March 2, 2018

Kurds: “Twilight Zone” — 2018

Vadym Volokhov

Kurds are people who live mainly in the Taurus and Zagros Mountains in the Kurdistan region (the territories of the South-East of Turkey, the West of Iran, the North of Iraq and the North-East of Syria) and in Azerbaijan, Armenia and other countries. In the world Kurds are characterized by the cliché of the most numerous and scattered among different countries people. They have neither their own state nor a single political organization.

By religion, Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims, although there are also Shiites, Alawites, Yazidis, and to a lesser extent Christians.

At present, there are at least 40 million Kurds. Most of them are settled in the Kurdistan region. Almost 2.5 million Kurds live in countries of Europe and America, where they have formed quite strong and organized communities. However, Kurds do not lose hope and continue to struggle for their independence and creation of an independent state — Kurdistan.


For a long time, Iraqi Kurds have been fighting for their independence with arms. Saddam Hussein's regime conducted policy of genocide against Kurds. Thus, 25 thousand Kurds died as a result of a chemical attack in Halabja, March 16–17, 1988.

At the final stage of the Iraqi-Iranian war in 1987–1988, S. Hussein conducted the “purge” of Kurdistan, known as the “al-Anfal campaign”. 182 thousand Kurds were removed by the military trucks and killed, and another 700 thousand were deported from Kurdistan to special camps; by 1991, of 5 thousand settlements in Kurdistan, 4,5 thousand were destroyed. Villages and small towns were destroyed by bulldozers; to make the environment unfit for habitation, forests were cut down, concrete was poured into wells.

Victims of the “al-Anfal campaign” Victims of the “al-Anfal campaign”
Victims of the “al-Anfal campaign” Victims of the “al-Anfal campaign”
In 1987–1988 S. Hussein conducted the “purge” of Kurdistan, known as the “al-Anfal campaign”

However, in recent years, the Iraqi Kurds managed to gain broad autonomy, and after the overthrow of S. Hussein's regime, Secretary General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Kurd, Jalal Talabani became the sixth President of Iraq (2005–2014).

Iraqi Kurds have always set the tone for Kurdish nationalism, fighting with the governments of Baghdad all the 20th century through. After decades of wars, the Iraqi Kurds got a quasi-national formation in the northern part of Iraq. This, eventually happened as a result of two US-led military campaigns in Iraq. The regional government of Kurdistan has many features of the state, but its institutions are weak and split by internal confrontation.

Despite all the threats against holding a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, on September 25, 2017, almost 93 % of Kurds voted for independence. The transformation of the de facto independence of Kurdistan into de jure one, of course, could trigger a chain reaction of the collapse of all Iraq. Besides, the Kurds who had to withdraw from Iraq could take along not only the territory of Kurdistan itself, but also those lands that were liberated by the Kurdish “Peshmerga” during the war against the “Islamic State” (ISIS), especially Kirkuk and Sinjar, inhabited mainly by Yazidis.

But it was not meant to be! The Kurds were half a step from the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. The reason for the loss of hope was unity. Rather, its absence.

Territory lost by Kurds in Iraq since October 16, 2017
Territory lost by Kurds in Iraq since October 16, 2017

The Iraqi government's response was quick and rigorous: after the referendum, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sent federal troops to the disputed territories in order to regain Baghdad's control over them. Iraq lost those areas more than three years ago when the Iraqi army fell apart under the onslaught of the ISIS. In October 2017, already after the return of the Kirkuk oil fields, Iraqi forces continued their offensive, gaining huge areas of “disputed territories” in northern and eastern Iraq, the size of which is larger than the territory the Kurds seized in 2014.

President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani quickly realized that the allies once again betrayed him, and the enemies were united against the Iraqi Kurds. Iran, which for a long time opposed any steps towards Iraq's collapse, mobilized some of the Shia militant groups that he trained and equipped against the Kurdish forces on the side of the Iraqi Army. Turkey, M. Barzani's ally, concerned that separatist sentiments could spread to its own Kurdish population, threatened to close the border with Iraq along the Kurdish region and stayed aside when Iran agreed on a military alliance that allowed the government of Baghdad to oppose the Kurds.

“The question of Kurdistan's independence is closed”, Iraqi Prime Minister H. al-Abadi announced in the evening of October 17, 2017. A few hours before that, M. Barzani called on the Kurds to unite. “The people of Kurdistan, that has a mighty of the brave, will sooner or later reach its rightful and sacred goal”, he promised.


