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Kurdish Refugees: A hidden element in Syria’s civil war

September 2, 2013   ·   2 Comments

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An increase in fighting in the north-east of Syria between extremist rebels and Kurdish militias has resulted in a large wave of refugees fleeing into northern Kurdish Iraq. 44,000 refugees have crossed the border in the space of two weeks according to the UNHCR, and the number is set to increase in the weeks to come.

The north-east of Syria is home to the Kurds who make up around 10% of Syria’s 23 million people. Until this summer fighting had rarely touched the Kurdish areas of Syria – known as Western Kurdistan locally – but this was shattered in June when Islamist rebels attacked Kurdish militias at key strategic points. This fighting has continued throughout the summer, with no end in sight, forcing Kurds to flee en masse into northern Iraq.

Kurdish Syria was one of the first regions in Syria to take to the streets against the Assad government in April 2011. The north-east has seen limited fighting as Syrian government troops pulled out of the area to combat opposition elsewhere. The vacuum left was filled by Kurdish political groups and their militias, prompting many in the Syrian opposition to question the Kurds’ opposition to Assad.

The Kurds are not a united political group but are split into multiple political parties with differing loyalties to Kurdish groups outside of Syria. Chief among these political parties is the Democratic Union Party (PYD) who are closely allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is based in Turkey. The PYD are the only Kurdish political party in Syria with an extensive armed-wing known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Up until June this year the YPG had successfully defended Kurdish territory from incursions by both the Syrian government and the Syrian rebels, allowing the Kurds to remain an ‘independent’ force in the Civil War.

Fighting between the YPG and the extremist Islamist group al-Nusra began in June 2013. This fighting was focused on key strategic areas in Kurdish majority areas. Primarily among these areas have been the oil and gas fields of Rmeilan that had been under the control of the YPG since government forces left in 2011. The fiercest of this fighting was around the Turkish-border town of Ras al-Ayn which was captured from al-Nusra by the YPG on 17th July 2013.

The EU’s miscalculation

The sudden eruption of fighting in the north east was caused in part by the EU’s announcement in April 2013 that it was lifting the Syrian oil embargo that had been in place since Assad cracked down on peaceful protests in 2011. Before the embargo, oil exports, mainly to the EU, brought the Syrian government $3.6bn per year and made up nearly a quarter of the budget. The embargo was lifted to allow Syrian rebel groups to raise money to fight the regime. This miscalculated policy by the EU has caused the Syrian opposition to fracture even further than they already were. Islamist battalions such as al-Nusra diverted their forces away from fighting Assad in an attempt to secure oil fields held by Arab tribes in the east and Kurdish groups in the north.

Islamist groups claim that their intention in attacking Kurdish forces is to prevent the disintegration of Syria. This claim arose from the announcement by the PYD that they were forming an autonomous government in the north-east. However, the PYD’s leader Saleh Muslim retorted that “we’re not looking to break away from Syria. We are a part of this country, and we are one of the stakeholders in the Syrian crisis settlement process.” The attacks by the Islamist forces have faltered with Kurdish forces holding their ground.

Enter Iraq

The mass influx of 44,000 refugees in the space of two weeks has brought the number of refugees in Iraq to nearly 200,000, according to the UNHCR. Syrian Kurds have been welcomed into Iraq throughout the conflict. Iraqi Kurds have responded generously as many in the past themselves had fled as refugees from Saddam Hussein. Nearly 70% of those refugees who have entered Iraqi Kurdistan have been given accommodation within local communities, the rest finding themselves in rapidly overcrowded refugee camps close the border.

The large surge of refugees into Iraq in August appears strange as fighting has been taking place for nearly three months now. The exodus of such a large number is the result of the border finally opening between Syria and Iraq. Many of those who crossed the border had reportedly been turned away before. The question of the border crossing highlights the role of external powers, specifically the PKK and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (KRG).

The border between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas had been closed by both sides in a proxy power struggle between Kurdish groups within the wider Kurdish movement. On one side is the PYD, which is widely seen as a Syrian branch of the dominant Turkish Kurdish group, the PKK, and on the other the Iraqi Kurdish government the KRG. The border has been closed unofficially since May 2013 when KRG trained Syrian Kurdish militias attempted to pass into Syria but were blocked by the PYD’s militia.

As fighting has continued between Islamists and the YPG, Massoud Barzani, the head of the KRG, has been increasingly sidelined. This led him on 10th August 2013 to write in a letter that “if the reports are true, showing that citizens, women and the children of innocent Kurds are under threat from murder and terrorism, Iraq’s Kurdistan region will make use of all of its capabilities to defend women and children and innocent civilians.”

The opening of the border reflects Barzani’s attempt to assert himself as a potential leader of the Kurdish movement as a whole. As fighting continues for the key oil and gas fields more Kurds will flee into Iraq and the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan will be drawn deeper into the ongoing conflict in Syria.

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