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Kurdish militia leader, widely reported dead, turns up alive

Nujin Derik was captured by rebels fighting to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad late last month when rebels entered Kurdish neighborhoods in Aleppo and clashed with the militia she led. the complexities of Syria’s ethnic fault lines. News of her death, supposedly at the hands of the rebels, was widely circulated by news agencies after it was reported Nov. 2 by the PYD Kurdish militia and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based organization that tracks Syria’s casualties.

But on Saturday she was welcomed with tears and celebratory gunfire in the Kurdish town of Afrin, north of Aleppo. While she provided no details of her two weeks in rebel hands, she offered support for their cause in the video, which was also broadcast by a Kurdish-language satellite television channel.

“I bless your struggle, I’m happy for you,” she said. “I thank the resistance and I like them and I will do whatever they want.”

Dirik also made reference to Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of a larger Kurdish armed group, the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, which has fought a decades-long guerrilla war in Turkey. Ocalan has been in a Turkish prison since 1999. The United States, the European Union and Turkey have labeled the PKK a terrorist group. “I hope that by our movement we will gain the freedom of our leader,” she said.

Syrian Kurds and their alliance with the PKK are a wild card in Syria’s civil war, which is portrayed primarily as a conflict between the Assad government and anti-Assad rebels, who are backed by Turkey. Syrian Kurds have long sought autonomy from the Assad regime - a number of the group’s leaders were hunted by the Syrian government - but they have been slow to embrace the rebels, the vast majority of whom are Arab Sunni Muslims who either oppose Kurdish autonomy or for whom it is not a priority.

The tensions are complicated by the PYD’s ties to the PKK and by the PYD’s recent accommodation with the Assad government, which turned control of much of Syria’s Kurdish areas over to the PYD in July after rebels launched offensives in Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s capital. To add to the complexity, the rebels also have Kurdish allies, notably the Kurdish National Council, which was formed last year as a counterweight to the PYD and is trying to negotiate between the rebels and the PYD to avoid further violence.

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Fighting between the rebels and the PYD broke out in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, two weeks ago. The PYD said the clashes began when rebels fired on a demonstration against their presence in two neighborhoods dominated by hundreds of thousands of Kurds. Kurdish supporters of the rebels claim the PYD manufactured the claims because of pressure from the Syrian government.

Whatever the truth, many Syrian Kurds are suspicious of the Arab rebels and their close ties to the Turkish government.

Kurdish opposition to the rebels is important strategically. The two neighborhoods in question, Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyeh, are all that stand between the rebel-held rural areas north of the city and contested neighborhoods in the city’s center and south. Capturing them would provide a push to the rebel offensive in Aleppo, which has bogged down after its initial gains in July.

The rebels also have met resistance in Aleppo from Armenians and Christians who’ve formed local militias supported by the government.

A PYD decision to allow the rebels to occupy Aleppo’s Kurdish neighborhoods could be a major victory for the rebels.

“For a long time, the (rebels) delayed the battle in Ashrafiyeh and Sheikh Maqsoud because they realize what kind of tension there could be,” said Abdo, a pro-rebel Kurdish activist from Aleppo who declined to give his last name. “Many Kurds are neutral, not supporting any side. If the Kurds join, it could speed up the fighting.”

The leader of one Kurdish group fighting with the rebels said Sunday that the PYD has been given an ultimatum.

“They can fight with us against the regime or fight against us. They recognize we have good fighters, and they will be under siege if they try to fight us,” said Piwar Mustafa, a defected Syrian army officer and a leader of the Salahedeen al Ayoubi rebel battalion. Mustafa is from Anadan, north of Aleppo, and his battalion fights in Aleppo and the surrounding rural areas.

“We will go to Ashrafiyeh and Sheikh Maqsoud, but we are planning to go with Kurdish battalions,” Mustafa said.

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