The Kurds’ changing alliances

Opinion Articles

Since the summer, media and diplomatic attention has turned to the Kurds. In Iraq, there was international recognition for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) after the so-called Islamic State (IS) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and its Sunni allies captured Mosul in early June. Yet the loss of Iraq’s second city and collapse of the Baghdad government’s authority in the north of the country drew little concrete response. However, the Kurds’ military debacle in mid-August in the new IS offensive brought an immediate reaction from the western powers, led by the United States and France. The massacre of Yezidis in the Sinjar area, exodus of Christians from the plains of Nineveh towards the areas under Kurdish control and IS advance on Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, mobilised an unexpectedly broad coalition. Airstrikes quickly secured the Kurdish regions, while the Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) received direct arms deliveries and training programmes led by foreign advisors.

In Syria, the three areas populated by Kurds on the border with Turkey — virtually autonomous since July 2012 when Bashar al-Assad’s government withdrew from the north of the country — caught the world’s attention in mid-September, during the IS offensive on the smallest, most isolated of the three, around the town of Kobane. Like the Afrin area in the northwest of Syria and Al-Jazirah in the northeast, Kobane has been under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) for more than two years. This political formation, supported by (male and female) fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), won control of the Kurdish areas of Syria thanks to a non-aggression pact with the Assad regime. The PYD and YPG are local Syrian manifestations of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been at war with the Turkish government ever since 1984, despite a recent, but shaky, ceasefire agreement.

The siege of Kobane and the jihadists’ advance, despite US-led airstrikes, turned the town and its defenders into a symbol of the struggle against IS, seen in the West as evil incarnate. Yet neighbouring Turkey, though a member of NATO, has so far been reluctant to take any action against the assailants, anxious not to strengthen the PKK — even if that means reviving the conflict with the organisation inside Turkey.

In two months, the Kurds, historically the poor relations in the Middle East, have come to be seen as the last line of defence against IS, and its northward expansion. For though the western powers and their allies have declared that they want to annihilate the jihadist organisation, they have ruled out the use of ground troops.

But this portrayal of the Kurds’ defence capabilities — widely repeated and generally accurate — conjures up the notion of a homogenous bloc, whereas Kurdistan is deeply divided, and its divisions have grown still wider in recent years. Even the recent struggle against a common enemy has only partially reduced the divisions. The Kurdish world remains fragmented, and its political and military players operate within a chain of alliances that may be changing, but have historically divergent aims.

Kurds make up 15% of Syria’s population but have no official recognition or, in some cases, nationality. Some of them, through student movements, had been at the forefront of the struggle against the Assad regime. But from 2012 the Syrian revolution degenerated into a civil war with a sectarian hue. And Syria’s Kurdish enclaves — which Kurdish nationalists call Rojava — are now the object of fierce rivalry between the two main Kurdish political organisations — the PKK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the largest political faction in Iraqi Kurdistan, led by Massoud Barzani.

In the first half of 2012, Barzani gathered together a host of small, rival Kurdish political organisations that fell under the umbrella of the Kurdish National Council in Syria (KNCS), which was openly in favour of overthrowing the Assad regime. But the PKK renewed its ties with the Damascus government, with which it had been allied in the time of Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar). This allowed its Syrian affiliate, the PYD, to secure a dominant position in Rojava, with the support of a military apparatus — something the other Kurdish organisations lacked.

Presenting itself as a third way between the Assad regime and the opposition, the PYD was able from July 2012 to establish its own institutions in the areas under its control, guaranteeing its domination and offering a political model that conformed to PKK ideology. So Rojava became a showcase for PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s vision of “democratic autonomy”, which his movement hopes to establish in Turkey. This takes the form of “radical” democracy, based on far-reaching decentralisation within the framework of a federal system, and on the organisation of civil society. “Democratic autonomy” implies a refusal of the principle of the nation state, the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities, and gender parity in all positions of responsibility. But the large number of representative institutions this model requires doesn’t really hide the extent of the dominant party’s control and exclusion of its rivals.

Meanwhile, the KNCS — excluded from Syrian Kurdish politics — was torn between a Syrian Arab opposition reluctant to recognise Kurdish national identity in any way, agreements with the PYD that were never honoured, and complete dependence on the KDP, which was less and less inclined to run the risk of confronting the PKK directly.

These rivalries mirror the regional oppositions created by the current conflict. The KDP had taken control of the energy sector in Iraqi Kurdistan, and hoped Turkey’s interest in the region’s hydrocarbons would allow the region to become an exporting power in its own right, not subject to control by Baghdad. In opposing the Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki (replaced by Haider al-Abadi on 8 September), the KDP was moving closer to Iraq’s Sunni opposition, which in turn supported the Syrian opposition and also had the support of the Turkish government. Meanwhile, the PKK and its allies (historically hostile to the Turkish government) continued to remain on good terms with the Assad regime and signed a truce with Iran (its protector), while at the same time maintaining semi-official relations with the Baghdad government (which is influenced by Iran).

