BEIRUT - Syria’s neighbors are becoming increasingly worried that the contending sides in its civil war, including the competing rebel factions, are preparing the ground for an eventual break-up of the country.
The fears were stoked over the weekend when the Syrian Kurdish group that seized the strategic border town of Ras al-Ain from jihadist groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced plans to set up a transitional authority in northeastern Syria. Its spokesmen said it is holding talks with rival Kurdish factions about the shape of a local administration and possible elections in three months’ time.
Leaders of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) deny that transitional self-government for Kurds is part of an effort to establish a separate, autonomous Syrian Kurdish state. They said self-government would merely be temporary.
“This is not a call for a separation; it is just that for a year now we have been on our own in our own territories and people have needs, they want some kind of administration to run their issues. They cannot be left like that,” said Saleh Muslim, the PYD leader.
Turkey, which has a large Kurdish population of its own, worries that Syrian Kurds are laying the foundations for a mini-state of their own. The fear is that such a state next door could encourage hardline Turkish-Kurdish separatists to derail Ankara’s efforts to conclude a peace deal its own Kurdish leaders.
The Turkish government is involved in ongoing negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party that has ties to Syria’s PYD. Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has warned that separatist steps by Syrian-Kurds would “enflame the fighting and deepen the untenable situation in Syria.”
Davutoglu has cautioned against “any de facto or fait accompli attempts” based on ethnicity within Syria.
The Turks aren’t alone in fearing that Syria may be heading toward a break-up that would see the formation of at least three new mini-states.
One such mini-state would be an enclave for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the west and northwest that would be populated by members of the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, Shiites and Christians. Another would be a Sunni-majority state in the center and south of the country and the third would be a separate entity in the northeast for Syria’s two million Kurds.
Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt warned last week there were signs Syria was heading in that direction. Jumblatt said he believed the land registry office in the Syrian city of Homs had been razed in order to destroy property ownership records so that Sunni Muslims in the province could be more easily dispossessed, allowing Alawites, Shiites and Christians to occupy previously Sunni-owned property.
“In addition to shelling and systemic killing in Homs, the Syrian regime is also destroying property records ... in a plan to transform the minority into a majority through several steps, including the killing and the displacement of the population,” Jumblatt wrote in Al-Anbaa, his political party’s newspaper.
Syrian opposition activists have also raised the alarm recently about signs that Assad and his major overseas ally, Iran, are eager to change Syria’s sectarian map. They claim the Iranians have deposited $2 billion into the Real Estate Bank of Syria to purchase land in southern Homs province.
The province of Homs would be crucial for establishing a viable Assad rump mini-state because it would link predominantly Alawite areas on the Syrian coast with Shiite-dominated areas in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Bassel Saloukh of Lebanese-American University argues there are already signs of ethnic redistribution in Syria, with more Shiites concentrating in Shiite areas, and Sunnis being displaced or moving from areas near the border with Lebanon.
“Look at the sectarian map of Baghdad before 2006 and after 2006,” Saloukh said. “Look at Lebanon. Look at the map of Beirut and its suburbs before the Lebanese civil war and after. This has happened in Iraq and this, alas, is happening in Syria.”
In May, Colonel Abdel-Hamid Zakaria, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told Al-Arabiya television. “It’s going to be an open, sectarian, bloody war to the end” and warned that Shiite Muslims and Assad’s Alawite minority could be “wiped off the map.”
Last year, Syria’s Orthodox Christian Church claimed that Islamist rebels were carrying out “ethnic cleansing of Christians” in Homs. The Vatican news agency, Fides, said most of the 50,000 Christians living in the city left when Islamists went door to door in the neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan telling Christians they would be shot if they did not leave. Militants Islamists have sometimes used the slogan, “the Alawites to the grave and the Christians to Beirut.”
The Kurdish capture of Ras al-Ain, on the border with Turkey, was a serious blow for the Al-Qaida affiliated Islamist rebels. The town and its border post are of high strategic importance, allowing whoever is in control to determine what supplies can cross the border. Bribes and taxes also can generate considerable revenue for the group that oversees the crossing.
Syrian-Kurdish nationalists with support from Kurdish separatists north of the border formed the PYD in 2003. Though it has been hostile to the Assad government, the PYD militants has been keen to keep other rebel groups out of Kurdish towns. In mid-2012, Assad forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in the north.
There has been an uneasy relationship between Syrian-Kurds and the rebels, though some Kurds have fought alongside Free Syrian Army rebels when their interests coincided.
But many rebels – jihadist and secular – complain that the Kurds are only interested in opposing Assad when it fits their agenda. Kurdish relations with the jihadists have been especially fraught.
PYD spokesman Alan Semo told the Al-Monitor news site the jihadists have been trying to set up Islamic “emirates” in the areas they dominate. “If they are declaring Islamic emirates, why can the Kurds not form their own government? It would be moderate, democratic and non-fanatic, and benefit regional and international interests,” Semo said.
Tensions between Kurds and jihadists have increased in recent weeks as al-Qaida affiliated rebel groups have tried to exert more power over enclaves they control in northern Syria.
Some analysts believe the fighting between Kurds and jihadists could spread. They say Kurdish militants are eager to snatch some of the oilfields currently controlled by the jihadists.