Are Kurds seeing calm before the storm?

Conflicts in Syria, Turkey and Iraq threaten to undo Kurdish gains over the past two years.

Kurdish fighters from the People''s Protection Unit
Kurdish YPG fighters gather after taking control of an area from ISIL militants in Hasaka province, Syria, in November 2015. [Reuters]

When protesters stormed Iraq’s parliament on September 30, a Kurdish news team from Rudaw found themselves reporting live in the midst of the chaos. A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier outside the parliament told them that protesters “had kissed [him] and given [him] flowers. It’s very peaceful.” It was a momentary gesture in a region that has become increasingly fractured along sectarian lines.

Kurds have been seeking greater independence and autonomy throughout the region in the last hundred years in the wake of what many complain were European-imposed colonial borders that ignored their rights.

Since the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in 2014, the Kurdish regions in Syria and Iraq have found their areas largely cut off from the central government.

This has brought widespread hopes for a Kurdish referendum on independence in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, and a federal structure in Syria that would preserve the Kurds’ hard-fought rights.

Conflicting interests

But a series of incidents in recent weeks have threatened to undo Kurdish gains and are a foreshadowing of worse to come if the differing Kurdish political groups cannot navigate the competing agendas in the region.

Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Cemil Bayik told the BBC that they are willing to escalate the conflict with Turkey that has killed thousands.

Across the border in Syria’s Qamishli clashes between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ended on April 23 with dozens of casualties.

The objective for Kurds must be to build stable institutions and seek international support, while not falling into the trap of internecine fighting.

In Iraq, conflict between Kurds and Shia Turkmen in Tuz Khurmatu, about 170km north of Baghdad, boiled over last week.

These conflicts are all interconnected. Turkey’s ruling party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have amicable relations with KRG leader Massoud Barzani, while Turkey views both the PKK and YPG as “terrorist” organisations.

While the PKK operates from bases in Iraq, it is widely resented among members of Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) who recall the bitter years of civil conflict with it in the 1990s.

There is also a frigid coexistence between the KRG and the YPG-dominated Kurdish areas of Syria. For instance, a border crossing between Kurdish Iraq and Syria has been closed for more than a month.

Three international volunteers for the YPG were briefly detained in mid-April in the KRG while trying to travel home to the United Kingdom and Ireland. The message was clear: the days of an open border are behind us.

Complex situation

At the very moment when Kurds are the most empowered, they face major obstacles. In Turkey the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) made it into parliament in 2015, only to see the breakdown of the ceasefire with the PKK lead to massive conflict throughout eastern Turkey. There seems little interest on both sides in reducing this conflict.

In Syria the Assad government will move to neuter Kurdish aspirations if it defeats the Syrian rebels with help from Iran and Russia.

Iraq's KRG President Massoud Barzani [Reuters]Iraq’s KRG President Massoud Barzani [Reuters]

Yet here we find Russia politically supporting the Syrian Kurds, and Turkey unsurprisingly attempting to keep them from gaining any ground or playing a role in peace talks.

Syrian rebel groups accuse the Kurds of collaborating with Assad, even though the two forces have come to blows in Qamishli, where Assad’s forces still control the airport and a small enclave.

That puts the YPG in the unenviable position of being disliked by both sides in the conflict while it still fights a brutal war against ISIL.

In Iraq, the KRG is fearful of Iranian attempts to undermine moves towards independence. Iran has a deep influence over the Shia militias such as Hashd al-Shaabi and in Baghdad.

OPINION: Kurds – pawns and kings in Syria and Iraq?

In the lead-up to the liberation of Mosul from ISIL, the Kurds have been clear that they prefer a Sunni Arab militia such as the Turkish-backed Hashd al-Watani – which is led by the former Mosul governor – to re-conquer the city.

They don’t want Iranian-backed Shia militias in Mosul, which they view as an attempt to surround Kurdistan. Saudi Arabia has been growing closer to the KRG over this issue as well, because of fears of Iranian encroachment throughout the region.

A Kurdish spring?

There was a kind of Kurdish spring in the Middle East in the past few years, bolstered by military successes against ISIL.

The US has dispatched military missions to both the KRG and Syria’s Rojava in recognition of these achievements.


But when Kurds talk independence or federalism, the US administration is quick to oppose further gains.

The objective for Kurds must be to build stable institutions and seek international support, while not falling into the trap of internecine fighting.

This means finding accommodation in Turkey, patching up differences between the YPG and KRG and frustrating Iran’s growing power without open conflict or allowing Iran to harm the KRG economically.

As a post-ISIL region comes into shape, the Kurds can play an essential role for the first time in 100 years to heal the region’s difficulties.

Seth J Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based commentator on Middle East politics and has lectured in American studies at Al-Quds University. He has just returned from fieldwork in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.