The Impact of Kobani on the Kurdish Internal Politics

The ISIS offensive towards Kobani in September is likely to change the balance in both the Syrian Problem and the Kurdish politics in the region. In the process that began after ISIS’s operations in Sinjar and Mahmur, with the new strategy under the leadership of the United States, the cards are being reshuffled among the actors in the region, which are rising in number. The weights of the actors in the table are being redefined. However, it seems unlikely in the short term that the balance will be settled due to the influx of new actors in the game. In this period, even though the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) seeks to give an impression that it pursues an integrated policy, it is obvious that it acts separately from the KDP and the PUK. The regional perception of the PKK has been altered when Massoud Barzani’s KDP peshmergas, who were called “paper tigers” after their defeat by the ISIS in Sinjar and Mahmur, retreated from the fight and the PKK was shown as the real fighting power. There has been increasing efforts to legitimize the PKK. The PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, reinforced the PKK’s position when it established dominance and order in the regions where the Kurds live in Syria. However, it seems that the political balance among the Kurds will be altered, since the PYD’s armed militia YPG retreats in the face of the ISIS’s assault towards Kobani. The air operations by the US, which started as of 28 September, in accordance with the US anti-ISIS strategy, may bring some relief to the YPG, who is not able to push back the ISIS assault. For the reason that the ISIS advance continues, there are the buffer zone, safe zone and land operation options on the table. However, these options are unlikely since the ISIS cannot be stopped and the PYD adopts an unwilling approach. This clearly shows the rift between the Kurds. While the PYD is unwilling to allow any foreign military power into its territory, the KDP does not want to send the Peshmerga to Kobani and other Syrian Kurdish settlements. Besides, the approach of the PUK to the Syrian issue is unclear. However, it does not want to remain behind the KDP and seeks to act as if the Kurds move together about the issue of Kobani. However, the support base of the PUK pushes forward for a more active stance for Kobani. The PUK adopted a more assertive discourse following the popular demonstrations in Suleymaniyah, pushing for help for Kobani. Mullah Bahtiyar, a prominent PUK politician, stated that the KRG would spare no sacrifice for Kobani and he would lead the Peshmerga in the fight if needed. The PUK seeks to gain advantages in the Kurdish internal politics to the KDP’s disadvantage, and acquire the initiative by laying the responsibility on the KDP.


Cooperation or Conflict?


Even though the Kurdish internal politics became more pluralistic after 2009, the KDP and the PUK are still the two main executive powers of the region. These two parties define the overall politics. The parties other than the KDP and the PUK are not active in the issues of Kobani and the Syrian Kurds. However, there is one more actor, which is the PKK/PYD. It is hard to differentiate the PKK and the PYD. Even though the Iraqi Kurds seek to uphold a common discourse for Kobani, they form a front against the KDP. It is observed that this dissociation emerged in PYD leader Saleh Muslim’s meeting in Arbil on 12 October with the leaders of the Iraqi Kurdish parties. Even though Saleh Muslim’s visit to Arbil in the second year of the Arbil Agreement is of utmost importance, the PYD does not approve the KDP’s pursuit of influence on the Syrian Kurds. Even though there were statements of Kurdish unity after the two-day meeting, only the PUK and the PYD seem to be in agreement. The fact that the PUK territory in Iraq is far from the Kurdish settlements in Syria limits the PUK’s influence on the Syrian Kurds.           

Besides, the competition between the PKK and the KDP has been going on for a long time. That is because both sides address to the same constituency. This is true both in Turkey and in Iraq. The competition between the PKK and the KDP took place in the past as well. The PKK and the KDP share the same ideological and political views as well. The KDP adopts a stern conservative stance due to its tribal structure, whereas the PUK is close to the PKK. The main element in the compromise between the PUK and the PKK/PYD is their shared leftist tendency. It is widely known that the PKK moves more comfortably in the PUK territories. The cooperation between the PUK and the PKK is on the issue of the fight against the ISIS in Iraq. As it is well known, the KDP’s sphere of influence in Iraq is composed of Arbil, Duhok and the east and west of the province of Mosul. The PUK controls Suleymaniyah and some portions of Kirkuk, Diyala and Salahaddin. Even though the PKK played a great role in fighting against the ISIS in Sinjar and Mahmur, the PKK is known to do it for exposing the KDP’s weakness and replacing it in these regions, rather than helping it. This situation is particularly for the benefit of the PUK, who loses influence in the internal politics. Even though the PUK conducts the KRG politics with the KDP, the struggle for leadership still continues and the PUK is discontent with the power of the KDP. That is why the weakening of the KDP empowers the PUK. The resistance of the PKK and the PUK against the ISIS around Kirkuk is a clear sign of their cooperation. Therefore it is possible that they will cooperate in Kobani as well. The general opinion in the region is that the KDP seeks to help Kobani, not for helping the PYD but in order to expand its influence among the Syrian Kurds. That is why there is reluctance towards the KDP. This is the reason why the PUK and the PKK move to close the ranks. The demonstration in Kirkuk about Kobani on 9 October is a clear sign of this attitude. It is intriguing that the KDP was absent at that demonstration. The polarization works its way along the regional actors as well.


The Conflict on Kobani over Turkey


It is a fact that Turkey acts moderately on this issue. It seeks to protect its border and territorial security, without directly interfering in the Kobani problem. However, the fact that the fighting takes place just across the border and it causes civil unrest in Turkey is worrying for Turkey. Turkey is on the side of the status quo in terms of the regional equation. Turkey’s current policy is clearly shown in its developing relations with the KRG, particularly the KDP. Howver, Turkey’s approach receives criticism from both the KDP and the PUK. Thus, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani criticized Turkey’s refusal to weapons aid to the Kurd fighting the ISIS and rebuked that Turkey does not give sufficient support. It seems that the local people’s confidence in Turkey has been broken. The media outlets of the PKK and PUK published heavy criticisms of the KDP for its relations with Turkey. The PUK officials openly criticize the KDP and call for reviewing their relations with it. The official demand of the KRG to move the Peshmerga through the Turkish territory lays the responsibility on the KDP which has good relations with Turkey. Mulla Bahtiyar, in its abovementioned statement, has told that Turkey has to allow the peshmerga because they have geographical and political difficulties. He criticized Turkey for its silent attitude and blames the KDP for Turkey’s approach. Here,          the message is clearly transmitted to Turkey and the KDP. At this point, the KDP has its back against the wall. It translated its relations with Turkey to long term economic and political investment. It does not want to revert that. However, it feels the pressure in terms of the internal policy. From this point of view, the KDP’s performance at this stage will be decisive for the regional equation. As of the current situation, the PUK and the PKK have advantages compared to the KDP. However, for the reason that the PUK territory and power base is distant from the Syrian border, where the KDP is active, the PKK/PYD might be once again forced into reconciliation with the KDP. The PYD does not want to lose the power it acquired in Syria. Thus, the word in the KRG is that the PYD has accepted the peshmerga deployment in the Kurdish settlements in Syria. Turkey’s attitude in this process will be decisive as well. It recently allowed the passage of a KRG parliamentary delegation into Kobani. The fact that the passage was realized after the KRG’s third proposal shows Turkey’s key role on the issue. If the situation in Kobani continues and the ISIS is not hindered, the PUK and the PKK/PYD might lessen their discourse toward Turkey.

The original analysis was published in Al Jazeera Turkish website on 17 October 2014.