The Middle East has experienced unprecedented violence and chaos since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The de-Baathification of Iraq, initiated by the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer, led to the emergence of political forces that had long been suppressed by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Nine years later, the so-called Arab Spring brought a new, albeit different wave of volatility with the collapse of the region’s ancien regimes.
The bloodiest chapter of the Arab Spring has doubtlessly been the Syrian uprising. As the revolution against Bashar Al-Assad gradually became militarized, the regime lost control of more than half the country. This led to a political vacuum similar to Iraq’s, which was inevitably filled by many competing powers on the ground.
With new political actors like the People’s Protection Units (YPG) taking on more visible roles in Syria and Iraq, there has been a rush by various outlets to try and understand these new groups. Media sources and even analysts have continued to paint whole groups with one broad political brush. One of these groups has been the Kurds.
Spanning a region that broadly covers Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, the Kurdish people are arguably the most politically and religiously diverse ethnic group in the Middle East. Among them are Sunnis, Alevis, Shias, Zoroastrians, and Yazidis, many of whom identify as Marxists, Islamists, conservatives, liberals, pro-Assad, anti-Assad, and even Salafis.
In Syria today, there are various Kurdish factions with different ideologies and goals. One of them is the YPG—a Marxist group with the goal of establishing a Kurdish state in Northern Syria’s Rojava region. The YPG’s political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is run by Saleh Muslim, a man accused by non-Kurdish rebel factions in Syria of being in tacit alliance with Assad. Ironically, Saleh’s brother, Dr. Mustafa Muslim—a religious scholar—has stood ardently against his brother and condemned his implicit links to the Assad regime and his more explicit connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Dr. Muslim has claimed that the PYD only represent ten percent of the Kurdish voice in Syria. Although this is difficult to verify, the YPG has certainly pursued an oppressive political path. For example, it is responsible for shooting peaceful anti-YPG Kurdish protesters, engaging in the ethnic cleansing of non-Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen opposition, and even arresting the political dissident and leader of the Kurdish National Council, Ibrahim Birro.
Furthermore, there are Kurdish factions that are actively embedded within the armed Syrian opposition like the Kurdish Islamic Front and Jabhat Al-Akrad. To further magnify the diversity of the Kurds, there are many who have joined the terror group ISIS. This was evident in the Battle of Kobane, when many Kurdish members of ISIS fought against the YPG. In fact, there were reportedly almost 400 Kurdish soldiers fighting among ISIS during that battle, and it was primarily led by a Kurdish field commander—Abu Khattab Al-Kurdi.
Just like Syria, the Kurds in Iraq are not a monolith. The two primary Kurdish figures in Iraq are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) President Masoud Barazani. Barazani has enjoyed close ties with the Turkish government and has cooperated on political, economic, and on security issues, especially as it pertains to the violence perpetrated by ISIS.
On the other hand, Talabani has enjoyed closer relations with Iran. These divisions between the two Kurdish parties really began to surface recently in 2012 when Barazani pushed to withdraw confidence from the pro-Iranian and sectarian Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, while Talabani heavily opposed this move. Furthermore, there is also a notable Kurdish presence within ISIS’ ranks in Iraq.
The recent government offensive on ISIS-controlled Mosul brought about a counterattack by the group on the Kurdish city of Kirkuk. This caused many analysts, including Dr. Muayad Al-Windawi, a researcher at the Iraqi Center for Strategic Studies, to claim that the ISIS offensive was most likely led by a Kurdish unit––which apparently explains the relative ease by which they were able to infiltrate the city.
Finally, with Turkey, just like with Syria and Iraq, a significant portion of the media narrative has painted the Kurds with one broad brush. In reality, however, there are Kurds who belong to the country’s ruling Conservative party—Justice and Development Party (AKP) (like the deputy prime minister, Mehmet Simsek). The AKP is a very popular party among Kurdish voters. Many times, headlines will paint a clash between the ambiguous “Kurds” and Turkish government when the situation is in fact much more nuanced than that.
Furthermore, the Leftist HDP Party in Turkey is led by a Kurd, Salahettin Demirtas. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has outperformed every other party in Southeast Turkey. Perhaps the most impressive popular party in Kurdish politics is the Islamist Huda Par, which is known for its outstanding support for the Syrian uprising and solidarity work with the Rabaa massacre in Egypt. This is strikingly different than the HDP, whose leader appeared on the pro-Assad Al-Manar TV and voiced support for the Lebanese Hezbollah group and the inclusion of the Assad regime in any potential political transition.
As a result of these ideological differences, clashes between the two have occurred intermittently, with peak violence having occurred in the 1990s, and most recently flaring up again in Turkey’s southeast border with Syria.
The PKK, a left-wing armed Kurdish faction labeled as a terrorist organization by the EU, US, and Turkey, is also alleged to have ties with the HDP. Unlike the HDP, however, the PKK has resorted to armed violence against the Turkish state and has clear ties to its Syrian cousin, the YPG. As a result of the YPG and PKK’s hostile relations with Turkey, they are often extremely suspicious of the KRG’s cozy relations with Ankara, which leads to a breakdown in cooperation.
The unique political circumstances of Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish Kurds all play a role in the intricacies of Kurdish politics. Ultimately, it is important to incorporate and acknowledge the diversity of the Kurdish people and their respective political parties to better understand the current realities facing the wider Middle East.