In this way, two axes emerged within Kurdistan, with varying degrees of integration — a pro-Turkish axis dominated by the KDP and a pro-Iranian axis dominated by the PKK. But KDP leader Massoud Barzani has his own Iraqi Kurdish rivals — notably the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — who are closer to the pro-Iranian axis and more conciliatory towards the (pro-Shia) Baghdad government, Iran and the PYD. This pattern of alliances survived, despite a ceasefire between the PKK and Turkey that began in early 2013.

This configuration of alliances was still relevant after the fall of Mosul, which was at first seen as a step towards independence for Iraqi Kurdistan by the KDP, who had relations with some of the leaders of the Sunni insurrection. However, the unexpected IS offensive on KDP-controlled areas, after Iraqi central government authority collapsed, changed the game. With the Peshmerga in retreat and Erbil potentially threatened by the IS advance, it became clear that the strategic alliance with Turkey would not ensure the security of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey’s chief concern was the safety of its consular staff in Mosul — who had remained at post in spite of warnings from the Kurdish security forces, and had been taken hostage by IS. But Turkey also seemed favourable to the (Iraqi) Sunni insurrection that had joined forces with IS against the Baghdad government. In the end, Turkey refused to give military aid to its Kurdish allies, breaking a relationship of trust that had made the KDP its best, if not only, supporter in the immediate region.

Turkey’s withdrawal from the northern Iraqi scene led automatically to greater support from Iran for the PKK and its allies when they occupied the Sinjar area and other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, with the approval of the PUK. Iran, which was quick to supply Erbil with the arms that Turkey had refused to deliver, established itself as the new regional power of reference for the Kurdish Regional Government. But it is in the areas controlled by the PUK and their immediate associates that Iranian influence has been most clearly successful in penetrating Iraqi Kurdistan. These areas, in the southeast of the region, are home to Shia Turkmen communities, within which pro-Iranian Shia militias have been able to develop and operate without being troubled by PUK-affiliated Peshmerga. On occasion, direct intervention by Iranian forces has been reported in these areas.

Meanwhile the KDP, though politically weakened by the loss of its alliance with Turkey, has been able to compensate for the relative rise in strength of its Kurdish rivals by cornering the bulk of the aid provided by the West, and benefiting from the support of the international coalition formed to oppose IS. For the KDP controls the regional capital Erbil and its airport, through which international aid has to pass. In this way it is able to channel to its own advantage the support that the United States and a number of European countries are providing to Iraqi Kurds in general. In contrast, the PUK has remained on the sidelines. And the PKK, considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and EU, cannot hope for help from the West.

But this situation could be on the point of changing. While Turkey has persistently failed to react to the IS offensive on Kobane, the rapid intensification of US-led airstrikes on IS positions could signal de facto recognition of the struggle being waged by the PKK’s allies, the PYD. In the light of Turkey’s continuing passivity towards the jihadists, the United States, which had earlier refused to talk to the PYD, admitted in early October that it was now in direct contact with them. This led, notably, to airdrops of arms and medical supplies from Iraqi Kurdistan in the night of 19-20 October. Even so, it is hard to envisage full US recognition of the PKK’s dominant position in Syria’s Kurdish areas. Indeed, ongoing support by the US strike force could be made conditional on closer collaboration between the PKK and the “moderate” Syrian opposition, as well as a greater opening towards other Syrian Kurdish political organisations that have been sidelined until now.

But willingness to make concessions is not a characteristic of the PKK and its allies, even when they are in a weak position. So, the negotiations started by the visit of PYD leader Salih Muslim to Iraqi Kurdistan in mid-October could give rise to new divisions. And the statement issued by the Turkish foreign ministry, to the effect that the Turkish government will allow the Iraqi Kurdish armed forces (Peshmerga) to transit Turkey to access Kobane must be treated with caution. The statement has not been confirmed by the Kurdish Regional Government, and looks more like a public relations exercise by Turkey, put on the spot by the opening up of direct communication channels between the US and the PYD, which wants to retain total control of armed forces on the ground. So the Peshmerga are not necessarily welcome.

Turkey now faces a growing risk of insurrection within its own borders. Many Turkish Kurds are angry that the Turkish government has blocked all direct support for the defenders of Kobane. The insurrectional turn that the demonstrations seem to be taking has raised fears of renewed fighting between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK. In the event of the collapse of the PYD in Syria, Turkey seems to be considering reactivating its links to the KNCS. This autumn, attempts to rebuild a special relationship with a weakened KDP, which is still completely dependent on Turkish cooperation on hydrocarbons, could be a sign of things to come.

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