After sweeping victories in Syria and Iraq in June and July 2014 that brought them ever closer to Baghdad, the Islamic State suddenly changed course in August, turning east toward Iraq’s Kurdish region. The Kurds were taken by surprise. In the resulting scramble, the peshmergas retreated ahead of the snowballing, rapid advance of the jihadists, leaving tens of thousands of Yazidis around Sinjar and Christians in the Nineveh plains to flee or be captured. Islamic State forces eventually swept through the Makhmour and Gwer regions, reaching within 20 kilometers of the Kurdish capital, Erbil.
Two things were clear at that point: the Kurds were not prepared to face such a serious military offensive, nor had they seen it coming. Apart from some involvement in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraqi Kurds had not used arms collectively and intensively since the brutal civil war of the 1990s known in Kurdish memory as the brakujie (Brother Killings). What was less obvious was that the divisions that had driven the violence 20 years ago have also been reawakened. The jihadists’ assault has revived the rivalry between the two main political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP, led by the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK, led by Jalal Talabani), and their respective military wings. The renewed enmity is deepening internal Kurdish divisions and swelling the territorial ambitions of each side.
This article explores the apparent failure to overcome these historical divisions, despite a common and formidable enemy, and shows how tensions are growing rather than receding. The analysis underlines the sheer complexity facing policymakers. Any move to help the Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State must be weighed against the danger of stoking tensions through counterproductive decisions. Additionally, the analysis highlights the limitations of not considering the complexity of the Kurdish political environment. Using the term “the Kurds” in strategic discussions on this issue is not helpful given the divisions there and the possibility of worsening an already precarious situation.
The tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan can be dated back to just after World War II. In August 1946, one year after Kurdish leader Qazi Muhammad established the KDP in Iranian Kurdistan, the Iraqi branch of the KDP was founded in Baghdad by a group of intellectuals and officers. Mullah Mustafa Barzani (the father of current Kurdish president Masoud Barzani), one of the top generals involved in establishing the first Kurdish independent Republic, was made the honorary president of the party while Hamza Abdullah, one of the original party’s founders, was elected as the secretary general.
In 1951, a young intellectual from the city of Sulaimayiah, Ibrahim Ahmad, succeeded in recruiting most of the Iraqi Kurdish leftists and nationalists into the KDP. In March 1951, the second party congress was held, and Barzani’s wing lost to Ibrahim Ahmad who was elected Secretary General. In 1958, Barzani returned from exile in the Soviet Union. Soon after, he began to interfere in party affairs which led to repeated conflicts with other members of the politburo, especially with Ibrahim Ahmad. Eventually, in April 1964, the political bureau stripped Barzani of his authority. In response Barzani successfully expelled Ibrahim Ahmad, and other key members from the party. The rivalry between these two men, with Barzani representing rural, tribal society, and Ahmad coming from an urban background, is still present in the current political landscape.
The next important step came on June 1, 1975, when Jalal Talabani (current leader of the PUK, and Ibrahim Ahmed’s son-in-law) announced with others—including Iraq’s current President D. Fouad Masoum, and current Change Movement leader Nawsherwan Mustafa—the formation of the PUK. The launch of the PUK was the beginning of a split in Iraqi Kurdistan that led to outright violence from the late 1970s through the 1980s, and again in the 1990s.
The brakujie of the 1990s started after the first Gulf War when the international community enforced a no-fly zone over the Kurdish region of Iraq. De facto independence led quickly in 1992 to the first elections in this newly hopeful region. But the results were too close to call for either party, leading to a catastrophically sharp division not only in the political and administrative system but also within the social fabric of Kurdish society itself, producing a highly fragmented society and leading inexorably towards a bloody civil war that continued for more than four years. One sign of the renewed tensions has been the revival of the term “50/50,” which originally appeared after the 1992 election and was later used to describe the rigid and scrupulously even power-sharing deal that helped resolve the brakujie. Kurds, as the current disputes show very clearly, have still not recovered from that divisive election.
The War with the Islamic State
One clear sign of the ongoing divisions is the state of the Kurdish military. There is still no unified army in Iraqi Kurdistan, despite the existence of a Ministry of Peshmergas in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) led by Mustafa Sayid Qadir, who is a member of the Change Party, a party with no military wing. In conversation, he reported that the over 1,050-kilometer-long front between the Kurds and the Islamic State is divided into eight operations. The west side is mostly controlled by KDP peshmergas, while the east side is controlled by PUK peshmergas.
At the frontline region of Makhmour, 45 kilometers southwest of Erbil, we spoke to an official from the security (Asaysh) forces, who described the division. “The war front from Sinjar, on the Iraqi Syrian border, to Mala Abdullah, a village in Kirkuk, is under the command of the KDP; from Mala Abdullah to Jalawla and Khanaqeen on the Iranian borders is under the command of the PUK,” he said. This territorial division based on political allegiances cuts the front into almost two equal parts, and replicates the “50/50” mechanism used to divide Kurdistan between the two main political parties after the civil war.
