(Reuters) - Syrian rebels and a Kurdish militia that have fought each other for months in a town near the Turkish border have signed a ceasefire, averting the prospect of an Arab-Kurd conflict.
Syria’s Kurds have exploited the civil war between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebels fighting to oust him by asserting control in parts of the northeast, which have been spared the worst of the violence.
But the relative calm was shattered last November when mainly Sunni Muslim Arab rebels overran the ethnically mixed Syrian town of Ras al-Ain and Assad’s airforce bombed it in the days that followed.
Until a deal was struck earlier this week, Kurdish fighters known as Popular Protection Units (YPG) had been battling to drive out insurgents from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), opening another front in Syria’s near two year civil war.
Previous efforts to broker a truce repeatedly fell through.
“They were forced to sign an agreement to withdraw from the town,” said YPG spokesman Khabat Ibrahim, who was present at the ceasefire signing ceremony.
“If the FSA respects us, we can join with them to liberate towns still under Assad’s control”.
Kurds in Syria see the war as an opportunity to win rights long-denied them by Assad and his father before him, but are wary of the Arab-dominated opposition, which they see as inherently hostile to their interests.
Those suspicions are fuelled by Turkish support for the rebels. Turkey has a fraught relationship with its own Kurdish population and has fought for years against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Ibrahim blamed Turkey for inciting the FSA to attack Kurdish fighters and warned they would not accept another incursion. “If they want to take Turkish orders, we will fight them again,” he said.
The YPG says it has no political affiliations, but analysts say it has close ties to the PKK.
Rebels accuse Syrian Kurdish parties aligned with the PKK of colluding with Assad in return for him leaving them to their own devices and keeping out the FSA. That also serves Assad’s interests by unnerving Turkey.
Reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil, Iraq; Editing by Alison Williams