Iraq-Syria: As Kurds enter the fray, risk
of conflict grows
IRIN - A service of the UN Office for the
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
August 3, 2012
Kurdish residents take over the abandoned police
station in the Kurdish city of Amude, (Western
Kurdistan) in northeastern Syria, after Syrian
security forces withdrew from the city in July 2012
Photo: IRIN . •
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Portraits of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan are common
at rallies in the Kurdish parts of Syria, Syrian
A unit of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - the
Syrian offshoot of the PKK - which now controls the
northeastern Syrian city of Kobane in Syrian
Kurdistan region, after Syrian security forces
pulled out. Photo: IRIN
ERBIL/DOMIZ/BERLIN,— The flag of
Kurdistan is draped over the walls of public
buildings in Afrin in northern Syria: After the
security forces left the small town near the Turkish
border two weeks ago, the Syrian banners have all
Instead, new colours have been raised, not only the
Kurdish national colours, but also those of the
Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian wing of the
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), deemed a “terrorist”
organizations by many countries because of its
bloody fight for separation or at least autonomy
from Turkey for 30 years.
“Now, the PYD controls everything,” said Chomerd
Hawari* (Not a real name), who runs a small
human rights organization in Afrin. “They have set
up checkpoints, and their armed people are
patrolling the streets. They have taken positions in
the market, the central squares and in front of the
Afrin is not the only town which has been
effectively taken over by Kurdish militia after the
regular Syrian troops pulled out, Syrian and Kurdish
activists say. The same has been reported in Kobane,
also in Aleppo Province, as well as in Amude and
Deirik in eastern Syria.
The Kurds, roughly 10 percent of the population,
have long stayed on the sidelines of the Syrian
uprising, with the Kurdistan region of Syria
remaining relatively peaceful. But now, with the PYD
asserting its power in the north, the minority group
risks getting caught up in conflict, as foreign
interests intersect with local rivalries.
Domiz refugee camp, in the semi-autonomous Kurdish
region of northern Iraq, some 60km from the Syrian
border, is home to nearly 2,500 Kurdish Syrians who
have fled the violence in Syria in the past few
months. (Thousands of others have settled outside
the camp in other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan). Nearly
one-quarter of the camp’s residents are young single
One aid worker visiting the camp said he saw
military buses just outside the tent area for young
men; and noticed their physiques had changed in
the months since they arrived - “it was clear they
had received some form of rough training.”
During a recent IRIN visit, rowdy youth wearing
underwear and tracksuit bottoms complained of the
excruciating heat and lack of job opportunities. At
first, they were reluctant to admit to any training,
some trying to silence others willing to speak.
But after some discussion, one youth told IRIN: “We
are receiving training to defend our land in Syria
in case we have to go back.”
“When the regime falls,” another insisted.
“No, tomorrow!” the first youth said.
“We’re taking this training to go back and fight
Assad,” a third interjected.
These are among hundreds of Syrian Kurds that have
been receiving military training from the Kurdistan
Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq since the
beginning of the conflict in Syria, “so that they
can play a role,” according to Minister Falah
Mustafa, head of the KRG’s department of foreign
“After the collapse of the regime, when there is a
security vacuum, everybody is armed and will come
and violate their rights,” he told IRIN. “All the
other groups have forces and capacities. The Kurds
are the only ones who do not have this. ”
Kurds versus Kurds
Estimates of the numbers trained range from 600 to
2,000, but Cale Salih, an analyst with the
International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN about
650 appear to be ready to return to Syria to fight.
The aid worker at Domiz said some youth had left the
refugee camp after receiving some training,
suggesting they may have returned to Syria to fight.
But fight whom?
Mustafa, the KRG minister, said the training was
purely defensive, “so that the Kurds will also have
some people to defend them in their area… These are
not for offence purposes.”
Analysts say it is part of an attempt by KRG
President Masoud Barzani to extend his influence in
Syria, but could also create divisions: Once armed,
these Barzani-loyal Kurds could clash with forces of
the PYD, until now, the only armed Kurdish group.
The PKK’s struggle with Turkey has put it at odds
with Barzani, who has cultivated his ties with
Turkey, one of KRG’s main trading partners.
