Iraq politics: Iraqi Kurds support their brethren in Syria
Publisher: Economist Intelligence Unit
Story date: 11/12/2012
Language: English

The Syrian civil war is having ramifications over the border in Iraq, including in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The semi-autonomous region's relations with Syrian Kurds are contributing to tensions with the Iraqi central government and present a risk to strengthening ties with Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds have attempted to foster greater unity among the two main Syrian Kurdish factions and have been providing shelter to refugees and also military training. Amid the uncertainty in Syria we expect that the KRG will continue to support its brethren across the border, but will also seek to avoid alienating Turkey.

The Kurds are often described as the largest people group without their own nation. They number more than 30m, with around half this number in south-east Turkey and the remainder split mainly between northern Iraq and north-west Iran, with a smaller community of around 2m in north-east Syria (plus enclaves in north and north-west Syria). Decades of struggle for rights and autonomy, combined with their backing of Kurdish rebels in rival states, have produced an alphabet soup of Kurdish parties and militias, often in conflict with each other.

The Iraqi Kurds have secured the most autonomy of any Kurdish community in modern history. There have long been suspicions that the Iraqi Kurds would like to go beyond mere autonomy and claim independence, particularly since the discovery of sizeable oil and gas reserves that could theoretically sustain an independent state. However, the KRG is geographically isolated and is forging closer links with Turkey, in order to reduce dependence on the central government in Iraq. The conflict in Syria has the potential to reshuffle the cards in the deck in ways that could either aid or undermine Kurdish aspirations.

Uneasy unity among Syrian Kurds

Much of the Syrian Kurdish community tried to take a neutral stance during the first year of that country's civil war. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, sought to win over the Kurds last year by promising to extend citizenship to around 200,000 Kurds who had long been denied it. However, this pledge (which seems to have only been partly implemented), at most bought the regime a period of quiet in the Kurdish regions. Kurds have faced a difficult decision, because although they have been oppressed by the Assad regime, they fear that its defeat could lead to a state dominated by Sunni Arabs (and potentially by Islamists amongst them) that could prove more oppressive than Mr Assad, who has relied upon support from other minority groups.

There are currently two assertive trends in the Syrian Kurdish community. The Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) was founded in 2003 as the Syrian offshoot of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting a violent campaign against the Turkish authorities for decades. It appears to be the best organised and militarily strongest group. The Kurdish National Council (KNC) is a coalition of 15 parties formed in Irbil, the capital of the KRG, in October 2011, with the support of the KRG. The formation of the KNC was partly seen as a counter to the PYD/PKK. However, the Iraqi Kurds have sought to foster unity between the two factions, brokering an agreement in July 2012 to form a joint Kurdish Supreme Council and to unify their militias into the Popular Protection Units.

Clashes with the Syrian opposition

In mid-2012 Kurdish groups began to bring their forces into the field, and by November they had secured control of most of the north-east corner of the country, as well as Kurdish enclaves along the Turkish border such as Afrin and Ayn al-Arab. A regional Kurdish government was formed in Qamishli, the main city in the north-east, and a parliament elected. The PYD was at the forefront of this push, and the apparent ease with which it took over from government forces has led to accusations that it is in an alliance with the regime.

These suspicions were fed by statements last year by both the PYD chairman, Salih Muslim, who said that there was a de facto tactical truce with the regime, and, more significantly, by a PKK commander, Cemil Bayik, who warned Turkey in November 2011 that if it intervened in Syria then the PKK would join the fight on Mr Assad's side. However, even if there had been some tacit agreement with the regime, recent conflict between the PYD and regime forces suggests that it no longer holds.

In any case, there have been serious clashes between Kurdish forces and opposition militias. In particular, there were clashes in Kurdish neighbourhoods of Aleppo in October and in Ras al-Ayn in November. Most of the clashes seem to have been not with the Western-supported Free Syria Army, which signed a truce with the Kurds on November 5th, but with Islamist groups such as the Front for the Protection of the People of Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra Li-Ahl al-Sham).

Alms and arms

Aside from the political support in unifying the Syrian Kurdish factions, the Iraqi Kurds have been providing shelter to refugees, as well as military training and-probably-weapons. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has data on around 55,000 refugees from Syria in the KRG, which is likely to be an underestimate; most of these are likely to be Syrian Kurds.

By contrast, the Iraqi central government has been unenthusiastic about hosting Syrian refugees, given concerns that the refugees might include jihadists who could contribute to ongoing conflict in Iraq (which has only this year been eclipsed in intensity by the Syrian war). It currently hosts fewer than 9,000 Syrian refugees.

The different approaches to border control created a military standoff between Iraqi and KRG forces in July, when the central government sought to garrison Fishkabour, the border crossing between the KRG and Syria. This echoed the periodic standoffs between the two over the disputed territories in northern Iraq.

Ties with Turkey

While the Iraqi Kurds are keen to support their brethren in Syria, they cannot easily risk alienating Turkey, which objects to the PYD given its relationship to the PKK. Ties between the KRG and Turkey have been strengthening, with trade surging and energy co-operation plans proliferating. Turkey has in part been prioritising relations with the KRG in the hope that the group will help Turkey to contain the PKK. Stronger bilateral ties also reflect the sharp worsening of relations between Iraq and Turkey, and between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad.

Balancing these aims will be far from straightforward. Massoud Barzani, the KRG president, may be hoping to play a mediating role in the future, to deliver Syrian Kurdish support to Syrian rebels backed by Turkey and perhaps to peel the PYD away from the PKK, in return for their protection in a new Syria, perhaps along the lines of the KRG federal model.

However, this may become harder to achieve if the conflict drags on much longer, if the Islamist rebels become even stronger or if the PYD-KNC alliance breaks down. Furthermore, a second autonomous Kurdish region would fuel concerns in both Iraq and Turkey about Kurdish regional irredentism.
 

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