By Patrick Markey
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Some towns in northeastern Syria are flying yellow, green and red Kurdish flags as long-oppressed Kurds exploit an uneasy vacuum left by President Bashar al-Assad's retreating forces.
Syrian Kurds may be enjoying a breath of freedom after Assad appears to have ceded control of some areas to focus on the battle against mainly Sunni Muslim Arab rebels fighting in Damascus and Aleppo.
But their aspirations for autonomy could crumble into a complex power struggle involving rival Kurdish groups, Syrian opposition factions and nervous neighbors Turkey and Iraq.
In the last few weeks, Assad's forces have withdrawn from Kurdish towns or left only a token presence, opposition activists, security experts and diplomats say. The rebel Free Syrian Army is also absent, leaving Kurds to their own devices.
Or perhaps not quite.
Ankara has accused Assad of arming a Syrian Kurdish party closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey for the past 28 years in a struggle in which 40,000 people have been killed.
Turkey has threatened to intervene militarily to counter any threat from the PKK in northeastern Syria, where the pro-PKK Democratic Union Party (PYD) is observing a delicate agreement with its weaker rival, the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
The two Kurdish groups are divided over what goals to pursue if Assad falls and they distrust Syria's mainly Arab opposition.
The Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad is also looking on with alarm after Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan hosted a Turkish minister and sought influence in Kurdish parts of Syria, brokering the fragile unity agreement between the PYD and KNC.
Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is also training Syrian refugees to "protect" Kurdish areas when they return home.
"The Kurdish parts of Syria will undoubtedly become the focus of the power struggle that is emerging in the region over Syria," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University.
"Sunni Arabs and Turks will line up against it. Shi'ite forces will be inclined to encourage Kurdish independence if only to hurt the Sunni Arabs," he said, even though this seems at odds with Baghdad's own distaste for Kurdish aspirations.
Syrian Kurds have long faced discrimination, a lack of full citizenship rights and forced displacements. But Assad sought to dissuade them from joining the uprising against him that erupted elsewhere in March 2011 by promising citizenship.
Now the PYD says it has taken over Syrian towns such as Kobani, Derik and Efrin without a fight.
This, security analysts say, may be a ploy by Assad to allow PKK influence to expand, taking revenge on Turkey for hosting the rebel Free Syrian Army on its southern border.
For years Assad's late father sheltered Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK, branded a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies. A detente between Damascus and Ankara later forced PKK fighters in Syria to move to northern Iraq.
For now the situation in Syria's Kurdish areas, enjoying de facto autonomy, seems "relatively stable, but fragile", said one diplomat, who suggested that Turkish reactions and events elsewhere in Syria might determine how long this would last.
Kurdish autonomy is a sensitive topic not just for Turkey, but also for Assad's foes in the Syrian National Council (SNC), dominated by Arab groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Kurds believe the SNC has Arab nationalist instincts, hostile to Kurdish aspirations, even though its new leader is himself a Kurd.
In 2004, Syrian Kurds clashed with security forces after an incident in the Kurdish city of Qamishli. Then, they said, Kurds received no help from those now leading the anti-Assad revolt.
"The Kurds can no longer live like they did in the past," said PYD representative in Iraqi Kurdistan, Hussein Kojar.
"The Free Syrian Army could not get into our areas because our defense groups keep them out."
Iraqi Kurdistan's President Masoud Barzani helped forge the deal under which the PYD and the KNC formed a joint committee to promote Kurdish interests in Syria, pending Assad's fall.
KNC officials envisage elections after that, but do not deny political differences with their PYD partners.
"We have a deal to work together, share ideas, but we are not united in one body," KNC representative Abdul Hakim Bashar said. "Let's be clear, we have our party and they have theirs."
Turkish leaders are upset about the PYD wielding power in north Syria, warning of military action if the PKK starts to threaten Turkey from there. They stress Syrian national unity and want other Kurdish groups to assert themselves, not the PYD.
"Turkey faces a dilemma: it wants the (Assad) regime to go, but not to the benefit of the Kurds, and especially not the PYD/PKK," said Joost Hiltermann at International Crisis Group. "Turkey is now working with Barzani to contain the PKK."
Turkey's foreign minister met Syrian Kurdish leaders, but not the PYD, and the Syrian National Council in Arbil in August.
The crisis in Syria and how to handle Syrian Kurds are also causing friction between Baghdad and Arbil, which already feud over disputed land and oilfields on their own internal border.
The Iraqi government, close to Assad's main ally Iran, has resisted pressure from Saudi Arabia and Qatar for a tougher line on Assad, fearing hardline Sunnis might take power in Syria.
Kurdistan's regional government is closer to Turkey and has quietly begun helping Syria's Kurds.
"We are in favor of people getting their rights," Arbil's foreign relations chief, Falah Mustafa Bakir, told Reuters.
"We do not interfere in their affairs, the future of Syria has to be determined by the Syrians... but for us, the Kurds have to be respected and have to be recognized."
Kurdistan Peshmerga troops have given basic military training to a "few thousand" Kurdish refugees from Syria in anticipation of a chaotic aftermath should Assad fall.
Bakir said they could be sent back to Syria to protect Kurdish areas under the control of the PYD-KNC council.
All this worries Baghdad which already sees Kurdistan grabbing at more autonomy from central government by signing deals with oil majors such as Exxon, Chevron and Total.
It is a complex balance for Iraqi Kurds, weighing broader Kurdish ambitions against the benefits of friendship with Turkey, which offers investment and aid to build pipelines that may eventually give Kurdistan more energy autonomy from Baghdad.
"Kurdistan is acting like an independent nation," said Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "It is not good for Kurdistan to weaken Baghdad's foreign policy."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)