Wladimir van Wilgenburg, Author of the Kurds of Northern Syria
The three biggest and most powerful Kurdish parties have had historically complex relations with each other. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) are Kurdish state-building and liberation movements, and have long-standing organizational and personal ties with political elites and governments in Iraq and Turkey, together with the wider region and international community. Each of these groups have varying decision-making structures, as well as domestic and geopolitical ties that have emerged from key inflection points in Kurdish political history. In the case of the KDP and PUK, the two parties form part of a coalition government (led by the KDP) that governs the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the internationally recognised autonomous region that is also enshrined in the Iraqi constitution and has been autonomous and self-governing since 1991.
Amid these complexities, the current commentary on the Kurds and the relationship between the three parties has been simplistic and premised on a misplaced understanding of how Iraq’s Kurdish political parties have engaged the PKK, their neighbours, and how their relations have shaped geopolitical dynamics. In some instances, the KRG has even been described as a hybrid actor, which is both factually and conceptually incorrect. These shortcomings have been notably portrayed by the commentary on recent tensions between the KDP and PKK, particularly since Turkey renewed its threat to undertake a military campaign in Sinjar and the KRG and Baghdad concluded an agreement last October that called for the withdrawal of PKK affiliated groups and Iranian-backed militias from Sinjar. The agreement was backed by the United Nations and the United States. Both the Iran-aligned groups within the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) and PKK-backed groups have so far rejected the terms of the agreement; Turkey has backed the agreement, while Iran has opposed it.
A difficult relationship with the PUK
The reality is that the PKK has a difficult and contentious relationship and history with the PUK, as much as it does the KDP. The KDP has, in fact, played a significant role in enabling the PKK’s presence in the mountainous terrain of the north, and this has historically been to the dismay of the PUK. While the PKK still laments the KRG’s ties to Turkey, the KRG, landlocked between powerful and historically hostile neighbours, in fact had no choice but to build relations with both Turkey and Iran, which is essential to the KRG's ability to import vital goods and supplies into Kurdistan and to access regional and international markets.
The PKK initially established its first military base in Iraqi Kurdistan with the support of the president of the KDP and former Kurdistan Region president, Massoud Barzani, in July 1983. After the establishment of the KRG in 1992, both the PUK and KDP briefly fought against the PKK. During the Kurdish civil-war, the PKK allied with the PUK between 1994-1998 but after the signing of the US-brokered PUK-KDP ceasefire in 1998, the PUK turned against the PKK. In 2000, heavy fighting erupted between the PUK and PKK. In July 2000, PUK leader Jalal Talabani promised Turkey the PUK would do more to fight the PKK, and attacked the PKK for “working to abort our democratic experiment and remove our parliament”.
Following the fall of the Baath regime in 2003, relations between the KDP and Turkey were not particularly warm. One of the early champions of a Turkish aligned foreign policy was Talabani, who in 2007 called on Barzani to cool relations with Turkey, after Barzani had previously warned Turkey to stay out of Kirkuk, or he will otherwise meddle in Turkey’s own Kurdish affairs. In 2009, Talabani warned the PKK it should disarm or leave Iraqi Kurdistan, a period during which relations between the KRG and Turkey had started to improve significantly, with Turkey opening a consulate in Erbil in 2010 and the Iraqi Kurds starting to independently export oil to world markets through Turkey in 2013 .
The Sinjar Agreement
The PKK initially found a foothold in Sinjar after ISIS launched its offensive in August 2014 and carried out a genocide against the Yezidi population. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a sister organization of the PKK, established a corridor from Syria through which thousands of Yezidis were saved. There was some tacit cooperation between the KDP and PKK against ISIS when the group attacked Sinjar, and later the Kurdistan Region in August 2014. Former Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, visited PKK officials and thanked them for their support in repelling ISIS fighters in Makhmour in August 2014. However, tensions erupted after the PKK refused to withdraw their forces and resisted the restoration of Peshmerga forces in the area, leading to a limited skirmish between KDP and PKK-affiliated groups in 2017. The PKK has claimed it withdrew in 2018, but in reality the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) - established in 2014 - is a PKK affiliate and proxy that has not withdrawn, and in fact wants to turn Sinjar into an autonomous area within Iraq. The PKK has opposed the recent UN and US-backed KRG-Baghdad agreement that suggests security in Sinjar should be the responsibility of federal forces, and that the PMF and YBS should withdraw. This led to tensions between the Iraqi army and YBS supporters in Sinjar, which portrays the broader complications of the continued presence of PKK and PMF forces. Tensions between the PKK and Baghdad could worsen further after Baghdad reportedly set an April 1 deadline for armed groups to leave Sinjar. The YBS claims it is an Iraqi force and has a legitimate presence in northern Iraq because of its inclusion within the PMF, while proclaiming it has popular legitimacy as a result of its rescue operation in 2014. These claims are rejected by both the KRG and Baghdad, and by the US and the UN, who have called on all sides to abide by the terms of the Sinjar Agreement. It is unclear whether the YBS is in fact formally integrated within the PMF and whether any such inclusion has been sanctioned by the Iraqi state or government, given that Prime Minister Kadhimi has called on the group to leave Iraq and return to Turkey.
