A Kurdish militia in northern Syria plans to become autonomous from Damascus in the coming days, after months of administering the border territory without Assad forces, Turkish media reported on Wednesday.
According to the reports, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the PKK terrorist group, announced that it planned to declare autonomy from Syrian government control on July 19, and three months thereafter hold a constitutional referendum. The PYD was said to have met with each of the 10 Kurdish parties operating in northern Syria to discuss the matter, and received popular, but not unanimous, support.
Ilham Ahmed, a member of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, was quoted by Kurdish Hawar News as saying that the intention was not to secede from Syria, but rather to allow ethnic administration of Kurdish areas and thereby set an example for the rest of the country.
Kurds inhabit the northern region of Syria bordering Turkey and Iraq, and constitute approximately nine percent of the country's 22.5 million residents. For nearly a year, Kurdish flags have flown over northern Syrian cities after President Bashar Assad's forces withdrew. Last summer residents of Kobani, a predominantly Kurdish city located near the Turkish border, stormed the local security headquarters and raised the Kurdish national flag at municipal buildings.
According to a recent AP report, vehicles sporting license plates reading "Rojava Kurdistan," or "western Kurdistan," have become more common. Kurdish red, green and white flags with a sun in the middle -- the same flag flown in Iraqi Kurdistan -- billow over homes and public offices. A local police force known as "Asayish," whose members include women, has taken over security in the areas abandoned last year by Assad's forces.
The PYD's declaration of autonomy came amid reports of intense clashes between the Kurdish group and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in the northeastern city of Ras al-Ayn. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the clashes took place approximately 200 meters from the Turkish border crossing.
Stray cross-border fire from the battle in Ras al-Ayn late Tuesday night killed one and injured two in the neighboring Turkish city of Ceylanpinar, according to Reuters. A Turkish official told AP, however, that one teen died and two were injured.
According to Today's Zaman reporter Mahir Zeynalov, the Turkish military responded to the cross-border fire with warning shots of its own, striking targets across the border in Syria.
A PYD spokesperson told Radio Sawa anchor Zaid Benjamin that "Islamist brigades started the provocations in Ras al-Ayn and the other Kurdish areas" and that the battles against them was "our chance to root out the Islamists from the Kurdish areas.
Despite the brief flare up on the Syria-Turkey border, there is little chance of a major escalation by Ankara, Aaron Stein, PhD candidate and a researcher at the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies.
"Ankara has tightly circumscribed rules of engagement regarding its military action in Syria," he said. "If there continues to be a spillover of violence, Ankara has tended to respond with retaliatory artillery strikes."
"However, the current dynamic on the border raises questions about potential targets," he said, noting that Turkey's backing of Free Syrian Army rebels in their fight against Assad, and the Syrian army's retreat from the border region, inadvertently created a pocket in which the PYD could form an autonomous region.
Jabhat al-Nusra also reportedly bombed the PYD headquarters in the nearby Kurdish city of Qamishli, also situated on the Syria-Turkey border.
Activists in northeast Syria also reported additional fighting between Kurdish and Islamist groups elsewhere in Hasaka province, near the Iraqi and Turkish borders.
PYD activists claimed as many as 11 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters were killed in the battles, but their reports couldn't be independently verified.