A rare welcome for Syria's Kurdish refugees

Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region has opened its arms to Kurdish refugees from Syria, giving them freedom to work and travel in the name of brotherhood. But analysts see deeper geopolitical motives at play. Louise Redvers reports from Duhok

Children attend a class at the Domiz refugee camp, 20km southeast of the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk, which houses Syrian-Kurd refugees.
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DUHOK, IRAQ // The children stand in two neat rows. Their teacher walks between them gently strumming a saz, a traditional Kurdish guitar, and on his signal they begin to sing.

They are a little of out tune, and not quite in time, but their bright smiles and enthusiastic claps more than make up for their lack of musical ability and the atmosphere in the room is warm and welcoming.

It is a rare moment of childhood for these youngsters, whose families have recently fled Syria and now live in cramped tents in the Domiz Refugee Camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, the semiautonomous region of northern Iraq. The camp is now home to more than 60,000 refugees - more than double the number for which it was planned.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has given its Syrian refugees - nearly all of whom are ethnic Kurds - renewable six-month residencies and work permits.

While this generosity has received wide praise, some analysts see deeper geopolitical motives at play, suggesting President Masoud Barzani is trying to win influence over all the region's Kurds, an ethnic group of about 25 million people spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria but without their own state.

On Saturday, Mr Barzani took the lead again, saying Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own armed forces, is ready to defend Kurds living in Syria if it is found that they are being threatened by Al Qaeda-linked fighters involved in the Syrian civil war.

"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 citizens," Mr Barzani said in a letter posted online.

In recent months fighting has intensified in northern Syria, pitting Kurdish groups, who want to claim autonomy there, against Islamist rebel factions.

The fighting is likely to send more Kurds into camps like Domiz, a sprawling sea of tents and shelters. It is cramped and overcrowded, sanitation is faltering and clean water is in short supply.

Sewage trickles through ditches next to tents and food stalls, tainting the air with a sour smell that hangs heavy in the searing heat.

Syrians have come to the camp, close to Duhok city, about 60 kilometres from the border, from all over Syria.

There are men, women and children, professionals, labourers, students and businessmen, but beyond these differences, they are nearly all, like their hosts, Kurdish.

"We are all Kurdish here, we have the same language and the same cultures," explained Ibrahim Khalil, who is from north-eastern Syria but had been studying for a master's in English literature in Homs.

The 24-year-old admitted conditions were difficult in the camp but said: "We have not been treated like refugees but rather like equals. There is a physical border between our countries but we feel like the same people, as brothers. It is natural for us to be here."

So far more than 150,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, and thanks to the KRG policy of providing work permits and allowing freedom of movement many have settled in towns and cities and found jobs.

Much is made of the Kurdish bonds between hosts and refugees and the government is proud of the welcome it has shown to the Syrians.

"Because of the very tragic history of the Kurdish people, the history of repression and harassment, we do believe that support must be given to these people who are in need," said Dindar Zebari, a deputy minister in the KRG's department of foreign relations.

US-based independent Iraq analyst Joel Wing believes however that the KRG's receptiveness to refugees is not wholly altruistic.

"President Masoud Barzani wants to be seen as the leader of all the Kurds in the region and he will take any opportunity to promote Kurdish nationalism and the image of the KRG," he said.

But not only are financial strains starting to show - with KRG having received comparatively less donor support than Jordan or Lebanon, thousands of refugees are now starting to sleep rough in towns and cities awaiting the opening of new camps - Mr Barzani's is now coming under pressure to intervene across the border.

With Kurdish groups now involved in fighting, gory photographs claiming to show murdered Kurds in Syria have filled newspapers in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, and there is growing unease that the KRG is sitting by as "brothers" in Syria are dying for the Kurdish cause.

"The picture coming out of Kurdish parts of Syria is that civilians are being massacred and ethnically cleansed by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups," explained Shwan Zulal, a London-based Kurdish political analyst.

"Inside Kurdistan, people are becoming really anxious about what's going on there," he said. "There is a lot of anger and people feel this strong obligation to help Kurds who are being targeted because of their ethnicity, it is stirring a lot of emotions."

However, like the rest of the Syrian conflict, the battles lines in the north are complicated and any intervention by the KRG could have wide repercussions.

The dominant Kurdish force in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Turkey-based Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is designated a terror group by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. The PKK has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey, although peace talks began in March to end the conflict.

Mr Barzani enjoys good relations with Turkey, to whom he hopes to soon start piping crude oil, and cannot be seen to support the PYD, although the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), with which his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) governs in coalition, does back them.

In 2011 Mr Barzani's party bankrolled the forming of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a loose coalition of more than a dozen Kurdish parties within Syria.

Officially this was billed as a way of preventing Islamist forces in Syria from encroaching on Iraq's Kurdish border. However, many read it as a gesture to Ankara, in an attempt to counter the growing influence of the PKK-sponsored PYD, who Turkey feared might become too powerful and start to make claims on its own Kurdish territory.

However, the KNC proved no match for either the Islamists or the PYD, and in May a large number of KNC militia were rounded up by the PYD, an incident blamed for the sudden closure of the border between Syria and Kurdistan by the KRG.

According to local reports, the crossing has remained closed, although aid workers say some refugees have been allowed to pass, and the government now claims it is open.

The PYD has meanwhile continued to gain strength and in July it declared its intentions for autonomy in northern Syria, which was largely deserted by government forces many months before.

However, they have found a new enemy among Syrian rebels reportedly linked to in Jabhat Al Nusra and other Islamist groups, and violence has escalated in an area where there had previously not been much fighting.

This is providing much political capital for opposition parties in Kurdistan, where parliamentary elections are due to be held next month.

"Opposition parties as well as the PUK are now actively using Barzani's stance on Syria against him and the KDP," explained Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst for the Washington DC-based Jamestown Foundation.

"They are saying Barzani's party is working with Turkey to oppress the Syrian Kurds," he added.

Some political groups claim that by not supporting the PYD, the KDP are backing the Syrian Islamist rebels, to which the KDP responds that by fighting the rebels, the PYD is in fact supporting Syrian president Bashar Al Assad and his government forces.

Mr Barzani's threat to "make use of all of its capabilities" to defend Kurds in Syria speaks of intervention, although Mr Zulal believes it may also be an election strategy to appease his more nationalistic critics.

"The West doesn't want them to get involved but I don't think they can sustain that position when Kurdish people are dying. They have to do, or at least be seen to do something," Mr Zulal said.

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