With tremendous victories across Syria and Iraq against Islamic State (IS) militants, Kurds have been praised for their increasing role in the fight against extremism in the Middle East. For a moment, one would naturally think that the stateless Kurds are living their utmost days of glory in a messy region. However, internal conflicts among Kurdish groups suggest that Kurds are not as united as they might seem.

The Kurdish proverb goes: the drums sound better at a distance. Romanticizing Peshmerga forces in Iraqi Kurdistan or the YPG forces in Syrian Kurdistan in their fight against IS terror has lately been seen as a positive sign in embellishing the Kurdish image regionally and internationally. While the Kurds must be credited for their unparalleled resistance vis-à-vis the terror machine that sweeps the region, the fact of the matter is that Kurds are as divided as they have always been – and this doesn’t help their pursuit for achieving their goal of peace, democracy and self-determination in the long run.


It was only last week when two major Kurdish groups - the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I) – engaged in a deadly encounter along the Iraq-Iran borders. This Kurdish infighting is certainly not unprecedented. Over the decades, Kurdish armed groups have constantly used their arms against each other – often with the blessing, incitement and assistance of a regional government. For instance, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was bruised with a bitter civil war in mid 1990s, in which thousands of Kurds – combatants and civilians - were killed by Kurdish hands. The main two parties there (The Democratic Party of Kurdish (KDP) led by current president of the autonomous region Massoud Barzani and The Partiotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by the former president of Iraq Jalal Talabani) were embroiled in a revenue and power sharing dispute that evolved to a regional crisis and so involved Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi governments. These governments seized the opportunity to further complicate the intra-Kurdish relationships and dispel any hope of a broad Kurdish cooperation.

Every time Kurds in any part of the greater Kurdistan (parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey) exposed their conflict to a neighboring country, Kurds who live in that country were immediately affected by it. When the Turkey-based PKK became involved in the above-mentioned civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish government was the only beneficiary from that, since it made it easier for Ankara to forge alliances with local Kurds in Iraq in order to launch attacks on the PKK. There are similar examples – where Kurds have sought help from regional governments to use it against their own brethren - among Iranian and Syrian Kurds.

The root cause of this Kurdish fragmentation is not political nor ideological. The problem is that Kurds don’t have a real sense of nationalism. What they really have and cherish is a tribal-partisan nationalism that has remained confined in a primitive context. They see their Kurdishness and their national aspirations through their affiliation with the tribe, party and divinely-seen leaders. Once these affiliations and loyalties are removed, they (Kurds) often lose their sense and interest of belonging to the broader community. The political, social and intellectual elite amongst the Kurds has failed to consolidate a true concept of nationalism. And that attributes to the fact the even Kurdish partisanism is wedged in a narrow loop where everything revolves around a single leader. Even the most progressive Kurdish parties, for example, have had lifelong leaders. This is only an indicative of misunderstanding the meaning of leadership.

When the IS began its offensive against the Kurds last year, many thought that Kurdish groups across the region would capitalize on the existential threat that was brought by the terrorist organization in order to consolidate their presence regionally, and more importantly to increase their political status. However, a brief political and military collaboration among the Kurdish groups that stood against the Islamists, swiftly turned into a competition for taking credit over fighting a brutal enemy.  

The truth is Kurds have a short political memory. In other words, they tend to forget the countless atrocities that have happened upon them due to their divergence.

Kurds don't have a unified political discourse and they will never have one as long as they don't have a unitary Kurdistan. The different conditions in which Kurds live vary from one country to another. Thus, what is expected from Kurdish political parties is coordination and solidarity rather than absolute alliance. More important, the Kurdish national interest should be held above any political compromises that parties usually make in order to expand, thrive or survive.

In the changing Middle East, Kurds would undoubtedly play an important role. They might make significant gains in their respective countries, but given the fragmented state of Kurdish politics, it is hard to predict whether the greater Kurdistan as a state could exist – much less if it is realistic.

Kajjo is a Syrian Kurdish journalist based in Washington DC.