"Iraqi Kurds are less able to declare independence than they used to be one year ago"

Cale Salih

Fellow member of the European Council for Foreign Relations as an expert in the Kurdish question

Cale Salih is fellow member of the European Council for Foreign Relations as an expert in the Kurdish question. She had previously worked for the International Crisis Group. A few days ago Salih analyzed Kurdistan's political and military situation in a seminar organized by the CIDOB centre in Barcelona. In this interview, Salih speaks about the role of Kurdish players in Syria and Iraq and the relations between them and with foreign powers. "Before ISIS took over Mosul, Iraqi Kurdistan was in a moment of state building, economic growth, democratisation, reforms… But now the priority is the fight against ISIS," Salih says.

Nationalia: The mainly Kurdish YPG/YPJ forces, supported by some Free Syrian Army (FSA) units, have just conquered the strategic town of Girê Spî (Tel Abyad in Arabic) from the hands of the Islamic State (IS). The US-led coalition has been striking IS positions in the area just it had done in Kobanê a few months earlier, thus helping the Kurdish forces to advance towards Girê Spî. Should this airstrike campaign be understood as a declaration of support to Kurdish autonomy, to FSA units or rather as just a means to stop the advance of the Islamic State in Syria?

Cale Salih: Tel Abyad is a much more strategic gain than Kobanê was, even if Kobanê had more symbolic value. For ISIS it [Girê Spî] was a key route for supplies and for foreign fighters that want to reach Raqqa. For the YPG it's strategic because it furthers its goal to connect the cantons.

The US-led coalition has very few good reliable ground partner options in Syria, unlike in Iraq, where they have the Iraqi army (even if we don't really know what it exactly is now), the Peshmerga... Wherever the US-led coalition's goals overlap with the YPG's goals, you see coordination. And you saw quite a lot of praise coming from US officials for the YPG. But at the same time, Washington is refusing to give the PYD leader Salih Muslim, the civilian leader of this movement, a visa to the US.

N: Why do the US maintain this kind of contradictory policy?

C. S.: The West keeps the whole [Kurdish] movement at arms' length for two reasons. One is they are afraid of alienating Turkey, which views the PYD/YPG as equivalent to the PKK, and thus views Western support to the PYD as equivalent to Western support to the PKK. Turkey is a much more important ally for the West than the PYD-YPG can ever be, which has played an important role in certain battles, but at the end of the day is one piece of the Syrian puzzle.

The other reason is the suspected links of the PYD to the [Bashar al-Assad] regime. Most European and American countries still think that the PYD-YPG continue to rely on regime institutions and for that reason they are hesitant to fully engage with them.

N: Does possible Western support for the Free Syrian Army play some role in this?

C. S.: The PYD-YPG has cooperated with the FSA throughout the last few years, at least with certain elements of the FSA. In Tal Abyad it was much more pronounced, and this was important to Western countries, who had said they want to see the YPG cooperate more with the Syrian opposition.

But there are very few elements of the FSA that the YPG can really cooperate with because the majority of the Syrian opposition does not share views with the PYD when it comes to Kurdish issues, secularism, Islam... The fact that they did cooperate with some FSA elements is going to help convince Western countries that they should engage them a little bit more. And I think that is why some US officials are being quite vocal in their praise of the YPG.

N: It has been striking to see -for example in the battle for Girê Spî- secularist YPG-YPJ collaborating with an FSA group such as Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, which espouses Islamist views and had been cooperating with Al Qaeda's Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra a few years ago. To what extent can such a cooperation hold, given the huge ideological gap existing between them? It is difficult to think how both groups could for example share government or even control over the same regions.

C. S.: The PYD-YPG's model of governance is quite oriented towards the exercise of exclusive political control in the areas it manages. That is not true in every case: for example in Jazira canton there is a lot of regime control. So the question in Tel Abyad, which is not an entirely Kurdish area but ethnically mixed, is how will they manage power sharing. Will they be able, or willing, to share power? The YPG obviously wants Tel Abyad for a very specific reason, which is that it furthers their goal of connecting the cantons, which might no be the reason why other groups such as the FSA was involved in the fight. So we might see conflict over that.

N: The outcome for that could be linked to a key issue: do the PYD and the YPG believe Girê Sipî should be part of the Rojavan canton system at any cost? Or rather they might be ready to reach a deal with the FSA by which control over the Girê Spî area could be shared or even alienated from the canton system?

C. S.: This will depend on who emerges as the dominant player in the region. But the PYD-YPG wants Tel Abyad mostly to connect their areas, not necessarily to hold it. Look at what happened in Aleppo, where the YPG was allowing the FSA to use some neighbourhoods as transit routes. This kind of deals can emerge over territory, and given that Tel Abyad is not an entirely Kurdish area, we could see some kind of arrangement where the PYD-YPG are able to keep it open as a transit route but not necessarily exercising exclusive political and military control over it.

