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Kurds in Syria: A struggle within a struggle

ALEPPO, SyriaThe small dirt track bustled with activity. Men wheeled carts of produce as women shuffled past with heavy loads balanced on their heads. Children selling snacks pestered the passing crowds.

The track wound through a green field of grazing goats. At one end, fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) stood guard. To the left, snipers of Bashar al-Assad's government were said to be monitoring activity.

At the other end, caught in the middle of these two opposing sides, the buildings of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrefeya -- Aleppo's Kurdish neighborhoods -- towered over the scene. A third force guarded the entry to this region: the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and the backbone of a Kurdish coalition that now controls much of Syrian Kurdistan.

"We chose not to be either with the regime or with the opposition," said Sinam Muhammad, co-president of the People's Council for Western Kurdistan and a member of the High Supreme Kurdish Committee. "We chose another way, a third line, which is a peaceful and democratic line to get our rights as Kurdish people."

Ethnic Kurds account for 11 percent of the Syrian population; about the same percentage as the Alawite minority that dominates the government. But under the Assad regime, the Kurds were oppressed and, until April 2011, were denied status as Syrian citizens. Their cultural celebrations, literature and traditions were banned, the Kurdish language forbidden in schools.

Despite such repression, Kurdish authorities have declined to take a side in the Syrian revolution that began more than two years ago and has since resulted in the deaths of more than 70,000 Syrians.

Instead, taking advantage of the power void left in the wake of opposition and government clashes, the Kurds gained control of large amounts of the Syrian Kurdish region with little government resistance last July.

They have since periodically clashed with both FSA and regime troops. Some say a united front between the Arabs and Kurds could turn the tide of the revolution against Bashar al-Assad. Others accuse the Kurdish parties of making deals with the regime. But according to Muhammad, the only interests her party serves are those of the Kurdish people.

"We do not attack anybody," said the charismatic leader. "But we will not allow anyone to enter our Kurdish places -- this is a red line. Whoever attacks us we are ready to defend against them."

On the Kurdish side of the civilian crossing -- the only one that connects FSA territory with the Kurdish zone -- the streets bustled with activity. From the main street, only the echo of distant gunfire and mortars revealed the presence of the war that raged all around.

Until recently, residents here had escaped the worst of Aleppo's attacks and bombings, but the front lines creep closer each day, and some areas of Ashrefeya have already been caught in the crossfire of FSA and regime battles. Kurdish forces have so far kept clear of the battle zones leading many to suggest the "red lines" of the Kurdish forces may be somewhat fluid.

"There is no doubt that the PKK are dealing with the regime," said Bashar Ismael, one of a small number of Kurds who has joined the FSA. "They were supposed to protect the Kurdish areas, that's their job. When the regime army came into Ashrefeya, they retreated. And Sheikh Maqsoud is filled with shabiha [government militia]. What are they doing there?"

Ismael said the Kurds have been somewhat segregated from the Arabs for generations, largely due to the inequality imposed by the Syrian government. Although the Kurds have been lobbying against the regime for years, he said most saw "the Arab Spring, as the name suggests, as an Arab uprising."

Ismael said support for the Kurdish rulers comes largely through fear.

"They know that there is no one else to protect them," he said, cautioning that this continued fence sitting could come down hard on the Kurdish people whichever way the revolution ends.

Mohammed al-Fata, military police chief for the Arab suburb of Bustan al-Basha, which borders the Kurdish zone, said most Kurdish civilians side with the revolution, even cooperating with his men to help them locate and catch government militia in the Kurdish zone.

"We cannot enter PKK areas with weapons," he said. "When we go there to catch shabiha, the Kurdish civilians secure weapons for us so we can do our work."

Outside Aleppo, holding the borders of Kurdish areas including the city of Afrin has been easier, but winning the hearts of the people is a battle some say the PKK is losing.

Raeesa Oum Beshank fled with her husband and five children to Afrin after the Aleppo front line infringed on their home in Ashrefeya several months ago. She says the Kurdish forces did nothing to protect their area.

"It is so difficult when you grow to love a place and you have to leave it," she said as she reminisced about her beloved home back in Aleppo. "We are so lost now. We have no idea what will happen to us in the future."

Oum Beshank said her youngest son is still petrified of any loud noises and her oldest daughter has not laughed or smiled in four months, since she was forced to leave her college and friends behind.

As the family gathered for a meal with their neighbors Friday, they explained how conditions have changed little since the town came under local control, as Kurdish authorities act "just as bad, if not worse" than the regime.

"Almost everyone in Afrin has been threatened by the PKK," said Tourlin Bilal, a mother of three who has lived in Afrin her whole life. "They demand taxes from everyone. If you refuse they threaten, steal, or destroy your property."

Bilal said her brother and his neighbor had refused to work as checkpoint guards. That night, their cars were vandalized, and motorcycles stolen.

Outside, in the streets and on rooftops, the three bright stripes of the PKK's Democratic Union Party flag flew high, forming a pattern broken only periodically by the Flag of Kurdistan.

"On paper, there is a coalition rule, but in reality the PKK are the only ones with the weapons to force the people," Oum Beshank said.

Joining the group was Delshad Afrin, a member of the Democratic Kurdish Party who forms part of the Kurdish coalition. He agreed the PKK's dominance was a problem, but said this is a crucial time to be looking at the future of Syrian Kurdistan beyond the revolution to pave the way for autonomous government for the Kurdish regions.

Afrin said the ultimate dream of every Kurd is to unite the whole of Kurdistan. With a population of almost 40 million spreading across the borders of four countries, the Kurdish are, by far, the largest ethnic group without a country of their own. But for now, the goal is to retain self-rule within Syria.

"We want to establish a federal system under a united Syrian democratic government," Afrin said. "It will not be easy to achieve. The biggest thing we have achieved so far is the right to be Syrian."

Earlier that morning, standing amid a crowd of chanting supporters at a political gathering on the city's outskirts, Sinam Muhammad said remaining neutral was the only option, but lamented that the battle for Syria may take years.

"Both sides, the regime and the other groups, are attacking each other and killing each other fiercely and they will not stop. It will keep escalating unless one side becomes weak or the international community interferes."

This story originally appeared on Global Post, and was written by Tracey Shelton.

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