Iraqi Kurdish leader vows to aid Syrian Kurds

Ceerwan Aziz/AP - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, left, and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani attend a press conference in Irbil, Iraq, June 9, 2013.

BEIRUT — The president of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan pledged Saturday to do everything in his power to defend Syria’s Kurds from al-Qaeda-linked rebels, signaling a further potential expansion of the Syrian civil war beyond the country’s borders.

Massoud Barzani’s announcement follows weeks of intense clashes between Kurds and Islamist and al-Qaeda-linked rebel factions in Syria that have left scores dead on both sides and opened up a new front in the increasingly multifaceted conflict.

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Until recently, Syria’s Kurds, who make up roughly 10 percent of the country’s population, had largely remained on the sidelines as the war raged, focusing on building the foundations of an autonomous administrative region in the far northeast. However, sporadic fighting with rebel factions has escalated over the past month in what analysts have described as both a clash of ideologies and a power struggle over resources. The Kurds sit on lucrative oil fields, control border crossings and are accused by some in the opposition of being aligned with President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

In a statement posted on the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Web site, Barzani said he would send a team to the Kurdish region of neighboring Syria to investigate reports of “al-Qaeda terrorists” who he said are accused of the “slaughter of innocent Kurdish women and children.”

If the reports are found to be true, he said, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan “will make use of all its capabilities to defend the Kurdish women, children and citizens” in Syrian Kurdistan, he said.

Barzani did not elaborate on the assistance he was willing to offer Syria’s Kurds. But Saleh Muslim Mohammed, the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant party in Syrian Kurdistan, said Saturday that the Iraqi leader had indicated that if the investigating team deems it necessary, he would be willing to send Iraqi Kurdistan’s armed security forces, known as pesh merga, into Syria.

In the past, the PYD has been hostile to attempts by Barzani to assist in Syrian Kurdistan, blocking the return of a group of Syrian Kurds trained by the pesh merga in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, Mohammed said Saturday, speaking by phone, that pesh merga forces would be allowed into Syria “if needed to defend the people.”

“At the moment there’s no agreement and no request for that. At the moment we feel the people of [Syrian] Kurdistan can defend ourselves,” he said, adding that a rumored cease-fire between Islamist rebel groups and Syrian Kurdish forces had not been signed. “We’d like to see weapons and other support,” he said.

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