Syrian Kurds paying smugglers to find their way to refuge in northern Iraq

Outgunned by the Turkish army and backed into a corner by U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to pull American troops out, the Kurds in northern Syria needed a new protector, writes Margaret Evans.

U.S. forces pulled out, enabling Turkey's planned incursion into northern Syria

Many Syrian Kurds who have fled the Turkish onslaught in recent days have ended up at the Dormiz refugee camp in Iraq. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"We have defended Rojava against ISIS and Turkish fascism and we are ready to defend all oppressed people of the Middle East and beyond!"

So reads a billboard perched beside the official crossing point into Rojava that celebrates the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia credited with carving out this autonomous enclave in Syria's northeastern corner during long years of war.

But as foreign journalists and aid workers streamed across the Semalka border post this week in the other direction, toward northern Iraq, it seemed to be signalling the beginning of the end for Rojava.

The exodus was prompted by news that in a desperate move, Kurdish militias fighting under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had invited the Syrian regime back into the fray.

Outgunned by the Turkish army and backed into a corner by U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to pull American troops out, the Kurds needed a new protector and fast.

"If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we will choose our people," the SDF commander in chief, Mazloum Abdi, wrote in an editorial for Foreign Policy magazine.

The re-entry into the region of Syrian government forces, backed by President Bashar-al Assad's powerful Russian allies, might act as a buffer against Turkish advances.

But few believe Assad will let Kurdish autonomy stand in territory he lost control of early on in the war, if and when the conflict finally ends.

'We didn't have any place to go'

When asked, Syrian Kurds who've managed to escape the fighting and make it to northern Iraq said they're not sure of the strategy. But they also believe it was an act born of desperation.

"I don't know," said Baha Hassan Neyami, a mechanic who fled the border town of Ras al Ayn with his wife and three children.

"What I know is that we sacrifice," he said. "The Turkish regime hit Ras al Ayn with airstrikes. We didn't have any place to go. We had to come to [Iraqi] Kurdistan."

"We have more value here," said his wife, Hanan. "They don't let anything happen to Kurds."

The family arrived on Tuesday, along with 182 other Syrian refugees who crossed into northern Iraq by paying smugglers to get them here.

Watch as Syrians seek refuge in northern Iraq from the ongoing violence:

Syrians seek refuge from attacks in northern Iraq

4 years ago
Duration 2:16
Featured VideoHundreds of Syrians are trying to seek refuge from the latest military attacks by Turkish forces in refugee camps in northern Iraq. Margaret Evans spoke to some of those refugees.

"If it wasn't for them, we couldn't pass," said Neyami, speaking at a refugee camp in Domiz, Iraq.

Another 800 refugees have since arrived using the same route, about 30 kilometres south of the official Semalka crossing. 

Baha Hassan Neyami is a Syrian Kurd who fled the border town of Ras al Ayn with his wife and three children. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Semalka is not open to refugees. The Syrian Kurds won't let them leave that way, one border official on the Rojava side confirmed, and the Iraqi Kurds won't let them in that way, either.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq is assisting refugees if they arrive, however, meeting them at the unofficial crossing and bussing them to reception centres.

Complex relations

The Iraqi Kurds have a complicated relationship with the YPG and with Turkey, whose investment they rely on for a thriving economy in northern Iraq compared to the rest of the country.

The main figure heralded on the big YPG billboard at the Semalka border post is Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the People's Workers Party (PKK), who is currently serving a life sentence in Turkey.

The militant separatist group has waged a bloody, decades-long campaign against the Turkish state.

The PKK's affiliation with the Syrian YPG is one reason Turkey is trying to drive out — or neutralize, to use Ankara's language — the Kurdish militias along its southern flank.

The PKK is a designated terrorist group in both Canada and the United States.

This billboard, extolling People’s Workers Party Leader Abdullah Ocalan and the sacrifices of other Kurdish fighters, can be found in Semalka. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

During the 1980s, before Öcalan was arrested, he based his operations out of Syria, and became a constant thorn in the side of Turkey. 

Iraq's Kurds will be wary of YPG fighters potentially coming across the border, as the PKK are already ensconced in northern Iraq's Qandil Mountains and have been a regular target of Turkish airstrikes over the years. 

But the Syrian Democratic Forces — including the YPG — helped U.S. special forces defeat the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria, and lost more than 10,000 fighters in the struggle.

The alliance has long angered Turkey. 

It's a complicated picture in a complicated region. But for the Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting, it is a simple story of survival. 

And Kurdish anger is not reserved for Turkey or its proxy-fighters as they pummel Kurdish towns and villages. Many say they will not forget what they see as a betrayal by the U.S. president.

"His decision and withdrawing the troops harmed us, harmed Kurds," said Neyami. "When he withdrew, he broke our backs."


Margaret Evans

Senior International Correspondent

Margaret Evans is the Senior International Correspondent for CBC News based in the London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

With files from Stephanie Jenzer