U.S. policies and the anti-ISIS campaign
PUK Peshmerga forces also received support from PKK fighters in Kirkuk. In 2018, the PUK then cracked down on PKK-linked parties after Turkey blocked flights from Suleymaniyah. During anti-corruption protests in Suleymaniyah, some PUK officials accused the PKK of being involved in the protests. To complicate matters further, the PUK played a role in establishing a link between the YPG and the US-led Coalition against ISIS in Kobani in 2014, which gives you an indication of how outside powers like the US can undermine delicate political dynamics that have long-term reverberations if unaddressed.
Although the KDP is traditionally seen as close to Turkey, and PUK to Iran, the KDP has had historic ties to Iran, and was closer to Iran during the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980, while the PUK was hostile to Iran at the time. In 2011, the KDP’s Nechirvan Barzani, who is currently the President of the Kurdistan Region, played a role in establishing a ceasefire between the Iranian PKK affiliate PJAK and Iran in his previous role as KRG Prime Minister. The KDP was also unhappy that Turkey did not assist the KRG when ISIS attacked the Kurdistan Region in August 2014, this was while Iran was thanked for its intervention by the Kurdistan Region’s former President, Massoud Barzani, although it was US airstrikes that eventually stopped ISIS advancing into Kurdistan. Three years later in October 2017, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) helped orchestrated the mobilization of its proxies and Iran-aligned militias against the Peshmerga, including in Sinjar and Kirkuk (and with the acquiescence of the US).
Differences also erupted between the KDP and PKK over their proxy parties in Syria. The PYD became the dominant force in northern Syria after the Syrian government withdrew its forces in July 2012 as the uprising broke out, and then marginalized the KDP-aligned Kurdistan National Council (KNC), which has since struggled to secure power-sharing concessions from the PYD, despite pressure from the international community. That said, both the KRG and KDP have opposed Turkey’s operations in Syrian Kurdistan, including Operation Olive Branch (January 2018 - March 2018), and Operation Peace Spring (October 2019). A KDP-led parliament delegation visited Afrin during the Turkish invasion of Afrin in 2018, and KRG officials openly opposed the October 2019 operation, fearing that it could result in demographic changes in Syria. Iraqi Kurdish media also regularly report human right abuses in Afrin since Turkey launched its operations. President Nechirvan Barzani also established a relationship with Syrian Democratic Forces Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi. Moreover, for several years there has been trade between the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds.
The KRG has always preferred that the PKK and Turkey return to the peace process and are not willing to fight the PKK on behalf of Turkey, or willing to develop hostile relations with Turkey on behalf of the PKK. Looking at this history, the KDP and PUK have complicated relationships with the PKK, the Syrian Kurdish parties, but also with Iran and Turkey and have historically called on the PKK to refrain from entangling the KRG in its war with Turkey and threatening the stability of the Kurdistan region. Simplifying the issue to KDP-PKK tensions reinforces misplaced and factually incorrect popular discourse, and misses important historical context and nuances that need to be appreciated if analysts and policy-makers are genuienly interested in finding lasting solutions to a long-standing problem. Doing so requires an understanding of these groups as secessionists and state-builders first and foremost (which distinguishes them from other political actors and armed groups in Iraq and the region), an understanding of intricate Kurdish political dynamics and inflection points, and, in the case of the KDP and PUK, an understanding of de-facto states and self-governance in fragile states.