Syrian Kurds seek safe haven in Iraq's
Civilians fleeing from fighting after army tanks
entered the city of Idlib, Syria. Photo: AP See Related Links
February 28, 2012
ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', —
Away from his family and living in a small flat,
Omar Izzat Ibrahim is among rising numbers of Syrian
Kurds who have fled a bloody crackdown to the safe
haven of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.
Their increasing numbers were highlighted by the
announcement on Monday that authorities in Iraqi
Kurdistan had awarded refugee status to 30 Kurdish
Syrian soldiers who defected, with officials
insisting they would not be handed back to Damascus.
“Many soldiers want to leave the army and defect,”
said Ibrahim, a sergeant from the town of Kobani,
along Syria’s border with Turkey.
“From the start of the uprising, we were under a lot
of pressure from our commanders. They were cursing
us all the time, especially Kurdish soldiers who
came from cities where rebellions took place.”
The 30-year-old told of how he forged papers
granting him six days of leave and fled to Kobani
and hid with relatives before secretly crossing into
Duhok, Iraq’s northernmost province, in early
Since then, he has lived in a relative’s apartment
in the regional capital Erbil with a civilian
defector and three others, with only a small
television as entertainment.
Syrian Kurds represent about nine percent of the
country’s population and are mainly located in the
northeast and Damascus, where they form an important
They say they have been the subject of political
discrimination for decades, and demand recognition
of their language and culture and want to be treated
as full citizens.
That said, they have largely escaped the worst of a
ruthless military offensive against parts of the
country revolting against the rule of President
Rights groups estimate that the conflict has left at
least 7,600 people dead.
Iraqi Kurdish officials, meanwhile, expect 1,000
Syrian families to cross into Dohuk and are
preparing to build a camp in the province to
accommodate them, according to Shaker Yassin, head
of the Kurdish interior ministry’s immigration
“Those who are escaping the violence have been
coming to Kurdistan since the beginning of the
year,” said Yassin, adding that he did not have
numbers on how many families had crossed into Iraq
since the uprising began 11 months ago because most,www.ekurd.net
like Ibrahim, stayed with relatives and did not
On Monday it was announced that 30 Kurdish Syrian
soldiers who fled to Iraq had been given refugee
“We received them for humanitarian reasons, and they
are under our protection and we gave them refugee
status,” said Anwar Haji Othman, Kurdish deputy
minister for the local Kurdish peshmerga security
forces, referring to the army defectors.
“We will not hand them over to the Syrian government
because they are Kurdish and it is our right to
protect them,” he said.
According to an official overseeing two camps of
Kurdish Syrian refugees in Dohuk, 15 families and
130 civilian men, all Kurds, have arrived in the
autonomous region from Syria in recent days.
“I was outside of Syria and when I came back to
Damascus, I was arrested at the airport because I
did not join the army,” said Mohammed, one of
Ibrahim’s flatmates in Arbil.
“In the prison, I saw many young men being
tortured,” added the 28-year-old, who declined to
give his full name because he feared for his
Mohammed said he was released from jail after his
family pleaded with a judge, at which point he
crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan with the help of
Iraq has shied away from imposing punitive measures
against Syria, where there are still regular
civilian protests, though the focus has shifted to
armed conflict with regime forces.
President Assad is a member of the minority Alawite
sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the
majority of Syrians, and of his opponents, are Sunni
Iraq, by contrast, is governed by majority Shiite
Muslims, but has substantial Sunni Arab and Kurdish
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