The fragile balance in Iraq has been strained by an increase in Sunni attacks on Shiites and government installations since the spring, but Northern Iraq had largely escaped the internal upheaval. However, recent fighting between Kurds and Arabs in predominantly Kurdish parts of Syria has begun to produce refugee flows into that previously quiet area. It has also raised fears in both countries – and in Turkey – of a Kurdish drive for independence and a fracturing of the Syrian rebel front.
The UN estimated 15,000 Syrians crossed the border into Northern Iraq over the weekend, joining more than 150,000 refugees living elsewhere in the country. “UN refugee agency staff at Sahela today report what appears like a river of people coming toward the border,” said a UNHCR representative.
Syrian Kurds, considered a protected minority by the Assad regime, were not early participants in the uprising. However, as the fighting spread, the “Free Kurdish Army” was formed in 2012. It took control of several Kurdish villages announced plans to form a provisional Kurdish government. With an eye on Turkish as well as Iraqi political concerns, in April the State Department announced its opposition to any Kurdish plan for self-government.
Over the summer, Kurdish militias have been fighting pitched battles with both the al Nusra Front and forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda offshoot in Syria. At least one report indicated that Kurdish fighters captured by other Syrian rebels were being turned over to members of the al Nusra front and ISIL, perhaps as many as 250, mostly taken when the two groups overran the Kurdish villages of Tall Aren and Tall Hassel, at the end of July. Efforts by the Syrian National Congress to mediate between the Kurds and the al Nusra Front are said to have failed.
Following weekend fighting and the flood of refugees, Northern Iraq President Massoud Barzani has said Iraqi Kurdistan “will make use of all its capabilities to defend the Kurdish women, children and citizens in western Kurdistan (i.e., the eastern part of Syria)… the Iraqi Kurdistan region will… be prepared to defend” them. While Arab fighters frequently cross from Syria into Iraq, this was the first indication that Kurdish fighters may do the same, increasing the possibility of a wider war.