Barzani vs. PKK: Recipe for Kurdistan’s Second Civil War?

By Diliman Abdulkader:

The first modern Kurdish civil war took place in southern Kurdistan, in what is now the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) territory, between Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The conflict took the lives of nearly 5,000 Kurdish fighters and civilians, dividing the autonomous region between the two powers. The troubled balance of power continues to be a burden today and remains as the core barrier to Kurdish self-rule. However, the rivalry affects not only these two groups, but all Kurdish factions throughout the greater Kurdistan region, including the PYD in Rojava (Syrian-Kurdistan) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Kurdistan (Southeast-Turkey).

The complexity of the PUK-KDP dispute has persisted, but only recently resurfaced. Aside from internal KRG affairs, the rise of Daesh (ISIS) has forced all factions in Kurdistan to scramble for strategic positions, including the presence of the PKK in Shingal (Sinjar in Arabic). It goes without saying that when Daesh first emerged in Shingal, a region inhabited mainly by the Kurdish Yezidi minority, the KDP had an opportunity to save thousands of Yezidis. Instead, Barzani’s forces fled. The failure of the KDP led to the killing and capture of Yezidis, forcing many to flee to Mount Sinjar, with many losing their lives along the way. The gap left by the KDP allowed the PKK to intervene and they were overwhelmingly welcomed by the Yezidi Kurds. Simply put, the Yezedis felt betrayed by Barzani’s KDP.

The current presence of the PKK in Iraq has angered Masoud Barzani, who is in a controversial partnership with Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and demands the removal of the PKK from Shingal. Turkey’s unsolved Kurdish conflict — the state remains at odds with the PKK — has cost 40,000 lives since 1984. Many in the KRG, including the PUK and Gorran (Change Movement), along with the PYD and PKK speculate that Barzani’s demands come from Erdogan himself: that the KDP is acting only as a messenger.

KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani has gone so far as to threaten to resort to military force to push the PKK out of Shingal. In an interview with Al-Monitor, he stated that the “PKK forces in Sinjar will only add to instability in the area and nothing more.” Furthermore, Barzani implied that the KRG may use force, “if matters come to a head and Ankara and Baghdad and other players get drawn in, we too, as the KRG, are players and hold certain cards in our hands.”

YPS in Sinjar

The PM’s comments are in contradiction with Baghdad’s stance. The central government invited the PKK to open an office in the capital, despite the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq. The PM’s statement that the “KRG may use force” neglects the fact that the KRG represents a coalition of parties, including the PUK, a party fundamentally opposed to using force against the PKK. This statement can be interpreted as saying that the KDP, under the order of Erdogan, is willing to use force. Furthermore, the PUK believes that the PKK presence in Shingal is vital in protecting and defending the region. The PKK helped establish the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) to allow Yezidis to protect themselves against Daesh and other enemies. The KDP does not recognize the YBS as legitimate forces largely because they are backed by the PKK.

Barzani’s gamble against the PKK in Iraq has the potential to spark a second civil war in the KRG. The KDP must ensure that all legitimate factions within the KRG are represented and heard rather than using the KRG as a tool to push personal KDP objectives. The KDP also risks losing further trust within the KRG if it continues its path in fulfilling Erdogan’s ambitions in Iraq. Turkey is forcing the KDP to use KRG Peshmerga as an extension an internal Turkish dispute. Deputy prime minister of Turkey, Veysi Kaynak, has threatened to take matters into his own hands if the KRG fails to drive the PKK out of Sinjar.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is not economically or politically capable of intervening in another conflict. If a KDP-PKK encounter does occur, it would be without the support of the PUK and Gorran. The KDP would also take the risk of portraying itself as traitors against Kurds for siding with Turkey, a state that openly imprisons and kills Kurdish civilians within its own borders, as well as in Syria.

Diliman Abdulkader is a Masters student at the School of International Service, American University in Washington DC. He is studying Peace and Conflict Resolution, with a focus on Global Kurdish Studies. He is also a research associate at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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