ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani warned Kurds in Syria against being sucked into the “fires of discord,” urging them to preserve Kurdish unity as tensions between rival factions threaten to spillover into violence.
Syria’s Kurds see the war ravaging their country as an unprecedented opportunity to gain the kind of freedoms enjoyed by their ethnic kin in neighboring Iraq, where they live autonomously from the federal capital in Baghdad.
Rivalry between two main camps, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and another group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) risks devolving into Kurd-on-Kurd conflict and further complicating the civil war in Syria.
Earlier this year, Barzani brought the KNC and PYD together in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they formed a joint council to present a united front for Kurdish interests. But the agreement has struggled to work on the ground in Syria, where the PYD has the strongest presence.
The PYD is also aligned with PKK separatist guerrillas fighting a 28-year-old war against Turkey, and the group’s strong presence in northeast Syria has Ankara worried about a potential PKK safe haven over its border.
Members of the KNC recently accused the PYD’s militia, known as People’s Defense Units (YPG) of kidnapping a member of their politburo, a charge denied by the PYD.
“We call on all sides to release captives to safeguard the unity of (Kurdish) ranks and not to allow room for the fires of discord,” Barzani was quoted as saying in a statement in Arabic on the regional government’s website.
Barzani urged Syrian Kurds to co-operate and focus on the “higher goals and interests” of the Kurdish people.
The KNC was forged from more than a dozen smaller Syrian Kurdish parties with Barzani’s blessing, and is broadly accepted by the political mainstream, unlike the PYD, which Turkey sees as tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK.
Turkish officials also believe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has allowed the PYD to take over towns in the Syrian Kurdish region as a way to strike back at Ankara’s support of Arab rebels fighting Damascus.
Syrian Kurdish parties are split over what form of self-rule they want if Assad falls, whether to follow Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy in a federal system or self-administration within the Syrian central government.
Any de facto Kurdish state in Syria could emboldened Kurdish minorities in Turkey and Iran, but also strengthen Iraqi Kurdistan in its own disputes with Iraq’s central government in Baghdad over oil rights.
The fate of Syria’s Kurdish region will be key in any post-Assad Syria. Most Syrian Kurds — the country’s largest minority — are wary of the main Syrian Arab opposition dominated by Islamists who are hostile to the idea of Syria’s Kurds gaining rights denied under Assad.
Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Patrick Markey and Lisa Shumaker