On August 15, photographs began flooding the Internet of what looked like an endless column of people, many carrying small children, some clutching dusty suitcases. As has now been widely reported, the people in this startling scene were Syrian Kurds, fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan—one of the single largest waves of refugees since the Syrian conflict began three years ago. And as it has received some 40,000 Syrians in less than two weeks, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which rules over this autonomous region, has been praised for taking a strong humanitarian stand at a time when other countries are closing their borders.
“Here, refugees are welcomed, even encouraged,” proclaimed a report in The New York Times on Saturday. Echoing a frequent refrain of the KRG government—which is striving to position itself as a leading force behind a new greater Kurdistan—the report went on to describe this as a moment of hope for “a better future for the region’s Kurds.” Indeed, Masoud Barzani, the powerful president of the KRG, has suggested that Iraqi Kurdistan can serve as a model for the Syrian Kurds to follow. In September, he will host a pan-Kurdish conference in Erbil, the capital of Northern Iraq, that aims to bring together for the first time the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
If only things were so simple.
While the dramatic images of refugees pouring into Northern Iraq are new, Northern Iraq’s troubled relations with Syria—and Syria’s Kurds—are not. As I discovered during a trip to Northern Iraq earlier this month, the war in Syria has lately been anything but a boon to the region. The Barzani government has had to deal with ten times as many Syrian refugees as anticipated a year ago—numbers which have quickly exhausted its political will or administrative capacity to deal with them. And now it faces growing agitation among its own people to enter the war, despite indications that sending in KRG-backed fighters might be disastrous for Kurdish unity in the region.
“It’s a mess,” a Kurdish NGO director, who has had frequent contact with the government, told me in Erbil. She observed that, as a region of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Goverment has no formal powers to make foreign policy, and having gained autonomy during the Iraq war only a few years ago, it has few resources and little experience to draw on to deal with an international crisis. “They are too proud to ask for help,” she said. “But they simply haven’t developed a formal policy toward Syria.”
The Iraqi Kurdish leadership has also been locked in an intense political rivalry with its counterpart in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which dominates Syrian Kurdish politics. The PYD has had de-facto control of much of Syrian Kurdistan since July 2012 and has stymied attempts by Northern Iraq to gain influence there. In fact, before the mid-August opening of one crossing, the political standoff had led to the closure of the entire border between Syria and Northern Iraq for several months.
In early August, I met Aldar Khalil, a leader of the Syrian PYD, who accused the KRG of closing the border unilaterally to gain leverage over the Syrian Kurdish leadership. “Foreign aid isn’t getting in,” he said. “We have shortages of milk and medicine, we don’t have basic food items. How can you talk of holding this big [pan-Kurdish] conference and you cut off the Syrian Kurds?”
For its part the Barzani government has accused the PYD of obstructing the flow of humanitarian aid into Syria and even of attacking members of smaller Syrian Kurdish parties that are allied to the KRG. One Syrian Kurdish activist based in Iraq, who works for a Scandinavian aid agency, told me that there were Kurdish towns in Syria in desperate need of help but that aid deliveries had been held up at the Iraq-Syria border by the PYD, which he said wants to control all distribution itself.
Whatever the explanation, aid officials agree that the border closure last spring highlights Northern Iraq’s own difficulties in dealing with Syrian refugees. Long before the current wave of arrivals, some 200,000 Syrian Kurds had already entered the region, where they have faced increasingly abject living conditions and have received little support from the government. During my trip, I visited Domiz refugee camp, a barren slope of ground about an hour from the Syrian border where more than 70,000 Syrians are now housed in a chokingly dense warren of canvas tents. And although the camp is run by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in conjunction with the regional government, it has grown so rapidly over the past year that some refugees now live in unofficial “ad-hoc” areas which are not part of the site plan, and which have put a disastrous strain on water and other basic resources.
To its credit, the KRG has finally opened an additional camp, which is near Erbil and which has received some 15,000 of the new arrivals; and UNHCR officials say they are working to “decongest” the most crowded areas of Domiz. But many people I met at Domiz complained of health problems and lack of protection from the intense heat. “I built this myself,” one Syrian man told me, showing me a poorly ventilated structure, like many others there, that was not much bigger than a camping tent and too low to stand up in. The camp was so crowded when he arrived in April, he said, that he had simply staked out the first patch of high ground he could find that was available. He told me he and his family shared it with two other families, who each had children.