Kurdish military units have made a great contribution to defeating the ISIS in Syria. Just a few months ago, it appeared that the Kurds of Iraq and Syria were the greatest winners in this war. Supported by alliances with Western countries, they so much hoped for of removing historical injustice, when geopolitical maneuvering deprived them from creating their own state after the First World War. However, instead of becoming the masters of their new independent state, they have suffered a major setback. The United States and their allies who used the Kurds with enthusiasm in the war against jihadists are nevertheless in no hurry to give a long-term military or diplomatic support and, of course, did not support the Kurdish statehood.

Kurdish leaders have always been aware of this insidiousness, but nevertheless agreed to continue to participate in this alliance, hoping for a fair reward for their victims — thousands of lost lives and huge amounts of money that have not been invested into the development of Kurdish regions.

This approach has caused deep frustration among the Kurdish community. The Kurds are disappointed that the “Peshmerga” forces fought for the liberation of numerous Arab cities, while most Kurdish districts still suffer from lack of normal living conditions.

For their part, US officials have long opposed any change in the borders of the Middle East, fearing to face the “domino effect”, as well as any step that could undermine the central government of Iraq and lead to its collapse.

Restoration of the Iraqi government's control over the oil fields around Kirkuk caused a greater blow to the aspirations of the Kurds than the loss of the city itself. Oil is crucial for their claim for independence: it provides a flow of income that gives the mechanism of economic influence on their neighbors. Losing control of these areas means that they need to return to Baghdad again. The actions of the Iraqi government continue to show that it intends to regain full control over the Kurdish region.

Both, Western and Kurdish analysts and politicians believe that M. Barzani has made two mistakes that have led to the current dangerous situation. The first miscalculation was the assumption that the United States would support the Kurds who chose to achieve state independence. Kurdish leaders are convinced that they once again proved their credibility as US allies, and even began to position Kurdistan as a true partner in the region. Kurdish leaders have also long been relying on their support for democratic principles of the statehood, arguing that they have become a model in this regard for the whole of the Middle East since 2003. They never forget about the protection of ethnic minorities and more than a million internally displaced Iraqis in the Kurdish region. And they reasonably argue that their aspiration to statehood is no less legitimate than Americans' aspirations during the  independence war in 18th century and that they can also take advantage of the peoples' right to self-determination, which is enshrined in international law.

Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani at a meeting in Erbil, 2009
Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani at a meeting in Erbil, 2009

The fact that the Kurds' actions proved to be failing is partly due to M. Barzani's second miscalculation, the reason for which is much closer to the internal situation in the region. An uncomfortable fact is that Kurdish leaders love to say that they have built a flourishing democratic bastion in the predominantly monarchical Middle East, but in reality they have never done so. After the fall of the S. Hussein's regime, two major Kurdish parties, Masoud Barzani's  “Kurdistan Democratic Party” (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's “Patriotic Union of Kurdistan” (PUK), did not send their energy to create capable institutions that ensure the rule of law or to diversify the economy. Instead, they used oil money to enrich themselves, their families and their own party cadres. The “scorched earth” tactic, used by the ISIS in the campaign through northern Iraq in June 2014, changed the situation. The struggle against the common threat gave M. Barzani some “political rest”, justified the closure of the Kurdish parliament and allowed him to extend the term of office as the president of the region.

The party's leadership was replaced by his personal ruling. The front line with the ISIS in the areas controlled by the KDP and PUK was managed by a network of political, military and business leaders, mostly associated with party leaders through personal or family relationships. Getting benefits from the war by a small group of leaders undermined the Kurds' political system. Government ministers belonging to opposition parties had fewer powers than the KDP or PUK officials in the same ministries.


The second, over the past five months, devastating blow to the Kurdish project of creating an independent state was Turkey's “Olive Branch” military operation in the Kurdish Canton of Afrin. January 20, 2018, Turkey's army began its offensive on the Syrian Kurdistan, destroying Kurd's aspirations for a federation as a maximum, and for a wide autonomy as a minimum.

Anyway, we already see that the “buffer zone” has been actually created between the Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. Along with this, the Turkish troops have taken control of the Russian zone in the province of Idlib and are getting trenched in it. This creates a zone separating pro-Turkish forces from the units of “Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham” and “Free Syrian Army” (FSA). This once again clearly shows that the Russians have exchanged Idlib for Afrin. Turkey will clear the Canton of Afrin from the “Kurdistan Workers’ Party” (PKK), create a “buffer zone” on the border with Syria, while the B. Assad’s regime will again send military police and mercenaries to the part of Afrin’s territory that will remain after the Turks.

