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.
The PYD is also the main faction behind the creation of the transitional civil administration for "western Kurdistan," announced Tuesday. The agreement by the PYD and a collection of smaller Syrian Kurdish factions, announced in the northeastern Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishli, created an 82-member assembly along with three local administrative councils. The groups said in a statement that the administration will organize local elections.
The groups insisted the administration would operate only until Syria's nearly 3-year-old civil war is resolved and is not a step toward autonomy.
"There are no preparations for self-rule. We are only working for a transitional administration," PYD spokesman Nawaf Khalil told AP.
But the move was quickly denounced by the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, which accused the Kurdish factions of turning against the revolt against Assad. It said the Kurds' announcement represents "a separatist movement, disavowing any relationship between themselves and the Syrian people, who are struggling for a united nation independent and free from tyranny."
The gains have fueled calls by Kurds for an official autonomous region in Syria similar to that in Iraq. Already, Kurds have been grabbing a level of freedom they long sought in Syria, where for years Assad's governments forbade many expressions of Kurdish identity.
In Kurdish-dominated areas, vehicles sporting license plates reading "Rojava Kurdistan," or "western Kurdistan," have become more common. Kurdish red, green and white flags with a sun in the middle — the same flag flown in Iraqi Kurdistan — fly over homes and public offices. A local police force known "Asayish" has taken over security, and Kurdish language is being openly taught.
"The Kurds are trying to demarcate the border of their region, and Iraqi Kurds are helping them," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "In the near future, Kurds will reach a self-rule period."
But not all Kurdish factions support the creation of a Kurdish administration. Some deeply distrust the PYD, believing it is allied with Assad, effectively holding the region on his behalf, freeing up Syrian troops to fight elsewhere. The PYD denies the accusations.
"The PYD is close or in alliance with the Syrian regime," Ali, the Hassakeh journalist, said. He said he believes the Kurdish offensive is aimed at putting as much territory as possible under PYD control to boost Assad's position ahead of a Geneva peace conference that the United States and Russia are trying to cobble together.
An umbrella group of 13 Kurdish factions called the National Kurdish Council said it balked at joining the new civil administration, calling it a "premature step."
Mustafa Osso, a senior figure in the council, said the differences don't reach the level of an "internal conflict" among the Kurds. But he criticized the PYD-led assault against jihadis, saying it was launched without consultation. Instead, he said, the Kurds should be focusing on fighting Assad.
"We are passing through a critical period and we need all efforts to bring down the regime," he said.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/bmroue
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company