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Syrian Kurds find refuge in Iraq’s Kurdish region

- - Tuesday, December 4, 2012

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.

It is another front in the complex Syrian civil war.

Turkey continues to support the rebel Free Syrian Army, but ethnic Kurds in Syria are distrustful of the predominately Sunni Arab rebels. Clashes between Syrian Kurdish rebels and Sunni Arab militias have erupted over the past several months.

Last year, Mr. Barzani helped create the Syrian Kurdish National Council as a bulwark to the Democratic Union Party, but there is been little progress on forging unity, as the factions remain divided.

"We've seen Barzani's influence in Syria is very limited," said Hugh Pope of the International Crisis Group in Istanbul.

At the same time, Mr. Barzani's Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party, with its flags flying in the Domiz camp, has taken a hard line against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, listed as a terrorist group by the United States, European Union and Turkey.

With Mr. Barzani's support, Turkey in recent weeks has ratcheted up airstrikes on suspected bases of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, tucked away in remote mountains on the Iraqi side of the border.

Eager trading partners

Despite its uneasiness with an ethnic Kurdish political entity on its borders, Turkey remains an important economic partner for the Kurdish region. It is eagerly trading goods in exchange for hard currency and oil shipments. The Kurdish region has potential oil reserves of about 45 billion barrels, about one-third of the amount in southern Iraq.

The relationship between Turkey and Iraq's Kurdish region is a very public one.

Turkey recently sent its foreign minister to visit the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdish leaders threw a party for Turkish business leaders this month on the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic.

"Turkey's policy of cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan is not a tactical move, but it reflects a continuing strategy," said Aydin Selcen, Turkey's consul-general in the Kurdish region, in a speech to mark the occasion.

Despite the high-level cooperation between the Turkey and Kurds of northern Iraq, many Syrian Kurds were lured to the Domiz camps because they said they felt unwelcome in Turkey.

"Turks don't accept us, so we came to the Kurdish area," said Ahmad Ibrahim, a 30-year-old barber who has set up shop in the camp.

Earlier this month, Mr. Barzani called on Kurdish factions in Syria to cease fighting and work toward a common purpose. Syria's Kurds, who make up 10 percent of the population, do not have the numbers or clout to hold territory and will need to unify as soon as possible, said Mr. Pope of the International Crisis Group.

"At the end of the day, [Syria's Kurds] are going to have to come to some sort of deal with whoever rules Syria," he added. "But in the meantime, they're trying to consolidate their hold on as much territory as they can get."

Turkey is trying to control the situation by attempting to stage-manage Syrian rebels and also work with Mr. Barzani, said Mr. Pope. However, he predicted Turkey's maneuvering will not lead to any lasting solution.

"Turkey is clearly trying to use its relationship with Barzani to mitigate its Kurdish problem and try to get some control over the situation in northern Syria where Kurds are being empowered," he said.

"Ultimately, it cannot control President Barzani in Iraq, and it has no way of determining the fate of Syria's Kurds."