Here is how US can prevent an intra-Kurdish war
A war between KDP and PKK will have major ramifications for US Kurdish allies both in Iraq and Syria.
After pushing back the Islamic State, Kurdish factions that were crucial US allies are now turning against one another as Turkey escalates operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is upping its rhetoric against the PKK, calling on the group to leave the region. The KDP is a close economic ally of Turkey, and the PKK is a Turkish Kurdish rebel group that is proscribed as a terrorist group by Ankara. The KDP recently deployed troops to areas in north and northeast Iraqi Kurdistan that have been under nominal PKK control since the 1990s. This follows an ongoing ground Turkish assault against the rebel group that started in June. In December, two limited skirmishes between KDP and PKK brought both Kurdish-ruled regions in Iraq and Syria to the brink of an all out war. Any direct clashes between the KDP and the PKK will have major ramifications for US Kurdish allies both in Iraq and Syria.
It is important to understand the historical context of the PKK presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. While asking the PKK to leave Iraqi Kurdistan makes sense in theory, the group’s link to the region runs deep. The PKK has had military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1983 and the group’s very first attack against Turkish troops in 1984 was launched from Iraq. At the time, the PKK had larger training camps in the Syrian-controlled Bekka valley in Lebanon. Since then, the PKK has used Iraqi Kurdistan as a launching pad for its attacks in Turkey. By using a neighbouring country as a launch pad for its attacks inside Turkey, the PKK is the sole Turkish Kurdish rebel group to survive. At the time, the KDP - which was also a rebel group fighting against the Iraqi regime - welcomed the newly founded PKK in the steep mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, close to the border with Turkey. However, in 1992, shortly after the US-led allied countries imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq which led to the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan, the KDP turned against the PKK and fought alongside the Turkish military but the joint operation failed to expel the rebels. Since then Turkey has launched over a dozen military operations with little success.
But this time is different. Turkey is emboldened by its military successes in Syria, Libya and lately in Karabakh. Turkish drones have taken a heavy toll on the PKK ranks, eliminating more senior PKK commanders in the last year than ever before. Unlike during previous offensives, the Turkish military isn’t limited by scope or time - Turkish troops are building permanent military bases and outposts inside Iraqi Kurdistan throughout its border in what seems to be a ‘buffer zone’ similar to those which Turkey controls in Syria. Additionally, Turkish intelligence has grown more capable thanks to a new unified structure under the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), alongside a growing local spy network in Iraqi Kurdistan.
However the PKK is also enjoying greater influence following the Syrian civil war, and the fight against the Islamic State. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian affiliate of the PKK, are now US partners in Syria and control one third of the country. The PKK also played a key role in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and especially in Sinjar, where they were instrumental in helping thousands of Yazidis survive the Islamic State onslaught. Since then, the PKK has established a foothold in Sinjar and created the powerful Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), that has considerable support among Yazidis. The PKK also stood with Iraqi Kurdish Peshmarga in protecting the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. At the time, KDP leader Masoud Barzani, thanked the PKK in person. Since then, the group has fostered small but crucial support among Iraqi Kurds.
The limited skirmishes in December shows how the politics and fate of Turkish, Iraq and Syrian Kurds is very much intertwined. In the first skirmish, a KDP allied Syrian Kurdish group called Roj Peshmarga which is the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC) was killed in clashes with the PKK. In the second, US-allied Syrian Kurdish YPG, which is the military wing of Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), clashed with the KDP to back a group of PKK fighters who tried to cross the border from Syria to Iraq. The US has recently embarked on a mission to unify these two main Syrian Kurdish political groups: the PYD and the KNC. The PYD is the current ruling party in Northeast Syria and is backed by the PKK, while the rival KNC is backed by Iraqi Kurdistan’s KDP. At the same time, the US recently brokered a deal between the Iraqi government and the KDP-led Kurdistan Regional Government in Sinjar to expel the PKK-backed YBS. Simultaneously, the US has shown approval for Turkish operations against the PKK and recently issued a statement in support of the KDP and against the PKK, after clashes following the PKK’s deployment of troops to areas where the group operates.
