Fleeing Syrian Kurds must fear the long arm of Erdogan

Syrian Kurds are fleeing in their thousands to neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. But even there, they will not be safe for the long arm of the Turkish president Erdogan.

KURDISH FEMALE fighters of the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) take part in a military parade as they celebrate victory over the Islamic state, in Qamishli (photo credit: REUTERS)
KURDISH FEMALE fighters of the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) take part in a military parade as they celebrate victory over the Islamic state, in Qamishli
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A thousand Syrian Kurds per day are arriving at the border with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, totaling more than 15,000 already. They flee the bombing and fighting going on in the Syrian area that Turkey aims to change into a so-called safety zone to resettle millions of Syrian refugees now based in Turkey. The total number fleeing across the Iraqi border is expected to go up to about 50,000.
Those who flee will join the 230,000 Syrian Kurds already living in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, most of whom fled the violence of Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. The poorest were settled in refugee camps, of which Domiz, near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Duhok, is the largest with some 50,000 inhabitants.
About half of all the Syrian refugees living in the Kurdistan region have settled in its capital, Erbil, where many of them have found a home and work. Iraqi Kurds consider them as brothers from the Kurdistan that existed before it was split into four parts about a century ago (divided between Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran). This has made it possible for them to integrate into the society, setting up their own bakeries, restaurants and supermarkets.
Whether the newcomers will be able to follow their example is not so clear. Firstly, because the Kurdistan Region still houses hundreds of thousands of Arab IDPs from Iraqi cities once occupied by ISIS and partly destroyed in the battle to evict the group. The burden is already high for the Kurdistan government, which is slowly recovering from a recession caused by the war against ISIS, the refugees, sanctions imposed by Baghdad following the independence referendum of September 2017, and a historically low oil price. For this reason, Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has already requested financial assistance from abroad to help the region care for the newcomers. They already complain about a lack of resources in their camps.
Economics are not the only reason why the new arrivals may face a very different situation than the Syrians who fled in 2013. That’s because the focus of Turkish and Syrian government persecution will now mainly be on refugees affiliated with the PYD and its various military battalions – the Turks consider them terrorists due to their links to the PYD’s sister organization, the PKK. Most of the earlier arrivals were not affiliated to the PYD, and had links to Syrian parties close to the ruling Iraqi Kurdish Barzani family.
The PKK is not very popular in the western part of Iraqi Kurdistan, an area dominated by the Barzani family and their Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP which is the new arrivals’ first port of call. During the civil war fought in the then semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq in the 1990s, the two parties clashed, and the animosity lingers on. On top of that, former president Masoud Barzani tried to intervene in the newly-emerging semi-autonomous region in Syria to prevent the PYD from taking power.
MORE RECENTLY, daily Turkish air raids on PKK bases in the Qandil mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan have caused bad blood with Iraqi Kurds, as civilians with no PKK connections have been killed and non-PKK targets hit. Some of the Turkish attacks have posed a risk to civilians: a drone strike which killed two PKK officials took place on the popular Azmar mountain in Sulaymaniya, where Kurds were picnicking. More recently, a house in use by a Yazidi brigade of the PKK in the Yazidi province of Sinjar was bombed.
While Turkey is actively trying to get the Iraqi Kurds to evict the PKK from their region, the group is still supported by the second Iraqi Kurdish party, the PUK. Its bases are situated on PUK territory, and some of its offices and officials are based in the city of Sulaymaniya, a PUK stronghold.
Ankara has increased its influence over the Barzanis in recent years, both by accepting them as political players and receiving them in Ankara – it even allowed the Kurdish flag to be flown during their visits – and by investing in the region. Turkish firms have built airports and roads and export a wide range of products and foodstuffs to the region. Most of Kurdistan’s oil is sold through its pipeline to Turkey. But most importantly, Ankara has had a hold over the Kurdistan government since 2015, when the Turks stepped in to save it from bankruptcy, signing off on billions of dollars’ worth of loans.
At the same time, the Turks maintain at least a dozen military bases in the region, and have occupied dozens of villages in the rugged border area where Iraq, Turkey and Iran meet. Some politicians warn that once the Turks have emptied their Syrian safety zone of Kurds, they will try to extend it into Iraqi Kurdistan.
The arrival of Syrian Kurds affiliated to the PYD might put still more strain on inter-Kurdish politics. The KDP is under considerable Turkish pressure to evict or betray anyone with PKK ties, while the PUK will want to offer them refuge.
This begs the question: how safe will the Syrian Kurds be in Iraq, given that the Kurdistan government in Erbil has already shown itself incapable of guaranteeing their safety. Even in Sulaymaniya, where the ruling parties sympathize with the PKK, Turkey has been able to conduct precision attacks on PKK officials.
The Iraqi government in Baghdad has protested repeatedly to Ankara about the raids, as Kurdistan is still a federal state within the Iraqi federation. Turkey has mostly ignored its complaints, as it has all international protest. Baghdad seems incapable of protecting its own citizens, let alone Kurds fleeing Turkish aggression in Syria.
The possibility that the Turks will shift their fight from Syria to Iraq cannot be ignored, given the preparations they have already made by emptying Kurdish villages there. But even if they don’t, Erdogan’s arm still reaches far inside the Kurdistan region of Kurdistan, transforming what has been a sanctuary for decades into a risky place for many.
The West played a major role in shaping this sanctuary and cannot simply sit back and watch. Nor can it restrict itself to helping out with the refugees while making protests about the bombings which Turkey then ignores. For the Kurds lost one close ally already when the American President Donald Trump gave away their land in Syria; they cannot lose any more support. Nor do they deserve to, considering how the West might not have won the battle against ISIS without them. It will have to find ways to rein in NATO’s rogue ally and prevent Turkey from taking even more Kurdish lives and land.

The writer is a Dutch journalist who lived in and reported from Iraq for 10 years, is the author of Slaves Wives and Brides and other books about Iraq. Her forthcoming book details her experience with recurring violence in Iraq and will be published in the Netherlands in January 2020.