Kurdish disunity on the frontlines of Syria's war

Kurdish disunity on the frontlines of Syria's war
In-depth: Reporters Franco Galdini and Davide Vignati travelled through the heart of northern Iraq and Syria, uncovering fierce rivalries and fractured alliances among the armed groups along the way.
10 min read
Kurdish militias are fighting battles on multiple fronts, yet appear unable to unite [Davide Vignati]
This is the first report in a two-part series following freelance reporters Franco Galdini and Davide Vignati travelling though Iraq and Syria, discovering on their way the many fractured alliances between Kurdish groups and armed units. These rival militias are fighting for the Kurds, and for themselves.

On March 17, 2016, in the north-eastern Syrian town of Rmeilan, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its political allies among the two hundred delegates present -including Arab tribal sheikhs and minority representatives -declared an autonomous Kurdish region in Rojava and Northern Syria.

At the heart of the declaration lay a vision of "a democratic federal system [that] encapsulates all social components and guarantees that a future Syria will be for all Syrians".

The creation of a federal entity in the country's north drew immediate condemnation from disparate quarters. The Syrian government and the political opposition in exile were united in criticising the move for undermining Syria's unity and territorial integrity.

The foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran used much the same language in condemning the declaration, as did the United States.

Who's who?
A guide to the acronyms of the Kurdish region

- KRG - Kurdistan Regional Government. The administration of the official recognised autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.

- KDP (sometimes PDK) - Kurdistan Democratic Party. Founded in 1946, it is the dominant party in the KRG and
is headed by KRG President Masoud Barzani. Ideologically conservative, it has its own armed Peshmerga forces usually called the 80 Unit.

- PUK - Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Founded in 1975, the other main political party in the KRG, with its power base concentrated in the city of Sulaimaniah and the contested city of Kirkuk. A social democratic party, it has its own armed Peshmerga forces usually called the 70 Unit.

- PKK - Kurdistan Workers' Party. Armed group founded in 1978 in Turkey; one of its founders and current leader Abdullah Ocalan has been in jail in Turkey since 1999. Waging an armed campaign against the Turkish state since 1984, and outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist group, the PKK has its base in the Qandil Mountains, located in the northeast of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory.

- Democratic Confederation of Rojava and Northern Syria - Autonomous democratic federation in Syria's north declared in March 2016. To date, includes three cantons: Jazeera, Kobane and Afreen.

- PYD - Kurdish Democratic Union Party. Founded in 2003 in Syria, it is the most powerful Kurdish political party in Rojava. It is led by two co-chairs, Salih Muslim and Asya Abdullah, and is an ally of the PKK.

- YPG - People's Protection Units (YPG). Founded during the early phases of the Syrian conflict, it is the main armed forces of Rojava, an ally of the PKK and the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

- YPJ - Women's Protection Units. The female counterpart to the YPG

- SDF - Syrian Democratic Forces. The official defence force of the Rojava area; an alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other militias fighting against the Islamic State group.

- YBS -
Sinjar Resistance Units. A Yazidi armed force trained by the YPG and the PKK following IS' August 2014 attack on Sinjar and Sinjar mountain, the historic heartland of the Yazidi population.

But despite all the grandstanding, until the past few weeks none of these actors had done much to reverse the decision on the ground.

The regime and its ally, Iran, had preferred to maintain the current unofficial truce with the Kurds while fighting on multiple other fronts.

The opposition abroad, meanwhile, is next to irrelevant in Syria, and the US views the PYD-linked People's Protection Units (YPG) as the linchpin of the international campaign against the Islamic State group.

Along with Russian military support to the Syrian Kurds, US backing of Kurdish groups deters Turkey from all-out military intervention to prevent the establishment of another Kurdish entity along its southern border.

Following the significant advances by the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against IS, most recently in Manbij, however, Turkey has successfully leveraged its position with a limited but effective foray into northern Syria  expelling IS from the border town of Jarablus and gaining US backing in its demand that the YPG move back east of the Euphrates river.