A lack of coherent US policies towards the Kurds, dealing with Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds as separate entities, can only lead to further chaos and push the Kurdish factions closer to regional countries, namely Turkey and Iran. Furthermore, these inconsistent and opposing efforts by the US only complicate the situation. The commander of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi, recently said they won’t accept attacks on the PKK, in reference to the KDP’s recent deployment of troops to PKK strongholds in Iraqi Kurdistan. He also stated that they are entitled to maintain interest in Sinjar, as they played a role in rescuing Yazidis - thus they won’t accept the expulsion of their YBS allies, as agreed by Baghdad and Erbil. Meanwhile, the KDP-backed Syrian Kurdish KNC remain part of the anti-SDF and pro-Turkish Syrian opposition coalition, with a KNC representative recently joining a meeting attended by a leading pro-Turkish militia leader which killed prominent pro-PYD politician Hevrin Khalaf, in 2019.
A primary goal of the US-sponsored, Syrian Kurdish unity talks - stalled for over a month now - is to distance the SDF from the PKK, to alleviate Turkish concerns and halt future Turkish attacks against the SDF-controlled region. This not only renders the talks futile, but will push back the SDF closer to the PKK. If the PKK faces mounting pressure in Iraqi Kurdistan, they will dig deeper in Syria. Asking the PKK to leave Iraqi Kurdistan is asking them to cease to exist. The group will not leave, rather they will find ways to cope with any new reality.
Lastly, the contradictory US policy will only push the PKK and its allies closer to Iran. The US-brokered Sinjar agreement between Baghdad and Erbil - meant to counter the Iranian influence - has ironically driven the PKK Yazidi affiliate closer to the Iran-backed Shia militias. The YBS, which Baghdad now seeks to expel, have been paid by Baghdad for years. They are the locals in the region. After the agreement, they are now more closely coordinating with the Shia militias and are set to join the tribal Hashd, a body close to Iran-backed militias, to shield them from forceful expulsion by the Iraqi army. The PKK itself, which has a revolutionary ideology, has historically been close to the Iranian regime, which has its own revolutionary ideology. Interestingly, both the PKK and the Iranian Islamic militias which paved the way for Khomeini to establish an Islamic regime in Iran, were trained in Lebanon in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even the Syrian Kurdish YPG, the backbone of the SDF, has historically good ties with Iran’s ally, the Assad regime of Syria. Unlike the Syrian Arab opposition, Syrian Kurds didn’t fight the Assad regime at the onset of the Syrian uprising, but rather it was the regime that mostly left the Kurdish areas which paved the way for YPG to build what is now the northeast Syrian region. Although the SDF has distanced itself from the regime, thanks to their partnership with the US, they haven’t burnt all the bridges, leaving the option of a re-alliance with Damascus if they run out of options.
If the US wants its efforts to unite the Kurds in Syria and rein in the PKK influence to succeed, it must help solve the root issue: the Kurdish question in Turkey. The Turkish government did engage in a peace process with the PKK from 2009 until 2015 but it fell apart due to internal Turkish politics, and president Erdogan’s failure to win an absolute majority in 2015. Since then, he has formed an alliance with Turkish nationalists which has skewed his domestic and foreign policies more belligerent. This is why a peaceful solution for the Kurdish issue in Turkey is unlikely for now. However, the US can diffuse the tensions between the KDP and PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey is pressuring the KDP to start a direct military confrontation with the PKK. However, due to a spiralling economic crisis in Kurdistan and differences between the KDP and its main partner in Iraqi Kurdistan’s government (KRG), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) on how to handle the PKK, any direct confrontation between the KDP and PKK is unlikely for now - at least until next spring as the harsh winter is northern Iraqi Kurdistan makes direct confrontation less likely. Having said this, the KDP’s deployment of forces to strategic areas, cutting the supply line between the different PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan (between Qandil, the seat of PKK leadership, and Sinjar through to Syria) will help Turkish operations. By isolating the PKK into different pockets it may trigger retaliation, and unwanted war. The US should pressure both parties to diffuse the tensions and promote strategic patience, until the environment changes in favour of dialogue in Turkey. Otherwise the US efforts to help its Kurdish allies both in Iraq and Syria will fall apart and drag the region deeper into conflict.