Driving out jihadis, Syrian Kurds carve out zone

By Bassem Mroue

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 14 2013 11:58 a.m. MST

In this Sunday, March. 3, 2013 file photo, A Kurdish female member of the Popular Protection Units stands guard at a check point near the northeastern city of Qamishli, Syria. Syria’s Kurds have dramatically strengthened their hold on the far northeast reaches of the country, carving out territory as they drive out Islamic militant fighters allied to the rebellion and declaring their own civil administration in areas under their control this week amid the chaos of the civil war. The moves could be a first step toward creating an autonomous region similar to one Kurds run across the border as virtually a separate country within Iraq.

Manu Brabo, Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria's Kurds have dramatically strengthened their hold on the far northeast reaches of the country, carving out territory as they drive out Islamic militant fighters allied to the rebellion and declaring their own civil administration in areas under their control this week amid the chaos of the civil war.

The moves could be a first step toward creating an autonomous region similar to one Kurds run across the border as virtually a separate country within Iraq. But the Kurds' drive has angered rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. It even worries some Kurds, who suspect the main faction leading the fighting and the new administration is actually acting on behalf of Assad to undermine the rebellion.

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country's 23 million people. They are centered in the impoverished northeastern province of Hassakeh, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. The capital Damascus and Syria's largest city, Aleppo, also have several predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods.

The declaration of their own civil administration on Tuesday was a sign of Kurds' growing confidence after taking control of most of Hassakeh province in an offensive against jihadis that has accelerated in recent months. The fighters, known as the People's Protection Units, have driven militants out of a string of towns and have captured long stretches along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, easing the way for support from fellow Kurds in those regions.

Only a day after the announcement, activists said Kurdish fighters captured nine villages from jihadis. Kurdish fighters are now in control of all predominantly Kurdish cities in the province as well as dozens of villages and towns, though jihadis continue to control predominantly Arab towns in the province such as Shaddadeh.

"More than 75 percent of the province is in the hands of the People's Protection Units," said Kurdish journalist Malba Ali, who lives in Hassakeh.

Assad's forces largely pulled out of the region late last year when the Syrian military was stretched thin by fighting with rebels elsewhere in the country, effectively ceding control of the area, though they maintain some security posts. Their withdrawal sparked a fierce competition between rebels — mainly Islamic militant factions — and the Kurds.

Kurdish officials say they launched their offensive in recent months after coming under repeated attack by jihadis from two al-Qaida-linked groups fighting against Assad — Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The Kurds say jihadis wanted to dominate their region and impose their hard-line ideology on the population, which is largely secular.

"As long as there are attacks by these groups, it is our duty in the People's Protection Units to defend our people by all available means," Reydour Khalil, a spokesman for the forces, told The Associated Press by telephone from the Kurdish region.

He said the Kurdish force has been so successful against the jihadis — who have been among the strongest fighters among the rebels — because "it is fighting on its land and among its people."

"It did not come from countries that thousands of kilometers (miles) away" he said referring to foreign extremists among the jihadi groups.

The units are dominated by members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, Syria's most powerful Kurdish group, affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish movement PKK, which long fought for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.

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