Regrettably, at the moment there is an active trade around Afrin. Syrian Kurds are negotiating with B. Assad and with Tehran on sending their forces to the enclave. The Kurds “put up for sale” the Conoco gas plant in Deir ez-Zor, producing about 5 billion cubic meters of gas per year. It was because of this plant that Russian mercenaries lost 300 of their fighters, to say nothing of the wounded and missing. The autonomy of the Kurdish armed forces should be the price for the support.

B. Assad's regime insists on the transfer of Kurdish armed forces under his full control. Besides, Damascus demands from the Kurds to disarm the YPG and to return the schools, hospitals, and the entire social and public infrastructure. It is not yet known what the parties have agreed on, but Syrian television has already informed about B. Assad's forces having been sent to Afrin.

Tehran does not have enough influence on the Kurds, but is very interested in expanding the territories under control at the expense of Afrin. This would give it new opportunities for further negotiations, but on the other hand, in Tehran, they understand that this can complicate the already very difficult relationship with Moscow.

Washington and Ankara are actively negotiating not only on Afrin but also on another city — Manbij. Turkey has offered the United States to establish a joint control over the city, to withdraw Kurds to the other bank of the Euphrates and to “squeeze out” Russians from this part of Syria.


To better understand the reasons for the defeat of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, we must look into some decades ago, get into the time when the Kurdish triumvirate was created.

Masoud Barzani, Abdullah Ocalan and Jalal Talabani
Masoud Barzani, Abdullah Ocalan and Jalal Talabani

It is well known that the Kurdish politics are shaped by the leaders of the Kurdish movement Abdullah Ocalan and his “Kurdistan Workers' Party” (PKK), Masoud Barzani and controlled by him “Kurdistan Democratic Party” (KDP), as well as the “Patriotic Union of Kurdistan” (PUK), led by the former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.


October 3, 2017, Jalal Talabani died at the age of 83 and was buried in Sulaymaniyah on the Dabashan hill. Kosrat Rasul Ali was elected acting leader of the “Patriotic Union of Kurdistan” (PUK). The election of the party's General Secretary will take place at the PUK's congress, scheduled for March 5, 2018.

A. Ocalan's and M. Barzani's political organizations act not only in Turkey and Iraq but also throughout the ethnic Kurdistan. Thus, under the guise of the “Kurdistan Communities Union” (KCK) controlled by A. Ocalan, the “Kurdistan Workers' Party” (PKK) operates in Turkey, “Democratic Union Party” (PYD) — in Syria, “Kurdistan Free Life Party”(PJAK) — in Iran, “Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party” (PCDK) — in Iraq.

M. Barzani controls the activity of the “Kurdistan Democratic Party” (KDP) in Iraq and also has great influence on such parties and organizations as “Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria” (KDPS) and “Kurdish National Council” (KNC or ENKS) in Iran, “Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan” (PDKI or KDPI) in Iran and “Kurdistan Democratic Party-Turkey” (PDK-T or PDK/Bakur) in Turkey.

The armed groups of these organizations are mainly concentrated on the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Often, conflicts of various kinds arise between them, and international conferences are held to address them, with the participation of leaders of Kurdish movements and parties from around the world. The latest such conference was held in 2009, the next was scheduled for 2013 in Erbil, but never happened due to disagreements between A. Ocalan and M. Barzani.


In 2013, M. Barzani began to work closely with future Turkish President R. Erdogan and met with him in the city of Diyarbakir, which is considered a stronghold of the “Kurdistan Workers' Party” (PKK). Shortly before, M. Barzani declined the invitation from the “Peace and Democracy Party” (BDP) controlled by A. Ocalan to come to celebrate the Kurdish New Year (Nowruz), and A. Ocalan accused M. Barzani of conspiring with R. Erdogan.

M. Barzani and R. Erdogan at a meeting in Diyarbakir, Turkey, November 16, 2013
M. Barzani and R. Erdogan at a meeting in Diyarbakir, Turkey, November 16, 2013

The relationship between A. Ocalan and M. Barzani is still very tense in Syria as well. Followers of the “Democratic Union Party” (PYD) want A. Ocalan to be the leader of the entire region. Ankara is struggling to prevent the growth of A. Ocalan's popularity in Syria and to all conferences of the “Syrian National Coalition” invites exclusively representatives of the “Kurdish National Council” (KNC), which is controlled by M. Barzani.

