By JOSH WOOD
Published: February 6, 2013 NYT
ERBIL, IRAQ — Syria’s Kurds have mostly escaped prolonged bouts of direct conflict in the country’s civil war, but with rebel units pushing east toward the resource-rich Kurdish heartland, Kurdish militias proliferating and calls for greater autonomy growing, this may not remain the case.
Last summer, the Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish-language acronym P.Y.D., seized control of many towns and villages in the Kurdish majority northeast. The group also holds territory in a few Aleppo neighborhoods and some towns around the city.
The P.Y.D. is the most powerful Kurdish faction in Syria and has a well trained militia. This is perhaps a product of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., a guerrilla group that has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
The leadership of the P.Y.D. plays down its ties to the P.K.K. But Syrian Kurds often use the names interchangeably, and P.Y.D. offices feature portraits of the imprisoned P.K.K. leader Abdullah Ocalan and Syrian P.K.K. guerrillas killed in fighting with Turkey.
Detractors of the P.Y.D. accuse it of working in collusion with the Syrian government. The party’s leadership and supporters, who say they were struggling against the government to secure rights for Syria’s two million-plus Kurds well before the uprising began in 2011, reject this allegation.
But in the complexities of Syria’s civil war, friendships are not born of common enemies.
The P.Y.D.’s militant Kurdish nationalism, which puts ethnic identity before allegiance to Syria, and their goal of some form of autonomy has put them at odds with Syria’s rebels. After decades of discriminatory policies against the Kurds under the Baath Party, the P.Y.D. is opposed to anybody but Kurds ruling their areas.
Last month, fighting flared in Ras al-Ain, which the Kurds call Serekaniye, as rebel units assaulted P.Y.D.-held areas. Dozens were killed in the fighting.
“Those groups attacking Serekaniye, we don’t consider them as Free Syrian Army,” said Saleh Muslim, the leader of the P.Y.D. Instead, he said the groups that attacked “are mainly just taking orders from the Turkish regime.”
The Free Syrian Army “is a name, or a trademark, not registered to anybody,” said Mr. Muslim. “So anybody can come from his home and get a hold of some weapons and say, ‘I am Free Syrian Army.”’
The push on Ras al-Ain, a town on the Turkish border about 300 kilometers, or 185 miles, northeast of Aleppo, could reflect a number of things: a rebel attempt to gain strategic territory, the lack of coordination among Free Syrian Army units, the spread of armed groups beyond the control of the Free Syrian Army, or the prodding of rebel groups by Turkey to confront the Kurds.
Mr. Muslim believes that Turkey, which is concerned that P.Y.D.-controlled areas along its borders could act as a base for P.K.K. attacks and has warned of intervention if it feels threatened, had something to do with the outbreak of fighting.
“I think it’s a part of the larger plan by the Turkish regime,” he said. “They want to disarm all people, to leave them without defense.”
Beyond the strategic value offered by the northeast, with its access to long stretches of the Iraqi and Turkish borders, the area is home to the majority of Syria’s oil. Before the conflict, oil exports earned Syria $4 billion per year.
The amount of oil that Syria could produce is negligible when compared with other exporters in the region, but with the economy shattered the oil fields are attractive real estate.
There are conflicting reports over who holds the main northeastern oil fields around the town of Rmeilan, though in late January a video appeared online purporting to show members of the P.Y.D.’s militia patrolling the smaller Gir Ziro field nearby.
Beyond the P.Y.D., the other notable political player in Syria’s Kurdish areas is the Kurdish National Council, a coalition of 16 parties. The parties are mostly small and have differing views, though on the whole they are more amenable to working with the mainstream Syrian opposition, which the P.Y.D. rejects.