WASHINGTON— Following military successes earlier this year against jihadist fighters, an ethnic Kurdish militia that has been carving out a de facto Kurdish state in northeastern Syria is now facing a renewed challenge from a powerful al-Qaida offshoot.
In a sign of growing aggression against the Kurds, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant known as ISIS, which was disowned earlier this year by the al-Qaida leadership, has launched an offensive against Syrian Kurds, both in the far northeast adjacent to the borders with Iraq and Turkey, and in Kurdish areas in Aleppo province.
Kurdish sources concede militiamen from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party PYD are suffering reversals.
The PYD, an affiliate of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist movement that has battled the Turkish government for Kurdish autonomy for three decades, scored a series of victories over jihadist rebel groups last autumn and during the winter.
Those successes emboldened its leaders to declare self-rule in an area in the northeast that Kurds call Rojeva. The PYD is the largest and best organized of 17 major Kurdish political factions.
But just days ago, ISIS fighters abducted 193 Kurds, mainly teenagers and students, from the village of Al Qbasin northeast of Aleppo.
And on May 29 jihadists killed 15 Kurds, including seven children, in an attack on a village near the largely Kurdish town of Ras al-Ain on the Turkish border, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based pro-opposition group that relies on a network of activists on the ground for its information.
Oil at the root of the fight
The months-long struggle between the Kurds and jihadist rebel groups has been one of the hardest fought in the various regional and ethnic conflicts that the Syrian civil war to a large extent has evolved into.
The PYD and its allies spurned joining the rebel uprising against Mr. Assad, arguing that the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels rejected Kurdish aspirations for a post-Assad semi-autonomous state in northeast Syria.
“The jihadists have mounted several attacks in recent weeks,” Kurdish activist Kovan Direj told VOA in a phone interview. He said the PYD is on the defensive.
“The PYD has been halted and is now being forced to focus on defending its territory,” he says in the oil-rich Hasakah province and the neighboring province of Qamishli.
According to Wladimir van Wilgenburg of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research group, much of the overall importance of the fight between ISIS and the Kurds rests with control of the oil wells in the northeast and east of Syria.
“The Kurds control about 60 percent of Syria’s oil,” he says. Selling the oil is lucrative and any group that controls the wells can use the money to buy weapons and secure the support of local tribes. For ISIS the money that could be made from seizing more wells could make or break the jihadi group in its fight with mainstream rebel militias.
Growing threats from Damascus
Syria’s Kurds are also facing renewed challenges from Syrian forces.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew most of his forces from much of Syria’s Kurdistan early in the civil war to focus on the uprising against his rule elsewhere.
The absence of fighting between Syrian army units that remained in the northeast and breakaway Kurds prompted other rebels to charge that the Kurds were either in league with the Syrian government or indirectly helping the regime by failing to join the rebellion.
PYD leaders dismiss the claims.
“The Assad regime knows we are strong, so it chooses not to attack us now,” Giwan Ibrahim, one of the Kurds’ top military commanders told VOA earlier this year. “And we choose not to attack Assad now, despite the fact that he is not our friend.”
But in recent weeks there have been clashes between Syrian and Kurdish units – a sign, some analysts argue, of the Assad government’s burgeoning confidence that the war is running now in its favor.
And there were increased tensions between Syrian soldiers and Kurdish militiamen in the run-up to the recent presidential election when Kurdish leaders refused to allow voting to take place in many of the towns they control in northeast Syria.
The Kurdish-controlled region in Syria’s northeast is surrounded on all sides. Jihadists, radical Islamists, and moderate rebel militias control territory to the west.
To the south are more jihadists. And in the Kurds’ midst, Syrian soldiers, who control about 20 percent of the city of Qamishli, remain.
Much of the fighting between the jihadists and Kurds is centered on strategic towns along the border with Turkey and Iraq.
Last month, the jihadists ordered Kurdish families in some villages in Raqqa province to leave their homes.
In recent months the biggest fear of PYD commanders has been that if Assad continues to make military advances against the rebellion and succeeds in capturing the half of the city of Aleppo held by the rebels, he may be tempted to move on them.
But Kurdish activists say for now the renewed jihadist offensive is what is now preoccupying them.