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US diplomacy prompts Iraqi Kurds to allow aid through sealed Syrian border crossing

The Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq has agreed to open one crossing between its territory and northeast Syria twice a month for the passage of vital aid.
DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

After more than a month of US mediation the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq has agreed to open a vital crossing between its territory and northeast Syria twice a month for the passage of vital aid, Al-Monitor has learned.

The Fish Khabur/Semalka border crossing was sealed indefinitely by the KRG on Dec. 15 after Iraqi Kurdish border guards clashed with members of the Revolutionary Youth, or Ciwanen Soresger, a youth group that is linked to the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria. The administration operates under the military protection of the United States. Several Iraqi Kurdish border guards were reportedly injured by rocks hurled at them by the youths. The sides blame each other for the start of the violence.

The stoppage of all humanitarian and commercial traffic as well as that of ordinary individuals has provoked anger and dismay among the relief agencies delivering vital aid to the region. The crossings, however, remain open to staff of the US-led coalition, including around 900 US Special Operations forces stationed in northeast Syria to help its top partner on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led force composed of Kurds and Arab, combat remnants of the Islamic State.

Iraqi Kurdish officials speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor that international personnel working directly with the US-led coalition in northeast Syria would have permanent access in and out of Iraqi Kurdistan but that they would have to regularly provide updated lists of those individuals for vetting.

The decision follows weeks of intense diplomacy including a Dec. 23 phone call between KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, as well as a Jan. 7 meeting between President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq Nechirvan Barzani and SDF commander Mazlum Kobane in Erbil, Al-Monitor has learned. The ultimate decision to ease passage of aid was made by Prime Minister Barzani.

Three convoys of aid, the first in late December, a second following a Jan. 2 call between Masrour Barzani and Joey Hood, the principle deputy assistant Secretary of State for near east affairs, and one yesterday, have been permitted to cross the border since the crisis erupted.

The KRG refuses to reopen the border fully until Syrian Kurdish families protesting KRG actions who are encamped at the border are dispersed. The other condition is that the autonomous administration issue a formal operating license to an Iraqi Kurdish charity funded by the Barzani family that has been dispensing humanitarian aid inside the Syrian Kurdish enclave since the start of the Syrian conflict. The PKK claims the Barzani Charity Foundation serves as a vehicle for Turkish spies.

KRG authorities hold up Kobane’s failure to persuade the PKK to accept the demands so far as proof of his weakness and lack of independence in the face of the organization within which he operated for long years. The US-mediated negotiations between the KRG and Kobane are continuing.

SDF officials could not be reached for comment.

KRG officials insist that the decision to reopen the border to aid deliveries should in no way be interpreted as “the KRG capitulating to the PKK.” One of the officials said, “The prime minister’s position on this has always been that citizens in northeast Syria shouldn’t bear the brunt of our political disputes, especially aid to the vulnerable.” The official added that the border situation needed to be assessed within the broader context of the PKK’s behavior in Iraqi Kurdistan that “dragged Turkey deeper into our territory than ever before.”

The official noted the PKK’s presence in the Yazidi-majority area of Sinjar as well as around the Makhmour refugee camp further south and in the Qandil mountains, where its top commanders are based. It was “a serious security concern as the Turks have upped their bombing campaign,” the official said. Hundreds of Iraqi Kurdish civilians have died in the raids and thousands of others have been permanently displaced during decades of conflict between Turkey and the PKK.

Tensions between the PKK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP) have been escalating ever since Turkey intensified its military operations against the PKK inside Iraqi Kurdistan early last year. They include targeted drone strikes against middle and senior-level PKK cadres and have resulted in the deaths of numerous civilians, including women and children.

The PKK accuses the KDP of colluding with Ankara to advance the latter’s ongoing campaign to crush the US-supported Kurdish entity in northeast Syria and to decapitate the PKK simultaneously in Syria and in Iraq. The PKK says the border closure is part of this campaign.

The Revolutionary Youth’s actions were in support of the Syrian Kurdish families staging a sit-in to protest the KDP’s refusal to hand over the corpses of several PKK fighters slain in attacks inside Iraqi Kurdistan. “Even the Turkish army, our biggest enemy, gives us back our bodies. Even the Islamic State gave us back our comrades’ bodies and our fellow Kurds are refusing to,” said a PKK fighter contacted via WhatsApp. Iraqi Kurdish officials declined to comment on the PKK’s demand for the return of the bodies.

Despite the security rationale for closing the border, many had considered the policy as disproportionate and harsh. Syrian Kurds who live abroad are unable to visit their relatives unless they come through Damascus. Journalists are likewise denied access via Fish Khabur, which is northeast Syria’s sole direct outlet to rest of the world. The closure has also hit the informal oil trade between northeast Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. Oil sold to the Iraqi Kurds, albeit at rock-bottom prices, is a major source of income for the Syrian Kurds reeling from the effects of US sanctions on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is suffocating them as well.

Western officials speaking not for attribution hailed the KRG's decision to reopen the border for humanitarian aid supplies as a critical and positive first step toward easing the standoff.