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How have Iraqi Kurdish authorities responded to the Syrian civil war?

Question submitted by Martin Lafon, from Sciences-Po Bordeaux, November 18, 2013

Answered by: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

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The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has approached the civil war in Syria with caution. The authorities governing the Iraqi autonomous region, based in Erbil, have quietly played an important role in the humanitarian response to the crisis with 197,000 (according to the UN refugee agency) Syrian refugees on KRG territory, spread across three refugee camps in the main cities of Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaimaniyah.

The Kurds have expressed concern about the civil war spilling over into Iraqi Kurdistan–especially after an attack on security headquarters in Erbil in late September that was linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In an interview with Agence France-Presse in mid-October, the KRG's president, Massoud Barzani, indicated that the Kurds would strike militants in Syria and elsewhere to protect fellow Kurds.

Yet the KRG leader backed away from his comments just as he had done when he made similar statements in August, indicating that Iraqi Kurdish officials' overriding interest in Syria and the surrounding region is stability. The comment about attacking militants was likely more about Barzani's effort to position himself as the leader of Syria's Kurds than an actual threat to intervene. In the messy world of Kurdish politics that spans Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan–traditionally a rival of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party–and the Kurdistan Worker's Party–a Turkish Kurdish terrorist group–have worked through Syrian Kurdish allies to limit Barzani's influence among Syrian Kurds.