The Eye of the Storm

As the Syrian civil war bleeds into northern Iraq, a once-quiet oasis is brewing with tensions.


ERBIL, Iraq — In a region surrounded by political upheaval, Iraq’s Kurdish enclave resembles the calm in the eye of the storm. The region, home to approximately four million Kurds, is booming: In the capital of Erbil, streets snake between old buildings and modern additions, and shopping malls and skyscrapers are now commonplace. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), however, now finds its image as an oasis of peace and security threatened by the ever-worsening war in neighboring Syria.

On Nov. 3, the government intelligence headquarters in the city of Akrah was the target of an attempted double suicide bombing. The assailants — one Syrian and one Iraqi man of Arab origins — were stopped by the intelligence services before the attack could be carried out. In a previous attack, officials hadn’t been so lucky: A series of explosions hit Erbil on Sept. 29, killing six people and injuring dozens. It was the first such attack to hit the city since 2007.

The September bombings were orchestrated by the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in retaliation for the KRG’s support for Syrian Kurds. Following a spike in the fierce fighting between Kurdish fighters and the ISIS in August, and as reports of mass killings of Kurdish civilians began to circulate, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani warned that Iraqi Kurdistan will "make use of all its capabilities to defend the Kurdish women, children, and citizens in Western Kurdistan."

In addition to these new security threats, the KRG is dealing with a huge demographic shift inside its borders. An estimated 235,000 refugees have flowed into the area from Syria, fleeing the worsening conflict. According to the head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Hemin Hawrami, the city of Dohuk has witnessed a 15 percent rise in population in less than a year, straining the area’s schools, hospitals, and public infrastructure to the limit. "The budget that we have, the capabilities that we have are for Iraqi Kurdistan," he said. "But not for this large influx of refugees."

On the streets of Erbil, the dialect spoken by Syria’s Kurds, Kurmanji, is becoming increasingly common. New camps are being built on the outskirts of the city to accommodate the growing number of fleeing Syrians. "We’re providing camps, education, and all of the basic services that they need. We have a human obligation as well as a national and ethnic one," said Hawrami. "But our aim is not to keep the refugees forever, because we don’t want the Kurdish areas in Syria to become evacuated and be filled by other people."

The KRG has spent roughly $65 million to care for the refugees — but the international community has often overlooked the refugee crisis here. Falah Mustafa, head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, wants this to change. "It became too much for our capabilities, we are now pushing the international community for help."

While the strain from the influx of refugees could lead to tension among Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, another possibility is that the intermixing of Kurdish populations could help fuel Kurdish unity. While the KRG is adamant that it will not split off from Iraq, it is nevertheless prepared to consider its options in a time of increasing uncertainty. "We will not be the reason behind the disintegration of Iraq — we are committed to a federal, democratic Iraq," said Mustafa. "But if the situation goes wrong, we do not want to pay the price if the other sides fail to sort out their differences."

There is, however, little reason to suspect that Syria and Iraq’s Kurdish areas are poised to break off from their respective nation-states and unite into one country. Pan-Kurdish sentiment is not the unifying force many in the West tend to think it is, and the ongoing Syrian conflict has also highlighted the divisions within the Kurdish movement.

The prime example of this is Syria’s main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is often at odds with its Iraqi counterparts. The party, for example, has vehemently refuted Barzani’s repeated suggestion that Iraq’s Kurdistan region could be a successful model for Syrian Kurds "The KRG is not an example for the Syrian people," said PYD leader Salih Muslim. "The people of Rojava [Kurdish Syria] govern themselves."

The Syrian Kurdish party fears that their Iraqi brethren are trying to force a political model upon them. And while there hasn’t been an explicit attempt by the KRG to do so, the Iraqi Kurds have dispatched both humanitarian and military aid to the conflict zone — a step viewed suspiciously by the PYD, which aims to dominate the area. "The PYD impose their will on the rest of the groups and don’t allow anyone to be on the ground. That’s the main problem," said Mustafa.

The powers that be in Iraq’s Kurdish Region have not been shy about displaying their unhappiness with the PYD. In October, Salih Muslim was repeatedly denied entrance to the KRG, transforming another example of Kurdish political disunity into a media story. "The decision to keep me in Rojava was a political one," he said. "It is like a competition, we have different ideologies."

On Nov. 11, the PYD once again struck out on their own by announcing plans to create a transitional government in Kurdish Syria. Although the PYD appears cautious in defining the extent of this transitional government’s autonomy, the party’s increasing power over Syrian territory could lead to greater friction between with the KRG. The PYD’s representatives have held out hope that the KRG could support their latest move, but it has so far not been forthcoming. "There has been no coordination with any group" on this issue, said the KRG’s Mustafa. "It is a unilateral act from the PYD."

The inability to mend ties is not only an obstacle on the road toward a united Kurdish front, it is also a weakness easily exploited by stronger external players. Iraqi Kurdistan notably has strong economic ties with Turkey and Iran — and yet, Turkey is supporting militant Islamist groups that pose a threat to the Syrian Kurds, while Iran backs the Syrian regime, which hopes to regain its control over its Kurdish areas.

This may appear a no-win scenario for Iraq’s Kurds, but the KRG is hardly naïve. "Of course Iran and Turkey are neighbors and regional players, but Kurdish foreign policy is to keep the balance … and not be part of the blocks in the Middle East," said Hawrami. "[W]e follow what is in the interest of the Kurds, not what is in the interest of Iran, Turkey or anywhere else."

But while the war creates deeper cleavages between Kurdish political factions, it has not affected the KRG’s drive for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead, Iraqi Kurdish officials clearly realize that both the Syrian war and its effects on an already fragmented Iraq could give them an opportunity to further consolidate their nascent state and assert themselves as strong regional players.

"The Middle East is witnessing a wave of changes, we as Kurds find that this is our opportunity to assert our identity, and try to achieve our rights in a peaceful way," said Mustafa.

That peace, however, could be shattered by further outbreaks of terror and violence by al Qaeda elements in Iraq and Syria. The battles ahead will shape the future of the Kurds in both countries. 

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