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The New Arab Staff

Syrian opposition head makes rare visit to Iraqi Kurdistan

SNC leader Nasr Hariri (left) met with former Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani [Facebook]

Date of publication: 4 March, 2021

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The leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Nasr Hariri, has visited the Kurdistan region of Iraq, bringing into focus shifting alliances within Iraq and Syria

The leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Nasr Hariri, has held talks with senior Iraqi Kurdish leaders on a three-day visit to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region of Iraq.

The visit, which began on Tuesday, has taken observers by surprise and generated some controversy, bringing into focus shifting alliances in the region.

Hariri, who was accompanied by other Syrian opposition leaders, held talks with the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Massoud Barzani, who was president of the Kurdistan Region between 2005 and 2017, as well as Hamid Darbandi, the official responsible for Syrian affairs in the Kurdistan Region.

Hariri said that the SNC aimed to discuss “ways to coordinate common positions towards the issues of the region, their future, and the challenges they pose”.

Ruba Habboush, who is Hariri’s deputy and the spokesperson for the SNC, told The New Arab’s Arabic-language service that “the visit also aims to look at the situation of Syrians in the [Kurdistan] region and the difficulties they face.”

She added that there were 250,000 Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan, most of them Syrian Kurds.

Habboush also said that the Kurdistan Regional Government “had stood with the revolutionary Syrian people and opposition from the beginning of the [2011] revolution” against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

While the Syrian opposition has had relatively amicable relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, the central Iraqi government has previously leaned towards the Assad regime, turning a blind eye to the entry of pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militias into Syria to fight alongside Assad’s forces.

The situation is further complicated by the SNC’s relationship with Syrian Kurdish parties and armed groups. While a Syrian Kurdish group, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) is represented in the SNC, the SNC has a poor relationship with the most powerful party in Kurdish areas of Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Read more: Turkey, the Kurds and the demographic re-engineering of Syria

The PYD-affiliated Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have on occasion allied with the Assad regime against non-Kurdish Syrian opposition fighters, and the SNC receives most of its support from Turkey.

The SNC has expressed backing for Turkish military operations against the YPG in northern Syria before, in which Syrian fighters have participated. Turkey accuses the YPG of links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which seeks autonomy or independence for Kurds in southeastern Turkey and has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984.

The Syrian Kurdish ANHA news agency, which is linked to the PYD, reported that 18 organisations in Iraqi Kurdistan signed a letter to the regional authorities protesting the SNC leaders’ visit. The organisations accused Hariri of having “blood on his hands” due to his relationship with Turkey.

The Iraqi Kurdish regional authorities, who have sought amicable relations with Turkey in the past, have expressed backing for the KNC over the PYD and YPG.

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