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Which Kurdistan are the Kurds Fighting for?

Political parties, movements, armed militias: why the pan-Kurdish political project falters and each group pursues its own interests

Francesca Miglio | 28 April 2016
Kurdish women wearing traditional clothes

PKK, TAK, HDP, PYD, YPG and KRG are just some of the acronyms of movements, political parties and military organizations expressing the diversity of the Kurdish world that extends over a vast region bordering Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Since the end of the First World War, the Kurds have aspired for an autonomous state, but the different communities continue to be subject to the jurisdiction - and often the discrimination - of the country in which they live.

“For decades,” Hamit Bozarslan (Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales of Paris) explains to Oasis, “there has been a common ideology marked by the geographical imagination of a unified national identity. The main ambition shared by the Kurds was, in fact, the creation of an autonomous and independent Kurdistan.” The geographic divisions, however, translated into political fractions and sometimes conflicts, to the point that, as David Pollock (Washington Institute for Near East Policy) says, “Kurds… have all chosen to abandon the pan-Kurdish political project in favor of separately securing their rights in their respective countries” (The Syrian Kurds: Whose Ally?, March 29, 2016).

The unity of the Kurdish people comes from a shared ethnic background and the use of a common language; therefore, the Kurds are not identified in a religious community. In fact the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but there are also Shiites in Iraq and Iran, while those in Turkey are mostly Alevites (Alevism is a form of Islam typical of the Anatolian Region). The Yazidis, one of the minorities hit hardest by the brutality of the Islamic State, are also Kurds and they practice a religion that draws from elements of Islam, Christianity and other faiths, especially the ancient Middle Eastern and Babylonian traditions.

The Kurds of Turkey
The PKK movement
(Kurdistan Workers' Party), founded in Turkey by Abdullah Öcalan in 1978, with its armed branch HPG (People's Defense Forces), is one of the main actors in Kurdish political militancy. Its goal is to achieve independence for Turkish Kurdistan, through violent and armed opposition to the Ankara government. It is listed as a terrorist organization by the International community. After the beginning of a peace process between the government and the PKK in 2012, the conflict within Turkey the conflict within Turkey flared up in the summer of 2015 with an increase in violence between the army and the PKK militias in the Southeast Kurdish-majority region, and targeted attacks in some cities. “The first obstacle to Kurdish unity is,” according to Bozarslan, “the Ankara government. You get the impression that there is a veritable process of destruction of the Kurds and their sympathizers. Turkey has declared that the greatest threat for the Ankara government is not the Islamic State, but the creation of Kurdistan on its borders, whether Turkish, Syrian or Iraqi.”

Since the early 2000s, the TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons) has distanced itself from the PKK. This group considers the PKK to be too heavily influenced by politics and believes direct armed conflict to be more effective.

In addition, the Kurds of Turkey are politically represented also by other groups. The most important of such groups is the HDP party (Peoples' Democratic Party), which shares a socialist ideology with the PKK. The main exponent of the HDP leadership is Selahattin Demirtaş, who garners support not just among the Kurds, but also among moderate and non-nationalist Turks. In the June 2015 elections, the HDP managed to win seats in Parliament for the first time, taking away the absolute majority of Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) which held onto it since 2002. The violence between Ankara and the Kurds commenced just after these elections, foundering attempts to negotiate peace. During the campaign for the early elections of November 1, Erdoğan’s party, which then took back the absolute majority in Parliament, openly accused the HDP of supporting the armed operation of the PKK.

The Kurds in Syria
In 2007, the PKK founded a transnational organization, the KCK (Group of Communities in Kurdistan), according to the unitary ideal of the founder Öcalan. “The aim of the organization,” Soner Çağaptay says, “is to unite all the Kurdish military movements. One of the member groups of the KCK, for example, is the Iranian Kurdish movement PJAK (Party of the Free Life of Kurdistan).”

The PYD (Democratic Union Party), also founded by Öcalan, is the most active Kurdish political organization in Syria. It aims at reaching independence for the Kurdish-majority territory of Rojava, in the Northeast of the country. “Since 2011, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the civil war in Syria, the Kurdish population – between two and three million – began organizing itself into different cantons,” explains Rahila Gupta, CNN, in a report on the region. The PYD is flanked by its two armed wings: the YPG (People's Protection Units) and the YPJ, the female brigade.

“Following the Russian intervention in support of Syrian Kurds in the Fall of 2015,” Çağaptay says, “Ankara, which considers the PYD an equal of the PKK, initiated a campaign against the Kurdish stations on its borders, especially in the area west of the Euphrates. The Kurds of the PYD, however, enjoy the support of the United States,” as they represent the front lines in the fight on the ground against the Islamic State. However, Çağaptay underlines how “Russian support risks threatening the relationship between the United States and the Syrian Kurds. In fact, Moscow’s interest is probably driven by three motives: the PYD could become a permanent ally for Russia on the Syrian ground; the Rojava territory could be used as a military base; Moscow could take advantage of PYD to put pressure on Erdoğan. If the PYD were to become one of Moscow’s regular allies, it could become Putin’s Hezbollah against Erdoğan.”

On March 17, 2016, the Syrian Kurds declared their autonomy in the Rojava region. “To date, it is not possible to make a concrete prediction of how this small federal entity will evolve,” Bozarslan says, “because the Syrian territory is at the mercy of sudden and unpredictable changes. In any case, Kurdish unity is impossible in the immediate future.”

The Kurds of Iraq
The Kurdish minority in Iraq has been discriminated against for decades by the central government of Baghdad. The violence was particularly intense during the Saddam Hussein regime, which used chemical weapons on the population in majority Kurdish villages. The autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, established in 1991 at the end of the First Gulf War, is central to the formation of a Kurdish political militancy. Taking advantage of the presence of oil wells in Kirkuk, during the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan created a de facto autonomous region, defended by its peshmerga fighters. “The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) has a decade’s long relationship with Turkey, in economic, energy, military, and security cooperation capacities,” Bozarslan explains. As evidence of this, David Pollock, analyst at the Washington Institute, highlights that in July 2012, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, endorsed the PYD’s declaration that it is in no way an enemy of the Turkish government.”

“The KRG however, is not united on the inside,” Çağaptay says. “On the one hand, the conservative KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), the party of President Barzani, tends to favor the relationship with Turkey and backs Ankara in its fight against the PKK; on the other hand, the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), has more sympathy for Iran and further supports the Kurdish militant movement.”
Kenneth M. Pollak, of the Brookings Institution, explains that “the balance within Iraqi Kurdistan was relatively stable until the mid-90s, but today it is threatened by the conflict between the KDP and Gorran (Movement for Change) that erupted in 2015. Gorran, in fact, accuses the KDP of ruling the region illegally and dictatorially.”

Each party of Iraqi Kurdistan, in conclusion, has its own armed militias, the so-called peshmerga [one who confronts death, in Kurdish], boots on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State, resulting in relative success in the defense of their territory.

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