kurds have rallied to the PYD as the rebels have moved into Kurdish areas, including a group in Hasaka city, south of Ras al Ayn, that proposed setting up a “Free Kurdish Army” to act as a buffer between the PYD and the rebels. Now the men who intended to set up this new militia have said they would view any attack on the PYD as an attack on them.

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: denders@mcclatchdc.com, Twitter: @davidjenders

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  • Iran's parliament votes out moderate minister

    Iranian lawmakers dismissed the country's science minister on Wednesday over his alleged support for pro-Western voices at universities, dealing a blow to moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

Pope Francis attends his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014.

    Pope: Thanks for prayers for my family's grief

    Saying "even the pope has a family," Pope Francis has expressed thanks for the prayers and condolences sent him after the death of a nephew's wife and her two young children in a car crash in the pontiff's native Argentina.

  • Militants attack major air base in eastern Syria

    Activists say Islamic extremists have launched an attack on a major air base in northeastern Syria, aiming to seize the last position held by the Syrian government in a province that is an Islamic State stronghold.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category