Kurdish Seams Threaten Anti-ISIS Coalition in Iraq and Syria

By Christopher Kozak with Leah Danson and Howlader Nashara

The U.S. Anti-ISIS Campaign has inadvertently emboldened select factions of Kurds in Iraq and Syria in a manner that threatens to exacerbate preexisting political and ethnic divisions, stoke regional conflict, and disrupt current momentum against ISIS. The U.S. has provided extensive military assistance to both the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Iraqi Kurdish Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as indispensable partners in the Anti-ISIS Campaign, enabling both groups to consolidate their control over large swaths of terrain outside of the regions traditionally held by Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The empowerment of these factions in turn revitalized nationalist aspirations within Kurdistan. The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) – a political coalition led by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – declared the establishment of an autonomous Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava in March 2016. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani has become increasingly vocal regarding the possibility of formal independence from Iraq. This wave of nationalism has also reinvigorated insurgencies against the state among the sizeable populations of Kurds in Turkey and Iran.

This nationalist upheaval raises the likelihood that historic tensions along any number of established seams – both among competing factions of Kurds as well as between Kurds, Arabs, and Turks – could erupt into open conflict over the near-term. These long-standing seams include:

  • Turkey – PKK: The insurgency waged by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Eastern Turkey resumed in July 2015. The PKK – and an offshoot organization called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) – have conducted a steady campaign of major bombings across Southern Turkey as well as Istanbul and Ankara. The PKK maintains outposts and headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq that Turkey has repeatedly targeted in cross-border operations.
  • Turkey – PYD: Turkey launched an intervention against ISIS in Northern Syria called Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 in large part to prevent further expansion along the Syrian-Turkish Border by the PYD, which Turkey considers to be an extension of the PKK. Opposition groups backed by Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield have engaged in intensifying clashes with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a military coalition dominated by the armed wing of the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish YPG. These clashes could escalate into open conflict as both the YPG and Turkey attempt to seize control over the key town of Al-Bab in Northern Aleppo Province, undermining coalition operations spearheaded by the SDF to isolate and seize Ar-Raqqa City from ISIS.
  • KDP – PUK: The dominant position held by the KDP in Northern Iraq has fueled a political crisis within the KRG between the KDP and its political rivals, including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran. President Barzani has leveraged the current security situation to retain his position long past the expiration of his already-extended term in August 2015, spurring mass outcry from opposition parties and the effective collapse of the government. The KRG remains unable to address critical challenges, including a crippling financial crisis, amidst this political paralysis. Low-level partisan violence also threatens to escalate over the medium-term.  The KDP and PUK previously fought an intense civil war in the mid-1990s.
  • KRG – Iraq: The relationship between the KRG and Baghdad continues to suffer from persistent disagreements over sensitive political issues, including the structure of oil and natural gas revenue-sharing as well as the distribution of government portfolios to Iraqi Kurds. The ongoing financial crisis in Iraq has exacerbated these tensions and widened the division between the two sides, providing fuel to calls for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. At the same time, the current occupation of key regions in Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala Provinces by the Iraqi Peshmerga risks the eruption of future conflict over the long-term status of the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) contested between Baghdad and Arbil
  • PYD – Syria: The relationship between the PYD and Damascus remains tense despite reports of deepening cooperation between the two sides against opposition forces in Northern Syria. The regime has thus far tolerated the formation of an unofficial autonomous zone run by the PYD in Northern Syria in order to concentrate its forces on other battlefronts. The regime nonetheless remains unlikely to cede its sovereignty to this autonomous zone over the long-term. The PYD has engaged in minor clashes with pro-regime forces inside their remaining outposts in Hasaka City and Qamishli in Hasaka Province. These tensions set the stage for future conflicts that could erode coalition gains against ISIS in Eastern Syria.
  • Kurds – Arabs: Both the Syrian YPG and the Iraqi Peshmerga face mounting resistance from local Sunni Arab populations as the fight against ISIS carries the Kurds outside of their traditional ethnic strongholds. Opposition groups, tribal fighters, and unidentified insurgents regularly conduct attacks against the YPG and Peshmerga in regions dominated by Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, human rights groups have accused the YPG and Peshmerga of conducting ethnic cleansing and other heavy-handed repressive acts against Sunni Arabs in order to punish locals for their alleged support of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadist groups. These incidents usually occur along historical fault lines where previous regimes in both countries attempted to alter ethnic demographics in order to favor Sunni Arabs over Kurds.
  • KDP – PYD: The Syrian PYD and Iraqi KDP maintain their own political rivalry as both factions compete to cultivate allies and remove potential competitors across the entirety of the terrain held by Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The KDP backs an affiliated political branch called the KDP-S in Northern Syria that suffers from routine arrests and repression by the PYD. The KDP also hosts several thousand fighters from political factions opposed to the PYD - the so-called ‘Syrian Peshmerga’ – in Northern Iraq.  Meanwhile, the Syrian PYD and PKK have both deployed forces to Sinjar in Northern Iraq in an attempt to establish their own local base of support. This competition could escalate into open conflict over the long-term.
  • Kurds – Iran: Kurdish separatists affiliated with both the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Iran-Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) escalated their attacks against security forces in Western Iran beginning in May 2016. These groups largely operate from bases in Iraqi Kurdistan across the Iraqi-Iranian Border. Although the current level of violence does not threaten the stability of the Government of Iran, the attacks will likely strain relations between Iraq and Iran.

The eruption of a conflict along one or more of these seams would directly undermine the Anti-ISIS Campaign in Iraq and Syria. The coalition remains over-reliant upon the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga for military gains against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Any outbreak of violence that fragments the coalition and turns coalition actors against one another – either politically or militarily – threatens to stall ongoing operations against Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa City in Syria. These seams also stand to fuel the widespread regional disorder that provides optimal safe haven to ISIS, al Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Anti-ISIS Campaign risks the long-term failure of its mission to degrade and destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria if the coalition proves unable to reduce tensions along these seams and rebalance its campaign to incorporate a wider variety of partner forces on the ground.