Monday, December 2, 2013

Explaining Iraqi Kurdistan’s Policy Towards Syria, Interview With Wladimir van Wilgenburg

The conflict in neighboring Syria has provided both opportunities and problems for Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and to a lesser extent the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have attempted to forge ties with Syrian Kurds and shape events there to their benefit. These have only met with limited success as the Syrians have their own agendas. To help explain this policy is Wladimir van Wilgenburg who until recently was based in Irbil, and is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation out of Washington DC, and writes for Al Monitor.
Pres. Barzani saw the war in Syria as an opportunity to expand his influence into that country (Xinhua)
1. When the Syrian war started it seemed like the KRG saw this as an opportunity to expand its influence into that country. In general terms what was the KRG’s policy towards the conflict when it began?
Both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) saw it as an opportunity to expand their influence after the Syrian government left large parts of northern Syria and focused on combating the insurgency in the major cities. The policy of Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was limited to a Kurdish agenda in Syria, and not on toppling Assad or supporting Assad.

On 26 October 2011, he tried to unite the Kurdish political parties by forming the Kurdish National Council (KNC). This was also supported by Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Since the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) increasingly became the strongest actor on the ground, he was forced to recognize their role.

In 2012, he supported a deal between the PYD and the KNC to form the Supreme Kurdish Council, a political body, to administer the Kurdish areas. Turkey was not happy with this and also the Western countries wanted the KNC joining the Syrian opposition. But Masoud Barzani didn’t want the Syrian Kurdish parties to join the opposition without the recognition of Kurdish rights. KDP officials such as Falah Mustafa Bakir, the KRG’s head of foreign relations, and Fuad Hussein, chief of staff for president Barzani criticized the Syrian opposition for not giving Kurds more rights,

Moreover, Barzani tried to empower the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (KDP-S) within the KNC in order to increase the influence of the KDP-S inside Syria. Although the KNC was backed by Barzani, there are many different Kurdish parties inside the KNC, and only the KDP-S is affiliated with Barzani’s KDP.

However, since the PYD is the strongest actor on the ground as a result of it’s military control over the Kurdish areas in Syria through the People’s Defense Units (YPG) backed up by the PKK, Barzani’s influence is limited inside Syria.

Salih Muslim and his PYD have become the dominant Kurdish group in Syria (Tracking Terrorism)
2. What are the differences between Barzani and the PYD?

They have differences in ideology and strategy. The PKK follows Abdullah Öcalan’s ideology of democratic confederalism. This strategy focuses on creating semi-autonomous Kurdish areas in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Iran without threatening the countries’ respective borders. Therefore, when the PYD announced it plans last summer 2013 to form a transitional government or democratic self-rule, they always emphasise it doesn’t threaten the unity or territorial integrity of Syria. For instance, an official of PKK’s Iranian affiliate, PJAK, Ferhad Abdullazadegan, said, that “Before the fallout of Syria’s crises in 2011, the Kurdish struggle continued to establish a democratic structure that does not jeopardize the unity and integration of Syria as well.” In its ideology the PKK is also different from the KDP. While the KDP is much more conservative, a Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) Executive Council Co-President Bese Hozat says the PKK is a “democratic socialist movement against nationalism, religionism and sexism which all are ideologies that lead up to fascism, nationalism and militarism.” Russia, Iran, and allegedly the Syrian government have been supporting the PYD since it opposes Turkish support for the toppling of the Assad government, although the PYD and the PKK say they follow a ‘third line’.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani is closely allied to Turkey and aims to build a more autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq and even possibly an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, through economic ties and oil deals with Turkey. Nechirvan Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region,
said that “We have a door of hope, which is Turkey. And if that door, that hope is closed, it will be impossible for us to surrender to Baghdad. We will do something that will put in danger the interests of all those concerned.” But at the same time he also said that Turkey is opposed to Kurdish independence. Nevertheless, the KDP has tried to attract Western and other international oil companies in order to become less dependent on Baghdad, while the United States has opposed independent oil deals of the KRG and supported Baghdad against the Iraqi Kurds. While the PKK is very Marxist, against ‘imperialism’ and ‘capitalism’, the KDP is much more conservative and works with tribes in Iraqi Kurdistan, while the PKK in its ideology is against Kurdish tribes.

3. The KRG has tried to provide some training for Syrian Kurds to counter the influence of the PDY. Has that been successful?

