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Will flood of Kurdish refugees from Syria increase volatility in Iraq?

December 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: As Syria’s civil war grinds toward its fourth year, the refugee crisis it’s spawned grows larger by the day.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner looks at the effects the flight of Syria’s Kurds on the prosperous Kurdish region of Iraq.

In late summer, a new wave of refugees poured out of Syria, some 50,000 in a matter of days. They were Kurds fleeing their homes in northeast Syria for the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. It wasn’t Bashar al-Assad’s forces that drove them out. Kurdish militias were in control in their home areas. The threat came from a different quarter instead, the ranks of anti-Assad jihadi rebel fighters linked to al-Qaida.

MAN (through interpreter): The area was besieged by Al-Nusra Front.

MARGARET WARNER: This man left his Syrian town when it came under assault by Islamist rebels.

MAN (through interpreter): An edict was issued permitting the shedding of Kurdish blood. They called from the mosque loudspeakers that it is permitted. And from that day forward, we didn’t dare venture out. I left in search for a place where I can find speech.

OMAR HOSSINO, SyriaDeeply.org: The Kurdish areas in Syria were seen as stable because the regime never really bombarded them, like they did with other rebel-controlled regions.

MARGARET WARNER: Omar Hossino, writer for the website SyriaDeeply.org, says Assad didn’t want to tangle with the Syrian Kurds. But that aroused suspicions among the jihadi rebels.

OMAR HOSSINO: As the conflict went on in the summer of 2013, the rebel groups associated with the Syrian opposition, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida, saw these Kurdish militias really as being complicit with the regime and really started attacking these areas very hard.

This fighting scared the Kurds and really sent so many of them in such a very short period of time into Iraqi Kurdistan.

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MARGARET WARNER: Numbering some 30 million, the Kurds are considered the word’s largest stateless ethnic group, concentrated in a zone from Southeastern Turkey through Syria and Northern Iraq into Iran.

Most are Sunni Muslims, but they’re not Arabs, and they’re hardly homogeneous, fractured by competing parties and rivalries throughout the region.

Now they too have joined the well-documented diaspora of nearly 2.5 million Syrians who over the past 2.5 years have crossed into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and now in this latest wave some 200,000 of them into Iraq.

The majority of them are Kurds, who settled in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north. At the outset, they were welcomed with open arms. The Kurdish regional government provided them with land for their camps, electricity, transport, and even work permits. And that welcome was on display among many locals, too, when video journalist Ted Nieters traveled to the region for the NewsHour.

Twenty-year-old Mohammad Salah Yunis sells homewares in his father’s store in a bazaar in Dahuk. Even though some refugees have stolen from his shop, he said they are welcome.

MOHAMMAD SALAH YUNIS, supporter: It is better to take good care of them. Of course, entry and exit from the camps have to be limited. But we do not mind if they have a good life. We want them to have the best. They are our brothers.

JEFF CRISP, Refugees International: There’s a great deal of ethnic solidarity, great feeling of sympathy and solidarity with these kinfolks who are living across the border.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeff Crisp, senior director of Refugees International, just returned from a trip to Northern Iraq. He says the sympathy is more than ethnic.

JEFF CRISP: A very large proportion of the Northern Iraq population became refugees themselves in the 1990s when the region was attacked by the forces of Saddam.

And so, having been refugees themselves more than 20 years ago, these people have a kind of instinctive sympathy with people who find themselves in the same kind of situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, life for Kurdish refugees in Iraq is as tough as for refugees everywhere.

Twenty-five-year-old HAMREEN HASSAN ABDO arrived in late July with her children.

HAMREEN HASSAN ABDO, refugee (through interpreter): This medical center doesn’t have enough medications. My daughter is 2 and still does not walk. They tried to give me a pill. How can she take a pill? And there is no school for them.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, despite the difficulties, Abdo expects to stay.

HAMREEN HASSAN ABDO (through interpreter): I swear I’m never going back to Syria. I will work and buy a house here. We have nothing good in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: The protracted Syria conflict has led many to the same conclusion, says Crisp.

JEFF CRISP: What you see amongst the refugees is really them beginning to think a little bit more about the future and what their life is going to be like living in exile.

When I was there six months ago, people were essentially living in canvas tents. Quite a big change has taken place during that time. You now see people building with blocks and with bricks, people living in more permanent structures and setting themselves up for the future.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s what Abdulrahman Rashid did. He fled Qamishli in Northern Syria last March. After a few months, he and his family pooled money to build a cinder block home in the camp.

ABDULRAHMAN RASHID, refugee (through interpreter): We used to have a tent and got a lot of promises that things would get better, but nothing happened. So we built this to shelter ourselves. I think it will be 10 years before we can go home. If there were a better place, we would go.

MARGARET WARNER: And Rashid is already sensing that the local sentiment towards the refugees is changing.

ABDULRAHMAN RASHID (through interpreter): When we first came, we had everything, food, supplies. But with time, it’s gotten worse. And there’s less for people. Syrian Kurds’ dream was to come here and live in Kurdistan, but they now humiliate us. They don’t consider us human.

MARGARET WARNER: We heard such negative sentiments in some quarters of the Dahuk marketplace. Thirty-year-old Suleiman Taib sells women’s and girls clothing.

SULEIMAN TAIB, shop owner (through interpreter): They have a huge impact, not only in Dahuk, but on the whole of Iraq. They impact labor because they work for low wages. Also, prices are going up.

MARGARET WARNER: And he fears the introduction of terrorism into once peaceful Kurdish northern Iraq.

SULEIMAN TAIB (through interpreter): Before the Syrians came here, we had no problems. But now we have bombings.

MARGARET WARNER: He was referring to multiple explosions one day in September in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. The bombings were claimed by al-Qaida-linked ISIS militia in retaliation for the Kurdish government’s backing for moderate Arab rebels in Syria, where ISIS is also active.

Two more attacks rocked the disputed Arab-Kurdish Iraqi city of Kirkuk in recent days. Last week, ISIS staged a complex assault on an intelligence headquarters and a shopping mall. Suicide bombers were followed by snipers and squads of gunmen. Ten people were killed and more than a hundred wounded in the 12-hour attack.

Then, Sunday, a series of car bombs around the city killed another 10 people. Adding the Syrian Kurds to this mix could make Iraq even more volatile, says Omar Hossino, pitting Syrian Kurds against Iraqi Kurds and exacerbating Kurdish-Arab tensions in Iraq, as has happened in next-door Syria.

OMAR HOSSINO: The radicalization is going to increase and the different fronts within the Syrian war are going to increase. And the Kurdish-Arab complex within Syria is going to increase. That’s going to have major effects.

MARGARET WARNER: What does the United States have at stake in all of this?

OMAR HOSSINO: Its allies in the region are really suffering tremendous consequences with the Syrian state failing on the borders of Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey. The longer that this conflict goes on, the greater this problem gets.

MARGARET WARNER: Putting at further risk the stability of Iraq, which costs the United States thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to secure.