Divided Kurds fight the Islamic State

The Islamic State is deepening Kurdish reliance on external powers and is also having a significant impact on intra-Kurdish rivalries, strengthening the hand of the PKK.

The rise of the Islamic State (IS)is dangerous for Kurds across the region. For more thana year, the group has fought deadly battles over territory with Kurds in Syria. Now, IS threatens to undo the hard-won security of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, putting the KRG on the back foot and deepening its dependence on external powers. IS is also having a significant impact on intra-Kurdish rivalries, strengthening the hand of Abdullah Öcalan, head of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), over that of Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

When IS took over Mosul last June, pushing the Iraqi army to abandon all but 50km of its border with the KRG, many Kurds were initiallyexcited. Theythought that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces’ swift takeover of the long disputed oil-rich territory of Kirkuk would provide the KRG with its moment to declare independence, a sentiment that Barzani initially appeared to promote. The KRG, which had shaky relations with then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, eagerly joined voices condemning his exclusionary policies and calling for his ouster.

Kurdish excitement quickly dissipated, however, when the highly regardedPeshmerga forces began losing ground to IS. Kurds quickly realised that problems in the rest of the country would affect their own ambitions and options, particularly as tens of thousands of internally displaced Iraqis streamed into KRG-controlled territories. Further anxiety set in when IS suddenly set its sights on the KRG capital of Erbil, prompting the United States to intervene with airstrikes.Maliki was replaced, as the KRG had hoped, but by a candidate from the same political faction; despite some positive signs, it remains unclear whether the Kurdish position will change significantly under the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

The KRG, now facing the rise of IS on its borders with Iraq and Syria, is arguably in its most vulnerable position since before 2003. Contrary to what many had expected, the IS threat limits Barzani’s flexibility, including on the matter of independence. To face the new threat, the KRG has become increasingly dependent on military support from nations that reject Kurdish independence: Iran and the US.

The crisis has exposed the KRG’s vulnerabilities and the true extent of its dependence on other parts of Iraq. For instance, just days after Iraq’s Baiji oil refinery had to shut down because of fighting, gas stations in Kurdistan ran out of fuel. Urban Kurds faced a choice between buying gas at exorbitant prices on the black market or waiting for hours in a queue at gas stations – the first sign that the comfortable lives to which they had grown accustomed over the past decade might now be in peril.

Moreover, the KRG will not want to walk away from Iraq without Kirkuk in hand. Yet the disputes plaguing the oil-rich province are far from resolved. Although Peshmerga forces now control much of Kirkuk, IS holds areas in the south of the province. And substantial Turkmen, Assyrian, and Arab communities live in the areas that the Kurds now control. Not all of them will be willing to accept Kurdish authority.

Developments over the last summer served to weaken Barzani in relation to his PKK rival, Öcalan. The two figures have long been vying to become the most powerful Kurdish transnational leader, using domestic influences and regional proxies to gain the upper hand. The rise of IS has had a direct impact on this rivalry. As things stand, Öcalan’s model has won out over Barzani’s in Syria, with PKK-affiliated groups seizing political and military control in majority-Kurdish parts of Syria. As of summer 2013, the PKK had quickly begun to raise its profile in Iraq.

Barzani and Öcalan espouse competing models of Kurdish nationalism. Barzani’s model is capitalist-minded, designed around powerful relationships with multinational companies and economic integration with neighbours such as Turkey. Öcalan’s is rooted in a leftist political ideology and remains focused on the struggle for Kurdish rights in Turkey. Öcalan benefits from a disciplined armed force that maintains operational bases in the Iraqi Kurdish Qandil Mountains and has close links with affiliated armed groups in Syria and Iran.

Both the KDP and the PKK have funded Syrian Kurdish political parties and trained Syrian Kurdish fighters. But the forces affiliated with the PKK have emerged as the dominant Kurdish political and military powers in Syria. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Defence Units (YPG), political and military powers aligned with the PKK, have fiercely defended Kurdish territories against jihadi onslaughts and have maintained an enclave of relative governance and security in some majority-Kurdish areas throughout the Syrian civil war. This has earned them recognition as the protectors of the Kurds in Syria. KDP-affiliated parties, meanwhile, are mostly only known for bickering among themselves in hotels in Erbil. Barzani has not been able to move a Kurdish armed force loyal to his proxies into Syria, as he is mindful of threatsfrom the PYD/YPG that they would reject other Kurdish armed groups.