In the summer of 2015, in the Syrian Kurdistan, the PYD arrested a number of members of the led by M. Barzani KDPS and KNC, who later were all released. The reason for the arrests was the new stage of the confrontation between A. Ocalan and M. Barzani. In particular, this was due to the fact that the PYD refused to let the “Rojava Peshmerga” units (armed with the help of the United States and consisted of Syrian Kurds) to the territory of Syria. The PYD insisted that they had been in the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan for a long time and that they had nothing to do with Syria. Over the last few years, unfortunately, there have been many cases of misunderstandings and even armed clashes between the PYD and “Peshmerga” units controlled by A. Ocalan and M. Barzani.

Now let us analyze the situation with the Kurds in the countries of their compact settlement.



Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurdistan

Ethnic Iraqi Kurdistan covers Provinces/Governorates (Muhafazah) Erbil, Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, as well as the Khanaqin District in Diyala Governorate, Sinjar and Makhmur Districts in Nineveh Governorate , with the area of 80,000 square kilometers and the total population of about 6 million people, which is 1/6 of the territory and 1/4 of the population of Iraq. The “Kurdistan Region” itself covers only the first three Governorates with a territory of 38,000 square kilometers and population of 3.5 million people. The remaining territories are the “disputed territories”, although it was supposed to hold a referendum at the end of 2007 to determine their status. The actual status of these areas is also ambiguous, so they cannot be named parts of the “Kurdistan Region” or excluded from it, but are rather — dependent on it territories. Kirkuk is in a special status, the positions of the Kurdish parties there are also quite strong, but among the local non-Kurdish population (Arabs and Turks) there are strong anti-Kurdish sentiments.

Ankara watched the Kurds achievements in the North of Iraq in the 1990s and early 2000s with concern, dreading the spread of this process to the Kurdish minority in Turkey, as well as the collapse of Iraq itself. However, by 2007, Iraqi Kurdistan, and in particular M. Barzani, had turned from an enemy into an ally of Turkey. Ankara was able to influence the Iraqi Kurds, in particular because of its broad economic presence in the region. Turkey had an effective way to block any Iraqi Kurdistan movement towards independence, and was able to use the KDP in its struggle against the PKK. The referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, held in September 2017, however, caused tensions between the government of the region and Turkey, which coordinated with Iran and Iraq the response to prevent implementation of Kurdish ambitions.

KDP and PKK are the main rivals for leadership in the Kurdish nationalist movement. The PUK and the Gorran movement are closer to the PKK. These alliance ties are also extrapolated to the struggle in Syria. KDP sides with Turkey in the struggle against the “Democratic Union Party” (PYD) in Syria and its armed wing — “People's Protection Units” (YPG). Instead, PUK and Gorran, which are closer to Iran, support PYD/YPG.


Today, the following Kurdish organizations operate on the territory of the Iraqi Kurdistan:

  • Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (Partî Çareserî Dîmukratî Kurdistan, PCDK or KDSP)
  • Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)
  • Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)
  • Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)
  • Movement for Change (Gorran)
  • Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC)
  • Sinjar Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedanа Şingal, YBS)
  • Protection Force of Sinjar (Hêza Parastina Şingal, HPŞ)
  • Êzidxan Women's Units (Yekinêyen Jinên Êzidxan, YJÊ)
  • Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)
  • Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)
As a result of the war, the territory of the Iraqi Kurdistan was divided into two parts
As a result of the war, the territory of the Iraqi Kurdistan was divided into two parts

The KDP actively fought against S. Hussein's regime, and in 1991, together with the PUK, organized an uprising, after which established control over the whole territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. Following the results of the election, the KDP won 51 % and the PUK 49 % of the Kurds' votes. In 1994, due to disagreements between the parties, the conflict grew into in the civil war that lasted until 1998. As a result of the war, the territory of the Iraqi Kurdistan was divided into two parts: the northern one, which was under the control of the KDP, with the center in Erbil, and the southern part with the center in Sulaymaniyah under the control of the PUK.

