BEIRUT (AP) — The president of Iraqi Kurdistan vowed Saturday to defend the large Kurdish population in neighboring Syria from al-Qaida-linked rebel fighters, highlighting the potential for Syria's civil war to morph into a full-blown regional, ethnic and sectarian conflict.
The comments from Massoud Barzani follow weeks of clashes in predominantly Kurdish parts of northeastern Syria between Kurdish militias and Islamic extremist rebel factions that have killed dozens on both sides. The fighting in the oil-rich region near the Iraqi border has emerged as yet another layer in Syria's increasingly complex and bloody civil war.
In a statement posted on the Kurdistan Regional Government's official website, Barzani called for a delegation to visit Kurdish areas in Syria to verify the reports that "al-Qaida terrorists" are killing Kurds. If confirmed, then Iraqi Kurdistan "will make use of all its capabilities to defend the Kurdish women, children and citizens in western Kurdistan," he said.
Barzani offered no other details about how he would protect Syria's Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan boasts a powerful armed force known as the peshmerga, which includes experienced and equipped fighters hardened by years of guerrilla warfare.
But Barzani seems unlikely to risk a direct military intervention. Such a move would likely trigger a furious reaction from Iraq's central government as well as neighboring Turkey, which has been wrestling with its own Kurdish insurgency for decades.
Some 25 million Kurds live in an arc of land that covers parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, and they have long demanded an independent homeland.
Iraq's Kurds control three provinces in the country's north, where they have established a largely autonomous region that has all the trappings of an independent state, though it's still heavily reliant on Iraq's central government for funding.
While its relations with Baghdad remain tense, the region enjoys a level of prosperity and security unrivaled in the rest of Iraq. It has welcomed tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds since the conflict broke out in March 2011.
In Syria, Kurds are the largest ethnic minority, making up more than 10 percent of the country's 23 million people. They are centered in the poor northeastern regions of Hassakeh and Qamishli, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. There are also several predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods in the capital, Damascus, and Syria's largest city, Aleppo.
Long oppressed by President Bashar Assad's regime, Syria's Kurds now find themselves enjoying near autonomy in the northeast after Assad's overstretched forces pulled back, ceding de facto control to armed Kurdish fighters. Some Kurds openly call for an officially autonomous region in Syria similar to that of northern Iraq.
But clashes have erupted in the Kurdish-controlled areas with increasing frequency in recent months, pitting Kurdish militias against rebels from two al-Qaida-linked factions - Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Following the killing of a prominent Kurdish leader late last month, a powerful Kurdish militia said it was mobilizing to expel Islamic extremists.
The fighting reflects in part the Kurds' complicated response to Assad and the uprising against him.
When the revolt began, some Kurds joined the peaceful protests against Assad's rule. As the revolt shifted into an armed rebellion, many remained on the fence, suspicious of an opposition that was becoming increasingly dominated by Muslim extremists seeking to impose a strict interpretation of Islam.
Rising tensions on the Arab-Kurdish front come on top of virulent sectarian hatreds between pro-rebel Sunnis and pro-regime Alawites and Shiites in a conflict has killed more than 100,000 people.
Opposition activists said Saturday that government warplanes bombed a predominantly Sunni village in northwestern Syria, killing at least 20 people as government forces pushed to retake territory in the region along the Mediterranean coast.
The rebel capture last week of 11 villages in the regime stronghold of Latakia province along the coast was a symbolic blow to Assad, whose troops have otherwise been making gains in central Syria. Assad's forces are trying to retake those villages, which are predominantly populated by members of Assad's Alawite sect.
The mountainous region is also home to villages populated by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the rebel ranks. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets struck one Sunni village, Salma, late Friday, and that at least half of the dead were fighters.
The state media said Saturday that government troops recaptured three of the 11 villages. Activists confirmed the fall of one village but said fighting was continuing in the other two.
Most of Latakia province has been under tight government control and comparatively peaceful during the conflict. But earlier this week, rebels swept through several villages, causing civilians to flee. At least 60 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in the offensive, activists said. They say another 400 civilians, mostly Alawites, are missing and are presumed to be in rebel custody.
The activists spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
In Damascus, three people were killed in a mortar attack on the residential district of Dukhaniya, the state news agency said.
Yacoub reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.