Fuel, food aid draw Iraq and Syria Kurds closer

The Kurdish Globe - - EDITORIAL - By Reuters

Kurds on ei­ther side of the river Ti­gris that runs be­tween Syria and Iraq are linked by kin­ship, a his­tory of op­pres­sion and now by fuel lines and boats fer­ry­ing food and med­i­cal aid across the wa­ters that di­vide them.

The life­line thrown by Iraqi Kur­dis­tan to its neigh­bor ex­tends the in­flu­ence of Ma­soud Barzani, the au­tonomous re­gion's Pres­i­dent, over Kurds in Syria as civil war threat­ens to dis­mem­ber the coun­try.

For Syr­ian Kurds the con­flict presents an op­por­tu­nity to win the kind of rights en­joyed by their eth­nic kin in Iraq, who live au­tonomously from Bagh­dad with their own ad­min­is­tra­tion, armed forces and an in­creas­ingly in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy.

"Be­sides the hu­man­i­tar­ian di­men­sion there is a po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion (to the aid) as well," said his­to­rian Jordi Te­jel Gor­gas, an ex­pert on Syr­ian Kurds based in Switzer­land. "The KRG (Kur­dis­tan re­gional government) and Barzani, as leader of a de facto Kur­dish state, are show­ing they are com­mit­ted pa­tri­ots."

It is not clear what ex­actly Barzani may hope to gain, but the aid con­sol­i­dates his involvement with Kurds in Syria, to whom he has al­ready pro­vided po­lit­i­cal sup­port in prepa­ra­tion for a fu­ture power tran­si­tion.

KRG spokesman Safeen Diza­yee de­nied there was any ul­te­rior or po­lit­i­cal mo­tive to the aid, call­ing it an obli­ga­tion.

Kur­dish ar­eas in Syria's north­east­ern cor­ner have been spared the worst of the fight­ing be­tween rebels and forces loyal to Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, but are none­the­less suf­fer­ing from se­vere food and fuel short­ages.

On the Iraqi side of the river, white pick-up trucks re­verse down to the water's edge and men heave sack af­ter sack of flour, tinned to­ma­toes and ghee into the hull of a mo­tor boat wait­ing to speed over to Syria. The Kur­dish flag flies over­head.

"They are our brothers and a shared fate binds us to­gether," Barzani was quoted as say­ing in the bi-monthly news­pa­per of a Syr­ian Kur­dish party close to his own.

Di­vided be­tween Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran, the Kur­dish peo­ple num­ber around 25 mil­lion and are of­ten de­scribed as the world's largest eth­nic group with­out a state of their own.

In Syria, where they make up about 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, Kurds have been sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­crim­i­nated against un­der As­sad and his fa­ther be­fore him, who stripped more than 100,000 of their cit­i­zen­ship.

Kur­dis­tan's ap­proach to Syria con­trasts sharply with the cen­tral government's. Shi'ite Prime Min­is­ter Nuri al-Ma­liki says Iraq's pol­icy is "non-in­ter­fer­ence" in Syria, but his in­ter­ests are closely aligned with those of Iran, which backs As­sad.

"The cen­tral government has not ob­jected so far," said the head of the cross­ing, Shawkat Ber­be­hari, a framed por­trait of Barzani's fa­ther Mulla Mustafa hang­ing on the wall be­hind him.

The Fishkhabour cross­ing opened in mid-Jan­uary and the au­thor­i­ties are con­struct­ing a float­ing bridge over the river to make it eas­ier to tra­verse.

"We are help­ing our brothers and sis­ters in West­ern Kur­dis­tan," Ber­be­hari said, us­ing the term by which Kurds re­fer to the area of Syria they lay claim to as part of their right­ful home­land: "Greater Kur­dis­tan".

"Oint­ment"

Around one mil­lion liters of diesel and a thou­sand tonnes of flour as well as med­i­cal sup­plies have been do­nated so far by the KRG in north­ern Iraq to their fel­low Kurds across the river.

Once laden, each boat takes less than a minute to reach the other side.