Paradoxically, it should be easier for Syrians to get jobs in Northern Iraq than in almost any other foreign country: Syrian Kurds are automatically eligible for renewable six-month residency permits, which include the right to work. “It’s a truly remarkable policy,” said William Tall, a UN refugee official responsible for Iraqi Kurdistan. On the road to Domiz, I saw some camp residents who were commuting from their tents to jobs at nearby construction sites. Yet other NGO officials told me that since March, many new arrivals have not been getting residency cards, and changing government policies are making it far more difficult for Syrians to register, while jobs are increasingly scarce.
In Erbil, the region’s capital, I encountered Syrians everywhere, some of them working in hotels and restaurants, but many, including large numbers of people who are highly skilled and have advanced qualifications, unable to find work and living in grinding poverty. At a social center, a Syrian architect invited me to have coffee with a group of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals from Syrian Kurdistan—a virtual cross section of Syria’s professional middle class—all but one of them unemployed. The exception, an electrical engineer who now works as a driver for a Turkish company, told me, “Even when you can find a job, they pay you far less than they do locals. There’s a lot of exploitation. But there’s nothing you can do if you want to keep working.”
The pervasive presence of urban refugees, meanwhile, has led to growing ambivalence among the native population toward their Syrian counterparts. Many people I met in Erbil told me they have a special bond with their fellow Kurds, to the point of seeing them almost as fellow nationals. When I referred to the “Kurdish region of Syria,” I was frequently told, “What region of Syria? You mean, West Kurdistan.” In Erbil, however, a prominent Iraqi Kurdish journalist told me that many also believe that the refugees are mostly economic migrants rather than victims of war, and are bringing social problems to Northern Iraq. “It’s a big embarrassment for us. It’s terrible to have Kurdish children begging in the streets. But if they get good jobs, they will never go back,” he said.
The larger question is why the KRG suddenly reopened the border on August 15. Of course, under international humanitarian law, the border should be open, and the growing violence in eastern Syria may have made it increasingly awkward for Iraqi Kurdish officials to deny entry to those trying to escape. But the looming pan-Kurdish conference likely played a part, and there are indications that the Barzani government is also concerned about being sidelined from recent developments in Syria. In mid-July, the Syrian PYD announced that it aims to establish a formal autonomous region in Syria. When I interviewed him in Erbil, Aldar Khalil, the PYD leader, told me that the announcement was simply formalizing what had already been true on the ground since 2012, when the PYD took control of local government there. But the announcement has been intensely criticized by the Turkish government, which fears a Kurdish regime coming to power in Syria that has close ties to the Turkey’s own Kurdish militants, the PKK. (Despite a recent peace agreement, Ankara’s relations with the PKK remain on edge, in part because of violence on the Turkish-Syrian border.)
In contrast, the Barzani government in Erbil has strong relations with Turkey, which is a major investor in Northern Iraq and which sees Barzani’s party as a moderate counterweight to the PKK. If Barzani can build ties to Syria’s Kurds, it increases the chance that Northern Iraq, and by extension its ally Turkey, will be able to help shape the new Syrian region that emerges from the war. A few days before the border reopened, Barzani announced that Northern Iraq was “prepared to defend” Syria’s Kurds if attacks by Islamists escalated.
On the other hand, Turkey itself has been backing some of those same Islamist militias—including, at least until very recently, Jabhat al-Nusra—which it may view as a way to keep in check the Syrian PYD, which has its own powerful militias close to the Turkish border. As long as that situation continues, some analysts say, it will be difficult for the PYD and the KRG to come to terms, whether or not the border remains open. “There is a solution,” the Kurdish NGO director told me in Erbil. “Turkey has to stop its support for al-Nusra and the PYD has to separate from the PKK.”
But regardless of which Kurdish party gains control of Syrian Kurdistan, she added, the collapse of the Assad regime may only make things worse. While Damascus has largely accommodated Kurdish autonomy since the war began, an outright opposition victory would likely bring further violence and instability to the region—and more columns of refugees to Iraq. “For the Kurds,” she said, “the best situation is a weak Assad, not no Assad.”
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.