The two major Syrian Kurdish political factions have put aside their differences and called for rebels to leave this city, where they’ve been battling troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad for the past week.
Both the Kurdish United Democratic Party, known by its initials as the PYD, and the Kurdish National Council, the other main Kurdish political party in Syria, fear that the arrival of rebels in Kurdish areas will bring destruction to Syria’s relatively quiet northeast.
“Every place the Free Syrian Army controls has been destroyed,” Suleiman Ismail, a Kurdish National Council representative in Dar Bassiyeh, a predominantly Kurdish city about 30 miles east of Ras al Ayn, said, referring to the rebels by one of the umbrella names they use. “We have asked them not to come here and negotiated with them, but so far they have not agreed to stay out.”
Syrian air force jets struck Ras al Ayn for a third day Wednesday but failed to dislodge the rebels, who attacked last Thursday and swiftly drove the Syrian military out of much of the city. But the army remained in some neighborhoods, and rebels said the government was sending reinforcements and rocket batteries to the city from a military base to the south.
Most of the city’s 50,000 residents, a mix of ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Armenians, have fled, many of them to the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar just across the border.
On Tuesday, a drive across Ras al Ayn provided a vista of a battered and empty downtown, with closed metal shop shutters torn open by the force of explosions. In addition to the rebels, Kurdish United Democratic Party militia members had set up checkpoints on the eastern side of the city.
The rebels fighting the Syrian government are, for the most part, ethnic Arabs, while Ras al Ayn and other nearby cities have large populations of ethnic Kurds. The request by the Kurdish groups suggests that Kurds may be unwilling to allow the rebels to enter Kurdish areas.
At Dar Bassiyeh, the tensions were on display Wednesday after Kurdish United Democratic Party militiamen shot at a truck carrying three armed men headed toward the city after it failed to stop at a checkpoint. The militiamen then closed the road, and dozens of young men could be seen racing to the PYD’s office there, preparing to defend the city from a rebel advance.
As it turned out, the three men were Syrian army defectors fleeing the fighting in Ras al Ayn.
Still, it seems likely that the Kurds and the rebels are headed for a clash as the fighting in Ras al Ayn, where Kurds made up 40 percent of the population, rages. Kurds in the area said the rebels have demanded that the PYD remove its party flag from checkpoints, and while some checkpoints have complied, others have not.
According to the Turkish government, more than 8,000 people fled Ras al Ayn to Turkey on Friday, the largest single movement of refugees out of Syria on a single day. Others residents of the city have decamped for other parts of Hasaka province, where most of Syria’s Kurdish population resides.
Kurds make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population and have long sought autonomy from Syria’s Arab government. As the civil war has progressed, the Kurdish United Democratic Party has taken over a number towns and cities in Hasaka province, apparently with the passive acceptance of the Assad regime.
Roy Gutman contributed to this report from Istanbul.