Taking the fight to syria: kurdish rivalries play out over the border


The KDP and PUK parties are former enemies turned partners to rule Iraqi Kurdistan. But some say the KDP been trying to take advantage of PUK leader Jalal Talabani’s ill health to win friends and influence people – and, especially, people in Syria.

Recently the first pictures of Iraq’s ailing President, Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani, were released after his stroke. The elderly Talabani was hospitalised in Baghdad then flown to Germany for further treatment; he remains in Berlin. At one stage, it was rumoured he had died and there were calls for a new president to be put in his empty chair. However the latest picture shows the elder statesman sitting up at a table in a German garden surrounded by medical staff.

Talabani’s absence has been seen as detrimental in Iraq – he is an iconic figure often seen as moderating influence on the “younger” politicians both in Iraq and in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. And as unrest and violence continues in Iraq, with tensions flaring between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and also between the Arab and Kurdish ethnicities, Talabani has been sorely missed.  

It is also true that as Talabani’s health has worsened, so too has the political health of the party he heads, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. Generally power is shared between two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own government and legislature. These are the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and in practice the region is basically split into two separate zones of influence, with local administrations in Erbil and Dohuk controlled by the KDP and the Sulaymaniyah area mostly administered by the PUK.

But for some time now it has seemed that the PUK has been becoming the junior partner in that relationship, especially as Talabani has taken a more pacifist angle. And with Talabani’s illness, the relationship between the two allies – once former enemies – is entering a new dynamic.

Currently the PUK is said to be led by Talabani’s wife, businesswoman Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, who also happens to be the daughter of another key PUK figure. Ahmad has a deep distrust of the Barzani family, who run the  Kurdistan Democratic Party. Her father was sidelined by them and ended up joining the PUK instead. So there is no way she would allow the Barzani family – Massoud Barzani is Iraqi Kurdistan’s President and his son, Nechirvan Barzani , is its Prime Minister –to take advantage of her husband’s illness to try and absorb the PUK or to bring the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan under their influence.

But the two Iraqi Kurdish heavyweights have also been taking their rivalry to a new field: Syria – and more specifically to Syrian Kurdish politics. And whereas the competition between the two is fairly low key and mostly political in Iraq, in Syria it has the potential to become an armed conflict.

The Kurdish people are one the largest ethnic groups in the world without an actual homeland and Kurdish living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey share a language, culture and ethnicity. Syria has a sizeable Kurdish population, between 10 and 15 percent of the population, depending on which estimates one believes. Many have already said that Syria’s Kurds are looking like the only winners amid the ongoing unrest and violence there.  Parts of Syria were basically abandoned by the Syrian military and left in Syrian Kurdish hands – which brings the Kurdish dream of a nation of their own somewhat closer.

With Kurdish territory being run by Kurdish in Syria, the crisis there has also been more of an opportunity for Iraq’s Kurds to make their presence felt, a place for the PUK and the KDP to play out their rivalry.

Iraqi President Massoud Barzani has been busily taking advantage of these opportunities and has organised and overseen several meetings between different Syrian Kurdish factions. In late 2011, one of these meetings resulted in the formation of Syria’s Kurdish National Council, which supposedly represents most of the Kurdish political parties in that country when Iraqi Kurdish and Syrian Kurdish interests merge. But many are disputing this, saying that rather than all Iraqi Kurdish interests, the interests here are those of Barzani’s KDP party.

“At a recent meeting between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria’s Kurdish National Council, all of the officials from Iraq were KDP [Barzani’s] people,” said one Syrian Kurd now living in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Sulaymaniyah, in late January.  “It was striking.”

However, despite any intentions Barzani may have for it and despite the fact that it looks good on paper, the Kurdish National Council’s influence remains fairly limited inside Syria. When compared to the well organised Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (or PYD) in Syria, the National Council looks disorganised and ineffectual.  Comprised of various factions that cannot seem to agree on anything, the National Council cannot seem to make many real decisions.

“The leadership of the Council has different political leanings, everyone does his own thing and nobody really cares what the others are doing,” says Mustapha Jumma, who leads the Kurdish Freedom Party in Syria, and who is also part of the Kurdish National council.

Many critics of the Council see this ineffective behaviour as a result of the fact that the various smaller factions owe their allegiances to one side or another in Iraqi Kurdistan – either they’re KDP people or they’re backed by the PUK.

Outside of political manoeuvring, Barzani has also been training Syrian Kurdish refugees to become a fighting force and sending supplies over the border to beleaguered Syrian Kurdish towns.  Apparently Talabani’s party, the PUK, may have started doing the same thing.

And the PUK seems well aware of Barzani’s ambitions to spread his influence among Syria’s Kurds. Which is why it’s probably no coincidence that when a bribery scandal around the November 2011 conference, during which the Kurdish National Council was formed, broke, it was because of statements made by the only politician to have refused the bribe of US$10,000 per politician that the KDP was offering. That was Hamid Haji Darwesh, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party, which is close to the PUK. The Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party is also known to be close to Syria’s PYD.

And it seems the PUK has also been in independent talks with the Syrian Kurdish PYD. An indication of this may be some telling comments made by Kurdish Freedom Party leader, Mustapha Jumma, in an interview earlier this year. He talked about how the heads of two other parties, both members of the Kurdish National Council, had gone to meet with the military commanders of the PYD in their security stronghold, the Qandil mountains.  Jumma said he had no idea why they went or what they talked about and that he had only learned of the visit through the media. The two politicians were not members of the official committee set up within the Kurdish National Council to mediate with the PYD either, he said.

So speculators have suggested that those two parties, backed by the PUK, basically went to see the Syrian Kurds, not on behalf of the Kurdish National Council but on behalf of the PUK.

Also worth noting, recently members of the Syrian Kurdish parties sponsored by the PUK joined the security forces being run in Syria by the PYD. Some believe that, while the rivalry between the PUK and KDP remains fairly low key in everyday Iraqi Kurdistan, this move – with PUK-sponsored-members joining the PYD’s militia – might allow the rivalry to become an armed one in Syrian Kurdistan.

The upshot of all of the above: battle lines, whether in terms of physical violence or political influence, are being drawn.  As one local in Sulaymaniyah says, “it’s not just a war against the Arabs in Syria that is being threatened. There is also the danger of war between the Kurds, with various factions fighting for power.”


A version of this article was published first by Niqash Politics

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