Bilgay Duman, ORSAM Middle East Specialist
According to the latest news, it is said that the YPG forces turned towards Al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing on Syria’s Iraqi border and that they will attack on the opposition forces, seizing the control of the border crossing, in order to seize the control of the border crossing.
PYD’s seizing the control of the border crossing would be an advantage for the Kurdish movement in Syria in terms of “autonomy”, and also it is of critical importance in terms of gaining advantage over the opposition groups and contacting with Iraqi Kurds. On the other hand, while PYD’s seizing the control of al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing would change the balances in Syria, it would also have an impact on Iraq. This analysis seeks to assess the strategic importance of al-Yarubiyah Border Gate for Iraq and how the balances in Iraq would be affected if PYD seized the control of the border crossing.
The Importance of Al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing
Al-Yarubiyah Border Gate is Syria’s only official border crossing between al-Hasakah, which is predominantly populated by Kurds, and the Mosul province of Iraq. On the Iraqi side of al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing is found the town of Rabia in Tal-Afar district of Mosul. Therefore, it is known as the Rabia Border Crossing on the Iraqi side. Although Tal-Afar is predominantly populated by Turkmens, the Shammar tribe which is an important tribe of Arabs lives in the town of Rabia, Tal-Afar. Whilst almost the whole town is populated by Arabs. Turkmens who migrated to Rabia due to the incidents that took place in Tal-Afar in 2003 settled in the town. Also, it is known that most of the government officials here are Turkmen due to the fact that Rabia is thes town of Tal-Afar.
This borderline which is one of the most important crossing points of Iraq with Syria has become the target for many times after the outbreak of incidents in Syria. On 2 March 2013, certain armed groups within the Free Syrian Army seized the control of al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing that is located on al-Hasakah border of Syria. The troops of the Assad regime in al-Yarubiyah crossed the border to Iraq, and the Iraqi army also attacked back when the Free Syrian Army which crossed the border to Iraq opened fire on Syrian regime’s army. After the incident, an Iraqi military convoy headed to the al-Waleed border crossing in Anbar province of Iraq to safely deliver the Syrian soldiers who had crossed to Rabia to the Syrian authorities. However, the convoy fell into an ambush near Akashat in the west of Anbar; 48 Syrian soldiers and 13 Iraqi troops were killed, and four Iraqi military vehicles were destroyed in the attack.
On March 4, the Iraqi army launched a large-scale operation in the area to hunt down the attackers. On March 5, the Iraqi army sent a large number of troops as well as tanks and helicopters to the Rabia border crossing. On the same day, the Iraqi army attempted to enter Sinjar but was stopped by the peshmerga forces in the region. The attack which resulted in the seizure of Syria’s al-Yarubiyah border crossing was reportedly led by Jassim al-Shammari’s Jazeera Freedom Brigade that is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. As his surname indicates, the leader of the group belongs to the Shammars, a Sunni Arab tribe. Even though Shammars are present also in Syria, the tribe is concentrated in Mosul, living in the neighborhood of Rabia. During a meeting held in Mosul on March 3, the Shammar tribe urged the Iraqi government not to attack the Free Syrian Army at al-Yarubiyah, saying that those were people from their tribe.
Following the incident, the opposition groups seized the control of al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing. When PYD could not provide the logistic support here, it reached an agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (KRG) and tried to provide logistic support through the unofficial border crossing station established by KRG in the north of Rabia to provide support for the 2004 Qamishli events in Syria. However, from time to time KRG closed the border crossing due to the problems between KRG and PYD. Therefore, al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing becomes more important for PYD.
The Impact of Possible PYD Control over Al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing on Iraq
It is possible to make the assessments indicated below in terms of the impact of possible PYD seizure of al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing on the balances in Iraq.
1. The Rabia Border Crossing on the Iraqi side of the al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing is under the control of the Iraqi central government. While the Iraqi central government gives open support to the Assad regime, it tries to take drastic measures especially in border zones in order to prevent Syrian opposition groups from entering Iraq. It is known that PYD has not adopted a clear attitude in favor of war against Bashar Assad, and even that Bashar Assad sympathized PYD for fighting against opposition groups. In tis regard, it might be suggested that the Iraqi central government which provides open support for the Assad regime will not directly target PYD. Thus, it might also be suggested that PYD will have a broader realm of activity. Considering the news that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held talks with senior officials of PYD in the past months, it could be seen that the Iraqi central government and PYD mutually agreed not to intervene despite the lack of cooperation between the central government and PYD.
2. If YPG intervened to seize the control in al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing, Iraq could give support to the opposition groups seizing the control of the border crossing. It is known that the opposition forces that seize the control of the border crossing are relatives with Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq and that the crossing between Syria and Iraq has increased since the outbreak of the uprisings in Syria. Furthermore, Sunni Arab rebels in Iraq has reportedly crossed to Syria in order to support the opposition groups against Assad. In case of YPG’s intervention in the border crossing, the support to be provided by Sunni Arabs from Iraq to opposition groups could have negative impacts on stability and security in Iraq. The incidents that took place on March 2013, mentioned above, should be kept in mind. Besides, in case there is an external threat for the Kurdish national identity, it is also necessary to note that there is a cooperation between the Kurdishness in Syria and Iraq, and that it was agreed to come to common ground to get rid of the threat. This situation brings along the possibility that Sunni Arabs, who support the opposition in Syria, could face the the Iraqi Kurds who support PYD. Especially, it is likely that tension could emerge between Sunni Arab and Kurds, who seize the control of especially the disputed territories in Mosul and the Sunni Arab territories.
3. It is likely that the Iraqi central government will object to PYD’s seizure of the control of al-Yarubiyah Broder Crossing in case of an agreement and cooperation between PYD and KRG. The Iraqi central government faced the KRG on seizure of the control of Rabia Border Crossing on Iraqi side of al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing on July 2012, and the tension in the region reached both side’s escalating their armed forces. Although both Parties reached an agreement to eliminate the problems between the KRG and Iraqi central government as from June 2013, the agreement could be broken again due to the seizure of the control of Rabia Border Crossing.
4. However, if PYD seized the control of al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing, a new tension could emerge between PYD and KRG which wants to seize the control of the Iraqi side of the crossing. As is known, there is a tension almost reaching a conflict between PYD and KRG, which wants to have influence on Syrian Kurds through other Kurdish parties in Syria. Although an agreement was signed between PYD and other Kurdish parties in Syria in Erbil to ease the tension on February 2013, it is not possible to suggest that the tension is over due to the actual state.
5. One can assert that Turkmens, mostly living around the Iraqi side of the border crossing, will be negatively affected by PYD’s seizure of the control of al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing. With PYD’s seizing the control of al-Yarubiyah Border Crossing, Kurds who have especially wanted to seize the control of Tal-Afar and include it in KRG since 2003 will have total control over Sinjar and Zummar in the north of Tal-Afar; and the gap between the Kurds in Syria and Iraq will be closed. From this point of view, Kurds might increasingly narrow the living space of the Turkmen population in Tal-Afar. This situation will further increase the pressure on the Turkmen people in Tal-Afar. At this point, the rightfulness of opening the Ovaköy and Aktepe border crossings between Turkey and Iraq, which is requested by Turkmens for years, will come out.
(1) For a detailed analysis, see. Serhat Erkmen, “The Course of Conflict Between PYD and Opposition Armed Groups in Syria, and Possible Strategic Consequences”, http://orsam.org.tr/tr/yazigoster.aspx?ID=4606 , Erişim: 23 Temmuz 2013.