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CNN crew sneaks in and out of Aleppo
08:06 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Kurdish fighters have gained control over areas of northern Syria

The main Kurdish group, the PYD, has been seen as useful to the Assad regime

It has close ties to the PKK, the group fighting in Turkey for Kurdish autonomy

The Syrian Kurds' experience will influence other Kurdish groups, an analyst says

CNN  — 

In the city of Qamishli, on Syria’s border with Turkey, neither the forces of the Syrian regime nor the rebels of the Free Syrian Army are to be seen. But visitors say the Kurdish flag is very evident, and Kurdish fighters man checkpoints around the city.

More are being trained in the Kurdish region of neighboring Iraq.

Away from the epicenter of the battle for Syria, the Kurdish minority – about 10% of the Syrian population – has gained control of two areas. One is around Qamishli, which has a population of nearly 200,000; the other is north of Aleppo in towns like Afrin and Ayn al-‘Arab.

They have one aim, best summed up by a poster at a recent rally that read: “Federalizm (sic) is the best solution for new Syria.”

Syria’s Kurds do not live in one region, unlike Iraq’s. They are scattered across northern Syria. But their growing if patchy autonomy promises to be a source of friction with other Syrian groups in the months ahead, and may have seismic consequences for Turkey, Iraq and even Iran.

When the unrest began in Syria last year, most Kurds remained on the sidelines. As a minority, they feared the emergence of a Syria dominated by Sunnis. And the main Kurdish group – the Democratic Union Party, or PYD – was useful to the regime. It has long been (and remains) an affiliate of the PKK, the militant group in Turkey that has fought for Kurdish autonomy for three decades, a struggle that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

“The PKK has always had very good connections with the Syrian Kurds and especially with the PYD,” said Turkish journalist Rusen Cakir, who has followed the Kurdish story for decades.

“Many Syrian Kurds have been killed by Turkish security forces in battles with the PKK,” he said. The PKK claims some 3,500 of its “martyrs” have been Syrian.

So the PYD was a tool with which the Assad regime could threaten the Turks should they interfere in events inside Syria, said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Assad wants to make it difficult for the Turks to intervene without getting into a war with the PKK, and unlike Iraq and Iran, the PKK has real grass-roots support in Syria,” Cagaptay told CNN.

For both Assad and the PYD it was an opportunistic relationship. Intelligence sources in the region say the regime even allowed several hundred Kurdish militants back into the country from the Qandil mountains in the far northeastern corner of Iraq, including the group’s leader, Salih Muslim Muhammad. There were also reports that PYD militia were deployed to stifle anti-regime protests by Kurdish youth groups.

Then – in October 2011 – a prominent Syrian Kurdish activist, Meshaal Tammo, was assassinated. Many Kurds blamed the regime for his murder.

The PYD may have feared that any association with the regime – and lingering suspicions it may have been complicit in Tammo’s murder – would harm its credibility. It vehemently denied involvement, b