Instead of Uniting, Kurds Are Busy Fighting Each Other

Internal struggles among Iraqi and Syrian Kurds belie a widespread belief that they might cooperate – so far they can’t even determine common strategic goals.

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Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, in the Nineveh plain, northeast of Mosul, November 17, 2016.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, in the Nineveh plain, northeast of Mosul, November 17, 2016.Credit: Hussein Malla, AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“These areas were liberated with the blood of 11,500 dead and wounded Peshmerga fighters. It’s unacceptable that after all these sacrifices we’ll return this area to the federal government,” declared recently the president of the Kurdish region in Iraq, Masoud Barzani, in a speech he made after capturing the city of Bashiqa, north of Mosul. “There will also be no need for a referendum,” he added.

This declaration raised a furor not only in the “Green District” of Baghdad, the area in which government offices and senior officials’ residences are situated, but in Washington, Damascus, Tehran and Moscow as well. This did not include Ankara. The practical implication of this declaration is that the Kurdish region will continue to expand into all areas in which Kurds fought against ISIS in Iraq, and that the clause in the Iraqi constitution which determines that a referendum will be held in “disputed areas” is not worth the paper it’s written on. “Disputed areas” include the city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as an inseparable part of the district, and all areas containing a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

Washington and Moscow object to the expansion of Kurdish territory so as to preserve the integrity of Iraq as a federal country. Their concern is that after the battle for Mosul, a bloody civil war could erupt not only between forces now fighting for Mosul, but between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, over control of “liberated” areas.

Turkey, on the other hand, is pleased by the territorial expansion of Iraqi Kurds, since they are seen as allies in Turkey’s fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which Turkey defines as a terrorist organization, and in the fight against Syrian Kurds who wish to establish an autonomous zone on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Caption Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani speaks to the media during his visits in the town of Bashiqa, after it was recaptured from the ISIS, east of Mosul, Iraq, Nov. 16, 2016. Credit: Azad Lashkari, Reuters

However, this complex web of interests is much more complicated than appears on the surface. In the past few months, Kurdish areas of Iraq have witnessed a political struggle over the nature of Barzani’s rule. Protests have grown in recent weeks, with government officials and teachers in Sulaymaniyah waging street protests against the economic crisis and the withholding of their salaries for months, as well as protesting government corruption.

The protests peaked two weeks ago when government employees threatened to turn to Baghdad to receive their salaries. One of Barzani’s chief opponents, the speaker of the Kurdish parliament and head of the Goran (Change) party, Yusuf Sadiq, called on Iraq’s government to break its ties with Barzani and his government in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish district. He called on Baghdad to transfer the portion of the state budget (17 percent of all revenues) directly to Kurdish areas, not through the Kurdish government.

Governing by decree

The deep dispute between Barzani and his party, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Goran party started in the 2013 parliamentary elections, in which Goran won a quarter of the seats, upsetting the status quo between Barzani’s party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party headed by Jalal Talabani. The 83-year-old Talabani no longer functions due to a stroke. His party is cooperating with Goran in demanding that Barzani relinquish his post, after his term formally expired in 2013, as did a two-year extension he obtained from parliament.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces some 20 kilometers northeast of Mosul, Iraq, October 20, 2016. Credit: Marko Drobnjakovic, AP

Opposition to Barzani’s remaining in office is not based only on provisions of the constitution but primarily on the nature of his rule. He has brought in members of his family, taken control of sources of revenue, acted without consulting others and even illegally dismissed cabinet ministers from the Goran party. The dismissals have left the Kurdish administration without a finance minister and a defense minister. The enclave’s prime minister, Nechervan Barzani, Masoud Barzani’s nephew, is filling those ministerial positions.

And it’s not just cabinet members whom the president has dismissed. His security services prevented Sadiq, the speaker of parliament, from entering the parliament building in Erbil when he was on his way from Sulaymaniyah to the capital. Since then, parliament has not convened and no legislation is being passed, meaning that in practice, Barzani is running the enclave by decree.

But his partnership with the Turkish government and the successful war that Peshmerga forces have been waging against ISIS have rendered him immune from international criticism. The Iraqi government cannot take him to task for his ambitions either, primarily because the Peshmerga forces have been cooperating with the Iraqi army against ISIS and enjoy massive American support.

