AFRIN, SYRIA —
Afrin is an old city of some 80,000 inhabitants nestled in the hills of northwestern Syria.
But instead of showing the Syrian national flag, checkpoints in and around the city fly the yellow, red and green flag of Syria's Kurds.
This is because security in the area has been under the control of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, of Syrian Kurds since last July when Syrian government forces withdrew to counter rebel offensives elsewhere.
The conflict in Syria has brought a measure of self-rule to one of Syria's marginalized minorities, the Kurds, and especially in Afrin - which means "fruitful creation" or "blessing" in Kurdish.
Since the Syrian government withdrew its forces from Kurdish areas several months ago, the Kurds - despite their own political divisions - have taken responsibility for local security and claim autonomy.
Kurds in this area near Turkey strongly oppose the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and say they have suffered detentions and bombings because of it.
The PYD chief in the region, who is known as Commander Hassan, said Kurds now control most of the Kurdish areas along the border.
But Hassan said many non-Kurds also live in the region and that the local Kurds are not looking for independence. "All we want are our human rights and self-determination, not separation, just democratic autonomy," he said.
Hassan said that Kurds do not recognize the authority of the Syrian rebels either, because, like the Syrian government, they advocate a Syrian Arab Republic. He said the Kurds will resist any attempt by either side to dominate them.
Syria's Kurds number an estimated two million people or nearly 10 percent of Syria's population. But they have never been officially recognized by the central government.
Kurdish Percentage of Population
Iraq 15 to 20 %
Syria As much as 9.7%
Source: CIA World Factbook
Still, some Kurds accuse the PYD of collaborating with the Syrian government. And indeed, symbols of the government, such as its flag and a large billboard of Assad, are prominently displayed over Afrin's city hall.
Syrian rebels say they clashed recently with pro-Assad Kurdish troops in the major city of Aleppo, the first such reported confrontation.
While there are political divisions among Syria's Kurds, Bahzad Ibrahim, of a grouping known as the Kurdish National Council, said they are united in forging a destiny.
"The Kurdish movement in Syria is more than 50 years old and has many parties, many ideologies. Of course, as a result, there might be differences in points of view. But the goal is one and the same, to implement the goal of the Kurdish people to gain their rights," said Ibrahim.
An expert on the Kurds at Istanbul University, Professor Ayhan Kaya, said most of Syria's Kurds have been careful not to take sides in the Syrian conflict.
“The Kurds of Syria have been very reluctant in choosing their position vis-a-vis Assad," Kaya said. "They were really silent until quite recently. The rumors go [say] the Kurds of the region are trying to build up an independent nation state in the region. We don't know if this is going to happen because the real-politics works the other way around.”
Regionally, Kurds populate parts of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran with Iraqi Kurdistan serving as an economic hub - especially for trade with Turkey.
Kaya said Kurdish aspirations for an independent state will likely ease as prosperity comes to the region following decades of deprivation.
But Istanbul University Professor Emre Gonen said Syria's Kurds will be relatively minor players on the broader Kurdish stage because of their relatively small population.
“Syria will not play an important role," Gonen said. "Syria has only a very small region populated with Kurds. And Kurds in this region are virtually all of them closely related to the Turkish Kurds on other side of frontier."
Nevertheless, the Kurdish sense of solidarity worries the Turkish government whose clashes with its own PKK rebels have increased in recent months.
Many Syrian Kurds say they support the Turkish Kurds. But there are also reports the Syrian government is backing the PKK's struggle against the Turkish state in retaliation for Turkey's support for the Syrian rebels.