DOHUK, Iraq — Just off a main highway that stretches east of this city and slices through a moonscape of craggy hills, a few hundred Syrian Kurdish men have been training for battle, marching through scrub brush and practicing rifle drills.
The men, many of them defectors from the Syrian Army living in white trailers dotting a hillside camp, are not here to join the armed uprising against President Bashar Assad’s government. They are preparing for the fight they expect to come after, when Assad falls and there is a scramble across Syria for power and turf.
These men want an autonomous Kurdish region in what is now Syria, a prospect they see as a step toward fulfilling a centuries-old dream of linking the Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Turkey and Iran into an independent nation.
But that desire, to right a historical grievance for a people divided and oppressed through generations, also threatens to draw a violent backlash from those other nations. They have signaled a willingness to take extreme actions to prevent the loss of territory to a greater Kurdistan.
The first step is already in motion, as the Iraqi Kurds provide safe haven, training and arms to the would-be militia. “They are being trained for after the fall, for the security vacuum that will come after the Assad government collapses," said Mahmood Sabir, one of a number of Syrian Kurdish opposition figures operating in Iraq.
That the Kurds are arming themselves for a fight, one that could prove decisive in shaping post-revolutionary Syria, adds another element of volatility to the conflict. It suggests that the government’s fall would not lead to peace — but, instead, an all-out sectarian war that could drag in neighboring countries.
A measure of autonomy
Against the backdrop of the raging civil war, Syrian Kurds have already etched out a measure of autonomy in their territories — not because they have taken up arms against the government, but because the government has relinquished Kurdish communities to local control, allowing the Kurds to gain a head start on self-rule. Kurdish flags fly over former government buildings in those areas, and schools have opened that teach in Kurdish language, something the Assad government had prohibited.
“We are organizing our society, a Kurdish society," said Saleh Mohammed, the leader of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, which is viewed with deep suspicion by other Kurdish groups for its ties to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe and has lately stepped up its guerrilla attacks in Turkey.
The Kurds say they are girding for a fight, should the government try to reclaim Kurdish cities or if the Sunni-dominated militias, loosely organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and fighting to bring down the government, try to move into Kurdish areas.
“Of course, we’ll defend ourselves," Mohammed said. “According to Kurdish tradition, we have weapons in our houses. Every house should have its own weapon."
Much of the Syrian Kurds’ efforts are being guided by Masoud Barzani, the head of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, whose autonomy and relative prosperity serves as a model for Syrian Kurds. The men at the camp are being trained and provided weapons by an Iraqi Kurdish special forces unit that is linked to Barzani’s political party.
Barzani has sought to play a kingmaker role with his Syrian brethren by uniting the various factions, like he has in the sectarian and ethnic tinderbox of Iraqi politics. In July he reached a deal to organize more than a dozen Kurdish parties under the Kurdish Supreme Council, and many of the officials work out of an office in Irbil, in a mixed-use complex of cul-de-sacs and tidy subdivisions called the Italian Village.
Aspirations for statehood
Oppressed for decades under Arab autocrats, denied rights by one post-Ottoman Turkish leader after another, and betrayed after World War I by Allied powers who had once promised Kurdish independence, this time the Kurds are determined to seize the upheaval of the Arab Spring and bend history to their will.
The civil war in Syria, whose nearly 2 million Kurds are mostly clustered near its northeastern border with Turkey, has excited the aspirations for statehood that the Kurds have held for centuries. These dreams have been kept in abeyance since the Western victors of World War I set down arbitrary new borders for the Middle East that divided the Kurdish people among four nations: Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
“It’s a historical moment for the Kurds to take advantage of, to achieve change," said Kawa Azizi, a Syrian who is a professor of politics and a Kurdish opposition politician.
When the uprising began nearly 18 months ago, some observers worried that the Kurds could make common cause with Assad in exchange for more rights and autonomy. Many described the Kurds as sitting on the fence, waiting to choose sides. Many Kurds dispute that analysis. They say they have always hated Assad.
The Kurds of Syria, divided among more than a dozen factions of shifting alliances, seem united in at least two respects: they are opposed to the Assad government, but deeply suspicious of the ambitions of the Free Syrian Army.
“First of all, they are Arabs," Azizi said of the Free Syrian Army. “We do not want the Arabs to control us."
While there is little fighting in the Syrian Kurdish towns, and officials interviewed in Iraq say that a measure of calm has settled over the areas, Kurdish refugees are steadily streaming into northern Iraq. Refugees say government intelligence operatives are still harassing Kurds, and threatening them if they do not join the government’s army. Food and medical supplies are also running low, contributing to the exodus of refugees. At the Domiz refugee camp near Dohuk, a tent city of nearly 25,000 people, about 150 to 200 new refugees arrive each day.
“The only place we could come was Kurdistan in Iraq," said Jawan Suleiman, 32, who has lived at the camp since April.
Suleiman earns money selling snacks and cigarettes to other camp residents. In his home, a concrete husk with a tented roof, he hangs a placard of Barzani’s late father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, a famous Kurdish military and political leader. As Suleiman drank peach nectar and smoked cigarette after cigarette, he explained that the Kurds were never on the fence in Syria’s uprising.
“We suffered a lot," he said. “Now it’s time that we stand and have our own region so we can get our rights."