According to Kurdish sources, the training was
coordinated with the Kurdish National Council (KNC)
- a new Kurdish umbrella group, created in the wake
of the Syrian uprising and based in the Kurdish
Syrian town of Qamishli. KNC’s close ties with
Barzani and its move towards militarization are
likely to exacerbate its rivalry with the PYD.
Analysts say Barzani’s target in training these
forces was not Assad, but the PYD.
“The PYD does not want to let the Peshmerga [the
pro-Kurdistan regional government fighters] from
Iraq back into [Syria]. They worry about
Kurdish-Kurdish clashes,” said Pablo*, a youth
activist in the Kurdish town of Qamishli, along the
Turkish border. “So they are stuck on the Iraqi side
of the border until now.”
Risk of conflict
“The Kurds are being torn apart by the conflicting
interests of Turkey, Iraq and Syria,” says Adam, an
activist in the northeastern Syrian town of Hassake,
also home to a large Kurdish population. “This is
helping the regime to turn the Kurdish issue into
the weak link of the revolution.”
But until now, the Kurds have not firmly positioned
themselves as part of the so-called revolution.
Indeed, they could end up fighting against other
opposition forces for control of territory.
Take the strategic town of Qamishli, rich in oil and
gas reserves, and in symbolism: it was home to a
brutal crackdown by the regime in 2004. The PYD has
traditionally been weaker in Qamishli, where
analysts say all parties - the PYD; the Kurds who
support Barzani and the KNC; the rebel Free Syrian
Army (FSA); and the Syrian government - could end up
vying for power.
“There is a clear risk of conflict,” said Salih of
ICG. “Qamishli is not a city that will be given up
easily to anybody.”
And while the Kurdish fight may seem like a side
show, what happens in Syrian Kurdistan is “extremely
decisive” for the future of Syria in the scenario of
a civil war, Salih said, because it will determine
the positions of Turkey and of Iraqi Kurdistan in
those areas, and will determine the future of the
PKK movement as a whole.
Road to power
The so-called Kurdish uprising is not yet
well-understood, with conflicting explanations as to
how the PYD came to control parts of northeastern
Sometime after the Syrian uprising in March 2011,
the Syrian government allowed the PYD to return
hundreds, possibly thousands of its members -
estimates range from 1,000 to 2,000 - to Syria from
its headquarters in the Qandil mountains, along the
Iraq-Iran border. The PYD slowly began taking
control of some areas of Syrian Kurdistan, setting
up checkpoints and municipal councils - known as the
People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK) -
without too much interference by the government.
Opposition figures have long accused the party of
acting as enforcers of the regime, suppressing
protests and intimidating dissidents. “Some young
activists have tried to stage demonstrations in
recent months, but they were attacked every time.
PYD militia shot into the air and beat up
protesters”, says Hawari, the human rights activist.
“Some activists were even kidnapped and tortured
with electric shocks.”
In July, PYD control was solidified. Some say the
regime practically handed over the towns to the PYD.
Others say it was given a deadline to leave by the
PYD, and did not have the means to fight back.
“The military pulled out because of what happened in
Damascus und Aleppo,” says Barzan Iso, a
Turkey-based member of the PCWK, which includes the
PYD and other Kurdish political parties. “When the
fighting in the two big cities started, they moved
their troops and left places like Afrin and Kobane
since they are not strategically important.”
The PYD’s popularity
Activists like Iso welcome the takeover as
“liberation” from decades of deprivation of many
basic civil rights by Damascus.
But for now, the PYD’s resurgence remains young and
its popularity hard to gauge, especially as other
new umbrella groups like the KNC enter the fray.
What appears certain is that the PYD is eager to
fill the power vacuum left by the state.
But the party does not rely only on military power
to increase its influence, according to Siamend Hajo,
of the website Kurdwatch in Berlin, which tracks
human rights violations against the Syrian Kurds.
“They have managed to organize themselves. They are
maintaining law and order; they are administering
justice; and keeping all the institutions running,”
Hajo told IRIN. “Now people don’t call the police
any more if there is a crime. They call the PYD.”
After decades of cultural repression, the PYD - with
some degree of allowance by the government - has
opened schools teaching the Kurdish language, and
cultural centres have mushroomed in the region.