By October 2012, the KDP had trained around one thousand and two hundred Syrian Kurdish fighters suggested a Kurdwatch report. However, the KDP didn’t want to risk a civil war with the PKK in Syria. Although some KDP-trained Kurdish fighters returned to Syria, the PYD didn’t allow them to create rival militias to the YPG. In May 2013, 74 members of the KDP-S were arrested at the border by the PYD security. Attempts by other Kurdish parties to create rival militias were also stopped by the YPG and Asayesh. For instance, the Kurdish Unity party in Syria tried to create militias in the province of Hasakah, but the PYD didn’t allow them. They hoped their militias would be part of an united Kurdish army under the control of the Supreme Kurdish Council, but the YPG says it cannot allow any other Kurdish armed militias since it would lead to a civil war and it sees itself as a legitimate Kurdish army.
The PYD's YPG militia has attempted to stop other Kurdish parties from forming their own armed groups (Al Jazeera)

4. What is the relationship between the various Syrian Kurdish parties?

The Kurds in Syria are divided between various power blocs: Damascus (Assad), Erbil (Barzani), Sulaymaniya (Talabani), Qandil (PKK) and Istanbul (Turkey – Erdogan). The Sulaymaniya, Qandil, and Damascus axis had similar policies, while the Erbil, Istanbul and the Western countries also had similar policies.

The Kurdish National Council recently joined the Syrian opposition. The Barzani-backed parties are the strongest Kurdish parties within the KNC, but some smaller Kurdish parties in the KNC worked with the PYD and joined their security forces.

For instance, the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party of Syria, led by Abdulhamid Darwish, is affiliated with Talabani’s PUK. Nevertheless, while the PUK still supports the PYD, the party of Darwish left the militias of the PYD after Kurdish protestors were shot in the city of Amuda in June 2013, and its party supported the KNC move to join the Syrian National Coalition. Nevertheless, still some smaller Kurdish parties inside the KNC still back the PYD plan of creating an interim administration, this while the majority of the KNC is supporting it. Initially the KNC backed the plan, but it seems the negotiations failed.

The PYD on the other hand is still part of so-called ‘Internal Syrian Opposition Group’, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB) that is against foreign intervention and wants a dialogue between the opposition and the Syrian regime. Both the PYD and the NCB support a dialogue in Geneva between the different competing political powers. As mentioned, the PYD has relations with some smaller Kurdish parties inside the KNC, but also has relations with the Iraqi Kurdish opposition party Gorran (Change) and the PUK. Off course, it also has good relations with PKK-affiliates in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

5. The KRG has shut down some of its border crossings with Syria for short periods of time. How were those closings connected to events in Syria?

The KRG has no official border with Syria. There is only a border crossing controlled by the KDP, the Peshkhabour border point in Dohuk, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, which is also known as the Saemalka border crossing by Kurds. The border crossing was closed several times as a result of the disputes between the KDP and PKK, and as a result the PYD accused Turkey and the KDP of imposing an embargo on them.

The KDP closed down the border crossing after the PYD arrested KDP-militia members trying to cross the border in May, and the border crossing was closed by both sides after 23 October, Salih Muslim, the PYD-leader, was refused entry by the KDP and he crossed the Iraqi border through a smuggling route. The PYD says the border crossing is still open to foreign journalists, but the KDP doesn’t allow foreign journalists to cross at this point. The border crossing was not always completely closed. On 15 July 2013, 700 Syrian refugees were allowed to cross for medical aid. And in August 2013, around 30,000 crossed the border to the KRG. And before the closure in October, Syrian Kurds were going back to Syria to visit their relatives for the holiday.

Currently, the PYD hopes it can use the recently captured Iraqi border crossing in Yaroubiya as an alternative to the Turkish and Barzani-controlled border crossings and build relations with the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki.
Kurdish areas of Syria, which the PYD has now dubbed Rojava (Institute for the Study of War)
6. You mentioned that in November 2013 the PYD declared its own region in northern Syria in what it calls Rojava. What was the KRG’s response?

Initially, there were talks between the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and PYD, and there was an agreement between the two over the interim administration. This despite the fact the KNC made the decision to join the Turkey-supported Syrian opposition. There were several talks between the KNC and the PYD over power-sharing and the interim administration, but especially the KDP-affiliated party was very suspicious about the plan, and in the end the agreement between the KNC and the PYD broke down to a certain extent, and the PYD moved ahead with the plan in November. There are around 35 organizations supporting the PYD plan now, according to pro-PYD media. As a result, Barzani in a statement said the PYD declaration in November was a unilateral decision and accused the PYD of working with the Baath-regime and imposing its will on other Kurdish parties. He indirectly suggested that since the PYD joined the war on the side of the Syrian regime, tens of thousands of Kurds became refugees. Also as a result, the opposition is opposed to the PYD.  Barzani thinks Syrian Kurds are losing their golden opportunity to achieve more rights. After the tensions increased between the PYD and the KDP in October and November, and the Kurdish National Congress scheduled for 25th of November was delayed as a result, Barzani visited the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir together with the Turkish Prime Minister, and there are claims the KDP plans to create a party inside Turkey.

