Syria’s Kurds Look to Iraqi Minority for Support / Barzani & West Kurdistan

By BEN GITTLESON – January 31, 2013 – New York Times – ERBIL, IRAQ — As war rages across the border in Syria, the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq has emerged as a lead backer of Syrian Kurds , hoping another empowered Kurdish entity like itself will emerge should the Syrian regime fall.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s embrace of the Syrian Kurdish cause has expanded its regional clout and may promote the Kurdish nationalist credentials of its president, Massoud Barzani, among the millions of Kurds spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Iraqi Kurdistan has given humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of Syrian Kurdish refugees, played host to leading Syrian Kurdish political groups, and trained hundreds of Kurdish defectors from the Syrian Army. Northeast Syria, where many Kurds live, has stayed largely quiet compared with the rest of the country. With the Syrian Army busy in other parts of the country, Kurdish groups have taken over security in parts of the region. The crisis presents a historic opportunity for Syria’s 2 million Kurds, who have long suffered state-sponsored discrimination. Syria’s Kurds live near the Iraqi and Turkish borders and in major cities across the country. The leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, which in the last decade has gained an unprecedented amount of autonomy from Baghdad, hope Syrians will emulate what they see as their success with federalism. The northern Iraqi region boasts its own security force, social services and diplomatic missions around the world, though tensions with the central Iraqi government remain high over oil, territory and security disputes.

“We want the Kurds to have a role in formulating a future Syria,” said Hamid Darbandi, a deputy minister in charge of the Syria portfolio for Kurdistan’s president. While Syrian Kurdish leaders say the Iraqi Kurds have not pressured them to choose a certain system of governing, the Kurdish Regional Government has made clear it favors applying its own experience to Syria. Federalism gives Syrians “the opportunity to stay together,” Mr. Darbandi said.

With scars of inter-Kurdish fighting in northern Iraq still fresh and signs of the same emerging in Syria, in July Mr. Barzani pushed for the formation of the Supreme Kurdish Committee, a power-sharing body that consists of the two leading Syrian Kurdish political groups. In doing so, Mr. Barzani raised Turkey’s ire by accepting the participation of the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., a Syrian Kurdish group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the P.K.K. For decades the P.K.K. has waged an insurgency against Turkey, which along with the United States and European Union considers it a terrorist organization.

The P.Y.D. holds the most military clout and popular support on the ground, analysts say, and Mr. Barzani showed pragmatism in bringing it to the table even though his party’s views align more with the other half of the Supreme Kurdish Committee, a coalition of groups known as the Kurdistan National Council, or K.N.C.

Over the last several years, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan have built flourishing economic and diplomatic relations, despite Turkey’s strained relations with its own large Kurdish population. Energy-starved Turkey aims to benefit from an oil boom in Kurdistan, while the Kurdish Regional Government has used trade with Turkey to increase its economic independence from Baghdad. “We hope that those relations, economic relations, won’t affect the politics or relations between southern Kurdistan and western Kurdistan,” said the P.Y.D.’s leader, Salih Muslim, referring to Iraqi Kurdistan and northeast Syria. “Until now, we haven’t seen anything.” While both Turkey and Kurdistan back the Syrian opposition, they see different endgames for the Syrian Kurds, with Turkey worried that autonomy for Syrian Kurds might inspire a push for autonomy among its Kurdish population, analysts say.

The K.N.C. supports a federal system for Syria, while the P.Y.D. calls that idea unfeasible since the country’s many ethnic groups are geographically mixed. Both parties praise Mr. Barzani’s leadership.

“He’s helping us politically. Wherever he goes, he says the Kurds in Syria have their own rights,” Abdul Hakim Bachar, secretary of the Syrian affiliate of Mr. Barzani’s party, a member of the K.N.C., said in his office in Erbil. “Wherever he has negotiations with other countries, a part of what he says is about the Syrian Kurds.”

Turkey’s and Kurdistan’s shared embrace of the Syrian Kurds runs afoul of Tehran and Baghdad, who have backed the ruling Syrian regime to different degrees. The Syrian Kurdish issue has further strained already tense relations between the Iraqi central government and Kurdistan.

As regional powers jockey for influence among the Syrian Kurds, though, deep distrust persists between Syrian Kurdish political leaders, and the extent of their influence on the ground is dubious as they try prevent potential clashes between Arabs and Kurds. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdistan is grappling with a flood of refugees that could soon overwhelm the Kurdish Regional Government and international groups providing aid to refugees.

Nearly 80,000 Syrians have fled to Iraq, the vast majority Syrian Kurds; most live in a refugee camp near the border. The regional government has allocated millions of dollars in aid to the refugees and allowed them freedom of movement and access to jobs.

A sense of kinship with fellow Kurdish “brothers and sisters” has compelled the Iraqi Kurds to offer aid and has opened their communities to refugees at the risk of upsetting the social balance.

To try to slow the daily flow of hundreds of refugees into Kurdistan, in recent weeks the Kurdish Regional Government started sending food and fuel across the border into Syria. While aid workers said the regional government’s support is not ostensibly politicized, refugees in Kurdistan praised Mr. Barzani as a role model. Farhan Hassan Mahmoud, a Syrian Kurd who fled to Iraq three months ago, last week watched volunteers from a local refugee-aid group unload donations in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Erbil, home to a recent influx of Syrian refugees. Volunteers distributed bags of winter clothes, blankets and food in front of the local office of Mr. Barzani’s party. “We thank President Barzani andJalal Talabani,” the Kurdish president of Iraq, said Mr. Mahmoud, who like many Kurds born in Syria has been deprived of citizenship by the Syrian government. Mr. Barzani is setting an example for Kurdish-majority areas in Syria, Mr. Mahmoud added. “God willing,” he said, “they will become like Iraqi Kurdistan.”