“Many Kurdish nationalists don’t have a problem with
what is happening because now Kurds are ruling
Kurds,” Hajo said. “But at the same time, one
dictatorship is replaced by another.”
Its own agenda
In recent months, observers say, the PYD’s
relationship with the Syrian government began to
change. While there might have been an alliance
between them in the early stages of the revolt, the
PYD has now “seen the writing on the wall”, breaking
off the presumed cooperation and pursuing its own
While independent protests have hardly taken place
in PYD-strongholds like Kobane, Amude and Deirik in
recent weeks, amateur footage on the internet shows
PYD rallies, with crowds chanting anti-regime
According to Salih, PYD and regime security forces
have also clashed.
“[The PYD] is an impressively disciplined and
effective group, but totally committed to its own
agenda, and absolutely ruthless in carrying it out,
” writes Aron Lund, author of a detailed report on
the Syrian opposition.
Nor is the Kurdish leadership convinced that jumping
in bed with the Syrian opposition is in their best
interests. Many Kurds suspect the rebels do not
respect the rights of the Kurds any more than the
“There is a kind of separation between the Kurdish
and the Arab areas,” said Sarhat*, an activist in
Kobane. “We’re worried that they will not grant us
our rights in the end. This is why we prefer to
fight for ourselves.”
For the Kurds, their own rights come first, before
any discussion of democracy or transition. For KRG’s
Mustafa, it is important the Kurds position
themselves now - before the fall of the regime.
“For us, it’s important to see who will deliver,” he
said. [The Syrian Kurds] have to be working on their
own future within Syria.”
Recently the structures of an autonomous Kurdish
region in northern Syria seemed to be starting to
A regional Kurdish government was formed in Qamishli,
and a local parliament elected. Two weeks ago, KRG
brokered an agreement between the KNC and PYD to
raising hopes that conflict could be overcome.
But the Kurds remain divided. And too close a
relationship with the PYD would put Barzani, a
Turkish ally and KNC supporter, in an awkward
“I was really happy about this agreement,” said
Bahoz*, a local activist in Qamishli. “But in
reality, nothing has changed. The parties are still
not working together.”
Formally, all Kurdish armed groups are part of the
“People’s Defence Unit” (YPG) which is supposed to
answer to the KNC as well as the PCWK. But, most
fighters are PYD members, and Kurdish activists say
its military superiority allows it to marginalize
other political parties.
In cities like Qamishli and Hassake, where the PYD
is less popular and the Syrian security forces are
still present, each Kurdish faction organizes its
own weekly rally.
“At first, we tried to stage one big demonstration
together,” Bohaz told IRIN, “but then conflicts came
up, about which banners and slogans we should use.
So we decided to keep our protests separate.”
If it comes down to a power struggle, analysts say
the PYD is likely to win.
“Funding or support from northern Iraq may help
other factions preserve some leverage vis-à-vis the
PYD, but I can’t see that it would tip the scales,”
But regional players are not likely to stand on
“We will not follow the situation blind-folded,”
Mustafa of KRG said.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said
last week that PKK activity in Syria could give
Turkey grounds for intervention. The PKK earlier
threated to turn the whole cross-border Kurdistan
region into a “warzone” if Turkey intervened in
Until now, the PYD’s control has been largely
unchecked because they are virtually the only armed
group on the ground, as the Kurds have managed to
keep the FSA out of the region. Small Kurdish
battalions in the FSA - there are only one or two -
are reportedly trying to stay out of the PYD’s way.
While some Kurdish activists fear that the return of
the fighters from Iraq will trigger internal
fighting, others hope they will help create more of
“I think they should come and protect people - from
the regime and from the PYD,” said Bahoz, the
activist in Qamishli. “I don’t want the FSA to
interfere in our area because they might drag us
into the Syrian civil war. We’d prefer to have our
own Kurdish army, and the people who were trained in
Iraq could lay the foundation for that - although,
if the parties still don’t find ways to cooperate,
this could also lead to war between brothers.”
As Denise Natali, a fellow at the Washington-based
National Defence University sees it: “There’s no
clarity here. It’s grey as a mess. The [Kurds] go
day by day. They don’t have strategic plans,” she
told IRIN. “Kurds are taking advantage of the
political vacuum, in the same way everyone else is.”
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