The lack of a single, unified central command was illustrated along the front lines in the early stages of the campaign against the Islamic State by the sight of troops, offices, and outposts displaying party flags instead of national Kurdish flags (no Iraqi flags are seen in this region). Unilateral claims of victory are common and have led to increasing tensions, and even outright military reversals. One example illustrates the chronic lack of unity. A Kurdish fighter, a member of the presidential guard, reported that in August, a squabble over claims of victory resulted in the PUK commander ordering all his forces to leave Jalawla soon after helping to liberate the city. A day later, with the remaining KDP forces in disarray, Islamic State fighters retook Jalawla, taking the opportunity to thoroughly booby trap the city. When the peshmergas recaptured the town in November, there were many needless deaths from explosive devices.
Article 140 and Claims for Independence
The divisions do not stop with the frontline. Even more ominous for Iraqi Kurds are the lack of consensus and the power struggles over major issues such as independence, relations with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, and regional and international alliances. Article 140 in the Iraqi constitution of 2005 is a key example of the tension. It promised a referendum on the issue of Kirkuk, leaving it up to the residents there whether they would remain under the central Baghdad government or secede to the KRG. The referendum was set for November 2007, but it has been postponed several times, the victim of political convenience for both Erbil and Baghdad.
In late June 2014, President Masoud Barzani congratulated the people of Kirkuk, announcing from the city that Article 140 was dead and that Kirkuk’s status was defacto resolved without a referendum. In response, Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Karim publicly disagreed in a July 8 interview with the PUK newspaper Kurdistani Nwe, saying he still supported a referendum.
The disputed territories are part of the much larger issue of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. Masoud Barzani has been vocal on this issue, most recently in his May visit to Washington DC. (The U.S. administraton remains firmly opposed to that outcome, responding to Barzani’s requests for support by renewing its commitment to “a united, federal, and democratic Iraq.”) Some KDP members, however, claim that some PUK figures would oppose an independent Kurdish state if it were to be declared by a member of the Barzani family.
One of the main concerns regarding an independent Kurdistan relates to future regional involvement, specifically how the rivalry between Iran and Turkey would play out. Both countries have significant Kurdish populations that are also struggling for more rights. Both nations have sought political and economic influence in Iraqi Kurdistan dating back to the brakujie, with Turkey continuing to support the KDP, while Iran retains its links to the PUK.
The strong ties between the KDP and Turkey have raised concerns among some PUK officials that Turkey would dominate a future independent Kurdistan. For example, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Time magazine in 2012, described Turkey as “a door of hope.” On the other hand, Iran appears to have been gaining influence within the PUK, thanks in part to its good relations with the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad and the infighting resulting from the increasing absence of ailing PUK leader, Jalal Talabani. In late 2013, for example, Adel Mourad, one of the PUK’s founding members, publicly favored Iran’s involvements over that of Turkey or Saudi Arabia in the affairs of Kurdistan and Iraq.
The PKK: An Added Complication
The final complication that must be factored into the KRG’s uneasy web of tensions that has been exposed by the Islamic State’s military successes is Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been on the international terrorism list since the 1980s, yet it has been one of the most effective forces countering the Islamic State. It was, for example, responsible for the Islamic State’s defeat at Makhmour, and the opening of a humanitarian escape corridor from Mount Sinjar after the KRG’s forces had withdrawn. President Barzani himself visited PKK officials in Makhmour and thanked them, a move that risked the KDP’s relationship with Turkey. The PKK has also clashed with another group of armed Kurds, the KDP of Iran, over control of territory, most recently on May 24, 2015.
There are clear and recent signs that that these multiple tensions are causing problems. On April 5, 2015, for example, security forces in Dohuk, which is dominated by the KDP, arrested the Yazidi leader Hayder Shasho, who is a member of the PUK central council and the commander of the “Shangal [Sinjar] Protection Forces.” He was released a week later with no charges, but the episode angered PUK members and widened the gulf between the two parties at a critical juncture.
There are also increasingly strident debates over the constitution ahead of the August election. President Masoud Barzani has been in power since July 2005, and his original eight-year term had already been extended by two years in 2013 via a parliamentary motion. This extra time expires on August 19, but there is still no clear indication of how a power transition will occur. The KRG could not face this at a worse time given the fighting with the Islamic State and the apparent divisions among Kurdish groups.
Chief of Staff Fuad Hussein recently announced that the presidential election has been set for August 20, although the legal and constitutional setting for these elections are by no means clear, and continue to be debated by the parties. Barzani may have already exceeded his term as KRG president, yet his KDP party claims that the current situation requires he stay in power. Members of Parliament (MPs) from other parties submitted a bill to change the system of governance from a presidential to a parliamentary system, but all 38 KDP members boycotted the session at which the bill was discussed, provoking more tensions. KDP MPs have warned of chaos if the session is held.
All of the peshmerga interviewed expressed their abhorrence for the 1990s Kurdish civil war, claiming that they will lay down their arms and go home if forced to fight other Kurds. The protestations fall flat though given the loyalty to political parties and leaders apparent in the interviews. Most Kurdish fighters seem likely to do anything their party leaders asked them. “I might not agree, but I would obey,” was a common refrain from Kurds of all parties when talking of their leaders.
