RAS AL-AYN, Syria -- "Quick, run, run," shouts Kurdish commander Roshna Akeed, as she orders two young female fighters to move toward a brick wall that represents the front line between Kurdish forces and al Qaeda-linked militants in this northern Syrian town.
Six male Kurdish fighters are already guarding this part of the front. They have removed some of the bricks from the five foot-high wall, and their guns peak through small holes toward the enemy, which is positioned in a hamlet roughly one-third of a mile away.
At the moment when the two female fighters arrive, the shooting erupts. One girl sporting a pony tail runs to the right, sticks her Kalashnikov through a hole in the wall and opens fire. Her male colleagues are also firing now. One man shoots through a hole in the wall while sitting on a white plastic chair. On the back of the chair is written in Arabic: "I love you until death."
As if Syria does not have enough war already, fighting recently broke out in the northeast of the country between Kurdish forces and radical Islamists -- both of whom are no friends of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. In Ras al-Ayn, all the country's problems come together: The town not only sits on the front lines of fighting between Kurds and Arabs, it is also located right on the edge of the Syrian-Turkish border. The Kurdish fighters in Syria are separated from Turkey's border troops -- traditionally the implacable enemies of any form of Kurdish separatism -- by only a 5-centimeter-thick iron gate.
The result is a civil war within a civil war. As the United States prepares for a military intervention in response to what it says was an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime on the eastern Damascus suburbs, it is just these sort of divides that could give American policymakers headaches for months and years to come. While U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has signaled that any strike will not aim to topple Assad, deeper U.S. involvement in the country's two-and-a-half-year civil war will mean more than a few Tomahawk missiles lobbed at military installations in Damascus - it will require grappling with the sectarian and ethnic divides that promise to define Syria's future.
For the Kurdish fighters in Ras al-Ayn, there is no doubt which side the United States should support.
"We are fighting America's war on terror right here on the ground," says Kurdish fighter Dijwar Osman. "Our enemies are those al Qaeda fighters who want to destroy our 4,000-year-old Kurdish culture. These jihadists come from Belgium, Holland, Morocco, Libya, and other countries. Unfortunately, the U.S. and Turkey are on the side of al Qaeda, just like the U.S. was on al Qaeda's side in Afghanistan during the '80's."
The fights erupted after Syria's 2 million Kurds declared "self-governance" this past June in a region the Kurds call "Western Kurdistan" or "Rojava," which is Kurdish for "where the sun sets."
Kurds account for 10 percent of Syria's population, making them the country's largest ethnic minority. And they have turned Rojava, which covers roughly 10 percent of the country, into a de facto Kurdish mini-state: They have their own army and police here, names of towns have been changed from Arabic to Kurdish, and the Kurdish language is being taught in schools -- something that was forbidden under the Assad regime.
While the Assad regime and the mainly Islamist Syrian opposition are engaged in a fight to the death elsewhere in the country, they are both staunchly opposed to Kurdish separatist ambitions. Both sides consider the self-governance declaration a first step toward Kurdish independence and a possible break-up of Syria. The move also alarmed the authorities of neighboring country Turkey, which is home to the world's largest Kurdish population and has a long history of violent Kurdish separatism.
The only way to enter Rojava is to sneak in illegally from Turkey or Iraq. We waited in the fields until soldiers weren't on the lookout and then followed a local smuggler across the no-man's land between the countries: We not only jumped a barbed wire fence but also traversed a narrow sand path through a minefield. As we crossed, the smuggler pointed to the area outside the path, saying "boom, boom" by way of warning.
In the town of Rumeilan, about 12 miles from the border with Iraq, you can hear the sound of outgoing mortars. "These go to the Islamists," says Aras Xani, a teacher at a local school who carries a pistol for protection.
"We Kurds are neutral," Aras continues. "We aren't with the regime, and we aren't with the rebels. The regime and the opposition are fighting a sectarian war, which can last decades. We don't want to have anything to do with it. We speak of the Kurdish Spring, not the Arabic Spring."
Although there is not much destruction in Rojava, the situation is far from normal here. In Rumeilan, the main street is barricaded by metal garbage containers -- a precaution against Islamist-made car bombs.
Al Qaeda-linked groups have started kidnapping Kurds in the area. Two of Aras's uncles have been taken after Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, attacked their family home. During our visit, Aras's mother sat expectantly on the floor in the living room next to a green phone, waiting for the latest information about them. Only five miles down the road, heavy fighting continues between Kurds and Islamists for control over the Syria-Iraq border town of Yarubiya.
Despite these problems, Aras is happy and proud of this Kurdish enclave. "I am now a Kurdish teacher in the same school where I as a child was not allowed to speak Kurdish," he says. "Look, that is what I call victory."