Syrian Kurds on the Verge of Crisis

by Sirwan Kajjo | published January 7, 2013 - 6:55pm

With the civil war in Syria past the point of no return, the country’s economy is undergoing unprecedented shrinkage. Inflation is running rampant. Purchasing power is plummeting as the value of the Syrian pound falls against the US dollar.

Damascus and Aleppo, the main economic hubs, are badly affected, but the country’s eastern and northeastern regions are also in dire straits.

For rural areas, including Syrian Kurdistan, the war’s effects have been devastating. Prior to the revolution, Syrian Kurds depended heavily on commerce with Aleppo and other large cities. These trade routes were among the busiest in all of Syria. But all that is history, now that Aleppo and the surrounding province are embroiled in the war.

Syrian Kurds, bordered by two booming economies in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, had hoped that geography might offer them some economic advantage. But Turkey has clamped down on the Syrian borders, making it nigh impossible for businessmen (even smugglers) to carry on. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, the border is at the mercy of intra-Kurdish politics. The Syrian side of the boundary is manned by forces affiliated with the Union Democratic Party (PYD), which is closely tied with the PKK, which in turn is at war with the Turkish state. As a result, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, anxious to soothe its new Turkish ally’s feelings, has closed the Syrian crossings for much of the winter. (The central government in Baghdad periodically closed its crossing at al-Qa‘im for the same reasons.) The local Kurds on the Syrian side grumble about the treatment they receive from KRG guards when they try to fetch basic goods for their afflicted region.

Although the KRG’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, has announced the reopening of the borders, it is unclear as yet what the long term will bring. The KRG has no apparent strategy toward the Syrian Kurds, and seems driven instead by political disagreements with certain groups among them.

The KRG once seemed intent on containing the crisis among their brethren in Syria. When signs of danger first loomed, KRG authorities opened their arms to thousands of Kurdish refugees, particularly those who were fleeing violence in Damascus and the northern parts of the Aleppo governorate. Within a few weeks, the Domiz camp in northern Iraq hosted some 15,000 Syrian Kurds. For a time, the families in Domiz lived well compared to their countrymen who had sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. By mid-September 2012, however, the influx had tripled and KRG resources had failed to keep pace. Local sources in Erbil estimated the numbers of people crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan at 500 per day. The KRG declared itself incapable of taking in so many. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees operation at Domiz is running low on tents.

In the past 45 days, meanwhile, the cost of living crisis has become unbearable on the Syrian side of the border. Food prices are sky high. Fuel for heating and cooking is scarcely to be found. The entire neighborhood celebrates when there are two uninterrupted hours of electricity in a day. Many families have relocated from one part of Syrian Kurdistan to another, but such moves are of no help, as economic travails are essentially the same countrywide. Many others have resorted to camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, but flight is not an option for most of the 3 million Kurds living in Syria.

The situation is critical. No one knows when the Syrian civil war will end, let alone how. The Kurds, who once thought they had a political trump card, now seem poised to lose it amidst economic collapse, unless the KRG reenters the scene. For now, humanitarian needs are urgent. A campaign of assistance, mounted by the KRG and international NGOs, is the best place to start.