Their leaders, however, appear more willing to consider further deterioration of the situation. President Barzani went so far as to predict unrest. Abandoning all pretence of a unified front, on April 16, 2015, he warned of renewed Kurdish conflict, saying “a new method of antagonizing the Kurdish nation has appeared, which is through media statements and articles aiming at initiating a civil war in our region, creating chaos and getting us back to the era of two governments.”
The Kurds face significant risks and challenges even after the current threat from the Islamic State is dealt with. Despite the efforts of the Minister of Peshmergas to build mixed brigades, unification of the army has not happened. This is not only affecting the fight against the Islamic State, but has ramifications for regional security in the future. The precarious situation also affects Western governments, which must consider how best to position themselves to pursue their interests after the Islamic State is defeated, and who have many options to pursue in countering its impact. Without a nuanced understanding of the existing conditions, good intentions could actually fuel another round of the factionalism that drove the brakujie and, at worst, draw regional powers into another proxy war.
Hoshang Waziri’s work has appeared in al-Hayat, Assafir, and other Arabic publications, and openDemocracy in English.
Lydia Wilson is a research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford.
1 Euronews, “Iraq: Fleeing Yazidis and Christians Face Desperate Plight,” August 10, 2014. Isabel Coles and Saif Sameer, “Islamic State Advances on Yezidis on Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain,” Reuters, “Video shows scale of Yazidi Suffering on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar,” Daily Telegraph, June 11, 2014.
2 See, for example, an interview with Chief of Staff Fuad Hussein, “Senior Kurdistan Official: IS Was at Erbil’s Gates; Turkey Did Not Help,” Rudaw, September 16, 2014.
3 For more on modern Kurdish history, see David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, (New York: IB Taurus, 2004), and Michael Gunter, Historical Dictionary of the Kurds, (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2004).
4 The Muhabad Republic
5 For more detail see Martin van Bruinessen, “Major Kurdish Organisations of Iraq,” in Middle East Report, 16:141 (July/August, 1986), the Middle East Research and Information Project. FORMAT
6 Gareth Stansfield, Iraqi Kurdistan: Political Development and Emergent Democracy (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 72.
7 Ibid, McDowall.
8 Ibid, Stansfield.
9 Ibid, Stansfield.
10 Personal interview with Minister of Peshmergas Mustafa Sayid Qadir, November 2014.
11 Personal interview, anonymous Asaysh official, November 2014.
12 Personal interview with Minister of Peshmergas Mustafa Sayid Qadir, November 2014, in which he described booby-trapped refrigerator doors, soft drink cans, and even Qur’ans.
13 Iraq Constitution available at www.iraqinationality.gov.iq/attach/iraqi_constitution.pdf.
14 “President Barzani: We’ll Make Kirkuk an Example of Religious and Ethnic Coexistence,” Rudaw, June 27, 2014.
15 “Najmadeen Kareem: This new situation is a golden opportunity but not free of risks,” Kurdistani Nwe, August 7, 2014.
16 Guy Taylor, “Kurdish leader says his people will one day declare independence,” Washington Times, May 6, 2015.
17 See, for example, “Hemn Hawrami: PUK should not allow some people to remove their Party from the Kurdish consensus,” Awene, July 5, 2014. The Barzani family currently occupy the positions of president (Masoud), prime minister (Nechirvan, Masoud’s nephew), head of security (Masrur, Masoud’s son), and various other military and political posts, and also owns large portions of the infrastructure such as mobile phone networks (Sirwan, Masoud’s nephew).
18 Jay Newton-Small, “An Interview with Nechirvan Barzani: Will There Be an Independent Kurdistan?,” Time, December 21, 2012.
19 “PUK official supports Iran’s role in Kurdistan and attacks US and Turkey,” Ekurd Daily, October 30, 2013.
20 Dominique Soguel, “Terrorist or ally? A Kurdish militia joins the fight against the Islamic State,” The Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 2014. Christoph Reuter, “The Drama of Sinjar: Escaping the Islamic State in Iraq,” Der Speigel, August 18, 2014.
21 “Masoud Barzani visits PKK Forces in Makhmour,” Kurd Press, August 14, 2014.
22 “Kurdistan Region sets Aug 20 date for Presidential Election,” Rudaw, June 13, 2015.
23 “KDP says Iraqi Kurdistan requires Massoud Barzani to stay in office,” Ekurd Daily, June 10, 2015.
24 “KDP boycotts Iraqi Kurdistan parliament session over presidency law,” Ekurd Daily, June 23, 2015.
25 “Hemn Hawrami and Jaffer Emniki threatened the Parliament with Blood,” Lvin Magazine, June 25, 2015.
26 Personal interviews with peshmerga along the frontline in Makhmour, Erbil, Suleimania, and Koya, November 2014.
27 Personal interviews with peshmerga along the frontline in Makhmour, Erbil, Suleimania, and Koya, November 2014.