Last updated: 27 February, 2012

Dozens of Syrian soldiers defect to Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan said on Monday it has granted refugee status to 30 Kurdish Syrian troops who defected to the region in the first such instance in the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The autonomous Kurdistan region in north Iraq pledged it would not hand over the soldiers to Damascus after they crossed over in the past two days.

“We received them for humanitarian reasons, and they are under our protection and we gave them refugee status,” said Anwar Haji Othman, Kurdish deputy minister for the local peshmerga security forces.

“We will not hand them over to the Syrian government because they are Kurdish and it is our right to protect them,” he said.

Othman said they crossed at the common border point between Dohuk province in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, having run “away from the Syrian army.”

According to an official overseeing two camps of Kurdish Syrian refugees in Dohuk, 15 families and 130 civilian men, all Kurds, have arrived in the autonomous region from Syria in recent days.

“Those Syrian families were distributed between the two camps where 1,800 Kurdish Syrians are living,” said Barzan Burhum Murad.

Iraq has shied away from imposing punitive measures against Syria as Assad’s regime carries out a bloody crackdown on an uprising against his rule in which rights groups say 7,600 people have died.

While there are still regular civilian protests in Syria, the focus has shifted to armed conflict with regime forces.

Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syrians, and of his opponents, are Sunni Muslims.

Iraq, by contrast, is governed by majority Shiite Muslims, but has a substantial Sunni Arab minority.

Baghdad said on Friday it would not invite the Syrian government or opposition to an Arab summit to be held in the Iraqi capital in late March, after an Arab League request that Damascus not attend.

Arab League member states voted in November to suspend Syria’s participation in the Arab League because of the violence.