BEIRUT (AP) -- Taking advantage of the chaos of the civil war, Syria's Kurdish minority has carved out a once unthinkable degree of independence in their areas, creating their own police forces, even their own license plates, and exuberantly going public with their language and culture.
But by pursuing their own path distinct from both the opposition and the regime, they are also colliding with Sunni rebels, who have increasingly clashed with Kurdish militiamen. Rebels have besieged a pocket of Kurdish towns and villages in the mainly Sunni Arab corner of northwest Syria for weeks, leading to reports of shortages of food and medicine.
The fighting threatens to expand into an ethnic war between Kurds and Arabs, adding another layer to the potent mix of fighters and conflicts in a brutal civil war that, according to the United Nations, has already killed 93,000 people. The ethnic tensions come on top of virulent sectarian hatreds between pro-rebel Sunnis and pro-regime Alawites and Shiites that have spiraled amid the fight for power.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, 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. The capital Damascus and Syria's largest city, Aleppo, also have several predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods.
Long put down by President Bashar Assad's regime, the Kurds are now exulting in the new, de facto autonomy that they seized. As the fighting intensified last summer, particularly in the northern province of Aleppo, Assad's forces were stretched thin and pulled back from mainly Kurdish towns and villages near the Turkish border, ceding de facto control to armed Kurdish fighters.
Over the past year, some Kurds began openly calling for an officially autonomous region in Syria similar to that of northern Iraq.
Vehicles sporting license plates reading "Rojava Kurdistan," or "western Kurdistan," have become more common. Kurdish red, green and white flags with a sun in the middle -- the same flag flown in Iraqi Kurdistan -- fly over homes and public offices. A local police force known "Asayish," whose members include women, have taken over security in the areas abandoned last year by Assad's forces.
Kurds now study their own language and cultural heritage in schools. Under Assad, Kurds have not been allowed to openly teach their language or celebrate their New Year, or Nowruz, and Kurdish activists were routinely jailed.
"There was a political vacuum and it was filled," said Mustafa Osso, secretary general of the Azadi Kurdish Party in Syria and a senior member with the National Kurdish Council, an umbrella to 15 groups.
"A future Syria should be democratic, pluralist and cannot be ruled by a central government any more. We want to propose a political program that Syria be a federal state like Iraq," he told The Associated Press.
But Kurdish gunmen and rebels have fought several pitched battles over the past months.
Since late last month, rebels have laid siege to a predominantly Kurdish pocket around the town of Afrin, northwest of the city of Aleppo.
In a statement Monday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights warned of shortages of food, milk and medicine in the Afrin area. It said hospitals in the area are concerned about the spread of tuberculosis because of a lack of medicines. The Afrin region, halfway between Aleppo and the Turkish border, has a population of more than half a million, along with more than 200,000 Syrians who fled there from fighting elsewhere, said the Observatory, an anti-regime group that has a network of activists on the ground.
The Afrin assault began when rebels wanted to pass through it to attack the predominantly Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra, controlled by Assad loyalists, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said. After Kurdish groups refused, rebels attacked Kurdish checkpoints and laid siege, beginning May 25.
Dozens have been killed on both sides in the clashes since, he said. Kurdish groups in the area are mostly secular, while the rebels in the northern regions are made up of Muslim extremists, including al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
"There is no trust between the two sides," Abdul-Rahman told The Associated Press. "There are efforts taking place to prevent a bigger war that could burn the region."
The fighting reflects in part the Kurds' complicated response to Assad and the uprising against him. When the revolt began in March 2011, some Kurds joined in the peaceful protests against his rule.