BEIRUT (AP) — Last month, while the world's attention was focused on battles raging in Syria's two largest cities, a quiet transformation was taking place in the country's oil-rich northeast where about 2 million minority Kurds live.
In mid-July, regime forces began pulling back from several towns and villages near the Turkish border. They ceded de facto control to armed Kurdish fighters who have since set up checkpoints, hoisted Kurdish flags, and began exercising a degree of autonomy unheard of before.
It is an extraordinary development for a community that has long been oppressed and discriminated against by the Assad regime, one that threatens to upset a decades-long geopolitical balance involving Syria, Turkey and Iraq, and challenge old regional alliances.
"The Kurds are emerging as one of the major winners of the crisis in Syria," said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "They have begun laying the foundation for an autonomous region like their counterparts in Iraq. It's a dream-like situation for them."
Kurds see their chance to win the kind of autonomy that their ethnic brothers enjoy in Iraq. But this raises alarm bells for Turkey, one of the key state backers of the rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad and a country where Kurdish rebels have been fighting a violent struggle for self-rule for the last 28 years.
Turkey is increasingly worried that the chaos in Syria will open up a new base for Kurdish rebels to press their struggle for self-rule. The government in Ankara has warned it would "not tolerate" any rebel threats from Syrian territory and has staged a number of military drills across the border to put a fine point on it.
The tensions feed myriad concerns that Syria's civil war could spill across borders into a wider regional conflagration.
Turkey has emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of the Assad regime and serves as a base for generals of the Free Syrian Army rebel group and the Syrian National Council opposition group.
In relinquishing border areas to Kurdish fighters, the Syrian regime may have had a dual motive — diverting forces from there to shore up overstretched troops fighting in the northern commercial hub of Aleppo and other parts of the country as well as sending a warning to Turkey.
"With the Syrian government's control over northern parts of the country diminishing ... Ankara's primary concern is that the Syrian Kurds may seek to establish an autonomous state in the region," an August security briefing by British-based risk analysis firm Maplecroft said.
Already, large parts of northern Syria, including a long stretch of the border with Turkey, have fallen under rebel control. In addition to that, the Assad regime has suffered a series of setbacks over the past month that point to a loosening of its grip on the country.
The regime forces pulled back from the Kurdish areas along the border last month shortly after rebels struck in the capital Damascus with unprecedented attacks and a bombing that killed four of Assad's top security aides. There has also been a steady stream of high-level defections by government officials, diplomats and generals, though Assad's inner circle and military have largely kept their cohesive stance behind him. And the regime has been unable to fully subdue rebel challenges in the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
At the same time, Syria's civil war has increasingly taken on deeply sectarian undertones, pitting Assad and his Alawite minority — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — against an opposition dominated by majority Sunni Muslims.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria and make up around 10 to 15 percent of the country's 23 million people. Most of them live in the northeaster Hasakeh province near the border with Turkey. Large neighborhoods of Damascus and Aleppo also are Kurdish-dominated.
Kurds have long complained of neglect and discrimination. Assad's government for years argued they are not Syrians, but Kurds who fled from Iraq or neighboring Turkey.
With the uprising, both the Syrian government and opposition forces began reaching out to the long-marginalized minority whose support could tip the balance in the conflict.
Early on in the revolt, Assad ceded ground on a major Kurdish demand, granting citizenship to some 200,000 members of the ethnic minority who were registered as aliens before. Mindful of provoking the Kurds, security forces have refrained from using deadly force to put down protests in Kurdish regions.
The opposition has courted the Kurds, staging demonstrations under Kurdish names in hopes of rallying the community against Assad. In June, Abdelbaset Sieda, a Kurd, was elected as head of the Syrian National Council.
The Kurds in turn took part in the anti-Assad protests staged every Friday, but carried their own flags and chanted their own slogans. In this way, they distanced themselves from the Turkey-backed, Sunni-dominated opposition movement, fearing they would not fare much better if the rebels came to power.
Last month, villagers say, Syrian security forces simply abandoned posts in several border towns and villages outside Qamishli including Amouda, Dirbasiyeh, al-Malkia — as well as Ayn el-Arab and Afrin north of the city of Aleppo.
The government forces were quickly replaced by Kurdish fighters from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD. The group is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, rebels fighting for autonomy in the Kurdish-dominated southeast region of Turkey. The PKK maintains bases in northern Iraq from where they launch hit-and-run attacks on Turkish targets.
"The regime is sending messages to Turkey through the PYD," said Mustafa Osso, a Kurdish lawyer and activist in the city of Qamishli. "The main message is that the Syrian regime has the capacity to spread chaos in the region."
The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union and has long been suspected of having close ties with Assad's Baathist regime.
If Kurds in Syria seek greater autonomy, this in turn could trigger a strong separatist drive from Turkey's Kurds in the east and south-east of the country, a potential crisis for the government in Ankara.
Gerges called the regime pullout a win-win situation for the Syrian regime.
"They know they cannot take on the Kurdish community and they realized that they have common interests with the PYD because the common enemy for both of them is Turkey," Gerges said.
PYD officials deny they are affiliated with the PKK or that they coordinate with the Syrian regime. They say they will not allow Syrian authorities to return to the areas they relinquished — but nor will they allow Syrian rebel fighters to enter their areas.
It is a unique opportunity for the Kurdish community in Syria, and residents say a politicization process has already started.
For the first time, Kurdish flags have replaced Syrian flags in towns and villages near the border areas. Cultural centers have sprung up and some people have begun taking up classes in the Kurdish language, which was forbidden by Assad.
Kurdish parties also are beginning to build networks with their Kurdish counterparts in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, confirmed last month that Syrian Kurds had received training in Iraqi Kurdistan although he said they had not taken part in fighting in Syria.
Also last month, Barzani brokered an agreement between rival Kurdish factions PYD and the Kurdish National Council, the main Kurdish umbrella group, to control the vacated areas together.
Osso says the reports of Kurdish empowerment and growing autonomy are exaggerated, adding that Syrian forces may return at any minute.
"But what is sure is that there will be no going back to the previous era of subordination and oppression," Osso said.
Although every Kurd aspires for statehood, Syria's Kurds say their goal is rather to become more autonomous.
They realize they are not even a majority in the areas where they live, where they coexist with ethnic Arab Muslims and Christians. The presence of oil wells in the fertile region may also be a cause of future friction with the Arabs in the region.
"A separate state is every Kurdish person's dream," said Siro Issa, a 24-year-old activist and singer, from the town of Amouda. "But we realize the difficulties.
"All we want is our rights, nothing more."