BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian Kurdish fighters have captured more territory from Islamist rebels in northeastern Syria, a Kurdish militant group said on Monday, tightening their grip on an area where they have been setting up autonomous rule.
The Kurds said they had routed their rivals in three days of battles, while Islamist sources spoke of a tactical retreat.
Syria, tugged by various regional conflicts, has frayed into a patchwork of warring ethnic and sectarian pockets, tilting the balance of power in some of its Middle Eastern neighbors.
Kurdish assertiveness has posed a quandary for Ankara as it tries to make peace on its own soil with militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel group which has fought for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.
Turkey fears a power grab by Kurdish militias in Syria may embolden the PKK militants. But it is also uneasy about swathes of territory on its border falling to al Qaeda-linked rebels.
Redur Xelil, spokesman for the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said Kurdish militias had seized the city of Ras al-Ain and all its surrounding villages.
Ras al-Ain is in Syria’s northeastern province of Hasakah bordering Iraq and Turkey. Its population is 70 percent Kurdish and 30 percent Arab.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said the Kurds had seized at least 19 towns in the area.
Majority Sunni Arab Muslims have led the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, in which Kurds have played an ambivalent role, but rebels are also fighting among themselves.
Islamist militants have clashed with more moderate groups in mostly rebel-held northern Syria, and have battled Kurds in northeastern border areas for months.
Xelil said the latest Kurdish advance had followed fierce fighting in the past three days. “This was not a retreat, they (the Islamists) were defeated,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“We did this because they were a direct threat to Kurdish regions. There were daily attacks from their side.”
A source linked to the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front said the Islamists had withdrawn without a fight, citing problems in convincing enough militant units to stay on the frontline.
The Islamists are falling back to Tel Abyad, another northern town bordering Turkey, and rebel sources reported clashes with the Kurds in that area as well.
Xelil said Kurdish fighters would press on to Tel Abyad.
“As long as they are there they are still threatening our areas. We will retake all the territory between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain,” he said.
Turkish officials say they have had meetings with Syrian Kurdish groups, expressing willingness to work with them if they remain opposed to Assad, promise not to seek autonomy through violence or before Syria’s wider conflict is resolved, and pose no threat to Turkey’s own security.
Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Alistair Lyon