Kurdish militiamen, rebels maintain truce in northern Syria

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — An uneasy truce held in the Syrian town of Ras Ayn on Tuesday, one day after at least 18 combatants were reportedly killed in clashes between Kurdish militiamen and Syrian rebels.

The fighting, which added fresh ethnic dimensions to Syria’s bloody 20-month-old rebellion against President Bashar Assad’s regime, began Monday after Kurdish protesters demanded that opposition forces leave the town and intensified after the killing of a local Kurdish leader, reports indicated.


The rebels seeking to oust Assad are overwhelmingly Arab. The opposition fighters have had an uneasy relationship with the nation’s Kurds, who make up at least 10% of the population but are concentrated in Syria’s remote northeast along the border with Turkey, where Ras Ayn is situated.

The British-based opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 18 died in the city. There was no independent confirmation of the numbers, and some estimates put the casualty toll higher.

Fear is mounting in some quarters that a bloody power struggle may consume the area, home to both Arabs and Kurds.

Kurdish factions have largely avoided being drawn into the rebellion against Assad’s regime, which has left more than 20,000 dead, according to estimates. But the rebellion has crossed into areas with substantial Kurdish populations, igniting conflicts.

Complicating matters, the major Syrian Kurdish political faction, which also has a substantial militia, is linked to a Kurdish insurgent group in neighboring Turkey.

The Syrian conflict has repeatedly spilled over into Turkey. The two nations share a more-than 500-mile border.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confirmed that fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states would provide Turkey with the Patriot missile defense system, to be deployed along the border to guard against errant Syrian fire.

Some observers suggested that the deployment was a potential forerunner to the imposition of a no-fly zone in rebel-occupied areas of northern Syria. But NATO officials have downplayed that possibility. Some observers view the Patriot missile move as largely symbolic, highlighting NATO’s support for Turkey, which forms the eastern bulwark of the organization.

The move comes after months of escalating tension along the frontier, underscoring the increasingly sour relationship between Syria and Turkey.

Turkey scrambled fighter jets to the Syrian frontier last week, warning that it would respond to any Syrian breach of Turkish skies, as Syrian warplanes bombarded Ras Ayn.

The assault on Ras Ayn sent a torrent of Syrian refugees pouring into Turkey and shattered windows in the nearby Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, prompting Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz to state that “necessary response” would be given to “Syrian planes or helicopters which violate our airspace.”

Turkey has fired artillery into Syria dozens of times, in response to apparently errant Syrian shells that fell on Turkish territory.

The policy began after national outrage erupted in October when a Syrian mortar round hit a home in the Turkish border town of Akcakale, killing five civilians.

Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition — allowing munitions and rebel fighters to move freely across its border into Syria — has frayed Turkey’s once-close relationship with its neighbor. The two nation’s have broken off diplomatic relations, and once-brisk cross-border trade has mostly ceased.

Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Jerusalem contributed to this report.