In Iraq, PKK and YPG fighters have helped to reclaim territory previously lost to IS, including Makhmour, as well as to re-secure the Rabia border crossing and to provide critical assistance in the face of Peshmerga setbacks. This has won the PKK and YPG widespread support, including among Iraqi Kurds. In addition, Barzani no longer holds the Kurdish monopoly on international legitimacy and support. In spite of Turkish objections, the Pentagon has announced a new collaboration system in which YPG fighters send ground intelligence to guide US airstrikes. Since the rise of IS, there have been calls – for example, in op-eds and editorials in influential newspapers such as the New York Times and Bloomberg – for Western powers to reconsiderthe PKK’s designation as a terrorist organisation.

While thePKK’s profile has risen dramatically, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces under Barzani’s control have lost their aura of dauntlessnessin the face of IS gains. Many in the KRG and abroad were stunned when the Peshmerga quickly lost ground to IS– much of which was only won back later with the help of the PKK. The PKK was proving what the KRG, amid its modern economic and state-building successes, may have lost sight of in recent years: military might matters most in times of crisis in the Middle East.

Barzani saw an opportunity to remedy this slump in profile when a unique convergence of interests among the US, Turkey, the KRG, and the YPG emerged in Kobane in late October 2014. By that point, the YPG had been fighting IS in the town for weeks, in full view of international TV crews set up just across the border. Kobane’s name gained global recognition and, though it had been emptied of its civilians, it was brimming with spectacular propaganda value. But many were starting to predict that Kobane would soon fall.

The finger of blame for the seemingly inevitable fate of Kobane soon pointed at Turkey. Ankara was criticised for blocking Kurdish fighters and supplies inside Turkey from crossing the border into Kobane to support the YPG. Many complained that Turkey for years had allowed a “jihadi highway” to develop on its border, but was now preventing Kurdish fighters going in to fight those same jihadis. This gave rise to a widespread impression among Kurds that Turkey would be happy to see Kobane fall, if, as a result, the YPG would be seriously damaged. As a result of this growing distrust, PKK leaders threatened to end the PKK-Turkey peace process if Kobane were to fall.

Faced with the threat of the collapse of the peace process and mounting international pressure, Turkey finally caved – to an extent. After about 40 days of fighting in Kobane, Turkey agreed to allow 150 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga carrying weapons and ammunition to enter the besieged town to provide artillery support to the YPG.

This move served the purposes of many players. Barzani, eager to partake in the primetime battle and win back some credibility after the Peshmerga’s humiliating defeats in Iraq, finally got to play a small but symbolic military role in Syria – a move that the YPG had previously prevented. Turkey, wary of the growing iconic status of Kobane, preferred that a victory there be shared by its Iraqi Kurdish allies, rather than entirely owed to the PKK-backed forces. The US, which had long pushed for power sharing between Barzani and PKK-backed Syrian Kurdish factions, won more legitimacy for its co-ordination with Kurdish ground forces in Syria. And the YPG, holding out but fatigued after weeks of fighting, received much-needed supplies and artillery support.

In many ways, the Kurds seem to be making important gains. The rare collaboration between the YPG and Iraqi Kurdish ground fighters, backed by US airstrikes, appears to be successfully holding off the IS advance into Kobane. Both the PKK and KRG-backed forces have received unprecedented international support for their efforts and have been widely recognised as the only reliable ground forces that can fight IS in both Iraq and Syria. Iraqi Kurds have recently won back territory from IS in northern Diyala, and have reached a temporary budgetary and oil export accord with Abadi’s government in Baghdad, which will allow for the overdue payments of KRG civil servants’ salaries.

Even so, key challenges remain. Fighters in Kobane may be turning into international heroes, but almost all of the town’s civilians have become refugees in Turkey. A deadly car bomb in Erbil in late November last year unnerved the population there and added to investor scepticism, even as the Peshmerga claimed victory in Jalawla and the government restarted salary payments. And perhaps most crucially, despite some points of coordination when and where interests converge, such as in Kobane, Kurdish political rivalries remain very much intact. The Barzani–Öcalan divide will continue to shape the Kurdish response to IS, and ultimately, the jihadi group’s rise will constrain both of their visions of Kurdish nationalism.

Cale Salih is a researcher focusing on Kurds in Iraq and Syria

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Visiting Fellow

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