Rebel Infighting in Syria Threatens to Spill Over Into Turkey


A Kurdish guerrilla group with links to the al-Assad regime and the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party ( PKK) has forcefully expelled the Islamist rebel group Jabhat Al-Nusra from the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ayn. With an estimated population of 50,000, this town on the Turkish border has been the scene of fierce fighting between militant organizations. The People Defense Unit (YPG), which is the military arm of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is now believed to be in full control of the town following a week of intense fighting.

Both groups had uneasily existed in the town for months due to a ceasefire agreement. The latest round of fighting began when Al-Nusra attacked the YPG's Women's Defense Unit (YPJ), who were patrolling Mehede neighbourhood, on July 16. The ensuing fighting, which had an unknown death toll, led to the defeat and withdrawal of Al-Nusra on Thursday. The Al-Nusra flag, which had been flying in the center of town, was replaced by a PYD flag. News of the PYD's victory was greeted with alarm in Ankara as two rocket propelled grenades landed in Turkey from Ras Al-Ayn following the PYD's takeover of the town. The Turkish army responded by firing shots at PYD fighters and the Turkish air force flew along the Turkish-Syrian border as a warning.

The PYD was set up in 2003 by the Turkish PKK. The PKK has a long history with the Syrian regime: in the 90s the Syrian government allowed the PKK to set up training camps, which helped them launched attacks against Turkey. Many Turkish Kurdish exiles made Syria their home, including the now-imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan. However, Syria stopped all PKK activity and handed over the Kurdish leader to Turkey following Turkish threats to invade Syria in 1998. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the Syrian security forces have re-established ties to the PKK and their Syrian arm, the PYD.

The PKK were given back their training camps in northern Syria and the PYD were put incharge of the security of Syrian Kurdistan. The PYD are tasked by the Syrian government with stopping anti-government groups and protests from taking place. They are also to inform on Kurds active in the opposition and actively stop them; the PYD has been given administrative control of Kurdish towns and villages. There are reports that PYD soldiers now man checkpoints outside Damascus. Thus a victory for the PYD over Al-Nusra is a victory for President Bashar Al-Assad.

Fighting between Al-Nusra and the PYD continues in other towns and villages, but the defeat of Al-Nusra follows its declaration of war on other oppositional groups. There has been growing opposition to Al-Nusra from other rebel and opposition groups and their defeat in Ras Al-Ayn, ironically, is a minor victory for the opposition. The only real losers are Al-Nusra and Turkey. For Turkey, the PYD taking control of Ras Al-Ayn will only mean that they will be more involved in the Syrian Civil War than before.