7. Pres. Barzani has forged very close ties to Turkey over the last couple years. What influence has Ankara had on the KRG’s Syrian policy?

I doubt the KRG’s policy is much related to Turkish influence since Barzani supports cooperation between the KNC and the PYD in Syria and also supports Kurdish autonomy, while Ankara only supports Kurdish autonomy if it follows the fall of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and if the opposition agrees with it. The Syrian opposition is very opposed to autonomy. Even the Islamist armed groups are against any form of ethnic nationalism. Since Turkey realized the PYD moved ahead with its plans for de-facto Kurdish autonomy, it seems that Turkey has supported Jihadi groups and Free Syrian Army-groups against the PYD in Afrin, Ras al-Ain, and Aleppo. Since cooperation between the KNC and PYD failed, Barzani has supported the KNC decision to join the Syrian opposition and has tried to empower the KDP-affiliated party inside the KNC. Nevertheless, the PYD claims Turkey is working together with Barzani to impose an embargo on the PYD.

8. This seems ironic because Ankara is holding peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, which is backed by the KRG, but they both oppose the PKK-affiliated PYD in Syria. Can you explain this contradictory stance?

Both Ankara and Irbil (not Talabani-factions and Gorran) prefer peace and stability in Turkey. Irbil wants a safe transport route to Turkey for it’s oil, while Ankara prefers stability and peace in Turkey. Nevertheless, both of them do not want a PYD or PKK-controlled Kurdish area in Syria. Turkey fears it could have a spill-over effect through the PKK in the future, while the PYD claims that Barzani is afraid of a ‘PYD-model’ that could threaten his popularity. One shouldn’t forget that one of the reasons why Turkey engaged in peace talks with the PKK, is their power inside Syria.

9. Have Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Change List (Gorran) tried a different Syrian strategy or criticized Barzani for his?

Yes, PUK and Gorran politicians are supporting the PYD and the PKK, and politicians of Gorran and PUK also criticized Barzani’s recent trip to Turkey. It seems they want to use the PKK to counterbalance the KDP’s power inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Both of them seem to think that the KDP is too strong and has too much power inside the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

10. Today does it look like the KRG is going to get any more involved in Syria or is it just going to continue with its current policy of aiding refugees and backing friendly parties?

I doubt that the KDP would get military involved in the chaos of the war in Syria and will continue to support refugees inside the KRG and back Kurdish parties in Syria. Most likely there will be more negotiations between the PYD and the KDP in the future. And in some way Turkey and Barzani will have to deal with a de-facto PYD-controlled area in the future (unless the Syrian government changes it’s policies and decides to actively combat the PYD inside Syria). But for the moment the tensions between the KDP and PKK are very high. Nevertheless, it will not lead to a Kurdish civil war inside of Syria.


Devi, Sharmila, “KRG to train Syrian Kurds to stop extremists gaining ground,” Financial Times, 5/9/13

Francis, Bassem, “Tensions Rise Between Iraqi, Syrian-Kurdish Parties,” Al-Hayat, 5/22/13

Gittleson, Ben, “Syria’s Kurds Look to Iraqi Minority for Support,” New York Times, 1/31/13

Kakal, Aral, “truth comes out: iraqikurds are training syrian brothers in arms,” Niqash, 8/2/12

Karakaya, Irem and Hacaoglu, Selcan, “Turkey, Iraqi Kurdish to Act Against Kurdish Rebels,” Associated Press, 8/1/12

Landis, Josh, “Nuri al-Maliki’s Strategy towards Syria and Syrian Kurds,” Syria Comment, 8/22/12

Miller, Elhanan, “Syrian Kurds ‘training in Iraq for the day after Assad,’” Times of Israel, 3/30/12

Redvers, Louise, “A rare welcome for Syria’s Kurdish refugees,” The National, 8/12/13

Rudaw, “Harsh Iraqi Reaction to Report of Training Syrian Soldiers in Kurdistan,” 7/27/12
- “President Barzani Slams PYD in Syria, Rejects Autonomy Declaration,” 11/14/13

Zebari, Abdel Hamid, “Iraqi Kurds Reportedly Among Jihadists in Syria,” Al-Monitor, 5/14/13

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