It was only a rumour at first: Syrian Kurdish refugees were being trained by Iraqi Kurdish military, so they could return to fight with the Free Syrian Army. Now it’s turned out true, and apparently, a force is waiting on the Iraqi-Syria border.
When Imad Mohammed and around a hundred of his fellow refugees were transferred from the Moqoble refugee camp, near Dohuk in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, to the capital of the state, Erbil, they thought they were going to get jobs there. Instead they found themselves in a military training camp.
Mohammed left his home in the Syrian city of Qamishlo three months ago in order to seek shelter from the violence currently affecting Syria. And until he was transferred to Erbil, he and many other Syrian Kurds had lived in the Moqoble camp.
“Then the buses took us from the refugee camp to the Zaytoun Camp, a military base west of Erbil city, commanded by the Iraqi Kurdish military,” Mohammed, 29, tells. “The commander of the corps there, which is responsible for protecting the region, then told us about the tasks that we were meant to do.”
Mohammed says that many of the young Syrian Kurdish refugees refused to participate in weapons and fitness training and ended up returning to the refugee camp near Dohuk. Mohammed however stayed on and became a member of the first group of Syrian Kurds to pass through the military training.
“Most of us knew nothing about weapons,” he says. “During that period we spent in the camp though, we learned basic military principles and undertook a fitness regime.”
And apparently Mohammed is one of between 500 and 1,000 others trained at the base. He says that each of the trainees received IQD100,000 (around US$85) in pay and that they were also allowed holidays, during which they returned to the refugee camp in Dohuk.
Asked about the accuracy of this information, Aziz Wisi, the General Commander of the Zarvani forces, would not confirm or deny that Kurdish military trainers were involved in training Syrian rebels, whether they were from the Free Syrian Army or whether they were just ordinary Syrian Kurdish refugees.
“The President of the [Iraqi Kurdish] region has made statements on this subject and he is the only authority who can comment on this subject,” Wisi told NIQASH. The Foreign Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Falah Mustafa, gave NIQASH a similar statement.
In an interview with the Qatar-based television news channel, Al Jazeera, on July 23, Massoud Barzani admitted for the first time that some Syrian Kurds had been trained in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“A good number of the young Kurds who fled have been trained,” Al Jazeera reported Barzani's statements. “We do not want to interfere directly in the situation but they have been trained.”
Barzani also said the fighting force was composed largely of Syrian Kurds who had deserted the Syrian army and made their way across the border.
“They have not been sent to Syria,” Barzani continued. “They are still here.” The force was aimed at filling any security vacuum should the Syrian regime be defeated but could also be sent back to join the Syrian rebels in fighting, before that happened, Barzani said.
While the existence of the Syrian Kurdish troops has now been acknowledged, little more is known about them. According to NIQASH’s sources inside the military, there are now around 650 of these troops stationed on borders between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria.
They are to be commanded by the newly formed Kurdish Supreme Council, made up of two Syrian Kurdish political parties – the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) - who had previously been at loggerheads; Iraqi Kurdish politician Barzani is credited with getting them to form a united front after meetings in Erbil in mid-July.
And Barzani said that if this Kurdish Supreme Council gave orders for the troops to cross into Syria, they might well do so.
However Hussein Kojar, a representative of Democratic Union Party (PYD), told NIQASH that none of the members of the new council had known about this new military force. One of the ruling political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan was behind the training and formation of these troops, he explained, noting that the new Supreme Council had its own military force.
“The force trained by the [Iraqi] Kurdish troops only underwent a very short period of training,” Kojar noted. “And with regard to its military ability and structure, it’s a fairly modest group.”
Kojar is not the only one with doubts about the force. The fact that the Kurdish had been training their Syrian counterparts came in for harsh criticism both from within Iraqi Kurdistan and from the federal government in Baghdad.
MP Hussein al-Asadi, who belongs to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ruling State of Law bloc, was quick to compare the training of the Syrians with the independent, and according to Baghdad, illegal, sale of oil by the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“But what the Iraqi Kurdish are doing now is more dangerous than selling Iraqi oil,” al-Asadi says.
And it seems that the politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan know this; they understand that this kind of increasingly independent and militant behaviour could cause a crisis in the semi-autonomous region and they appear to have been busy trying to justify Barzani’s statements.
“It would have been better to consult with Parliament before taking such a step,” MP Goran Azad, who belongs to the other ruling political party in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said.
Besides his concern about the lack of consultation, Azad also worried about the legalities and repercussions of the move. “The historic and the patriotic reality is that the Kurds in the west of Syria are part of our own culture and of our ethnicity. However we do live in two separate countries at the moment. The formation of a military force like this one in this region is illegal and it will put us in danger,” Azad argued.
As for Mohammed, the young Syrian Kurdish man who had ended up training with the Iraqi Kurdish military, he too believes he understands what’s going on. “The KDP is training Syrian Kurds so that they will be able to play a role in any political change that might occur in Syria,” he says.
He also says that’s why, after three months of military training, he told his officers he wanted to visit his father in the refugee camp in Dohuk and then never returned.
Mohammed is currently trying to find a job in Iraqi Kurdistan so that he can make a decent living and provide for the rest of his family.