Kurdistan is divided between 4 countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. It has been the scene of several regional conflicts over the past 25 years. This has led to a complex political and military situation in each country where several political parties are defending Kurdish people rights, and are controlling their own military groups. The conflicts are also widely influenced by the two main regional powers, Turkey and Iran, which all have their client factions. The article and the map are not an exhaustive list of all groups involved, but aim at explaining who are the main Kurdish actors in each country and what their relationship is.
The Kurdish uprising in Turkey has a long history. It is currently dominated by the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan – Kurdistan Workers Party), originally Marxist-Leninist, which was founded by Abdullah Öcalan in 1978, and started an armed rebellion in 1984. After a two years truce with the Turkish government, the struggle was reignited by the tensions over the Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict, and after increased tensions, PKK decided to end the truce during the summer of 2015.
HPG (Hêzên Parastina Gel – People’s Defense Force) and YJA-STAR (Yekîneyên Jinên Azad ên Star – Free Women’s Units) are the male and female military wings of the PKK. With an estimated force of 5.000 to 10.000 fighters, they conduct military operations in the South-East of Turkey, and have their main bases in Northern Iraq in the remote and mountainous MDZ (Medya Defence Zone), as well as in the mountains on the Iranian side of the border with Turkey.
By the end of 2015, the YPS (Yekîneyên Parastina Sivîl – Civil Protection Units) was formed by members of the YDG-H (Yurtsever Devrimci Gençlik Hareket – Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement) which is close to PKK. The YPS is a version of the Syrian YPG; they have been conducting an armed struggle in several regions and cities of South-Eastern Turkey, such as in Nusaybin where the fighting has been particularly intense in the first half of 2016.
In March 2016, a new armed movement, the HBDH (Halkların Birleşik Devrim Hareketi – People’s United Revolutionary Movement) was created in Mount Qandil, regrouping several factions: PKK, MLKP, TKP/ML, THKP-C/MLSPB, MKP, TKEP-Leninist, TIKB and Devrîmcî Karargah, and started conducting actions in Turkey.
Turkey also has authorized Kurdish political parties, the most important being HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi – Peoples’ Democratic Party) a left-wing political party, created in 2012, and defending the rights of Kurdish and other minorities. In the June 2015 general elections, they reached 13% of the votes, and elected 81 representatives in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Although there are no official links between PKK and HDP, the Turkish authorities regularly accuse HDP of maintaining ties with their enemy.
In Syria, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat – Democratic Union Party) is dominant. It has a close relationship with PKK so it is seen as an enemy by Turkey. Following the start of the Syrian civil war, it had to quickly fill the vacuum that had been left by the withdrawal of the Syrian army from many points in the Kurdish areas of Syria. The PYD reached an agreement with the KNC (Kurdish National Council, supported by Iraqi PDK) in July 2012 and created the KSC (Kurdish Supreme Committee), in which PYD and KNC have the same number of representatives.
YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel – People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin – Women’s Protection Units) are theoretically under the authority of the KSC, but are widely considered as the military wings of the PYD. The YPG was created soon after the 2004 Qamishli riots. Many fighters and commanders in the YPG are former PKK fighters with experience and expertise in warfare. The YPG and YPJ have a strong size of 50.000 to 60.000 fighters, oversizing most other Syrian Kurdish military groups. YPG is also the main component of the SDF (قواتسورياالديمقراطية– Syrian Democratic Forces), a coalition of several Kurdish, Arab, Assyrians and other minority factions. It was founded in October 2015 under the patronage of the United States, in order to fight the Islamic State.
YPG/J and SDF are engaged in a full-on war against the Islamic State, as well as against the Islamist Syrian rebels and some Free Syrian Army brigades (FSA). However, other FSA brigades are parts of the SDF alliance. The relations with the Syrian Government are ambiguous and complicated: although not engaged in a mutual war, they are not allied, and mostly cohabit difficultly in the places they both control, such as in Qamishli and Hasakah cities where clashes regularly erupt. However, militarily speaking, they have complementary strategies, making up a de facto alliance.
