Salahadin, Iraq – The Kurdish government in the north of Iraq is training Kurdish-Syrian fighters who will be sent back to defend Kurdish territory at home, says Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani.
In an interview with Al Jazeera at the presidential palace near Erbil on Sunday, Barzani confirmed for the first time the presence of a training camp in the Kurdish region.
The training puts yet another twist on complicated Kurdish relations and highlights major differences between the policy of the Kurdish regional government and Iraq’s central government towards neighbouring Syria.
“A good number of the young Kurds who fled have been trained. We do not want to interfere directly in the situation but they have been trained,” Barzani told Al Jazeera in his first interview in months. He said they have not yet been sent into Syria but are intended to be deployed there to fill any “security vacuum” as Syrian security forces retreat.
Barzani said the fighting force, made up largely of Syrian Kurds who deserted the army and made their way across the border, would take its orders from a new high committee formed two weeks ago when two major Kurdish opposition groups put aside their differences.
“They have not been sent to Syria. They are still here – if this high committee requires them to go they still could – if not they will wait for the situation to be sorted out because these people are from these areas and they will go back eventually,” he said. “This was aimed at filling the vacuum that will be created.”
‘Unified’ Kurdish position
Barzani, the most prominent regional Kurdish leader, oversaw an agreement in Erbil between the Syrian armed opposition and the mainstream Kurdish National Council.
“The best and the biggest support that we could provide is to have a united position and in this we were successful,” he said.
He said Syrian forces withdrew from several towns in the largely Kurdish al-Hasekah region which are now controlled by Kurdish fighters.
At Syria’s border crossing with northern Iraq, Iraqi officials said Syrian security forces on Sunday morning retook the border post from gunmen who had seized it.
The Iraqi and Syrian sides of the border post are just metres away. One Iraqi border official told us he had spoken with a lieutenant colonel of the Free Syrian Army who took control of the post along with Kurdish and Arab fighters.
They melted away though when Syrian security forces sent in helicopters to retake the Yarabiya crossing early Monday morning.
Iraq’s Shia-led central government has been treading a very careful line on Syria, warning of the dangers of arming the opposition and saying the Syrian people must decide on their own future.
With violence worsening though and attacks on Iraqis in Syria increasing, the government has called on Iraqis to return home, seen by some as an implicit recognition that they do not expect the Syrian government to last. While thousands have returned to central Iraq, hundreds of Sunni Iraqis who fled sectarian violence say they plan to remain in the safer Kurdish region.
Iraq has closed the gates to Syrian refugees, saying it does not have the resources to take care of them at its remote desert crossings. Humanitarian officials from one of the borders reported that Iraqi authorities on the weekend had handed a Syrian family seeking asylum back to Syrian authorities. One official said it was likely because the family included military-age men.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and aid organisations have appealed for Iraq to open the borders to Syrian civilians trying to escape the fighting.