N: In South Kurdistan (Iraq), the main political parties there also have links to other players and most importantly to regional or world powers. This is true for Massud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the USA, but also for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Iran. During the current war against the Islamic State this has emerged as a very obvious situation. Is this policy of different alliances hampering efforts to build a single political Kurdish unit, bearing in mind how dire were rifts between the KDP and the PUK in the past?

C. S.: Iraqi Kurdistan has always been a very divided region, including a KDP-PUK civil war [in the 1990s]. After 2003 the differences between the KDP and the PUK started to be bridged a little bit, there were improvements and efforts made to unify the Peshmerga, to govern more jointly... But it was not complete, political institutions continued to be dominated by [different] political parties, and now even more so, and part of the reason is the way each of these parties is seeking outside support because of the threat of ISIS. Each of the parties has become more dependent on outside powers for support and protection, and each has turned to their traditional backers: for the KDP is the US-led coalition, and that has left the PUK even more dependent on Iran.

For the past year has been a lot of talk that the Iraqi Kurds would declare independence. But actually if you look at the picture they are in a much more vulnerable position that they were a year ago, and they might be less able to declare independence.

N: From outside Kurdistan, the perception is sometimes the contrary.

C. S.: I know. But they are less able than they used to. And one key reason for that is the fact that outside powers backing the Iraqi [Kurdish] parties absolutely reject Kurdish independence, and this is true for both Iran and the US. Iran has its own Kurdish population which over the past year had episodes of unrest, so Tehran would absolutely not accept independence for Kurdistan. The US as well has reiterated its commitment to a unified Iraq. Even Turkey holds the same stance. Some people think that because Turkey has a good relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, they would allow it, but it is not the case. If you really look at their policy, it has been quite consistent on this: they do not want to see an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

I would say Iran and Turkey have a strategy of making the Iraqi Kurds, or their particular factions, dependent on them in a way that it prevents secession. Barzani was speaking about an independence referendum just after ISIS took over Mosul and Kurds moved onto Kirkuk, and he got everybody very excited. But he has not talked about this since then, because he realises that the Iraqi Kurds are now much more vulnerable.

N: You have just being mentioning the PUK as one of South Kurdistan's key players. What about the role of the Talabani family in current Kurdish politics?

C. S.: The Talabanis still play a very important role in the party [the PUK] and continue to be very influential. Off course, Mam Jalal [Talabani; PUK founder and former Iraqi president] was like a symbol and had a particular history, but now his son is a senior leader.

N: Besides the PUK and the KDP, over the last years another political party has emerged in South Kurdistan, that is the Gorran movement. What can be said about Gorran's constituency as compared to PUK's and KDP's?

C. S.: Gorran emerged as an opposition movement as many people wanted to see democracy in Kurdistan politics as something healthy, there should be a challenge to the two-party rule. Before ISIS took over Mosul, Iraqi Kurdistan was in that moment of state building, economic growth, democratisation, reforms... And this moment allowed for opposition politics to play a big role.

But again, this has changed a lot over the last few years because now the priority is the fight against ISIS, and therefore it is the parties who have the Peshmerga -which are only the KDP and the PUK, as Gorran has not- that have been empowered. This raises questions over the role that Gorran is to play during this period in which military power determines political influence.

N: This greater role of military power over politics is also seen in the Yazidi-populated Sinjar area. Several militias have emerged there: besides the Peshmerga, there can also be found the HPS led by local commander Heydar Shesho, and also the PKK-linked YBS. Before the war, it was the KDP who has hegemonic in Sinjar, but after the Peshmergas retreated from the area as IS fighters advanced in August 2014, things have changed a lot. Military but also political power is highly contested there between the KDP, the PKK and Shesho's movement. Shesho is even demanding autonomy for Sinjar -as the PKK does-, which the KDP is not really willing to consider. How do you assess political relations between the Yazidis and the Kurdish government now and in the future?

C. S.: Sinjar showed many things. One of them was the PKK was able to play a role in Iraqi Kurdistan and challenge the KDP in territories that it considers to be their own but are particularly disputed and that are Kurmanji-speaking. The PKK and the KDP share a linguistic constituency.

The Yezidis say they do not trust the KDP Peshmerga anymore because of their retreat. But in general, the Iraqi Kurdistan region is very centralised, too centralised. Not even looking at places such as Sinjar, but even at Suleymaniyah, where the local governments complain that everything has to go to [KRG capital] Erbil. Iraqi Kurdistan in general needs to be decentralised. Form example, we had calls from Halabja for decentralisation.

N: They recently got a new province.

C. S.: Yes they did. So an arrangement like that should be implemented around Iraqi Kurdistan. But in Sinjar the needs for a degree of autonomy may even be greater, because even before this issue with ISIS there were a lot of grievances and frustration amongst the Yazidis of Sinjar and other areas towards the Kurdish Regional Goverment (KRG). They felt they were between the KRG and Baghdad, and Baghdad would say: ‘Well, you're Kurds, so the KRG needs to service you', while the KRG would say: ‘Well, you are under Baghdad, so Baghdad needs to service you'. Thus the Yazidis were often lacking adequate services for their areas.