"We thank God and we thank the pres­i­dent of Kur­dis­tan for this aid which is an oint­ment for our wounds," said 49-year-old Amin Ahmed, one of tens of thou­sands of Syr­ian Kurds who have sought refuge in the au­tonomous re­gion.

Af­ter be­ing un­loaded in Syria, the aid is dis­trib­uted to Kurds and Arabs alike by com­mit­tees op­er­at­ing un­der the "Higher Kur­dish Coun­cil", a body formed last year at Barzani's in­sis­tence to unite ri­val Syr­ian Kur­dish fac­tions.

The dom­i­nant Kur­dish group on the ground in Syria is the Demo­cratic Union Party (PYD), aligned with the out­lawed Kur­dis­tan Work­ers' Party (PKK), which has fought a 28-year-old in­sur­gency against the Turk­ish state.

Weaker but more palat­able to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is the Kur­dish Na­tional Coun­cil (KNC), it­self an um­brella for more than a dozen smaller par­ties, sev­eral of which are tied closely to Iraqi Kur­dish groups.

Both the PYD and the KNC are wary of the Arab-dom­i­nated Syr­ian op­po­si­tion, which they see as in­her­ently hos­tile to their in­ter­ests, but they dif­fer on how best to cap­i­tal­ize on the civil war.

The KNC has ac­cused the PYD of col­lud­ing with As­sad in re- turn for him let­ting the group's supremacy in Syria's Kur­dish ar­eas go un­chal­lenged. That serves As­sad's in­ter­ests by un­nerv­ing Turkey, which has sup­ported the upris­ing against him.

Up­per Jazira

The out­come of the Syr­ian con­flict is still highly un­cer­tain, but an­a­lysts say Barzani may be look­ing to strengthen his foothold on the other side of the bor­der.

"All op­tions are open in Syria and since any­thing is pos­si­ble, Barzani might have an eye on Up­per Jazira," said Gor­gas, re­fer­ring to the ter­ri­tory where Syr­ian Kurds are con­cen­trated.

But he said any fu­ture government in Syria is un­likely to will­ingly cede much con­trol over an area with one of the coun­try's few oil­fields, and nor would Turkey coun­te­nance too strong a Kur­dish en­tity on its south­ern fron­tier.

Iraqi Kur­dish politi­cians say their main con­cern is to pre­vent Syr­ian Kurds from re­peat­ing the mis­takes of the 1990s, when Barzani's Kur­dis­tan Demo­cratic Party (KDP) fought a bloody civil war against the Pa­tri­otic Union of Kur­dis­tan (PUK) led by Jalal Tal­a­bani.

Although they buried the hatchet to form a shared ad­min­is­tra­tion, fric­tion be­tween the KDP and PUK re­mains, and in Syria they back dif­fer­ent Kur­dish par­ties within the KNC.

"One might as­sume that the PUK will try to un­der­mine Barzani's moves in Syria," Gor­gas said, not­ing that those par­ties as­so­ci­ated with Tal­a­bani have tended to lean to­wards the PYD.

A se­nior Kur­dish politi­cian said Barzani's ob­jec­tives were to en­sure Kur­dis­tan's bor­der with Syria was se­cure and to con­tain the PYD: "We want to keep them in the tent," he said on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The KRG has cul­ti­vated close ties with neigh­bor­ing Turkey and does not want the PYD to com­pli­cate that strate­gic re­la­tion­ship, an­a­lysts say.

"My sense is that there isn't an over-arch­ing strat­egy. It's more a re­ac­tive re­sponse to chang­ing events, with a fo­cus on pro­tect­ing what they have al­ready gained," said Crispin Hawes, di­rec­tor of po­lit­i­cal risk con­sul­tancy Eura­sia Group's Mid­dle East and North Africa prac­tice.

"The am­bi­tions are clearly there to ex­pand but the core de­sire is that noth­ing gets rolled back."

Syr­ian Kurds prac­tise read­ing the Kur­dish lan­guage at a school in Derik, Al-Hasakah Oc­to­ber 31, 2012.

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