Tony Badran

A chronically fractured Kurdistan

The complexity of local Kurdish schisms is compounded by its interaction with regional and international dynamics

A flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region flies next to Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters standing on a tank as they hold a position on the front line in Khazer, near the Kurdish checkpoint of Aski kalak, 40 km West of Erbil, September 7, 2014 (AFP Photo/Safin Hamed)

As the Islamic State (ISIS) made gains in Iraq in recent months, the Kurds have come to the forefront of media analysis. Whether it’s speculation about the redrawing of the regional map or the war with ISIS, big narratives are being woven with the Kurds cast as a key actor right at the center of it all.


Much of the commentary tends to posit a role for the Kurds as a single unit. However, like the Arabs, the Kurds are chronically fractured. Thus, as an analytical category, “the Kurds” is of limited usefulness. What’s more, the complexity of local Kurdish schisms is compounded by its interaction with regional and international dynamics. When analysis glosses over Kurdish factionalism and the geopolitical framework in which it plays out, the result is often rather simplistic narratives.


Take for instance the matter of Kurdish independence, which received wide attention. When ISIS took over Mosul and a string of other cities in June, the Kurdish forces seized the opportunity to control territory disputed with Baghdad, especially the city of Kirkuk. President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani quickly announced his directive for the Kurdish Parliament to prepare for a referendum on independence. There was excitement at Barzani’s declaration, insofar as it played into the broader theme of the demise of the old map of the Middle East. But the fact was that the US and Iran opposed the move. Washington urged the Kurdish president – and Tehran threatened him – to continue to work with Baghdad. 


Barzani’s independence referendum may have been all along a ploy to increase leverage over Baghdad in negotiating Kurdish demands by creating facts on the ground. But within two months of the commotion about independence, the situation had changed substantially. The Kurdish president’s hand was forced when ISIS moved against the Kurds, even threatening Erbil. The Peshmerga forces were initially caught flat-footed and Barzani had to appeal to the US for military assistance. But there was a price to pay. As one Kurdish minister put it: “If the Kurds want America for security… the Kurds had to go to Baghdad.” Unsurprisingly, the referendum is now on hold.


In addition, while Washington is helping to equip the Peshmerga, its desire is to keep the KRG tethered to Baghdad. As unnamed US officials told the Wall Street Journal last month, “the new arms pipeline is a trickle, and any expanded program will be done in coordination with Baghdad.” The Peshmerga are receiving training and weapons from European and Western countries, however, so far it is all being done in coordination with Baghdad. Unless Barzani can secure a channel of sustained, direct military support, his margin is narrow. 


The US preference not only shelved any plans for a referendum on independence, it also affected the regional balance of power inside the KRG, tipping it in Iran’s favor. By contrast, in the face of this security challenge, the limits of Turkey, Barzani’s ally, were highlighted once more. KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani even expressed to a Turkish newspaper his disappointment with Ankara’s aid. In an example of the interplay of local, regional and international factors, the White House’s partnership with Tehran, both politically and militarily, bolstered the position of Iran and its proxies in Iraq more generally, but in the KRG as well. 


Iran is providing military support to the Kurds, especially to its allies in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in the current fight against ISIS – support that Barzani has had to acknowledge. But Iran, working with US cover, seeks to press its advantage further. And so, although the Peshmerga units loyal to both the PUK and KDP have coordinated with the Iranians, Peshmerga officers from a unit loyal to the KDP recently complained, following the battle for the town of Amerli, that “the best weapons from the US government and Iran are going to Kurdish fighters associated with their rival party.” 


Iranian maneuvering with the PUK is not the only domestic dynamic that Barzani must attend to in the post-ISIS assault environment in Iraqi Kurdistan. Another involves the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its military units, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG seized on the Peshmerga’s initial weak response to ISIS’s onslaught on the Sinjar region, near the Syrian border. They showed good fighting capabilities and helped evacuate the trapped Yazidis. However, there's likely more to the PKK’s calculus. Many figures close to the KDP have expressed suspicions that the PKK seeks to establish a firm foothold for itself inside Iraqi Kurdistan on the Syrian border. The Syrian YPG are also seeking to build influence through the Yazidi community, volunteers from which are receiving military training at the hands of the YPG. Pro-KDP media has expressed its deep displeasure with this development, highlighting the PKK’s danger to US interests.


The PYD/YPG’s incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, and their positions in the Sinjar area, secure an outlet into the KRG from their areas in Syria. This is something Barzani had sought to deny them, given their exclusionary policies in Syria’s Kurdish region, which have undercut Barzani’s influence there. All these factional tensions are now kept in check, but they are very much there. The enduring mutual wariness between the main Kurdish factions underscores the limits of the picture of a unified Kurdish force confronting the ISIS. Yes, the various Kurdish factions are battling the jihadist group, but they are simultaneously angling to press their respective advantages in opposition to each other.


This local factional jockeying is compounded by the regional, Iranian, factor, as Tehran seeks to exploit it to expand its sway over the KRG, and diminish that of its regional rivals. The developments in Iraq since the summer have largely played to Iran’s advantage – with the White House’s blessing.


This complex picture highlights the limits of grand narratives woven around the Kurds in media analysis. A more useful analysis requires recognizing the enduring factionalism of Kurdish politics and the ever-present reality of outside influence, especially the US and Iran.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Developments in Iraq since the summer have largely played to Iran’s advantage. (AFP Photo/Safin Hamed)

The enduring mutual wariness between the main Kurdish factions underscores the limits of the picture of a unified Kurdish force confronting the ISIS."