In the 2005 elections, the parties received an equal number of votes, which became the reason for their uniting. With M. Barzani's support, J. Talabani became the President of Iraq, and M. Barzani himself became President of the Iraqi Kurdistan. However, the influence of the parties remains in the conventionally divided territories. The interests of the PKK are represented through the KDSP affiliated with it.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, there are now only two parties from the whole coalition of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG): “Kurdistan Democratic Party” (KDP) and “Patriotic Union of Kurdistan” (PUK). The regional government was formed in 1991 immediately after the first Gulf War. There is no unity between the parties on many issues, including the issue of holding elections to the Kurdish parliament. The KDP leader, Khasraw Goran, is in favor of holding them on May 12 this year, along with parliamentary elections in Iraq. The PUK (18 seats out of 111 MPs of the Kurdish parliament) insists on holding elections in September 2018, four months later of national elections.

Kurdistan parties Gorran (the second-largest parliamentary party), “Kurdistan Islamic Union” (KIU) and “Islamic Group (Komal)” withdrew from the Kurdistan Regional Government in late December 2017 – early January 2018. The KIU's leader Salahadin Bahadin, during the press conference after announcing his withdrawal from the government of Kurdistan, said on January 16, 2018, that he and his party were ready to cooperate with the government, but “moral duty” did not allow that. “Lack of respect between the parties makes the work of the government hopeless,” he added. The talks of Prime Minister of Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani and his deputy, Qubad Talabani, with the KIU's leader were fruitless.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)'s leader Salahadin Bahadin at the press conference on January 16, 2018
The Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)'s leader Salahadin Bahadin
at the press conference on January 16, 2018

Today, the KDP (38 seats) and the PUK (18), along with MPs from the Christian and Turkmen minorities, constitute a majority in the Kurdish parliament. The Gorran (23 seats), Komal (6) and KIU (10) form an official opposition in the parliament.



Areas of high Kurdish population in Iran
Areas of high Kurdish population in Iran

Iranian or Eastern Kurdistan is in the northwest of Iran. Ethnic Kurds comprise about 10 % of the total population of Iran — 7 million people. The provisional capital of the Iranian Kurdistan is the city of Mehabad. Kurds inhabit the Provinces (Ostans) of Ilam, Kermanshah, Kurdistan and Western Azerbaijan, as well as neighboring districts of Hamadan and Zanjan Provinces. Kurdish settlements are also scattered over the rest of Iran. The especially large area of the compact settlement of the Kurds lies in the North Khorasan, where Shah Abbas I in the 17th century settled militant Kurdish tribes to defend from Turkmens and Khiva Khanate.

The integration processes that took place in the monarchic Iran, also affected the nature of interethnic relations. Before the overthrow of the Shah's regime in 1979, a certain convergence of nationalities inhabiting the country was guaranteed by the policy of Iranian nationalism. It was aimed at the destruction of traditional forms of social relations, formation of the social structure and economy characteristic of the capitalist society, the spread of all-Iranian forms of culture, introduction of the Persian language in all spheres of life. Today, Tehran's policy on the Kurds is considered to be the toughest as compared with the policies of all its neighboring countries.

The Turkish “Party of Rights and Freedoms” (HAK-PAR) has recently argued that Tehran is taking some measures to split Iraqi Kurdistan and turn a part of it into its base. For this purpose, Iran is widely using the Shia militant groups, which in October last year were actively fighting against the Kurds.

Interestingly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has called on Ankara to stop the “Olive Branch” military operation in the Kurdish Canton of Afrin. His sharp statement with the elements of the threat is due to an exacerbation of contradictions between the two countries in Syria. The matter is that in parallel to the offensive of Turkish troops in Syria, the Iranian-Syrian forces are attacking Idlib, where Turkey has an interest. The armed clashes between the units of pro-Turkish forces and Iranian-Assadian troops show that the situation is becoming tense and the struggle for the sphere and the territory of influence is getting worse.


Today, the following Kurdish organizations operate on the territory of Iran:

  • Kurdistan Free Life Party (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê, PJAK)
  • East Kurdistan Defense Units (Yekîneyên Rojhilatê Kurdistan, YRK)
  • Women's Defence Forces (Hêzên Parastina Jinê, HPJ)
  • East Kurdistan Free and Democratic Society (Doğu Kürdistan Özgürlük Örgütü, KODAR)
  • Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI or KDPI)
  • Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KOMALA)
  • Freedom Party of Kurdistan (Partiya Azadîya Kurdistan, PAK)

 Is the Question of Kurdistan's Independence Closed? Part 2