The state of regional Kurdish politics: divided as ever

The confidence that prevailed in Kurdish streets in the aftermath of the Kobane victory is now replaced by a growing sense of abandonment and misery, with nationalism its natural expression.

Müjge Küçükkeleş
27 April 2016

Makeshift bunker used by Kurdish fighters in the mainly-Kurdish town of Idil, Turkey, in Sirnak province that neighbors Iraq. Murat Bay /Press Association, All rights reserved.Located over territories spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, Kurds are facing multiple challenges on the road to Kurdish statehood. A major problem is the absence of a united Kurdish national movement. The two major power blocks in Kurdish politics, Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP and Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdistan Worker’s Party PKK ( designated a terrorist group by the US, EU and Turkey), have been vying for political dominance over Kurdish nationalism for many years, and are as divided as ever. The Syrian conflict has brought significant changes to the power dynamics between the two, expanding the power of the PKK at the expense of the KDP. This development itself is very critical for Kurdish politics and the direction it is taking.

As Arab uprisings reached out to Syria, the PKK acted rapidly to shape developments on the ground. PKK fighters were flown into northern Syria and organized an armed force that effectively fought jihadi rebels and ISIS. Military success earned the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Democratic Party (PYD) the political support and loyalty of Syrian Kurds. In Turkey, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, HDP, successfully turned the political achievements of Syrian Kurds, and Kurdish frustration with the shifting stance of the Turkish government on the Kurdish issue into a feeling of unity, encouraging Kurds to unify around itself.

Just like the PKK, the KDP-led Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also sought to develop and exploit conditions to increase its influence in northern Syria. Barzani attempted to bolster the multiparty Kurdish National Council (KNC) that is closely affiliated by Barzani’s KDP, as an alternative to the PYD. He also tried to persuade it to join the united opposition to Assad. However, Barzani’s attempts to unify Syrian Kurds under the leadership of KNC proved ineffective: PYD remained largely in control of Syrian Kurdistan. In Turkey, on the other hand, HDP’s success in the June 2015 elections dealt a blow to Barzani, whose influence in Turkey has always been limited.

In Iraq, the PKK’s influence has grown both militarily and politically. After the Sinjar siege, PKK formed a military unit composed of Yezidis and set up a military presence in Sinjar. This unit participated in the liberation of Sinjar; however to the annoyance of the KRG leaders they did not join the command of the Peshmerga forces. Iraqi Kurdish officials have at times urged the PKK to withdraw from Sinjar, calling armed Yezidis to come under the control of the Peshmerga. However, the PKK refused to withdraw from this most practical route to Syria. PKK’s presence in Sinjar and its relations with local Shia militias in Baghdad and Iran have become a source of resentment to the KRG.  After the liberation of Sinjar in November 2015, the PKK-affiliated Yezidi units in Sinjar have received salaries from the central administration in Baghdad. Baghdad supports the PKK as an ally against the KDP and Turkey, and one helping it to maintain its claim over Sinjar, while the PKK aims to get international recognition by involving itself in the internal military affairs of Iraq. As well as a military presence, the PKK also tried to take advantage of the deepening economic and political crisis in KRG by strengthening its ties to KDP-opposing political groups such as GORAN and PUK.

PKK’s growing dominance over pan-Kurdish politics is generally explained by its ability to take advantage of favorable regional conditions to foster its power at a time when its rival KRG was hit by economic crisis. There is some truth in this. The PKK was not only adept at achieving military victories against the Jihadists and ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but also using them as an instrument to legitimize its leadership. However, that itself cannot explain fully why a relatively young PYD was able to outperform its longstanding Kurdish competitors in Syria within such a short time. This was rather a result of PKK’s shifting strategy in seeking a broader role in pan-Kurdistan in the late 2000s.  There are many factors that induced the PKK to move its focus to developments in the Middle East, such as Turkey’s stalling EU accession process, which PKK had hoped would bring significant changes to the status of Kurds in Turkey, the KRG’s increasing power in Iraqi Kurdistan and its improving relations with Turkey. The eruption of the Arab uprisings speeded up this reorientation, developing opportunities for the PKK to widen its influence in the region. However, pursuit of a more active policy in pan-Kurdistan brought challenges not only in its relations with other Kurdish political actors and the US, but also in its relations with the Kurdish people.