In Iran, the PJAK (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê – Free Life Party of Kurdistan) is one of the main Kurdish opposition groups, which is considered an affiliate of PKK. It has waged an intermittent armed struggle against the Iranian authorities since 2004. Their military branches, the YRK (ekîneyên Parastina Rojhilatê Kurdistan – East Kurdistan Defense Units) and the HPJ (Hêzên Parastina Jinê – Women’s Defense Forces) count around 3.000 fighters. They are based in the North of the Iraqi Kurdistan, in the Qandil mountains, as well as in other locations near the Iranian border; although very active in the past years, they have not conducted significant operations in Iran since mid 2015.
Since April 2016, 2 other parties, the PAK (Party Azady Kurdistan – Kurdistan Freedom Party) and the PDKI (Partî Dêmokiratî Kurdistanî Êran – Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan) re-declared hostilities to Iran by conducting deadly attacks against the Revolutionary Guards on Iranian soil.
The situation in Iraq is marked by the opposition between the KDP (Partiya Demokrat a Kurdistanê – Kurdistan Democratic Party) of the Barzani clan, and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) of the Talabani camp, and the influence of Turkey and Iraq.
In 1998, KDP and PUK agreed to end the war they had been waging in the mid 90s, and to share power in the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) under the auspice of the USA, and a period of calm prevailed in the following years.
Despite this, the former civil-war alliances or friendly relations remain. The PUK is considered as an Iranian client, and the PKK, which supported the PUK during the civil war, is an enemy of the PDK and the Barzanis. As a consequence, Turkey has friendly relations with the PDK and by the end of 2015; they set up a military base near Mosul in order to train the (PDK) Peshmergas during their fight against the Islamic State. With the sharp increase of PKK activism in Turkey, the Turkish air force also resumed an intensive campaign of airstrikes on PKK/HPG bases in the North of the Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Peshmergas (Pêşmerge – “Those who confront death”) are the military units of the KRG, but they are controlled by the PUK and the PDK in their respective zones. They are the most important military units in Kurdistan, with an estimated strength of 300.000.
In the West of the Iraqi Kurdistan, in the Yazidi-inhabited Sinjar area, the liberation of the town from the Islamic State in November 2015 involved Yazidi factions, today regrouped in the “Sinjar alliance”. The YBŞ (Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê – Sinjar Resistance Units) and its female offshoot the YJÊ (Yekinêyen Jinên Êzidxan – Êzidxan Women’s Units) are linked to the PKK and also have a close relationship with the Syrian YPG, which also participated in the Sinjar liberation. They have an estimated strength of 1.500 fighters and are considered as the most effective force against ISIS. The HPÊ (Hêza Parastina Êzîdxanê – Protection Force of Êzîdxan) has an estimated strength of 2.500 to 5.000 fighters. The HPÊ is close to the Peshmergas army and to the PDK.
In 2009, a new party GORRAN (Bizûtinewey Gorran – The Movement for Change) was created in order to challenge the monopoly of power between KDP and PUK. The party won 25 seats in the 2009 Iraqi Kurdistan parliamentary election, and 8 seats in the 2010 Iraqi parliamentary election.
Political implications of the Kurdish Iraqi struggle in Syria
In May 2016, PUK and GORRAN reached an agreement on May 17, in order to counterbalance the dominance of the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria, the KDP-backed KNC rejected the agreement, while the PYD supported it.
While the KNC accuses the agreement to be an Iranian initiative, the PYD accuses the KNC of working with Turkey. The PYD backs the PUK-GORRAN agreement because they hope it will make the KDP weaker, and open the road to reopening the border between Syrian Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan. This would also decrease the influence of Turkey over the Iraqi Kurds.
The two blocks of Kurdish politics
One can see that the many political and military groups in Kurdistan divide in two main blocks.
One is the PKK and all its affiliates or offshoots, the PYD/YPG in Syria, the PJAK in Iran, or the YPS in Iraq. In Iraq, the 1990’s PKK alliance with the PUK is officially over, but the Talabani clan has built up ties with PYD in order to counterbalance the Barzani clan influence. Iran is a strong support of PUK.
The second block is the Barzani clan, PDK, which has the support of Turkey and which is attempting to build a political alternative to PYD in Syria via the KNC.
The rise of the PYD/YPG in Syria, which is becoming a strong and experienced military force, and which has the support of the United States, as well as the Kurdish uprising in South-East Turkey, are probably the main factors of change in the coming months.