BEIRUT: Syria's Kurds have imposed compulsory military service for their men to help ward off a push by Islamist extremists in the predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria, Kurdish officials said Thursday.
The move reflects rising anxiety among Syrian Kurds who fear the ongoing offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) group in their region may potentially reverse gains made by their ethnic minority in the past three years.
Amid the chaos of the civil war in Syria, the Kurds - a long ostracized community - have made unprecedented gains, carving out their own semi-autonomous territory in northern Syria as overstretched government troops abandoned the region to focus on defending Damascus, President Bashar Assad's seat of power.
The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 with Arab Spring-inspired protests against Assad's rule but escalated into a civil war after his forces launched a brutal crackdown on dissent.
In November, the Syrian Kurds - who had long tried to stay out of the fight - declared their own civil administration in areas under their control, dividing it into the regions of Afrin, Kobani and Jazeera.
Subsequently, Kurdish fighters known as the People's Protection Units successfully pushed out jihadists from a string of towns and captured long stretches of territory along the borders with Turkey and Iraq.
But things changed this month, after militants from ISIS seized territories straddling the Iraq-Syria border where they declared a self-styled caliphate. Using advanced weaponry they seized from Iraqi forces, the Islamist fighters launched an offensive against the Syria's northern Kurdish region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, capturing several predominantly Kurdish villages.
The latest round of fighting between the Syrian Kurds and the jihadists, which broke out on July 2, has left dozens of people 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 of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is reinforcing its positions around us and there are clashes. They are shelling us with tanks," said Kobani-based Kurdish journalist Barzan Isso.
Juan Mohammad, a spokesman for the local administration in the Kurdish city of Qamishli, said the region of Jazeera - the largest of the three Syrian Kurdish territories in size and population - adopted the draft law this week.
The law, which requires that all adult males serve in "self-defense" duty for six months, was approved during a meeting by the legislative council that acts as Jazeera's local parliament Sunday. Isso and Kurdish activist Mustafa Osso confirmed the law went into effect this week after it was published in the official Gazette.
The long-run battles between the Syrian Kurds and the Islamist 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-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and their former allies of ISIS.
Syrian government forces pounded the central town of Morek Thursday in an attempt to wrest it from rebels, two activist groups said.
Military helicopters dropped barrels packed with explosives on the city overnight, said the Local Coordination Committees. More than 20 bombs were dropped by aircraft on the town Wednesday, reported the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Morek is one of three towns that lie on a strategic highway linking central and northern Syria. Rebels, linked mostly to Islamist groups, have been holding the town for the past four months.
Forces loyal to Assad appear to be trying to seize Morek to supply the Wadi Deif military base, which is further to the north.
The Observatory said at least 15 people, including four civilians, were killed in the fighting Wednesday.
Over the past year, Assad's forces have been steadily seizing territory from the rebels. Despite the relentless civil war, Assad was inaugurated for a third term in office in a lavish ceremony Wednesday.
The Syrian conflict has killed at least 170,000 people, a third of them civilians, and displaced some nine million people, a third of the country's pre-war population.