The August 2014 retreat created a big crisis in confidence and trust amongst the Yezidis towards the KRG. Is their link to Erbil broken forever? I do not know. Iraqi Kurdish politics really come down to patronage networks at the end of the day. If Erbil or the KDP are able to reestablish in Sinjar we could see a revival, but for now the anger against the KDP is so intense that the PKK will really be the most popular player or Kurdish faction in Sinjar for some time. They are viewed as the ones that were able to mobilise protection for Sinjar [after the Peshmerga retreat].

There is also many resentment amongst Yezidis because the PKK and the KDP are unable to work together, so the Yezidis believe this is one of the reasons why Sinjar has not yet been liberated.

N: PKK collaboration with the KDP is always a difficult one. Both have been at odds for years, and their political project for Sinjar is also different, as the KDP sees it as a part of KRG while the PKK demands an autonomous canton for the area.

C. S.: I do believe that the KRG will need to decentralise government, but on its own terms. The canton is very clearly a PKK structure. Many Yezidis say they want the canton, but when I ask them: ‘Do you know what the canton is?', they say: ‘No'. They believe the canton means decentralization. I think what they want is autonomy, but that does not necessarily mean PKK control but self-rule.

N: You mean they do not share PKK's ideology.

C. S.: The PKK has won a lot of support amongst the Yezidis because of their protective role in 2014. This is also because even if the PKK is not very pluralistic in the sense that they have one strict vertical ideology, when it comes to ethnic and religious minorities they are quite inclusive. But when this emotions die down in several years, are the Yezidis going to want PKK's ideology? Perhaps not, because it is not historically part of their political tradition.

N: Like the Yezidis have done, the Assyrians have also created their own militias in Kurdistan, and they have also their own political parties. Do they also raise the issue of Assyrian self-government when they deal with Barzani or KDP senior party officials?

C. S.: Compared to the KDP and the PUK, those militias are marginal in Iraqi Kurdistan. I doubt they have power to have some influence. The ones that really count are KDP and PUK, plus the PKK.

N: What is the role played by the Turkic-speaking Turkmen people in South Kurdistan?

C. S.: This is linked to yet another reason why Iraqi Kurdistan will not be able to declare independence as easily as people think. The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have proved their ability to hold areas predominantly inhabited by Kurds. But when it comes to mixed areas they do not have as much of a track record. De facto the Peshmerga are in control of Kirkuk now, but there is obviously a very important Turkmen population there, also an Arab population, and the question is how do they manage control of a province like Kirkuk.

N: What is the relationship between the Turkmen and the concept of Turkishness, as sometimes promoted from Turkey itself?

C. S.: It depends. After 2003 until 2008, Turkey was speaking a lot in support of the Turkmen, in very nationalist terms. This was at a time that Turkey had very bad relations with the KRG, was very worried about federalism in Iraq and said that Kurdish control over Kirkuk was a red line. When they relationship between Turkey and the KRG started to transform after 2008, then the Turkmen rhetoric in Turkey died down. So now they still have affinity and connections, but it is not as strong as it was before, because now Turkey's partner in northern Iraq is the KDP.

N: The Turkmen in Iraq are mostly inhabiting a long strip of land running along the border between South Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. Considering this, are they more inclined to reach a deal with the central government in Baghdad or with the KRG?

C. S.: Again it depends, as the Turkmen are very divided. There are Shia Turkmen and Sunni Turkmen, and you have reports that say the former might be more willing to work with the Shiite militias while some of the latter are supportive of Al Qaeda, ISIS or [other] Sunni extremist groups. These are perceptions -I am not claiming these are facts-, but this is the problem with the Middle East: everyone is divided.

N: Let us go back to something you claimed before, that the PKK is able to play a role in Kurmanji-speaking territories in South Kurdistan. Does it mean it is not able to do so in Sorani-speaking areas, and if so why?

C. S.: They do have influence in the Sorani-speaking areas. They have the PJAK in the Iranian Kurdish area, which is Sorani-speaking, they have quite a lot of popular support in the Sorani-speaking part of Iraqi Kurdistan such as Ranya which is just under Qandil, and some Kurdish tribal leaders have sympathy for the PKK. The PKK fighters sometimes go shopping in Ranya so you have this kind of interaction. In Sulaymaniyah you have more support for the PKK than you have in Erbil or Duhok.

N: Could the PKK then play a political role in those areas?

C. S.: I do not think so, for several reasons. One is Turkish pressure against that scenario, the other because Iraqi Kurdish politics are about patronage networks and the PKK cannot play that game as they do not have the same financial resources that the KDP or the PUK have. But also because if the PKK tried to play a political role in areas such as Suleymaniyah and Ranya, which are traditionally PUK areas, and turn sympathy into actual votes, then it would be directly confronting the PUK, which is its Kurdish ally. They want to play that role in KDP areas because it is their rival, but not in PUK areas, with which they have a better relationship -and part of this stems from the fact that both the PUK and the PKK have relations with Iran.

An interview by David Forniès (@DavidFornies) and Antoni Lluís Trobat (@antonitrobat).