Published September 23, 2012
Like the Syrian refugees in Turkey, whom I wrote about in April, those in Iraqi Kurdistan have fled a violent war. Often, they left behind family or friends; certainly they have left behind possessions, which they imagine now lying vulnerable, in the path of Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless army. They hate Assad.
Refugee camps in both Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey expand depending on specific battles, so that whole blocks of newly erected tents might hold fragments of particular Syrian neighborhoods, or entire families. But unlike in Turkey, where Syrian refugees are wary of the host government even as they remain grateful to it, the refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Domiz camp feel they have left their home, but not their homeland. This simple distinction—what, exactly, Syria’s Kurds want to fight for—goes a long way toward explaining the role of Kurds in Syria.
There are other similarities between the camps in Turkey and the camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. They look alike. Rows of tents are surrounded by metal fences; hand-dug ravines catch runoff from large water containers propped up on concrete bricks between the tents. A heavy canopy of shock and exhaustion hangs over everything. Women cook, children find spaces to play, men cough outside the makeshift clinic. Those who can leave the camp to find work in nearby cities, and men of fighting age will leave for military training. In Turkey, Syrian men join the ranks of the rebel Free Syrian Army with support of the Turkish government, which has come out as one of Assad’s primary detractors and, because of geography, also a guardian of the opposition to his rule. In Iraqi Kurdistan, male refugees are likewise being separated and trained to fight; not for Syria, their home, but for Kurdistan, their homeland.
In Domiz, which I visited in early September for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a young woman had just given birth in a local hospital. In a small concrete room, which the family built themselves, she sat next to the sleeping infant. She felt lucky for the room, which was palatial compared to the surrounding tents, and for the family money that paid for it. But she hated the camp. She pointed to her asthmatic brother who, because of the air—sandy, heavy, hot—must be hooked up to an oxygen tank for a few hours every day. The camp is dirty and crowded, and all the discomforts only exacerbated the anguish she felt about being there. But amid all that was a strange feeling of liberation. “Compared to Turkish camps, this is better,” she said. “At least you are living under a Kurdish government, not a Turkish, Syrian, or Persian one.” A young man sitting near the doorway chimed in: “Barzani is our President.”
Barzani is Massoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, the autonomous region in Northern Iraq governed by the Kurdish Regional Government (K.R.G.). While the Kurds in Syria focus their energies on protecting the Kurdish northeast and pressuring the Syrian opposition to guarantee them constitutional rights in any new government, the Kurds of Iraq have stressed unity—but among Kurds, not Syrians. It’s a policy that explains the young mother’s trust in the K.R.G. to protect her and her new daughter, and the young man’s loyalty to Barzani. And it’s a policy that might inspire that young man who left Syria to avoid being drafted into the Syrian Army to fight anyway, but for Kurdistan, not Syria.
When I visited Domiz, the big news was not Angelina Jolie’s then-upcoming visit, but a nearby camp where these defectors, and other potential soldiers, were being trained by K.R.G. Special Forces. After Assad falls, these soldiers would return to Syria to protect the Kurdish region. It was a display of muscle, and also of Kurdish solidarity—overseeing the camp was a union of Syrian Kurdish parties that had previously been rivals. In a post-Assad Syria, Kurds would focus on fighting the authorities, not each other.
Barzani confirmed the existence of the camp in late July, but that announcement only raised more questions. Were Kurds on both sides of the border not just anticipating but helping to guarantee a divided Syria? What role would the P.Y.D. (the Syrian affiliate of the P.K.K., a group that has been fighting the Turkish government for decades) play, particularly with Turkey fretting that northeast Syria was becoming a P.K.K. territory? How genuine was the alliance, made official not long ago in Erbil, between the Syrian Kurdish parties?
Abdul Hakim Bashar, the head of the Kurdish National Council (K.N.C.), a Syrian political organization that until recently was in opposition to the P.Y.D., who has expressed his dislike for armed resistance in the past, explained the purpose of this training camp when we met in his Erbil office. The Free Syrian Army, he said, has “played a very honorable role in fighting the Assad regime.” But fighting the Assad regime is not the top priority of Syria’s Kurds. Without the guarantee of rights under a new government, they will continue to defend only their own region. The military training camp is preparation for that. “We train them to protect Kurdish territories because they are very rich in oil,” Bashar told me. “It’s for security, not for fighting.”
Bashar denied that there is P.Y.D. presence in the military camp. “Maybe some of the members are P.Y.D., but they’re not telling anyone,” he said. Salih Muslim Muhammed, the head of the P.Y.D., also said, between meetings with Kurdish opposition in Erbil, that there is officially no one from his party being trained in the military camps. But that doesn’t mean that the P.Y.D. and the K.N.C. aren’t working toward the same goals in Syria. The P.Y.D. is busy defending Kurdish Syria now, Muhammed said, but they are waiting for K.N.C. soldiers to join them. After Assad falls, the parties would share power. All is well with Kurdish unity.
The use of military force as resistance is, to put it mildly, a sensitive issue among Kurds. Even those who agree with the demands of the P.K.K. acknowledge that the decades of war between the P.K.K. and the Turkish Army has increased the challenges for Kurds trying to participate in political and civic life, even while it has raised awareness of the Kurdish struggle. P.K.K. presence in northern Iraq’s Qandil mountains has tested the K.R.G.’s loyalty to Kurdish resistance and its friendship with Turkey, which seems to be only getting stronger. When I spoke to officials in the K.R.G. about the military camp, there was cautious equivocating over the use of military force in Syria. Karim Sinjari, the K.R.G.’s Minister of Interior, insisted the establishing of the camp was a “human rights issue,” not a military one. “It’s a civilian camp for educational purposes only,” he told me, distancing the K.R.G. from the armed strategies of the P.Y.D. and P.K.K. But he continued, “It’s not necessary to give them weapons training. Every Kurd already knows how to use weapons.”
The freedom felt by that young mother, who, in the same breath, lamented the hardships in Domiz and celebrated her new Kurdistan address, is a complicated notion shared by most Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan is, to many of them, the first step toward a united homeland, and what’s happening in Syria is foremost part of that specific, Kurdish narrative. Kurds in Syria are accustomed to being oppressed and isolated in their own country. Perhaps it is not that the refugees in Domiz feel at home because they remain in Kurdistan; perhaps they are just used to feeling like refugees.
I met Amin, one of the soldiers being trained, on that September day in the Domiz camp. A twenty-year-old who’d defected from Syria six months before, Amin chose the military camp over Domiz because it offered him the chance to take an active role in the fighting without joining the Free Syrian Army. Plus, the military camp is nicer than Domiz. There, instead of tents, they all have concrete homes. Unlike in Syria, the soldiers get paid, and even have vacation days, which they can use to visit family in Domiz or in nearby Dohuk. Amin was on one of these short breaks and he walked proudly through the lines of Domiz’s tents in his uniform, proof to the struggling refugees that Kurds were taking a stand. “We are determined to fight for our country,” Amin told me. “Kurdistan.”