Tensions between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) once again came to a head when an improvised explosive device (IED) laid by the PKK in the Amedi district of Duhok killed one KDP-affiliated Peshmerga and injured at least one more.
The death followed a dispute between the KDP and PKK forces in Duhok province late last month, when KDP-affiliated forces under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were deployed to areas close to the border with Turkey.
Acrimony between the KDP, the biggest and oldest Kurdistan Region-based party, and the PKK, an armed group that has fought for increased rights for Kurds in Turkey, has existed for decades. Though the most recent statements from the two groups have not endorsed intra-Kurdish fighting, both have said that they will fight the other if they feel compelled to do so. Will there be another civil war, or will lessons be learned from their bloody conflicts of the past?
Relations between the two parties have not always been so tense.
After a military coup in Turkey in 1980, a fledgling PKK was pushed out of the country, forcing the group to send some of its fighters to what is now the Kurdistan Region. The KDP struck a deal with the PKK in 1983, allowing it control of territory in areas bordering Turkey.
In an interview from earlier this year, a senior, veteran member of the PKK said the agreement brought “important achievements” to both parties.
“… [T]he KDP gained a great political achievement from it. The PKK, practically, also made important and developed relations in the framework of the agreement,” PKK Central Committee member Duran Kalkan told Firat News Agency (ANF) in February.
Jalal Talabani, late leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said that both his party and the KDP had offered extensive support to the PKK when it first arrived from Turkey. “When they began their work, all of us – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and our allied brothers from the Kurdistan Democratic Party – helped them a lot in terms of politics, military, money and introduction,” Talabani said at the newly-established Kurdistan Parliament in the early 1990s.
Beginning of tensions
With a territorial base in the Kurdistan Region, the PKK had a safe space in which it could grow in size and ambition, to the KDP’s increasing chagrin. By the 1990s, the PKK was seeking a share in the governance of the Kurdistan Region, but it was sidestepped by the KDP and PUK, who held negotiations to strike a deal.
In the mid-1990s, the KDP and PKK fought a deadly civil war over the control of land, and the KDP joined forces with Turkey to remove the PKK from the Kurdistan Region. While the KDP was able to remove the PKK from towns, the latter was able to maintain their presence in villages and uninhabited areas in the mountains within Kurdistan Region territory.
A year after the arrest and imprisonment of its leader Abdullah Ocalan by Ankara in 1999, the PKK switched its attention to the PUK, waging war against Talabani’s Peshmerga fighters. A former PKK fighter who spoke to Rudaw English on the condition of anonymity said the arrest of Ocalan saw the party move away from a fight based on Marxist and Socialist philosophies to one for survival. He believes that the group’s subsequent wars have been conducted solely “to keep its fighters in action.”
“The PKK failed in Turkey after the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 which disappointed many fighters,” the PKK member of 19 years said. “To keep them fighting, they attacked the PUK in 2000, and now it fights the KDP.”
Relations between both the PKK and PUK have since changed, with the two parties acting as de facto allies. Though the PUK has not militarily provoked KDP-PKK conflict, it has always protested KDP statements and policy about the PKK, and PUK-controlled areas have served as a relatively safe haven for PKK fighters who have left the mountainous areas of KDP-controlled Duhok and Erbil.
While PKK-PUK relations have fluctuated, KDP-PKK relations have remained thorny to this day – mostly blamed on the KDP’s strong relations with Ankara. Overtly, the KDP’s relations are in the fields of oil and other businesses, as part of the KDP-dominated KRG, but the PKK has claimed many times that the KDP has provided Turkish forces with the coordinates of PKK bases. However, the KDP has denied this, saying that their relations with Ankara are merely diplomatic and economic, performed as the KRG – not as the KDP.
In April 2020, tension resurfaced in the form of a standoff over control of a strategic hill in Erbil province’s Zini Warte, when the KDP deployed its Peshmerga forces to the area on the grounds of curbing the spread of coronavirus by controlling the smuggle of people into Erbil province. The issue was seemingly resolved after KDP withdrew its forces, but tension between the PKK and KDP resurfaced in late October, when the KDP redeployed its forces to Duhok province areas bordering Turkey. The KDP said it had only abandoned the area in 2014 so that it could redirect its forces to fight Islamic State (ISIS) on the front lines.
