The Kurdish Jihadist battleground in Syria: ramifications in Iraqi Kurdistan

The two Iraqi Kurdish parties’ entanglement in the Syrian Kurdish issues seems to have resulted in anti-Assad rebels and extreme jihadists retaliating against the KRG, in a spillover of the Syrian civil war.

On September 29, a rare attack occurred in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in which the headquarters of the Kurdistan security forces (Asayish) were targeted. The KRG has brought about rapid economic development in Iraqi Kurdistan, a region of Iraq that enjoys peace and security and is nothing less than a haven for Iraqis. A day earlier, the results had been announced of the parliamentary election of the KRG, which was applauded by some western countries, such as the UK, for its democratic process. However, the attack does not seem to be directly related to the election, which was won by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) securing the highest number of votes. Gorran cam second as the main opposition party while the third party of the region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), was reduced to third place. 

The way the attack was executed, and the quantity of arms and explosives used, point to a sophisticated network.  Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), an Al-Qaida affiliate operating in Syria, tweeted on its unofficial Twitter account, ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Sham: Four car bombs shake Arbil; response to what they are doing in ash-Sham (Syria). Alla-hu-Akbar’. This tweet attributes the attack to the ISIL or the ISLS and justifies it as an act of reprisal against the KRG’s involvement in Kurdish matters in Syria.

Furious fighting has broken out in Syria between the Jihadists and the Kurds, particularly the most powerful Kurdish militia, People Protect Unit (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which is an offshoot of the PKK. The JN, ISIL, Ahrar Al-Sham Brigade and ten other rebel factions have formed an alliance, the ‘Islamic Army’, that has rejected the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) allegiance to the Syrian National Council (SNC). These developments have brought the civil war to a menacing juncture, with regional ramifications. 

As Assad’s enemies have fragmented and are fighting each other, a war is going on between the Arab rebels and the Kurds. Massoud Barzani, the President of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, has reportedly warned of intervention in Syria to defend the slaughter of the Kurdish people by radical Islamist groups who are fighting against Assad’s regime, although officials have since backtracked on the statement. In the meantime, the influx of refugees into the Iraqi Kurdistan region is continuing. In the last few months, tens of thousands of refugees, mostly Syrian Kurds, have crossed the border, posing a challenge to the KRG which is hard pressed to cope with their large numbers. 

The discourse on Syrian Kurdish matters in the KRG is mainly dominated by two rival political parties of Iraq. The first is the KDP, led by the President of the KRG, which has a close relationship with Turkey and has been supporting the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S) and Kurdistan National Council (KNC). The second is the PUK, the party of the President of Iraq, which has been backing the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party (PDPKS) in Syria and has close ties with the PYD, an offshoot of the PKK. The latter has tense relations with the KDP due to rivalry for power and territories.

The Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime have accused the PYD of allying with the regime, while the PYD denies these allegations. The PYD claims that it is neutral in the Syrian civil war and does not side with any party. Nevertheless, the Kurds’ aim is to seek an autonomous region in northern Syria, while the Al-Qaida affiliates’ and the Jihadists’ objective is to form an Islamic Caliphate. As a result, continuing clashes between the Kurds, led by the YPG, and the Jihadists are pushing the latter out of the Kurdish majority areas in northern Syria.

The call for Jihad in Syria has attracted a considerable number of Iraqi Sunnis and Shias who are also engaged in a brutal sectarian war fighting one another, which has exacerbated instability in Iraq. The Iraqi Shias have joined the Shia militias in Syria, such as Liwa’a Fadil Al-Abbas dedicated to the cause of the Shias across the world, while the Iraqi Sunnis have joined the ISIL, JN and other such extremist groups. A number of Kurdish Jihadists and Salafi individuals from the Iraqi Kurdistan region have also gone to Syria, some recruited via Al-Qaida Kurdish Battalions (AQKB), an affiliate of the Al-Qaida in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Ansar Al Islam (AAI), an extremist Sunni group made up of the Iraqi Kurds. These groups have targeted the KRG and sent insurgents to Syria, who have joined the ISIL and JN. Thus, Iraqi Kurdish insurgents have also collaborated with Syrian rebels. A source stated, on condition of anonymity, that these fighters are smuggled across the border by bribing border guards who facilitate their movements. 

The actors in the theatre of war between the Kurds and the Islamic rebels in Syria are the YPG forces allied with the Liwa’ Jabhat al Akrad (Kurdish Front Battalion) or the ex-FSA on the one hand, and the JN and a smaller group of Katibat Al-Talaban (Kurdish Islamic group) on the other. The intensive combat zones include the governorates of Al-Hasakah, Ar-Raqqah and Aleppo. These battles between the Kurds and extremist Islamic groups in Syria have caused Iraqi Islamic extremist groups, especially the ISIL, to retaliate against the KRG for supporting the Syrian Kurdish parties. 

A high ranking KRG Kurdish security official stated, again on the condition of anonymity, that he believed this attack was carried out by the ISIL, and that its elements in the Mosul province facilitated it because of their growing leverage. The worsening clashes between the Kurds and the Jihadists in Syria have played their part, and the attack is a message to the KRG that the Jihadists can reach important targets in the Kurdistan region in broad daylight. 

A security officer and analyst regarding  extreme groups in KRG stated, again on condition of anonymity, “The Fatwa issued for the attack was from Dr. Ayad al Samarai, also known as Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi , who is the leader of Al-Qeada in Iraq. Furthermore, the group responsible was ISIL and the immediate order came from the ISIL network elements in the north based out of Mosul. The attackers had links to Syria and a number of the operatives are suspected of being non-Iraqi Arabs and have entered Iraq illegally from Syria. Moreover, there are also suspected Iraqi Kurdish operatives linked to the ISIL involved in the attack. We believe that ISIL will try to conduct more attacks in the future.” 

This obvious spillover of the Syrian civil war, is destabilising Iraq, including the so far safe, peaceful and prosperous Kurdish semi-autonomous region. The prolonged threat confronting Iraq and its Kurdish region will only grow worse unless the civil war in Syria comes to a halt, which seems unattainable in the short term. 

About the author

Zana Khasraw Gul is a Middle East political and security analyst, doing his doctorate in Iraq’s foreign policy at the University of Sheffield. He has an MA in Global Affairs and Diplomacy at the University of Buckingham and a BA in political science at the University of Sulaimani in the Iraq-Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He visits Iraq and the Middle East regularly.Twitter @ZanaGul1