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Caught up in conflict

Naomi Conrad / gdDecember 28, 2012

A growing number of Syrian Kurds are fleeing to northern Iraq. They are afraid of being caught up in a civil war between Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters. But also fear neighboring Iran may be drawn into the fighting.

A Syrian refugee child in the camp of Dohuk (Photo: dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"They force you to shoot and kill children, women and men, but I was not able to do that," Mohammed said. In order to avoid conscription in the Syrian Army, he managed, under the cover of darkness, to sneak across the border into northern Iraq. The 27-year-old engineer has been living in a refugee camp located in the small town of Dohuk since April. Every day there are hundreds of people who, like Mohammed, decide to cross the border into neighboring Iraq.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are around 67,000 Syrian refugees living in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Many of them looking for jobs, according to Khider Domle, a Kurdish journalist.

"There is no food now, everything is expensive, there is no work," Domle said. "A lot of them cross because they think they can find a job here."

Others, like Mohammed, come to escape the fighting. The Syrian Kurd , who studied in the city of Aleppo, talks about snipers, bombardments and the daily sense of fear.While war was raging in Aleppo, Mohammed's native region of northeastern Syrian, where the bulk of Syria's Kurdish minority resides, had remained calm. But the violence between the regime of President Bashar Assad and the opposition has since spread north.

Clashes within the opposition

Kurds in a street in Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. (Photo:Karlos Zurutuza) When was the pic taken? (February 2008) Where was the pic taken (Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan Region) Description of the pic /occasion , situation when pic was taken, whom or what does the pic show? After decades or brutal repression during Saddam Hussein´s rule, Iraqi Kurds enjoy stability and peace in their own autonomous region
Many Syrian refugees are hoping to find work and security in DohukImage: Karlos Zurutuza

"They attacked my home and stole everything from my home an destroyed my shop," Mohammed said, referring to the Syrian insurgents. In the past few weeks there have been repeated clashes between Syrian rebels and supporters of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The PYD is also believed to be an ally of Assad, whose regime has largely withdrawn from the Kurdish territories over the past few months leaving the PYD in charge. This is apparently the reason why the Syrian rebels have been trying to drive back the Kurdish militia.

According to Assos Hardi, publisher of the northern Iraqi newspaper Awene, the PKK is playing a "dangerous game." Hardi fears that the collapse of the Assad regime might make life even more dangerous for Kurds in Syria, as the rebels might want to take revenge on them.

But the Syrian civil war is also splitting the Kurds. There have been reports of clashes among different Kurdish groups. The reason: In addition to the PKK and PYD, the Kurdish government of northern Iraq has also been playing a role in the conflict. According to Hardi, by supporting the rebels the government is seeking to ensure its influence in Syria's Kurdish territories after the downfall of Assad.

Mohammed said the current situation has him scared.

Kurdish refugees in the Domiz camp in Northern Iraq (Photo: dpa)
Many Syrian refugees live in camps like this one. Others stay with relatives and friendsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The Free Syrian Army will kill us because we are Kurds," he said, referring to the radical factions within the rebel groups.

He said none of his friends joined any of the fighting sides, but that he initially supported the uprising against Assad.

"We had nothing under Assad," he said. "We were not allowed to speak our own language or say anything against the regime."

A further escalation?

Domle was hopeful that an agreement reached between the various Kurdish factions at the end of November will last. However, his colleague Hardi was less optimistic. He said he fears further escalation of the conflict, possibly even between the northern Kurdish government and the central government of Iraq.

"The government in Baghdad is closely affiliated to both Iran and the Assad regime. On the other hand, the Kurdistan Regional Government seems to sympathies with the Syrian rebels."

More than anything, Mohammed wants to be able to go back home to his parents and five sisters, who still live in Syria. But he said he believes it will take a while until calm is once again restored.