Recently, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq began to dig trenches on the border between Syria and Iraq, saying they were needed to protect the KRG against smugglers and “terrorist groups.” But some Iraqi Kurdish parties protested, a sign of how events in Syria are helping to stoke tension between the political parties in the KRG.
The ditch-digging plan had been advanced by Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, which is increasingly the dominant power in the KRG. Barzani serves as KRG president, and his KDP allies control the government’s Ministries of Natural Resources and the Interior as well as its Department of Foreign Affairs. Comfortably entrenched in KRG institutions, Barzani and the KDP seek, above all, to increase the KRG’s independence from Baghdad. By striking oil deals with energy-hungry Turkey, Barzani hopes that he will at some point in the future be able to convince Turkey to accept an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq—but until then, he will settle for a reliable stream of hydrocarbon income to the KRG.
However, Barzani’s policies play out in a complex regional environment, and the war in the neighboring Kurdish areas of Syria has proven impossible to ignore. In some ways, the Syrian conflict has strengthened Barzani’s hand, but in other ways it has emboldened his local rivals—and incompatible regional alliances have prevented the Iraqi Kurds from adopting a common policy to aid their Syrian brethren.
The KDP’s Syria Policy
In Syria, Barzani pursues a policy geared to the same goals that he pursues in Iraq: protecting Kurdish interests in the war while simultaneously squeezing out his rivals and strengthening his own relations with Turkey. The KDP supports the Syrian political alliance known as the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is a member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main Syrian opposition alliance in exile. Within the KNC, Barzani’s Iraqi KDP recently backed the unification of several smaller groups with its own official Syrian sister party, known as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S), which functions as the main conduit for Barzani’s influence in Syria.
The KDP-S is opposed to the Kurdish autonomous areas that have been set up in northern Syria by the locally dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the main Kurdish party in Turkey. PYD militias have therefore worked hard to marginalize and repress KDP-S activity, and Barzani’s attempts to make deals with the PYD and the PKK to share power in Syrian Kurdish areas have failed.
While the PKK helped set up armed militias for the PYD in Syria in 2012, Barzani was too late to the game. Now, he cannot send KDP fighters into Syria. For one thing, doing so would lead to problems with Iran, and it would probably spark armed conflict with the PKK and the PYD. Therefore, the KNC and its KDP-S subfaction are increasingly marginalized by the PKK and the PYD, which have been able to put boots on the ground in defense of Kurdish interests, bolstering their popular support and assuring their armed control over the Kurdish region in Syria.
However, Barzani has other means at his disposal. The PKK and the PYD have accused his KDP of imposing an economic siege on the Kurdish areas in Syria by closing the KRG border in coordination with Turkey in order to undermine the PYD’s autonomy project. In turn, Barzani’s KDP accuses the PYD of working with the Syrian government.
The Regional Priorities of the PKK
The PKK itself was originally formed in Turkey, but its current leadership is now based on Iraqi soil in the Qandil Mountains. Its main aim is to build what it refers to as democratic confederalism, meaning autonomous Kurdish administrations in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, without necessarily threatening the territorial integrity of these states.
To achieve this, the PKK and its regional proxies seek to uphold a ceasefire with both Iran and Turkey while using their influence in Syria to pressure Turkey to enact reforms. Meanwhile, the PKK’s PYD proxy is striving to implement the democratic confederalism project on the ground in Syria. The PKK leadership also hopes that its Kurdish ally in Turkey—the Peace and Democracy Party—will be able to start on the road to self-rule since it won several Turkish municipalities in the recent local elections.
Talabani’s Alignment With the PKK
A third force in Iraqi Kurdish politics is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq. Talabani’s PUK is a historical rival of Barzani’s KDP, but the two parties have shared power in the KRG ever since the Iraqi-Kurdish civil war of 1994–1998. In recent years, the PUK’s influence has been weakened due to internal conflicts and Talabani’s poor health, and the KRG power-sharing arrangement is slowly breaking down. In 2009, Talabani’s former deputy, Nawshirwan Mustafa, broke away to form his own political party, called Gorran. Talabani then suffered a stroke in December 2012, which left him incapacitated and unable to keep the PUK together. In last year’s KRG parliamentary elections, the PUK fell to third place after the KDP and Gorran, indicating that Talabani’s party is no longer a match for Barzani’s influence.
To strengthen its hand, the PUK has deepened its historically close relationship to Iran. During Talabani’s time as president of Iraq, it has also developed excellent ties to the pro-Iranian Shia government in Baghdad. Furthermore, the PUK has allied itself with the PKK in order to undermine Barzani’s regional position and weaken his hold over the KRG—for example, the PUK supports the PKK-backed autonomy project of the PYD in Syria. In return, many PKK supporters in Iraqi Kurdistan will vote for PUK candidates in the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections, while voting for Gorran in KDP-controlled areas.
Other Iraqi Kurdish Parties
Gorran, the PUK splinter, is opposed to both the KDP and PUK, but it has developed a good relationship with the PKK. While it maintains relations with both Turkey and Iran, Gorran’s core areas lie on the Iranian border, and Gorran leaders seem to privilege their relations with the PKK and the PYD over the Turkish connection. Accordingly, Gorran has recognized the PYD’s autonomy project in Syria, although it keeps a wary eye on the warming of ties between the PUK and the PKK.
The main Islamic opposition parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Islamic Union of Kurdistan (IUK) and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan (KIG), have tried to stay out of the KDP-PKK and KDP-PUK rivalries. Still, they support the PKK and the PYD’s Syrian autonomy project. This stance contrasts with the position of most Islamic groups in Syria, as well as with the pro-Turkish inclination of the IUK and the KIG’s ties to a Kurdish Islamist rival of the PKK in Turkey, the Kurdish Hezbollah party.
The tension between Iraqi Kurdish parties over Syria will not go away. Most Iraqi Kurdish parties, except the KDP, recognize PYD control over Syrian Kurdish areas, not just because the PYD’s declaration of autonomy was very popular among Kurds in general but also as a result of the PYD’s ties to Iran and the PKK and its opposition to the KDP’s dominance in the KRG. The KDP claims to want Kurdish power sharing in Syria, but Barzani is now firmly aligned with Turkey and cannot accept PKK and PYD dominance. Thus, competing regional agendas continue to drive the two leading Kurdish actors apart; the KDP uses the conflict in Syria to pressure Baghdad, while the PKK uses it to pressure Ankara—and because of this, they cannot agree on a joint policy to aid the Syrian Kurds.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is an analyst of Kurdish politics and a contributing writer for Al-Monitor. He has previously written for Syria in Crisis on the Kurdish PUK’s Syria Policy and the Kurds and Geneva II.