On April 22, the current President of the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan ordered that hospitals in Iraq be prepared to take those injured during recent clashes over the border in Syria. Massoud Barzani was referring to anyone injured in fighting between the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad, and forces belonging to the Syrian Kurds who had been in control of Qamishlo almost since the Syrian civil war began.
The fighting marked the first real outbreak of hostilities between the Syrian regime and the Syrian Kurdish, who had declared the area an autonomous zone. However this was not the first time that the head of one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most powerful parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, had offered help to his neighbours. This is even though, in the recent past, the two forces have fought each other.
In late 2014, Iraqi Kurdish military went to the Syrian town of Kobani to help Syrian Kurdish fighters from the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, fighting there. The PYD is affiliated with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
This seemed to improve the relationship between the PYD and the KDP for a short time. This new instruction – to take the injured in – may improve that relationship yet again.
“Barzani took a very moral step in calling for this to happen,” says Ali Awni, a senior member of the KDP. “But the PKK continues to provoke the KDP, attacking it in the media without taking this move into consideration.”
“Our agenda is different from theirs,” Awni told NIQASH, acknowledging the differences between the PKK and the KDP. “We want to build a Kurdish state. But they don’t believe in this idea and they antagonize the political parties who are close to us.”
Awni is referring to the essence of the dispute between the two parties: The control of Syrian Kurdistan.
In Syrian Kurdistan, there are two political fronts: One belongs to the KDP and the other to the PYD. The first is the Kurdish National Council in Syria, which is composed of around a dozen different political parties and dominated by the KDP; the Council was formed in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. The second is the Movement for a Democratic Society, a similar body but which is dominated by the PYD.
Since 2011, there have been a number of different compromises reached and agreements signed between the two groups. The main points have included better communications between the two regions and sharing power in Syrian Kurdistan. However none of the main points ever seem to be implemented. And in the meantime each of the dominating parties – the KDP and PYD – still fire accusations at one another. The KDP says the PYD is trying to distance their allies from them in Syria while the PYD say the KDP is doing Turkey’s will – Turkey considers the PKK, with whom the PYD is strongly associated, a terrorist organisation. The PYD has criticised the closing of the Saemalka border crossing, which connects Syrian Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Barzani only just remembered to open the borders for citizens,” Shirzad al-Yazidi, the spokesperson for Syrian Kurdistan inside Iraq, told NIQASH, using a sarcastic tone. “Before he had closed these borders and used them to pressure our people, in order to please Turkey.”
The recent announcement of a new Federation of Northern Syria, including Kurdish-majority areas of Jazeera, Kobani and Rojava, plus some of the Arab towns currently under Kurdish control, escalated tensions further between the two parties.
Political parties affiliated with the KDP were ignored in Syria while Iraqi Kurdistan refused to acknowledge the new Federation.
That’s just another example of the lack of trust and cooperation between the two Kurdish groups, explains al-Yazidi. “So a federation is allowed for Iraqi Kurdistan but not for Syrian Kurdistan,” he noted. “That is clearly a double standard.”
The two parties react to each other with a variety of moves that reflect the grudge match they’re fighting: Examples include the ongoing closure of the Saemalka border crossing, a ban on the PYD opening any offices in Erbil and preventing parties close to the KDP from working in Syrian Kurdistan.
How the relationship between the PYD and the KDP has developed, and how it will continue to develop, also depends very much on various international alliances, suggests Alaa Janko, a lecturer in political studies at the University of Sulaymaniyah.
“For example opening the Saemalka border crossing is going to be very difficult given the Turkish position,” explains Janko, who is originally from Syria. “And recent events in Syria have shown that the PYD cannot control the area it wants to control without support from international partners.”
Additionally both parties want to ensure their own members are present in their “enemy’s” backyard, Janko notes, saying that this situation looks likely to continue. “Because recent events have also shown that neither of the two forces can dominate the region by themselves anyway.”