This position of strength encourages Barzani to publicly speak about his intention to set up an independent state the moment Mosul is liberated, an intention that is not acceptable at the moment to his political rivals despite their shared vision of achieving international recognition for a Kurdish state. His rivals claim that at this time, there is no use making such declarations, which could cause serious damage. Turkey and Iran, which are important economic bases for the enclave, could impose sanctions there. The United States would also object and Iraq could go to war. And beyond such rational arguments, the rivals are concerned – and this includes the Patriotic Union party, whose power base is in Sulaymaniyah – that such a Kurdish state could became a country under Barzani’s thumb.

Nothing new

Domestic confrontations in the enclave are nothing new. There are bitter memories of the Kurdish civil war in the early 1990s over the distribution of oil revenues, when Iraq was under a sanctioned regime and oil was being smuggled out via the enclave. The rift between Barzani and Talabani deepened for years at the time among both tribes and families. Even after a reconciliation between them, each side considered the other the enemy and maintained – and still maintains – its own forces in addition to the joint Kurdish army.

This time, fortunately, the confrontations have still not led to bloodshed, and the battle has remained at the political level, but the major concern is over what could develop following the capture of Mosul.

And on the other side of the border in Syria, there is the misleading impression of the Kurds as a united community made of one cloth and acting in concert to achieve common goals. There are at least a dozen Kurdish parties at work in the area between the northeast border of Syria and the northwest region. Prominent among them are the Kurdish Democratic Union party, known as the PYD, and the Kurdish National Council, founded in October 2011, about eight months after the outbreak of the war in Syria.

Both in turn are composed of several parties or factions and each has its own militia. The Democratic Union party, led by Salih Muslim, is identified with the ideology of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and is therefore seen by the Turks as a terrorist group that should be wiped out. Over the past week, indictments were filed in Turkey against party members and its leader, and if they are ever caught and convicted, they could face 30 life sentences.

The PYD has an impressive military force and popular defense committees that have been fighting on several fronts. One front is against ISIS, with the aim of ousting it from the Turkish-Syrian border to create Kurdish territorial contiguity. The second is against the Turkish forces that have invaded Syria, primarily to cleanse the border of the PYD’s presence and wipe out its leadership.

Turkey has made it clear that it will not permit the creation of a Kurdish-Syrian enclave on its border. It is also making good on its declarations in its conduct of the war in Syria. Turkey has been relatively quickly capturing city after city in northern Syria with the help of the Free Syrian Army, and has been taking control of these towns and villages through a government under its auspices to head off control by the PYD and the popular committees in areas conquered from ISIS. Turkey has also opposed the PYD’s participation in diplomatic negotiations, in contrast to the Russian position, which is that it is essential to bring the party into the process to give it public legitimacy.

Moscow has another decisive reason to support the PYD, and that is that the party members are considered supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad and even worked at the beginning of the civil war to stop demonstrations against him. On the other hand, the PYD’s rival, the Kurdish National Council, is an ally of Masoud Barzani, who has helped it get established with funds and training from people on the ground in the Kurdish enclave.

Turkey also views the KNC as an ally worthy of assistance. That’s a rather good reason for the internal battles between the two movements, whose ideological differences are difficult to discern. Both purportedly support the creation of an autonomous Kurdish enclave, but while the PYD is aspiring to establish what it defines as administratively decentralized cantons, the KNC is looking for a united autonomous region. It would be difficult to find more precise definitions of their ideological differences, and it appears that each movement is seeking mainly to survive, with the assistance of various allies.

The confrontations between the two Kurdish movements in Syria, which even recently resulted in the arrest by PYD members of KNC members, dispel the idea that the Kurds in Iraq and Syria could join forces to achieve a shared national objective. It’s also hard to point to strategic goals that they have in common. The Kurds’ war against ISIS in Syria is seen as a threat to Turkey, and the Kurds’ war against ISIS in Iraq is seen as a threat – albeit not a direct one – to the Iraqi government. It is also a direct threat to the unity of Iraq.

The two Kurdish blocs, in Syria and Iraq, purportedly view ISIS as an enemy and in the process, they are also supporting international policy, but as is known, every war has its post-war period, when land mines start exploding in the face of policy.

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