The president of Iraqi Kurdistan has claimed that Syrian Kurds who have defected from President Bashar al-Assad’s army are receiving military training in his territory under the government’s auspices.
“A good number of the young Kurds who fled have been trained,” Masoud Barzani told the Arab news channel Al Jazeera. “We do not want to interfere directly in the situation but they have been trained.” He added that the fighters have not join been repatriated.
Barzani explained, “This was aimed at filling the vacuum that will be created” if the Assad regime collapses. He also said that the Kurdistan Regional Government is Iraq is hoping to unite the various Kurdish factions in Syria.
Syria has entered its seventeenth month of uprising which increasingly appears to break down along sectarian lines. Whereas the opposition is largely Sunni, minorities in Syria, including the Kurds, have been reluctant to join the fight against President Assad.
There are signs that Assad has intentionally left the Kurds in his country to their own devices for fear of aligning them against his regime.
Two weeks ago, a day after bomb attacks rocked the capital city of Damascus and killed Assad’s brother in law General Assef Shawkat as well as the defense minister Dawoud Rajiha, Syrian security forces left at least six small towns populated mostly by Kurds. The regime said the troops were needed elsewhere.
Less than two million Kurds live in Syria, far fewer than do in neighboring Iraq and Turkey. They do share the hope of one day establishing an independent Kurdish state.
Assad’s overtures to the Kurds — if there are any — are likely to alarm the Turks who have backed the Syrian uprising but simultaneously battle a Kurdish insurgency in the frontier region. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned last week that if Kurdish separatists in Syria and Turkey joined forces, “it is not possible for us to look on with tolerance.”
The government in Ankara fears that northern Syria, which appears largely under the control of Syrian rebels, becomes a safe haven for Kurdish insurgents from where to stage raids into southern Turkey, as they have done in previous years from northern Iraq. If Turkey intervenes, it risks losing the trust of the Syrian opposition which, under the leadership of a Kurd, has been allowed to organize on Turkish soil.
Kurdistan is a potential land bridge for many of the conflicts erupting in this part of the region. It provides a ground route for Iraqi Kurdistan to supply the Syrian Kurds as they seek greater autonomy from Damascus. But its use will depend on which power dominates the tri-border area between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, for this area could equally provide Iran with a corridor for moving supplies to its Syrian surrogates and even to Hizbullah in Lebanon.
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