In the Middle East, three political movements dominate most of the Kurdish political scene: Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and two Iraq-based organizations, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). All three of these parties have Kurdish “sister parties” among the fifteen or so Kurdish political parties in Syria.
Turkey’s PKK is famously allied to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and controls its People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. KDP President Massoud Barzani, for his part, supports the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (KDP-S), also known as “al-Parti.” Its Syrian Kurdish leader, Abdul Hakim Bashar, is now based alongside Barzani himself in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Both of these parties play a visible role in the politics of northern Syria and are well-known to observers of Syrian Kurdish politics.
But much less attention is paid to the Syria policies of the PUK, which is led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and based in the northeastern Iraqi Kurdish town of Sulaymaniya. Its favored party in Syria is the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party in Syria, led by Hamid Darwish.
Unlike the militant PYD activists, who support PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan’s ideology of confederalism, or Barzani’s KDP-S members, who argue for a federal Kurdish region, the Talabani-aligned Progressive Party takes a very moderate position. It says only that it supports minority rights within a democratic Syria and that it is not in favor of autonomy for Syrian Kurds.
This cautious line has old roots: Talabani’s PUK was actually created in Damascus in 1975, and the Iraqi president has always tried to maintain good relations with both former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and current President Bashar al-Assad. "I have a special relationship with Syria and with the Syrian brethren. I have said repeatedly that I owe a national, personal, and moral debt to the honorable Al-Assad family,” Talabani said in an interview in 2010.
2011–2012: Joining the Kurdish National Council But Supporting the PYD
With the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011, the three Kurdish giants pushed their Syrian proxies in different directions. Turkey’s PKK rushed men and resources to the PYD and helped it create the YPG militia. By July 2012, it had seized control over much of Syrian Kurdistan.
The Iraqi PUK and KDP instead supported the October 2011 creation of the Kurdish National Council, an opposition alliance that gathered most Kurdish parties except the PYD.
Over time, KDP leader Barzani drew closer to the Turkish position on Syria and became critical of Assad, although he primarily sought to unify Syrian Kurds. Talabani, on the other hand, remained quite supportive of Assad in 2011, expressing fears of a “radical opposition” and opposing any Western or Turkish intervention. Moreover, he sent condolences to the Assad family after the July 2012 death of the then Syrian deputy defense minister, Assef Shawkat, who was married to Bashar’s sister Bushra.
Since both the Turkish PKK and Talabani’s PUK were against any Western or Turkish intervention in Syria and wanted to counterbalance the power of Barzani and the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan, it was no surprise that their local proxies began to cooperate on the ground in Syria. The Progressive Party criticized the Kurdish groups supported by Barzani and sent its members to join PYD-controlled security institutions such as the Asayish (police), the Kurdish Front (a PYD-controlled, self-designated brigade of the rebel Free Syrian Army), and of course the YPG militia. Members of the Progressive Party fought for the YPG in a battle for control over the city of Ras al-Ayn against Arab and Islamist groups, and at least one member was killed. The party’s graffiti can still be found all over the city.
Tension and Diverging Interests
By summer 2013, the Progressive Party began to change its policy toward the PYD despite the fact that its Iraq-based mother party, Talabani’s PUK, still favored an alliance with the PYD and Turkey’s PKK.
On June 27, the PYD’s militia killed six civilians in an incident in Amuda. After this, the Progressive Party left the PYD’s militias. On July 3, Progressive Party leader Darwish visited Qatar as the Kurdish National Council’s head of foreign relations after the council had met with the exile opposition’s National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Furthermore, the Progressive Party supported the Kurdish National Council’s decision to join the National Coalition.
Some Progressive Party members were involved with the PYD’s project to form an interim administration in Syria, but the party was not included in the recent PYD-backed announcement of the self-governing body’s creation on November 11.
Drifting Away From a Weakened PUK
In Iraq, all members of Talabani’s movement do not agree with the shift away from an alliance with the PYD. PUK officials such as Najmeddin Kerim threw their weight behind the PYD administration. The PUK-controlled Sulaymaniya Province also remains one of the few areas in Iraqi Kurdistan where the PYD is allowed to operate freely and organize demonstrations and meetings to garner support, aid, and money. Barzani does not permit the same level of PYD freedom in his own areas in Erbil, where the PYD lacks an office. It does have offices in Sulaymaniya, with pictures both of Abdullah Öcalan and Jalal Talabani hanging proudly on the wall. It seems the PUK still holds onto the plan of an alliance with the PYD in Syria, but its Syrian affiliate is distancing itself from the idea.
Mustafa Cuma, the leader of the Kurdish Freedom Party in Syria, explains that although the Progressive Party remains close to the PUK, its policies are becoming more independent. Its leader, Darwish, is now working more closely with Barzani’s KDP-S and the rest of the Kurdish National Council.
The reasons for the growing distance between the PUK and its Syrian sister party are most likely found in Iraq. The PUK was damaged by a split in 2009, and its leader, Talabani, has been entirely absent from the political scene since he suffered a stroke in December 2012. His health situation has been kept secret, but it is clear that he no longer actively controls the party. The PUK also lost eleven seats and dropped to third place in the elections held in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 21.
It is clear that the party is in severe internal disarray, and it is likely that it no longer has a unified position on Syria. In addition, the PUK does not—unlike Barzani’s KDP and Turkey’s PKK—control any border areas near Syria, making it difficult for Talabani’s party to influence events in northern Syria.
As the influence of the PUK in Syria recedes, its sister party seems to be changing its politics accordingly.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and a political analyst on Kurdish politics.