Syrian Kurds battle al-Qaeda-linked Islamists for control of oil fields
Erika Solomon and Jonathon Burch
BEIRUT/ANKARA - Reuters
Published Thursday, Jul. 18 2013, 9:39 AM EDT
Kurdish fighters have seized control of a Syrian town on the border with
Turkey and are battling Islamist rebel groups linked to al-Qaeda for control
of oil fields in the northeast of the country.
The fighting is further evidence that the conflict between rebels and
President Bashar al-Assad's forces that has engulfed Syria since early 2011
has splintered into turf wars that have little to do with ousting him.
A woman wearing a scarf depicting the Syrian opposition flag walks in the
damaged areas in Deir al-zor, March 3, 2013.
The capture of Ras al-Ain by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian
Kurdish party with links to Kurdish militants in Turkey, rang alarm bells in
The Turkish government fears the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region
in Syria could embolden homegrown militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party
(PKK), which is fighting for autonomy in Turkey.
In a statement late on Wednesday, the Turkish military said Ras al-Ain had
fallen under the control of the PYD, which it described as a "separatist
terrorist organization". Fighting in the town had now stopped.
Turkish troops had shot at PYD fighters in Syria after two rocket-propelled
grenades fired from Syria struck a border post on the Turkish side of the
It was the second time in as many days the military has answered in kind
after several stray bullets from Syria struck the Turkish town of
Ceylanpinar on Tuesday. The military has now strengthened security along
that part of the border.
Clashes in Ras al-Ain between Kurdish militias, who broadly support an
autonomous Kurdish region, and Islamist fighters of the Nusra Front broke
out on Tuesday after Nusra fighters attacked a Kurdish patrol and captured a
gunman, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Observatory, a pro-opposition monitoring group, said fighting had now
spread deeper into the largely Kurdish province of Hassakeh and battles were
raging around the Rumeilan oil field, about 200 km (125 miles) east of Ras
The field had mostly been shut down, opposition activists said, but a few of
its pipelines may still be supplying refineries in the government-held
cities of Homs and Baniyas.
Since March 2011, when the uprising against Assad began, Syria's overall oil
production has fallen by nearly 60 percent to 153,000 barrels per day last
October, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates.
The Observatory said at least 29 people had been killed since fighting
between Islamists and Kurds erupted on the border on Tuesday night, but it
believed the toll would be much higher once final counts are sent in.
Kurdish units have seized an oil field area called Suwaidiya 20 and there
are clashes in Suwaidiya oil region 3, according to the Observatory.
It said the Nusra Front and others al-Qaeda-linked fighters were shelling
Ras al-Ain from nearby positions
"Part of the reason for the spread is just anger at the Kurdish
consolidation of control in Ras al-Ain, it's like revenge and punishment,"
said one activist who works with the rebels and who asked not to be named
because the subject is controversial.
"But I also believe there this is part of a growing struggle for control of
oil and gas in the region and the rebels are using this as an opportunity."
Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish PYD, said the Kurds would fight
back fiercely to maintain the autonomous zone they had set up in the area.
"We fought hard to drive out the repressive regime and its army and we
liberated the area from oppression. We will not allow either regime control
or these al-Qaeda-linked groups.
"What is pushing them to fight us is their antagonism against our autonomous
rule in Kurdish areas. I believe their other goal is Rumeilan because it is
an important oil resource."
The fighting indicated the collapse of a deal, negotiated by prominent
Syrian opposition leader Michel Kilo, under which both sides in the area had
cooperated peacefully for months.
Further south in Syria, the Observatory reported heavy shelling in the
Damascus countryside, where government forces are confronting rebels.
There was also further shelling of the city of Homs, where fighting has
raged for the past three weeks. Clashes erupted in the towns of Deraa and
Quneitra in southern Syria, the Observatory said.
The Syrian opposition's political leader, Ahmed Jarba, on Thursday met Crown
Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia, a major backer of the rebels, in Jeddah.
The Crown Prince "stressed the kingdom's fixed position on the need to put
an end to all forms of extermination and hunger the Syrian people are
subject to," the Saudi state news agency, SPA, reported.
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