The Kurdish Factor

As pressure mounts on the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, it has found common ground with Iran and Assad against Turkey

How an ethnic minority shaped the Middle East

If Syria is a testing ground for the larger struggle of the American-led order in the Middle East against the Iranian-led resistance bloc, it’s also an example of the importance of the Kurds. An ethnic community with almost 30 million people spread across the Middle East—most densely in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—the Kurds have become a major player in this larger struggle, with regional powers, like Turkey, Iran and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, courting various Kurdish parties and figures in order to advance their own interests.

Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies whose research and writings on the Syrian civil war over the last 18 months has proven invaluable, sees the Kurdish issue as more than just simply a subset of the Syrian conflict, but rather as a significant transitional factor that will affect U.S. allies and interests. Recently, I spoke with Badran about Kurdish issues, especially as they touch on Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

TWS: Some people are speaking of a Kurdish Spring, analogous to the Arab Spring. Is there any comparison?

TONY BADRAN: Not really. Perhaps the most significant development for the Kurds throughout the region is taking place in Iraq, independent of the Arab Spring. Relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the government of Iraq, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been tense. Among other things, Iraq’s Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, and Maliki have been at loggerheads over the Tariq Hashemi affair. When the Maliki government accused the Iraqi vice president of orchestrating attacks against Shiite targets, Hashemi found refuge in Iraq Kurdistan, where Barzani refused to hand him over to Baghdad. Hashemi then moved to Turkey, which granted him residence, ignoring Baghdad’s arrest warrant and exacerbating Ankara’s tensions with the Maliki government.

In contrast, Turkey moved ever closer to Barzani. The Kurdish president visited Turkey in April, where he also met with Hashemi. In exchange, last month, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Erbil, then made a historic visit to Kirkuk, drawing the ire of the Maliki government.

Tensions between the KRG and Baghdad were further aggravated when the Kurds signed oil contracts with foreign companies, including ExxonMobil, Total, and Chevron. These deals gave Barzani a powerful tool to assert independence vis-à-vis Baghdad down the road. But for the time being, the KRG does not yet have the capacity to export its oil independently. This is where Turkey becomes vital as a gateway for exporting Kurdish oil and circumventing Baghdad. This Turkish-KRG alliance serves both parties on a number of levels.

One of them concerns Syria, where the Turks and Barzani have converging interests. Turkey views Barzani as an essential counterweight to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) affiliate in Syria, the Democratic Union party (PYD). The Syrian conflict offered Barzani an opportunity to solidify his position as the preeminent figure in Kurdish politics and has dealt with the situation very differently than the Maliki government’s pro-Assad approach, in line with Iran’s position.

Last year, Barzani rebuffed Assad’s invitation for a meeting, when the head of the embattled Alawite minority regime sought to present a unified minority front against the Sunni Arabs. Instead, Barzani worked on uniting the many factions of Syria’s Kurds. He midwifed the Kurdish National Council, a coalition of major Kurdish parties opposed to Assad that excluded the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK.

The PYD, suspected of assassinating rival Kurdish figures, is the most organized and best armed group among the many Syrian Kurdish parties. Its fighters have been flexing their muscles in the Kurdish regions, in a bid to consolidate their position as the preeminent player on the Syrian Kurdish scene. Relations between the Kurdish National Council and the PYD had reached a boiling point and in July, Barzani brokered an agreement between the two in order to prevent infighting among the Kurds, for now at least. The agreement’s implementation has been problematic and in some place it has collapsed as the PYD continues to assert its power, prompting complaints from other Kurdish parties.

However, since Barzani is the godfather of the KNC, it is in his interest to strengthen its position in Syria. Tellingly, he recently admitted to training and arming Kurdish fighters that would be sent to Syria. For now, however, the KNC is organizationally lagging behind the PYD in part thanks to the fact that Assad had facilitated the PYD’s operations in Syria’s Kurdish cities.

Recently the PKK has been waging operations in southeast Turkey. What’s this about and are any external actors involved?

The PKK’s fight with Turkey is now 28 years old. But the recent bout of violence in Şemdinli is curious. The Turks pointed the finger at Iran, saying that the PKK had infiltrated Turkey from Iranian soil. For over a year now, the Turks have maintained that the PKK had also rekindled its relationship with the Assad regime. The U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, recently supported Turkey’s contention, dubbing the PKK a “fellow traveler” of Assad’s, and intimating that Assad was sharing weapons (transferred from Iran) with the PKK.

For Turkey, the clearest indicator of an Iran-PKK understanding came last summer. At the time, Turkish intelligence informed Iran that PKK leader Murat Karayilan was hiding in the Qandil Mountains. The Iranians arrested Karayilan, but instead of handing him over to Turkey, quickly released him—to Ankara’s shock. Around the same time, the Iranian affiliate of the PKK, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), declared a unilateral ceasefire with Iran. Shortly thereafter, Turkish intelligence began reporting a noticeable presence of Iranian Kurdish fighters among the PKK units operating in Turkey, which it read as a movement of PJAK elements to the Turkish front.

As pressure mounts on the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, it has found common ground with Iran and Assad against Turkey. Karayilan, for instance, has issued statements warning against outside intervention in Syria, threatening that should the Turks enter Syria, the PKK would turn the Kurdish areas into a war zone.

TWS: What role is Iran playing regarding the Kurds?

BADRAN: All of Barzani’s moves—his energy designs with Turkey, his ties with Ankara over Syria, and his move to remove Maliki—run against Iranian interests. So, to contain Barzani in Iraq, Iran could reach out to some of his rivals, LIKE Jalal Talabani. But how much Iran can achieve by venturing into domestic Kurdish affairs in Iraq is unclear.

Syria is a different matter. Iran’s understanding with the PKK, which would then extend to the PYD, could allow Tehran to cultivate a new pocket of influence in Syria, as the Assad regime’s grip collapses. Assad’s territorial hold is shrinking, and soon he could be confined to the Alawite homeland in the northwestern coastal mountains, and perhaps to Damascus and parts of Aleppo. Iran will seek to buttress this Alawite enclave as a bridgehead to maintain its foothold in Syria. However, it will also be on the lookout for additional avenues, and PYD-controlled Kurdish areas could well present an opportunity for Tehran, providing it with a valuable corridor in northern Syria, possibly reaching the Iraqi border.

The Iranians are very aggressively pursuing all available and potential avenues to protect their vital interest in Syria. They are already putting the squeeze on Turkey, a principal adversary in Syria, and this is likely to increase, including in the form of stepped-up support for the PKK. This, in part, explains Turkey’s increased impatience with the Obama administration’s decision to remove itself from the game, leaving its regional allies on their own.

Badran is discussing Kurdish issues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies this afternoon at 4 p.m. The panel also includes, among others, Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan.

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