Kurdistan: One nation, many differences

Kurdistan: One nation, many differences
Analysis: As Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria unite to fight the Islamic State group, rivalries between the Marxist PKK and centrist KDP are coming to the surface.
5 min read
03 March, 2015
PKK fighters are on the front lines in the war against IS [AFP]

Fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) probably never expected to abandon their mountain camps on Iraq's border with Iran to take on a new brand of militant Islam in the valleys of Syria and Iraq.

The war with the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) has cost the PKK many of its best fighters and weaponry, and has left the once-isolated Marxist group in a new position in Iraq.

Outside the hard-hit areas such as Mount Sinjar, most of Iraq's Kurdish population live in areas almost unaffected by the fighting with IS. A massive influx of PKK fighters into Iraqi Kurdistan might change this, and has the civilians of northern Kurdistan keeping a watchful eye on the armed visitors.

The PKK leadership had previously prohibited its fighters from entering built-up areas, but it appears that the war on IS is being used as a pretext by the militants to enter Iraq and Syria's main Kurdish conurbations.

Revolutionary struggle

Formed in November 1978, the PKK is a political party and armed group fusing revolutionary socialism with Kurdish nationalism. Its aim was to establish an independent Marxist-Leninist Kurdish state in the region, although its main enemy from the start was Turkey.

In 1984, an armed struggle against the Turkish army began. More than 40,000 people were killed in the three-decade conflict, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

The party first operated from Turkey until the leadership struck a deal with Damascus and set up camps in northern Syria.

Syria's regime reportedly began to arm and train PKK fighters, and Damascus and Iran used the group as a bargaining chip when dealing with Turkey and Iraq. 

The regime's hold over the group effectively ended in 1999, when Damascus handed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to the Turkish authorities, after being sheltered by Syria for years. Fighting between the Marxist group and Ankara began to wind down.

After Saddam Hussein offered refuge for the group in Iraq, the PKK established party offices and training camps in the country. A PKK office remained open in Mosul until the IS group launched a lightning advance on the city in June 2014.

Although PKK fighters are highly experienced from their years at war with the Turkish army, the fight against the suicidal warriors of the IS is new for the group.

The party claims to have suffered heavy losses from this war, but the PKK are also quickly learning a new set of skills.

The PKK entered the war with IS in July 2014, and deployed some 300 to 400 PKK fighters on the frontlines around the Kurdish-Arab city of Kirkuk.

The city is now effectively controlled by Kurdish forces, and the PKK has contributed to the defence of the city through waves of IS assaults.

The Marxist militants also helped to break the siege of Mount Sinjar, where IS had encircled a number of Yazidi-Kurdish civilians taking refuge on the hillside.

Kurdish divisions

Despite the PKK trumpeting its own successes on the battlefield, most Iraqi Kurds deny that the group has played a decisive role in combat.

They say that it is the Peshmerga that has made the biggest sacrifices in the war, and the rivalry between the PKK and the Peshmerga's political backers, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the Kurdish areas of Iraq, is contained - for now.

     We support their struggle for rights for the Kurds in Turkey
- Shwan Mohammed Taha, KDP

"We do not deem PKK fighters to be strangers. We support their struggle for rights for the Kurds in Turkey and we strongly support the peace process and a solution to the Kurdish cause," says Shwan Mohammed Taha, a KDP parliamentarian in Iraq. 

"We have stood by them in Kobane and we continue to do so. The PKK has stood by us in our struggle against IS."

Taha said that, despite being brothers-in-arms on the battlefield, he wanted the PKK to limit its interference in political and social life in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"We respect others and do not interfere in their affairs; we expect them to act likewise," he said.

Ribour Karim, a Kurdish politician, said the PKK's brand of revolutionary socialism was a "strange" concept for many of the people of Kurdish Iraq. If the PKK's politics were more accessible to Kurdish Iraqis, he said, their party would have greater representation in the local assembly.

The KDP's Abdul Salam Barwari, meanwhile, maintains the PKK is fomenting trouble in Kurdistan.

"It abandoned Turkey and started infiltrating into Iraq and Syria, setting up offshoots there," he said.

Kurdish analyst Ribour Karim said the PKK was spreading itself too thinly.

"By simultaneously operating on several battlefields and in several countries at once, the PKK is becoming unproductive and the chances of a fixed peace with Turkey is becoming very slim," he said.

"We are moving in a vicious circle. The PKK is not willing to abandon its arms without conditions or guarantees, nor is Ankara doing anything other than allowing Turkish television stations to broadcast some programmes in Kurdish to convince the PKK of its good intentions towards the peace process."

The PKK leadership is happy with this arrangement at the moment, he said, as the sacrifice it makes in the war against IS will give it a better position in negotiations with Turkey.

Ankara is also grateful for peace on its borders.

Better hand

The PKK now feel that enticements can now be won from Ankara, such as greater language rights for Kurds in Turkey. Turkey's reluctance to become embroiled in the conflict has also led to a public relations disaster in the West.

Over the past few years, the PKK is said to have been keen to expand its influence in Iraq and Syria. Given the PKK's role in the war on IS, this appears to be true.

The KDP, however, might be wary of allowing the group to use the war as an excuse to make a territorial land grab in northern Kurdistan or Syria. It claims to be the true representatives of Iraqi Kurds, and its political control of the Kurdish parliament makes it de facto ruler of this autonomous region.

With the successes of the Peshmerga on the battlefield, and the global attention the armed group has attracted, it would appear the establishment KDP are winning this subtle inter-Kurdish rivalry.

But the PKK has proven to be almost indestructible after taking on and surviving the mighty Turkish army. Its shrewd and wily leadership might also work hard at pentrating its political influence among Kurdish communities in the region.

If a vacuum appears if and when IS fighters flee Iraq for Syria, this may be the time chosen to exploit the situation to make further permanent gains.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.