The Kurds have no friends but the mountains

PKK’s increasing scale of activities is intensifying, expanding the realm of political competition between the PKK and KDP. Increasingly threatened by the PKK’s activities, the KDP has moved even closer to Turkey’s position. KRG officials’ statements about the PKK are almost identical to those of Turkish officials. President Massoud Barzani has at times harshly criticized the PKK for not utilizing the positive opportunities provided by the Turkish government. The resumption of violence in Turkey after the termination of the peace process in July 2015 is also putting PKK’s Syrian affiliate PYD in a precarious position. In response to PYD’s advance towards the West of Euphrates, Turkey started shelling the PYD targets in Northern Syria. Escalation of violence in the Southeast and spread of terror attacks by PKK splinter group TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) across Turkey is putting pressure on the US for its support to the PYD. Also, PKK’s close relations with Baghdad and Iran are complicating Washington’s effort to find terms between KRG and Iraqi central government in the fight against the ISIS. In response to PKK’s growing involvement in Syria and Iraqi Kurdish affairs, the U.S. has stepped up its efforts to support the KRG politically, militarily and economically. Following its assistance to the KRG to seek loans from the international institutions, the U.S. recently announced that it would provide 415 million dollars financial assistance to Peshmerga and additional 200 troops to the fight against the ISIS in Iraq. Washington is also silent on KRG’s imposition of fait accompli in contested territories such as Sinjar, unresolved by the Iraqi constitution and claimed both by Kurds and Arabs.

PKK’s active politics in Kurdish affairs is also challenging its relations with Kurds. After the Kobane victory, PKK successfully translated the strings of military success into a pan-Kurdish national project that consolidated the ideal of democratic autonomy within the Kurdish imaginary. This ideal promised to deliver Kurds their long-denied right of self-rule. Rather than being driven by a secessionist motive, democratic autonomy referred to self-governance as a more inclusive and democratic political system at the national level that eliminates the need for independence. However, constant warfare in southeast Turkey has revived old humiliations and sufferings at the hands of host nations. The confidence that prevailed in Kurdish streets in the aftermath of the Kobane victory is now replaced by a growing sense of abandonment and misery. Nationalism has once again become the expression of suffering and abandonment. The old expression “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains” has regained such value again among Kurds and become a driving force for Kurdish statehood.

Growing public aspiration for Kurdish statehood is now challenging the PKK’s democratic autonomy model as an alternative to an independent state. As Kurds are increasingly reminded of the consequences of being without a state and protection, frustration about the PKK’s ability to provide protection grows.

With casualties stacked up in Kurdish towns such as Sur, Cizre, Nusaybin that have become the front line in the barricade warfare between the Turkish security forces and the PKK, many locals now ask why the PKK started the urban battle if it was not able to defend them. Kurdish public misery, in turn, has strengthened the nationalist forces and its rhetoric within the PKK and the HDP. Democratic autonomy as a term is still in use, but the meaning attached to it has changed with the intensification of violence. Instead of being an intricate part of a broader democratization, autonomy is now expressed in ethnic terms as a means to achieve a bigger end, Kurdish sovereignty. 

But this change in rhetoric can only be convincing if matched with deeds. In response to growing Kurdish frustration, the PKK has announced that it will increase the level of violence in the southeast in the springtime. Whether this will help its image is highly doubtful. The KRG’s ability to deliver Kurds a statehood, on the other hand, is equally dubious. Barzani’s recent play for ‘independence’ is actually an attempt to transform the pan-Kurdish disappointment into a structure based on a nation state. However, given the public frustration at the perceived economic and political failings of the KRG, there are serious suspicions about whether such ‘independence’ is remotely viable.

National disunity

Kurdish politics is going through critical times. It is too early to predict which rival group will better respond to the growing public discontent with the Kurdish political actors and turn shifting regional dynamics to their greater advantage. The PKK has increased its power; it is a hegemonic power in Turkey, having elevated itself into becoming a significant player in Syria with no tangible competitor from other Kurdish actors, and reinforcing its stance as an opposition power to the other major power bloc, the KDP in Iraq. However, there are limits to its power. The growing discord with US policy in the region, the costs of an ongoing military fight in Turkey, and increasing frustration with constant warfare places limits on the further projection of PKK power.

The KDP’s hold on power, on the other hand, is even more fragile. Internal problems are restricting its ability to turn the PKK’s problems to its own political advantage. US support for the KRG is still important in terms of resisting internal challenges. However, its heavy reliance on Turkey and its silence on the suffering of Kurds has created disappointment among Kurds about its ability to achieve real independence, tainting its image as an actor standing in the way of Kurdish unity. Unless the KRG’s internal problems are addressed, the KDP’s position in Iraqi Kurdistan is likely to face more setbacks. However, with such division among themselves, they are as susceptible to outside interference as ever, risking a hit at their weakest point — their inability to come together on the issue of national unity. 

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