BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s Kurds imposed compulsory military service for their men to ward off a push by Islamic extremists in the predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria, Kurdish officials said Thursday.
The move reflects fears among Syrian Kurds that the ongoing offensive by the Islamic State group in their region may potentially reverse gains made by their ethnic minority in the past three years.
The Kurds — a long ostracized community in Syria — have made unprecedented gains amid the three-year-old civil war, carving out a semi-autonomous territory in the north as overstretched government troops abandoned the region to focus on defending Damascus, President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.
In November, the Syrian Kurds declared their own civil administration in areas under their control, dividing it into the regions of Afrin, Kobani and Jazeera.
Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units successfully pushed out jihadis from a string of towns and captured stretches of territory along the borders with Turkey and Iraq.
But things changed this month, after militants from the Islamic State seized territories straddling the Iraq-Syria border where they declared a self-styled caliphate. Using advanced weapons seized from Iraqi forces, the Islamic fighters launched an offensive against the Syria’s northern Kurdish region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, capturing several predominantly Kurdish villages.
The fighting between the Syrian Kurds and the jihadis, which broke out on July 2, left dozens dead on both sides, according to activists. Hundreds of Kurds have flocked from neighboring Turkey to help their brethren, the activists said.
“The Islamic State is reinforcing its positions around us and there are clashes,” said Kobani-based Kurdish journalist Barzan Isso.
Juan Mohammed, a spokesman for the Kurdish city of Qamishli, said Jazeera — the largest of the three Syrian Kurdish territories in size and population — adopted the draft law this week.
It requires all adult males serve in “self-defense” duty for six months. The law was approved Sunday by the legislative council that acts as Jazeera’s local parliament. Isso and Kurdish activist Mustafa Osso said the law went into effect this week.
Isso told The Associated Press that according to the draft law, every family was required to have one of its male members between the ages of 18 and 30 do the service. After six months, the men can decide if they want to go to the front lines.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s 23 million people.
The Kurdish civil administration is dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, Syria’s most powerful Kurdish group.
The long-run battles between the Syrian Kurds and the Islamic militants have added another layer to the complex Syrian civil war, which has also seen bitter infighting among Sunni rebel factions and a bloody rivalry between the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and their former allies of the Islamic State.
Also Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State fighters captured a gas field east of the central province of Homs after heavy battles that killed 23 soldiers and guards at the facility.
The Observatory said more than 300 people, including guards, soldiers and employees at the field were also wounded or captured. The report could not be independently confirmed.
The Islamic State has captured much of Syria’s oil fields in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour over the past weeks.
The Syrian conflict has killed at least 170,000 people, a third of them civilians, and displaced some 9 million, a third of the country’s pre-war population.
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