DERIK, Syria — The speaker at a youth rally in this small city tucked into the far northeast of Syria's Kurdish region has a sinister message for his audience.
"If you want to be free you must first shoot the traitor ... after that you must fight the enemy," he bellows over the assembled crowd, some of whom appear no older than five or six years old. The "traitors" he refers to are fellow Kurds.
Deep in the Kurdish heartland of the Al Hasaka region, this city of around 30,000 people sits amid some of the country's most valuable oil reserves. Nodding pumpjacks dot the plains around the town, but residents complain they've been able to reap none of the benefits of the rich resources under the soil, instead toiling in the cotton and wheat fields that stretch out to the rugged Turkish mountains in the north, and the Iraqi border in the south. Traditionally one of the bastions of opposition to Baath Party rule, the Kurds, who make up around 10 percent of the Syrian population, have long been marginalized. But in the streets of Derik, where agricultural workers from the surrounding villages mix with the city's burgeoning middle classes, there is an air of excitement -- though one tinged with trepidation.
As President Bashar al-Assad's forces are struggling to contain a bloody 19-month uprising, the Kurds in the country's northeast have largely been left to their own devices. The Assad regime still remains a presence in Derik, and its loyalists can be seen holed up in the intelligence building in the center of the city -- but they do not come out or react to the presence of foreign journalists. A freshly painted sign in the main square displays new name, in the formerly banned Kurdish language. "Azadi (Freedom) Square," it reads.
However, as the Kurds seize their opportunity to put in place the building blocks of autonomy -- and cultural centers blossom and new courts and local councils open -- there are fears that political infighting could shatter the fragile calm.
Hassan Kojar, the speaker at the gathering, is affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the separatist militia which has been fighting an invigorated campaign against Ankara in recent months.
"There are some traitors among the Kurds speaking ill of Ocalan, but speaking ill of Ocalan is speaking ill of all the Kurds," he continues.
A large flag above him bears the face of the PKK's incarcerated founder, Abdullah Ocalan, whose image can be seen hanging from the walls of most public buildings in Derik, which also goes by its Arabic name al-Malikiyah. PKK graffiti can be seen scrawled the walls near the city's main square.
Rival Kurdish parties complain that the PYD is holding a tight grip on power, not allowing them to participate in new institutions or hang the red, green, and white flag emblazoned with a yellow sun that is used in Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead, a yellow, red, and green striped flag preferred by the PYD, flies above local buildings.
The internal disputes are threatening to derail efforts to build the foundations of an autonomous region in the northeast of Syria. Local officials refrain from talking of independence, instead stressing they want federalism or autonomy, but what is clear is that they are determined to run things here themselves, racing to put in place the means to protect and govern before the state's or the opposition's attention turns to this resource rich region.
However, for neighboring Turkey, the dominance of a party linked to its bitter adversary, is provocation -- and a development that could spark further conflagration of the Syrian civil war outside the country's borders.