* Fragmented Arab rebels make common cause against Kurds
* Fighting centred on town of Atma, near Turkish border
* Arab rebels seek to prevent Kurdish drive for secession
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Sept 26 Syrian rebels and al Qaeda-linked
fighters clashed with Kurds in northern Syria on Thursday,
activists said, in a battle for territory highlighting the
country's descent towards sectarian and ethnic fiefdoms after
two years of war.
The heavy fighting in the town of Atma on the border with
Turkey's Hatay province followed outbreaks of internecine
conflict by rival rebel forces elsewhere, which have undermined
their military campaign to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Even Assad's Sunni Muslim Arab opponents look increasingly
divided after 13 rebel groups this week rejected the authority
of the opposition coalition in exile and called for new Islamist
At least 15 fighters have been killed in two days of clashes
around Atma, activists said.
The fighting pits Syrian Kurds, alarmed by what they see as
Islamist encroachment in northern Syria, against Arab rebels who
suspect the Kurds of seeking secession.
Faced with what they see as a shared Kurdish threat,
moderate Free Syrian Army rebels fought in Atma alongside the
Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda
affiliate controlled by foreign jihadists, only a week after the
two factions fought each other in another border town.
Activists in Atma said Free Syrian Army units had brought
heavy guns into the town and started blasting positions to push
back Kurdish militiamen who had advanced to within sniper range
in the surrounding hills.
They said Kurdish tank shells fired from distance were
hitting Atma, while Arab rebel heavy artillery was hitting
At least nine ISIL fighters have been killed since the
battle erupted on Wednesday in a region between Atma and the
Kurdish town of Jindaris, part of the mostly Kurdish olive
growing region of Ifrin.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the
violence in Syria, said one of the dead was an ISIL local
commander from the United Arab Emirates.
Six members of the PYD, a Syrian Kurdish force with close
links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought
for autonomy in neighbouring Turkey, were killed, activists
said. The Kurdish news service Welati said three Kurdish
civilians had been killed.
Kurds comprise around 10 percent of Syria's 23 million
population. They are concentrated in Ifrin and other areas of
the northwest, in parts of Damascus and in the northeastern oil
producing area of Qamishli, where there has also been intense
fighting between Kurds and Arab rebel units.
"There is a big degree of fragmentation among the rebels and
within the al Qaeda fighters themselves. The situation has
become so chaotic that today's enemy is tomorrow's foe and vice
versa," said activist Abdallah Teif.
Even moderate Kurds say they support military efforts to
fend off a rebel attack on Jindaris.
"These extremists are worse than the Assad regime. There is
no excuse to back them," said Bahzad Ibrahim, a senior member of
the Kurdish National Council, a grouping of moderate Kurdish
factions that does not include the PYD.
"If the Kurdish forces moved close to Atma is it because of
battlefield requirements, not because they have territorial
ambitions," he said.
The late president Hafez al-Assad backed PKK militants
fighting against Turkish forces. But his son Bashar crushed a
Syrian Kurdish uprising in 2004, as he began improving ties with
Turkey, and cracked down on PKK militants based in Syria.
However, since the uprising erupted in 2011, Assad has
released Kurdish militant prisoners and pulled his forces from
remote Kurdish regions to focus his military campaign around
Damascus and central Syria.