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Battle Over Former IS Turf in Syria Threatens New Conflict

FILE - A Syrian woman caring a baby, walks with others to cross back to the border town of Tal Abyad in Syria from Turkey, at the border crossing in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, June 17, 2015.
FILE - A Syrian woman caring a baby, walks with others to cross back to the border town of Tal Abyad in Syria from Turkey, at the border crossing in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, June 17, 2015.

The already complex battlefield of Syria could soon get even more complicated.

The fight to wrest territory away from the Islamic State and al-Qaida extremists as well as from the Syrian government of President Bashar al Assad has opened multiple front lines.

Many anti-Islamic State battles have been led by Kurdish forces, sometimes fighting in parallel with factions of the Free Syria Army (FSA), an alliance that includes Sunni Arab tribal leaders.

Battlefield cooperation between the FSA and Kurdish forces – backed by U.S.-led airstrikes – has been successful in pushing the Islamic State fighters out of towns like Kobani and Tal Abyad.

But tensions are growing between the Kurds and the FSA who are both claiming control of the land they are liberating in towns such as Tal Abyad.

Who is in charge?

Bassam Barabandi, who works for the development organization People Demand Change, said both Kurdish and Syrian Arab groups hoisted their flags over the town.

The Kurds later took their flag down, Barabandi said.

Reva Bhalla, vice president for Global Analysis for Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence firm, said the problem is the lack of an accepted government force in Syria that can come and restore order in a significant way.

"Just as now we are seeing Islamic State being squeezed out along that northern border, now you are left with the local Arab factions and the Kurds to fight it out, so yes, we can expect to see a lot of friction on that front," Bhalla said.

A senior U.S. defense official told VOA that Washington is very concerned about the possibility of turf battles between the Kurds and Arabs.

“There is no place for it,” the official said, adding that the United States has good lines of communication with both Kurd commanders and the leaders of other anti-Islamic State forces and has been making U.S. concerns known to both.

'Greater Kurdistan'

Ethnic Kurds have long maintained the concept of a “Greater Kurdistan” that would incorporate ethnic Kurdish population centers in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria – a concept bitterly opposed by those countries.

The largely Kurdish area in Syria is known as Rojava – a thin strip in northern Syria where the most recent fighting has taken place.

Bhalla said it was no surprise that the Kurds would try to take advantage of their military predominance in Syria.

“As a result of the security situation, we see the Kurds now trying to consolidate those gains,” she said.

But David Romano, professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University, said the idea of a “greater Kurdistan” is not realistic.

“The Iraqi Kurds, and the Syrian and Turkish Kurds have a lot of daylight between them in their political views. I don’t see them linking up,” Romano said.

At the same time, he said, the Kurds in Syria are not fighting for nothing.

“They are not fighting to replace Assad with a new Sunni-centralized dictatorship which would offer them precious little for the future," Romano said.

Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, the co-founder of People Demand Change based in neighboring Turkey, said it is crucial for the forces on the ground to continue cooperating after the battles have ended.

'Who will administer it?'

“Currently the big discussion is, now that ISIS [Islamic State] is gone, what will be done with this area, who will administer it?” Ghosh-Siminoff said to VOA.

Ghosh-Siminoff said the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union political party (PYD) has a specific socio-political strategy based on the idea of a Kurdish autonomous zone in the north, including what Kurds control of Hasakah, Kobani, Efrin and perhaps Tal Abyad.

“There is a demographic issue of who really belongs in Tal Abyad, who was originally there before the war, and this all feeds into previous tensions and problems between Sunni tribes and Kurds about land, about governance structures, about how they would live together as a group of people,” Ghosh-Siminoff explained.

Barabandi said Syrian Kurdish and Sunni Arab representatives were meeting near Kobani to try and defuse those tensions.

For Ghosh-Siminoff, it is crucial that all the groups present – Syrian Arabs, Kurds and Turks – unify to form civilian administrative councils that can provide social services and law and order for all ethnic and religious groups living in the area.

Ghosh-Siminoff warned what would happen without such councils: “There are two risks: the first risk is that the (Kurds) decide to administer this area directly and this creates a large amount of tension between Kurds and the tribes of Raqqa which results in armed conflict.

"The second, and in some ways more dangerous issue, is that this area is not stable ... and people start to question whether their life wasn’t better under ISIS," Ghosh-Siminoff said, referring to an acronym for the extremist group.

Ghosh-Siminoff said, for many, the idea that the Islamic State group could be a viable alternative is not fathomable, “but after four years of war, most people at this point just need a stable area where they can get food, they can get electricity, there’s not shelling and barrel bombs and airstrikes every day.”

Military advantage

The question remains as to whether the Kurds will be willing to let go of their current military advantage.

And that is where Turkey comes in, Bhalla said.

Turkey has for decades tried to contain and asphyxiate Kurdish autonomy ambitions in its own country, and is not likely to welcome it next door in Syria.

“I think it’s a question of what does a settlement look like,” Bhalla said.

“Obviously, Turkey is trying multiple methods to try and contain this issue, but when it comes to the (Kurdish fighters) saying, ‘We control this territory, we are going to put up our flags, we are going to run our own administrative services, we are going to run this as a Kurdish territory,’ I don’t think that is something that Turkey can effectively negotiate," Bhalla said.

If necessary, she said, Turkey is “going to be relying on militant proxies principally to try to keep those Kurdish ambitions contained.”

Because the Islamic State group is being squeezed out faster in the Syrian border region, she said, “the conflict and the competition between local Kurds and local Arabs becomes much more pronounced very, very quickly, and you have a Turkish interest to encourage that sort of competition.”

Washington, meanwhile, has been a strong supporter of Kurdish fighters, seeing them as an effective force against the Islamic State extremists.

So while publicly both Washington and Ankara want peace in the region, how they achieve those goals could cause friction between the two allies.

“Turkey has a very different way it wants to go about it; the U.S. has different tactics, and is trying to focus on the IS threat,” Bhalla said.

“And it’s that disconnect that I think is going to muddle U.S. policy in the region and that’s where we are going to be dealing with a lot more instability to come," she said.

Jeff Seldin and Victoria Macchi contributed to this report.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.