Syrian Kurds find refuge in Iraq’s Kurdish region

CAMP DOMIZ, Iraq — Ethnic Kurds fleeing Syria are finding a safe haven among Iraq’s Kurdish population, but divided loyalties and distrust of Turkey leave open questions as to how the refugees will align themselves as the Syrian civil war drags on in its 20th month of bloodshed.

Kurds live in large swaths of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. In northern Iraq, they enjoy self-rule, and the local government of the Kurdish Autonomous Region has ready cash, thanks to the region’s oil wealth.

Domiz, its largest refugee camp, has absorbed more than 30,000 Syrian Kurds since April, growing into a veritable city of concrete houses and U.N. Refugee Agency tents lining muddy tracks.

Many in this hastily built camp are skilled middle-class Syrian Kurds from urban centers such as Aleppo. They have traveled hundreds of miles to be with fellow Kurds where they can speak their own Kurdish language and freely express their ancient culture.

“Inside the camp, people are getting along perfectly. No problems,” said Abu Heibal, an assistant manager for a tea importer in the ethnically mixed city of Qamishli in northern Syria who fled to Iraq after pro-government gunmen tried to kill him.

“In Qamishli, the army is trying to make trouble between the Kurds, Arabs and Christians.”

There is little opportunity for ethnic strife in the camp, where the refugees are Kurds. Syrian Arab refugees routinely are shuttled elsewhere, said Faisal Ahmed, a Syrian Kurd who works for the United Nations as a camp registration officer.

“Syrian Arabs go to other cities, like Sulaymaniyah or Erbil. This camp is for [the] Kurdish,” he said.

Barzani’s camp

The camp is run and financed by the Kurdish Regional Government, led by Massoud Barzani. His government’s largesse has bought the loyalty of many here. His party’s flags adorn many buildings, and refugees openly express their personal support for Mr. Barzani.

“I thank you, Massoud Barzani, and all people of Kurdish Iraq for everything, everything — everything!” Mr. Heibal said.

That loyalty to Mr. Barzani is important for Turkey, the region’s top trading partner, which has a history of conflict with separatist Turkish Kurds and is increasingly uneasy about Kurdish rebel gains inside Syria.

The dominant Kurdish faction in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, is tied to Turkey’s archfoe, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey for 28 years in a continuing conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Eva Savelsberg of the European Center of Kurdish Studies in Berlin said Democratic Union militiamen have increased their activities in recent weeks as they consolidate de facto control over parts of northern Syria.

“This is something that Turkey has major problems with,” she said.

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