On Syrian border, mixed feelings for rebel "liberators"

CEYLANPINAR, Turkey Thu Nov 15, 2012 11:51am EST

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CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (Reuters) - From a park on the outskirts of Turkey's Ceylanpinar, Farhad watches with unease as his would-be liberators, guns slung across their backs, roam through his town just over the border in Syria.

"I don't want the rebels in my town," the 25-year-old Kurdish man laments. "Why would I want Assad's planes to come and bomb us? I don't want Assad, nor do I want the rebels."

His is a familiar sentiment among refugees from Ras al-Ain, a mixed Arab and Kurdish town on Syria's border with Turkey that was dragged into Syria's civil war last week with the arrival of rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

The 'liberation' was shortlived.

Since Monday, Farhad has watched Syrian MiG fighter jets strafe his town, hitting homes and driving refugees to scramble through the barbed-wire fence that divides Ras al-Ain from Turkey.

Distaste for Assad and a desire to see him gone are mixed with unease over the intentions of the disorganized and ill-disciplined rebels who would replace him.

Arriving in Ras al-Ain, part of an advance into Syria's ethnically mixed northeast, the mainly Sunni Muslim Arab rebels have brought the wrath of Assad's air power with them.

Among Kurds and Arabs alike, interviews with refugees who fled Ras al-Ain underscored the confused loyalties felt by many of those caught up in an increasingly complex war.

Such divisions highlight how difficult it will be for any post-Assad administration to unify a nation riven by sectarian rivalries. The fate of the Kurdish region - home to a chunk of Syria's estimated 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil reserves - will be key.

KURDISH HEARTLAND

The rebel advance has brought them to the heartland of Syria's Kurds, the country's largest ethnic minority, which for decades has been repressed by the government in Damascus.

Under Assad and his father before him, Syria's Kurds were forbidden from learning their own language or even to hold Syrian identity. They were often evicted from their land.

Kurdish activists in Syria, like those in Turkey, have been campaigning for decades for greater autonomy and with Syrian forces and Arab rebels entangled in fighting they have tried to exploit the vacuum.

But even Syrian Kurdish rivals are split over what type of government they want if Assad falls, whether to follow Iraqi Kurdistan's model of autonomy or simply more self-administration in their areas under a new Syrian government.

There is perhaps no-one who would want to see the rebels overthrow Assad more than Farhad.

Yet years of subjugation by one power have left ordinary Kurds distrustful of an armed revolt predominantly led by a Sunni Arab majority. Many of them fear a post-Assad government will only continue their repression.

More than anything in this flat, arid borderland, they say they want to be left alone.

"Why would we want another government?" asked Mahmoud, a 30-year-old tiler who like many interviewees refused to give his full name for fear of reprisals.

"We have had nothing for 30 years. No identity, no insurance, no pension, no deeds to our homes. We have nothing and we don't want anything from the government," he said.

"We don't want the rebels or Assad. We just want to get on with our own business, Arabs and Kurds. We can look after ourselves."

NECESSARY EVIL?

Kurdish activists opposed to Assad called for the rebels to pull out of Ras al-Ain, warning that their presence would make the town a target for government forces. The prediction came true.

Other Kurdish activists said those that had taken the town were extremist Jihadist fighters.

In many Kurdish-majority towns east and west along the Syrian border with Turkey, Kurdish militias have begun to claim control. In Ras al-Ain, the large Arab minority offered an opening for the rebels to strengthen their presence on the frontier.

But like the Kurds, many of the Arabs who have fled the town also see the rebels as unwanted house guests who have brought only death to their door.

"The rebels wait outside and when they hear the planes, they come into our houses and then the planes bomb our houses," said Yousuf, 36, an Arab refugee from Ras al-Ain who fled with his family on Tuesday.

"Both Assad and the rebels should go. We just want to get on and live our lives, Arabs and Kurds together. All I am thinking about is my home and my possessions," he said.

Others said rebel fighters had stolen from them or pressured them to allow the use of their homes. Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

Nor is it clear how many people have died in the air assault on Ras al-Ain. Opposition activists have reported civilian deaths, including at least 12 on Monday.

A Reuters witness saw a wounded child and woman being brought to a hospital in Ceylanpinar from Ras al-Ain, the child covered in blood.

But to some, like Hasan, a Kurdish refugee staring across the border from Turkey, the rebels have become a necessary evil.

"We don't want the rebels inside our town, but if they are going to get rid of Assad, then so be it."

(Editing by Matt Robinson and Jon Boyle)

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