The KDP and PKK traded barbs in the days after the redeployment. On November 2, KDP leader Masoud Barzani accused the PKK of exploiting the war with ISIS to “invade” parts of the Kurdistan Region bordering Turkey, “instead of supporting the Kurdistan Region experiment.”
Barzani also called the intra-Kurdish fighting haram, or religiously forbidden, but he warned that “this position should not be misunderstood and exploited to challenge the legal authority of the Kurdistan Region and impose illegal, military intentions over the people of Kurdistan.”
Later that day, the co-chair of the Executive Council of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella group which includes the PKK, blamed Turkey for the recent tension, and said the country was using the KDP as a weapon in its “war of extermination.”
“The current position of the KDP must be assessed in this context. Turkey wants to destroy all Kurdish achievements. Through the Kurdish genocide it wants to establish a new regime [in the Kurdistan Region] as a Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” said KCK co-chair Bese Hozat.
Hozat warned that collaboration with Turkey against the PKK would be of detriment to all Kurds, erasing any gains made in recent history – including the autonomy of the Kurdistan Region.
“Once the resisting Kurdish forces are smashed, the collaborating Kurds will also be affected. The Kurdish people should not have to experience such a tragedy again.”
Two days after the statements, the IED killed the KDP-affiliated Peshmerga. The KDP described the incident as a direct attack, while the PKK said the IED was in place to defend against a Peshmerga advance in the area. The KDP-led Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), as well as the governments of Iraq, the US and France were among those who condemned the incident as an “attack”.
Between a rock and a hard place
Mohammed Ameen Penjwini is a Kurdish writer, veteran politician and friend of Ocalan known for playing a mediatory role between the PKK and KDP. Penjwini told Rudaw English that Ankara is putting “too much pressure on the KDP to prevent the PKK from staying in these areas,” referring to the Kurdistan Region’s borders with Turkey.
Penjwini believes that the KDP is caught between a rock and a hard place. While the KDP does not want to engage in a full-blown war that would both harm the stability of the Kurdistan Region and irk sections of the Kurdish public, the party also does not want to cut its fruitful relations with Turkey.
Fuat Onen, a Kurdish intellectual in Turkey, believes other countries in the region including Iran and Iraq are adding fuel to the fire while protecting their own interests. “Invading countries like these conflicts – especially Turkey, which wants to make Kurdistan weak and bolster its military presence,” Onen said.
Huseyin Alptekin, an Ankara-based researcher for the pro-government SETA think tank told Rudaw English that Turkey “will not accept” friendlier KDP-PKK relations – instead, Turkey is looking to the party for stronger, military assistance.
“Turkey will not accept a rapprochement between the KDP and PKK. It even wants the KDP to join it in the fight against the PKK,” he said.
Turkey is not short on options when it comes to potential partners in its quest to take down the PKK, Alptekin said.
“It seems that it [Turkey] will work with whichever of Iran, Iraq and the KDP that supports it to fight the PKK. Currently, its closest ally is the KDP.”
Things have been relatively quiet since the deadly IED explosion on November 4; neither side has yet made a statement calling for action against the other.
Kurdish writer Penjwini said that he is among a group of high-profile Kurds, including President of the Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani, commander-in-chief of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces Mazloum Abdi, and PUK co-chairs Bafel Talabani and Lahur Sheikh Jangi Talabany that are part of a mediation process to de-escalate tensions between the feuding parties.
“As per my understanding and what has been seen in the KDP statements, it does not want a civil war,” Penjwini said, and the mediators “are in serious contact to end the tension.”
In the meantime, the KRG could be the body most capable of keeping a somewhat lasting peace between the two parties, Kurdish writer and intellectual Onen said. “The KRG and parliament should discuss the matter and find a solution, rather than keeping it a partisan issue.”
But lasting peace between the two sides is heavily reliant on what Turkey does next. Turkish administrations have used the fight against the PKK as a ready-made distraction for the public from other domestic issues, foreign ministry veteran and former consul general to the Kurdistan Region, Aydin Selcen wrote in an op-ed published by independent Turkish outlet Duvar – so a complete resolution of conflict with the PKK does not look to be a favoured option for the Turkish political establishment.