The Syrian regime has also briefly, albeit ineffectively, engaged with YPG forces in Hassakeh city, bombing Kurdish positions and displacing thousands of civilians. 

On top of these adverse developments, the situation in the Kurdish camp is complicated by the deep divisions marring the Kurds straddling the two sides of the Syria-Iraq border, whose unity doesn't extend beyond a vague commitment to fighting for Kurdish rights.

With the creation of an autonomous federation in Rojava, the already-strained relations between Kurds in Syria and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) took a nosedive. After the Rmeilan announcement, the KRG  dominated by President Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)  sealed its only border crossing with Rojava at Faysh-Khabur/Semalka.

The border crossing is a vital lifeline for the northern Syrian regions, given Turkey's aggressive policy of border closure against the Syrian Kurds.

Competing Kurdish claims in Sinjar

One hundred kilometres south of Faysh-Khabur, in the mountainous region of Sinjar, tension between the rival Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish groups is palpable. The Rojava-based YPG, along with fighters from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), had come to the rescue of tens of thousands of Iraqi Yazidis besieged by IS on Sinjar mountain in August 2014.

Since then, Rojava forces and their PKK allies have trained hundreds of Yazidi volunteers, who have set up a local PKK franchise, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS).

Foreign journalists can access Sinjar after obtaining clearance from the Iraqi Kurdish security services in Dohuk, with the explicit warning that trying to cross illegally from Sinjar into Rojava may land you in jail. This is an indirect admission on the part of the Iraqi Kurdish authorities that they aren't totally in charge in Sinjar, as, once inside, they cannot stop journalists from being smuggled into Syria.

In pictures: Click here for Davide Vignati's photoessay
studying the rival groups fighting for Kurds in Iraq and Syria

Ahmed Zummari, the Dohuk governor's legal adviser, is more blunt still.

"Why would you want to go there?" he asks us.

"In Sinjar, there are the KDP, the PUK, the PKK, the YPG, the YBS, all vying for control. While IS is busy gassing Kurds at the frontline, there is an intra-Kurdish conflict going on there."

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is the other main Kurdish party in Iraqi Kurdistan and, like the KDP, it has its own Peshmerga forces.

Just how accurate Zummari's words are becomes obvious after the Suheila checkpoint, the last Kurdish Regional Government outpost firmly in the hands of the KDP Peshmerga.

Incoming vehicles are searched, and any bulk supplies suspected to be destined for the Syrian or Turkish Kurds are confiscated. Beyond the checkpoint, a farrago of flags and acronyms  each standing for different armed groups  litter the fortified outposts dotting the main road to Sinoni, a town at the northern foot of Sinjar mountain. Along the road, a trench and mud wall extend through the wheat fields on the Iraqi-KRG side of border to prevent access to and from Rojava in Syria.

To the many formations Zummari mentioned, one must add the Peshmerga Rojava, a force of roughly 7,000 KRG-trained Syrian Kurdish men which was officially created to support the war effort against IS.

The fact that they staff checkpoints along a road abutting Syria is emblematic of the rivalries plaguing the Kurdish camp. The other Syrian Kurdish forces categorically refuse them entry into Syria's Rojava region, since they are considered a Trojan horse for Barzani to extend his influence westward from his base in Erbil.

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On the slopes of Sinjar mountain, thousands of Yazidis live in refugee camps, now a battleground for recruitment between the Barzani-controlled Peshmerga and the YBS, as the former tries to regain the trust of the population after fleeing the IS advance in August 2014.

So far they have had little success. Those who decide to enlist in the Peshmerga do so to receive a salary, but it is apparent that Barzani and his KDP party are widely loathed here.

In camp Kheder, which hosts approximately 2,000 people, Kheirallah, a refugee from Zurava village, explains "the Yazidis need weapons to defend themselves".

