By TIM ARANGO
Published: September 28, 2012
DOHUK, Iraq — Just off a main highway that stretches east of this city and slices through a moonscape of craggy hills, a few hundred Syrian Kurdish men have been training for battle, marching through scrub brush and practicing rifle drills.
The men, many of them defectors from the Syrian Army living in white trailers dotting a hillside camp, are not here to join the armed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. They are preparing for the fight they expect to come after, when Mr. Assad falls and there is a scramble across Syria for power and turf.
These men want an autonomous Kurdish region in what is now Syria, a prospect they see as a step toward fulfilling a centuries-old dream of linking the Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Turkey and Iran into an independent nation.
But that desire, to right a historical grievance for a people divided and oppressed through generations, also threatens to draw a violent reaction from those other nations. They have signaled a willingness to take extreme actions to prevent the loss of territory to a greater Kurdistan.
The first step is already in motion, as the Iraqi Kurds provide haven, training and arms to the would-be militia. “They are being trained for after the fall, for the security vacuum that will come after the Assad government collapses,” said Mahmood Sabir, one of a number of Syrian Kurdish opposition figures operating in Iraq.
That the Kurds are arming themselves for a fight, one that could prove decisive in shaping post-revolutionary Syria, adds another element of volatility to the conflict. It suggests that the government’s fall would not lead to peace — but, instead, an all-out sectarian war that could drag in neighboring countries.
Against the backdrop of the raging civil war, Syrian Kurds have already etched out a measure of autonomy in their territories — not because they have taken up arms against the government, but because the government has relinquished Kurdish communities to local control, allowing the Kurds to gain a head start on self-rule. Kurdish flags fly over former government buildings in those areas, and schools have opened that teach in the Kurdish language, something the Assad government had prohibited.
“We are organizing our society, a Kurdish society,” said Saleh Mohammed, the leader of the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., which is viewed with deep suspicion by other Kurdish groups for its ties to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K.
The P.K.K. is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe and has lately stepped up its guerrilla attacks in Turkey.
The Kurds say they are girding for a fight, should the government try to reclaim Kurdish cities or if the Sunni-dominated militias, loosely organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and fighting to bring down the government, try to move into Kurdish areas.
“Of course, we’ll defend ourselves,” Mr. Mohammed said. “According to Kurdish tradition, we have weapons in our houses. Every house should have its own weapon.”
Much of the Syrian Kurds’ efforts are being guided by Masoud Barzani, the head of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, whose autonomy and relative prosperity serves as a model for Syrian Kurds. The men at the camp are being trained and provided weapons by an Iraqi Kurdish special forces unit that is linked to Mr. Barzani’s political party.
Mr. Barzani has sought to play a kingmaker role with his Syrian brethren by uniting the various factions, like he has in the sectarian and ethnic tinderbox of Iraqi politics. In July he reached a deal to organize more than a dozen Kurdish parties under the Kurdish Supreme Council, and many of the officials work out of an office in Erbil, in a mixed-use complex of cul-de-sacs and tidy subdivisions called the Italian Village.
Oppressed for decades under Arab autocrats, denied rights by one post-Ottoman Turkish leader after another, and betrayed after World War I by Allied powers who had once promised Kurdish independence, this time the Kurds are determined to seize the upheaval of the Arab Spring and bend history to their will.