DOMIZ REFUGEE CAMP, Iraq — Syrian Kurds who fled their country's civil war have mixed feelings about a future without Bashar Assad: They hope to win a measure of autonomy after the fall of the regime, but fear chaos and the rise of Islamists could instead make their lives worse.
More than 81,000 Syrian Kurds have found refuge in northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region in recent months and hundreds more arrive every day. Few seem in a rush to go home.
The Kurdistan Regional Government allows fellow Kurds from Syria to work and move freely in the three provinces of northern Iraq it controls. Some 30,000 refugees still live in a camp of tents and cinderblock shacks near the Syrian border, while the rest have found jobs and homes in towns across the autonomous region, some staying with relatives.
Even those struggling with the hardships of camp life say they prefer to stay in Iraq after the fall of the regime, until they have a better idea how Islamists and other groups in the Sunni Arab-dominated Syrian opposition will deal with Kurds, Syria's largest ethnic minority.
"If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over and there are problems in the future, we want to stay here," said Faroush Fattah, a 28-year-old laborer from the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli who arrived in the Domiz camp three months ago.
The refugees' ambivalence about the upheaval in Syria is shared by Iraqi Kurdish leaders, who have carved out an increasingly prosperous quasi-state in the autonomous region, aided by an oil-fueled economic boom.
Kurdish autonomy in post-Assad Syria, similar to the Iraqi model, could strengthen long-standing Kurdish demands for an independent homeland for the more than 25 million Kurds in parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
But the emergence of yet another autonomous Kurdish region would likely spook Turkey, a regional power that is key to plans by Iraq's Kurds to export their oil riches directly, if necessary without permission from the central Iraqi government.
Turkey is home to an estimated 15 million Kurds, some with self-rule aspirations, and has been battling Kurdish insurgents for nearly three decades. Adding to Turkey's concerns, the dominant Kurdish faction in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is seen as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, the leader of the armed rebellion in Turkey.
The president of Iraq's Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, has tried to exert influence over Syrian Kurdish groups, presumably in part to protect his strategic relationship with Turkey. Last year, he helped form an umbrella group of Syrian Kurdish groups that includes the PYD and smaller factions loyal to him.
"Barzani has some sway over Syrian Kurds," said Washington-based Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay. "He has been reaching out to a spectrum of Syrian Kurds, including the PYD, to stop the hostile rhetoric and attitude toward Turkey."
Falah Mustafa, in charge of the Barzani government's foreign relations, said Iraqi Kurds want to make sure their Syrian counterparts are united when negotiating their role in a post-Assad Syria with the Sunni Arab-led opposition.
He said it's up to all Syrians to shape their future, but that Kurdish rights have to be protected – an outcome he suggested is not assured. Asked in an interview if Syrian territory should remain intact at all costs, he said, "I do not believe that these borders have to be sacred, because these were artificial."
Syria's Kurds, who make up more than 10 percent of a population of 23 million, initially remained largely on the sidelines after the uprising against Assad erupted almost two years ago. They had been marginalized by the regime, but were also weary of the Syrian rebels, many of them Sunnis. Some prominent Kurds joined the Syrian political opposition in exile, while some younger Kurds joined street protests against Assad.
Kurds were pulled into the conflict on a larger scale when Assad's forces unexpectedly withdrew from predominantly Kurdish areas in the northeast of the country last summer, enabling the PYD to take control there.
The pullback appeared to serve two objectives at the time – giving the PYD a higher profile to pressure Turkey, one of the most vocal backers of the Syrian opposition, and allowing thinly stretched government troops to move to hotspots elsewhere.
The PYD denies it is affiliated with the PKK or coordinates with the Syrian regime, even though in some areas, such as Qamishli, residents say both the regime and PYD forces maintain military posts. At the same time, the PYD has clashed with rebel fighters, particularly those from the al-Qaida-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra.
Some in the Domiz camp said the PYD protects Kurds against both rebel fighters and regime soldiers, while others described the PYD militiamen as regime sub-contractors terrorizing residents.
"The regime and the PYD work together," said Abdel Khader Taha, a 37-year-old laborer from Qamishli who sported a colorful tattoo of Barzani on his chest. Taha said he fears all Kurds will one day be targeted by Syrian rebels because of the PYD's perceived collusion with the regime.
Taha and others in the camp seemed ambivalent about Syria's future.
While favoring Kurdish autonomy, they acknowledge that carving out a self-rule zone, like in Iraq, is difficult because Kurds are dispersed across the country. Refugees say they fear the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab Sunni movement driving the anti-Assad rebellion, will disregard Syria's ethnic and religious minorities once Assad falls.
"We fear a big ethnic war in Syria," said Ali Kalash, 57, a former Syrian civil servant, standing with a group of men in one of the tent-lined alleys of the camp.
Staying in Iraq may be their best option, and the Kurds are getting an easier start than hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Ali Sindi, the planning minister in Iraq's Kurdish region, said his government has a special obligation to the Syrian Kurds because of the uncertainties over their future after the fall of the regime.
Many of the new arrivals have found jobs, in part because they're willing to work for less than the locals.
Biran Hassan, 25, left Qamishli nine months ago and now works as a waiter in a hotel in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, making $500 a month – just half what local residents get paid. Most of the hotel staff are Syrian refugees.
Faisal Mahmoud, 42, left behind his family in the Syrian town of Kobani and arrived in Domiz last week. If he can find work as a cook, he'll bring them to Iraq, he said.
Some are even carving out a life in the camp, administered by the government and a U.N. agency.
Cousins Rezzan and Ibrahim Jegarkhouen invested $2,000 to build a cinderblock shack and turn it into a barbershop, spending a recent sunny afternoon whitewashing the walls.
Even before the Syrian uprising, there was little work in their hometown of Qamishli, and the move to Iraq presents an opportunity, they said. "If there is no democracy (after the fall of Assad), we will not go back," said Ibrahim.
Khader Qassem, 30, has planned even further ahead.
Since arriving with his wife and five children eight months ago, he has replaced a U.N.-issue tent with a cinderblock shack complete with tiled floors, running water and a washing machine. He has also built an adjacent grocery, for a total of $7,000.
"I want to stay here for at least 10 years," Qassem said of Iraq. "We have more rights here than in Syria."