"When the Europeans sent arms to the Peshmerga, we haven't received any. We want to fight IS independently."

The YBS is trying to fill this gap. When its PKK backers saved thousands of Yazidi lives in summer 2014, hundreds of the minority group joined the YBS. But the fear that IS may try to retake Sinjar  as well as the constant tension between the Barzani Peshmerga and the PKK franchises  translates into a sense of helplessness among refugees, whether inside Sinjar or in the many camps dotting the countryside of Dohuk governorate inside Iraqi Kurdistan.

Khodeida is one of these refugees. He lives in Sheikhan camp and summarizes the dilemma facing the displaced Yazidi population.

"People are scared. They are afraid that IS may come back and re-do what they did in 2014. And why shouldn't they if they had a chance? The Barzani media keep telling us that the [PKK] guerrillas will soon leave Sinjar, so who's going to defend us?

"We are also afraid of the friction between the PKK and the KDP, as we may get caught up in the middle. This is why most won't return to their houses unless an international force is in place."

In pictures: Click here for Davide Vignati's photoessay
studying the rival groups fighting for Kurds in Iraq and Syria

The need for an international protection force resonates strongly among Yazidis, especially on the heels of a European Parliament resolution and a United Nations report asserting that IS is committing genocide against the Yazidis.

Under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, states parties undertook "to prevent and to punish" acts of genocide.

With such a force not even being discussed in international diplomatic circles, however, the Yazidi population will languish in the camps for the foreseeable future, amid growing tension between the Kurdish forces as Sinjar gains strategic value following the indefinite closure of the Faysh Khabour crossing.

If the Kurdish authorities in Iraq succeeded in restoring control over the area, the PKK and YPG movements to and from Rojava will be severely limited. 

Nowhere is this tension more palpable than in Sinjar city, which lies at the southern foot of Sinjar mountain. Months of fighting and allied bombardments preceding a Kurdish ground force push to expel IS in November 2015 left the city in ruins.

"The general damage to social services infrastructure is estimated at 70 percent, and for private houses around 30 percent," reads a report from the KRG Ministry of Interior.

"[Yazidi] families lost 70 percent of all their livelihoods and assets."

IS has redeployed to towns and villages just five kilometres south of here. This is the new front line of battle.

Such is the city's symbolic significance that Barzani's Peshmerga and the PKK and its affiliates vie for control of the rubble. A Peshmerga checkpoint guards the main road leading to the city centre, followed by a PKK/YBS post twenty metres further down the road, emblazoned with a full-wall picture of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

At the main roundabout in the city centre, the newly renovated KDP headquarters sports party flags fluttering in the breeze, while on some half-destroyed walls one can make out graffiti thanking the Peshmerga and President Barzani for the liberation of Sinjar.

A few hundred metres further, the PKK and the YBS share their headquarters in a former secondary school. Both groups refute the other's claim to have liberated Sinjar: the PKK was a small symbolic force, say the Peshmerga; the Peshmerga couldn't have done it without us, retorts the PKK.

The top PKK commander in charge of the Sinjar HQ, Dilsher Herekol, doesn't mince words: "IS is only five kilometres south of here, but it is us the Peshmerga treat as the enemy."

The YBS media officer for Sinjar, Kurtay, doubles down.

"Only fifteen families are back in Sinjar city," he tells us. "Although Erbil's propaganda wants you to believe that Sinjar has been liberated, all the villages south of here are still in IS' hands, plus the people are too afraid to come back."

Dilsher cuts in: "This is why the Peshmerga don't want journalists to come here, talk to the PKK/YBS and see what the real situation in the city is like."

Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist specialising in the Middle East and Central Asia, where he has lived on and off since 2000. Franco is co-editor of Muftah's Eastern Europe and Central Asia section. Follow him on Twitter: @el_fra_ngo

Davide Vignati is a freelance journalist and humanitarian worker with ten years of field experience in the Middle East, Africa and South East Asia.