GAZIANTEP, Turkey – Arab Islamists and Kurdish militants, two of the most controversial armed groups in Syria’s civil war, for the past week have been battling each other for control of key towns close to the Turkish border after the Kurds announced a plan to declare local autonomy.
The United States views both sides in the conflict, the Kurdish Democratic Union and the Nusra Front, as terrorist organizations, and the prospect of either prevailing is causing deep concern in Washington and Ankara, the Turkish capital.
Dozens have died in fighting and Nusra Front suicide bombings in what threatens to become a war within a war.
The Kurdish militia captured the border town of Ras al-Ayn on Sunday, which had been under rebel control since last November. A day later, the United States said it was “very concerned” at reports that the militia was about to declare self-rule in northern Syria.
Turkey, which embarked on a broad peace process in March with Kurdish militants at home, has warned that it won’t tolerate an autonomous Kurdish province across the Syrian border. This week, the Turkish army warned that it had taken “all necessary precautions against threats across the border” and the deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, implied that the establishment of a de facto Kurdish entity in northern Syria might put Syria’s territorial integrity in jeopardy.
The fear is that a Kurdish entity in Syria would revive demands for a Kurdish nation made up of predominantly Kurdish areas of Turkey, Syria and Iran in combination with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
The other risk in the fighting is that if the Nusra Front prevails, it might be able, with the area’s mineral resources, to set up a self-sustaining autonomous al-Qaida state.