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Geopolitics

Why War In Syria Makes Kurdish Unity Ever More Elusive

The conflict in Syria has reshuffled the deck for Kurds across the region, from Turkey to Iraq. A recent mass exodus from Syria is just one sympton of a deeper problem.

Syrian refugees crossing the border into northern Iraq
Syrian refugees crossing the border into northern Iraq
Arzu Yilmaz

ISTANBUL – After waiting for nearly 100 years, the Kurdish National Congress, with the dream of uniting Kurds across national borders, has been delayed for another month.

The public explanation for the postponement was “technical” issues. But with just a glance at the developments in the region, it is not difficult to see that this was just an excuse. Indeed, thousands began a widespread exodus out of Syria to northern Iraqi Kurdistan soon after the decision for the delay. Although there are Assyrians and Arabs also among those fleeing, they are mostly Kurds.

But why? What is the reason behind this mass migration when Syrian Kurdistan, known as Rojava, was about to secure an autonomous government? Was it just that the clashes were becoming more violent, or was it that lack of food and medicine was growing more acute?

News coming from the area is contradictory. The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq calls the migration an “escape from Rojava,” while the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), whose main support is from Turkish Kurds, perceives it as “an effort to eliminate the Rojava Revolution.”

Actually, Syrian Kurds’ escape to Iraqi Kurdistan is hardly new. The first wave was seen in 2004 after the Qamishli riots at a soccer match in Syria. But the some 2,000 who fled then, who have been living at Domiz Refugee Camp near Dohuk, were given “refugee” status — rather than Iraqi citizenship — by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

They are Kurds, too

But it was with the onset of civil war in Syria in 2011 that the status of the Syrian Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan changed. Their number has ballooned to 150,000 over the last couple of years. Besides the scale, another key difference between the 2004 wave and this one was the presence of urban, literate Kurds. Some of those went to the Kurdistan Regional Government universities as either instructors or students. The service sector quickly recognized the chance for cheap labor and employed the youth. In the meantime, Syrian Kurdish men between the ages of 20 and 30 were given military training and put on the payroll.

The United Nations, however, did not provide financial support despite frequent pleas from the Kurdistan Regional Government. In fact, unless you count bringing Angelina Jolie to the Domiz Camp and providing good material for the global entertainment media, the UN offered no aid. But the southern Kurds were ready to help out, both out of solidarity and as a political investment in Syrian Kurdistan.

Taking sides

The PKK, which idealized the situation in Syria by referring to it as “The Rojava Revolution,” saw potential in allying with Syrian Kurd refugees in a longstanding standoff with the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

In fact, the source of the problem is clear: the KDP and the PKK, two political parties that lead the Kurdish political movement, cannot agree on how to share power. On one side, there is the PKK’s vision of political and armed organizational activity on each of the four parts of Kurdistan: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The latest sign that the parties keep drifting apart was the statement by Iraqi Kurdistan leader Mesud Barzani that they will intervene in Syrian territory if necessary.

Meanwhile, regional and international powers have been quick to take sides. The United States said it would not allow the Kurdistan Regional Government to interfere. Russia acted for the protection of the Syrian Kurds in the scope of the UN Security Council. And for the first time, Iran also recognized Barzani as the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

In this context, the latest wave of migration from Syrian Kurdistan to Iraqi Kurdistan is not just a human tragedy, but it also shines new light on the power struggle among Kurdish groups and leaders. Those who have moved from one side of Kurdistan to the other are waiting for these problems to end — and ever more, it looks like the waiting game will continue.

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Photo of police during protests in China against covid-19 restrictions

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At the core, protesters are unhappy with President Xi Jinping's three-year-long Zero-COVID strategy that has meant mass testing, harsh lockdowns, and digital tracking. Yet, the general belief about the Chinese people was that they lacked the awareness and experience for mass political action. Even though discontent had been growing about the Zero-COVID strategy, no one expected these protests.

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