The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the Kurds’ neighbors play games to block the expansion of ‘Greater Kurdistan’

A fighter from the Kurdish People Protection Unit (YPG) in 2015. (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

One cause for Syria’s torments is that regional powers have used proxy forces to advance their position in the “great game” of influence, without regard for the effects on the Syrian people.

An example is the standoff between two Syrian Kurdish militia groups. One, known as the YPG, appears to be tacitly backed by an odd coalition that includes the United States, and, less visibly, Russia and Iran. The other, much smaller group known as the Peshmerga of Rojava, or “Roj Pesh” is backed by Iraqi Kurdistan and the official, Saudi-backed, Syrian opposition, and it might also get support from Turkey.

The Kurdish factional politics may reflect an attempt by the regional powers to check the expansion of a “greater Kurdistan.” All Kurdish groups want this big nation as an aspirational goal, but they know it’s bitterly opposed by the neighbors, with whom they must work to survive.

The YPG and Roj Pesh sometimes seem to be chess pieces in a game to block unity and expansion. A transnational movement is less likely to spread from Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government across the Syrian Kurdish land known as “Rojava” — let alone into Turkey and Iran — if the YPG and Roj Pesh refuse to fight together, as seems to be the case today.

Follow David Ignatius's opinionsFollow

After traveling Saturday to a training camp inside Syria for the YPG and its allied Sunni Arab partners, I have a sense of the military power of this group — and why U.S. commanders have given them such a strategic role. But the Roj Pesh were still a mystery, so I asked the Kurdish Regional Government to arrange an interview.

Brig. Gen. Mohammed Rejeb Dehdo, commander of the Roj Pesh, told me by telephone Thursday that he has 3,000 trained fighters who are ready to move across the border from their Iraqi camps near the Mosul Dam and along the eastern Syrian border, into the ancestral lands that Kurds call Rojava. But he says they’re blocked by the far larger YPG, which has at least 25,000 battle-hardened troops in Syria.

The Roj Pesh say they have been trained by the elite Zeravani Force that’s backed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. That’s headed by President Masoud Barzani, who runs the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and has managed to stay friendly with the United States and Turkey at the same time. Dehdo says his militia fought in major battles against the Islamic State in Sinjar and Wanke.

“We are prepared to work together” with the YPG, Dehdo said. He said plans for joint operations were being explored by the United States until they collapsed in August over where the joint command center would be run. The YPG nominated Sulaymaniyah, which is ruled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, a group that’s friendly to both Washington and Tehran. The Roj Pesh wanted Zakho, a city in northern Kurdistan, close to the Syrian border, that’s controlled by the Barzanis.

“They are all Kurds. They want to go back home. There is no reason why the YPG is preventing their return,” argues Aziz Ahmad, a spokesman for Kurdish national security adviser Masrour Barzani. “We feel this unit is another option for the U.S. It doesn’t have to rely solely on the YPG.”

Masrour Barzani, the Kurdish national security adviser, echoes this endorsement. “Peshmerga of Rojava is an organized, battle-tested force” and “not affiliated with any suspicious groups,” he told me in a statement.

Though the Roj Pesh would add little military clout to the Syria fight, it might give the Kurds more weight with the overall Syrian opposition. Ibrahim Bro, a Syrian Kurd close to the Roj Pesh, is part of the opposition’s official “High Negotiating Committee,” which does the bargaining in Geneva.

Then there’s the PKK issue. Gen. Dehdo, like his backers in Iraqi Kurdistan, shares the Turkish view that, “there are no differences, political and military, between the YPG and the PKK.” The latter group, whose acronym stands for Kurdistan Worker’s Party, is seen by Turkey as a terrorist group that threatens security in the Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey. Turkey has treated the PKK as a threat equivalent to the Islamic State.

PKK supporters argue that the terrorist designation is nonsense. Many say they favor resumed dialogue with Ankara if it will halt its rocket and artillery attacks on Kurdish strongholds in southeast Turkey.

An intriguing hint of the proxy wars inside Syria came from Lt. Col. Hussein Ahmed Hassan, the Roj Pesh intelligence chief. He told me in a telephone interview Thursday that Iranian commanders from what he called the “Johariya Force” have helped train and supply some members of the YPG. He said, further, that “Iranian and Syrian intelligence officers have told the YPG commanders not to allow the Roj Pesh into Syria.”

This is the kind of divide-and-rule manipulation that allowed European colonial powers to play off different Kurdish and Arab factions for the past century. The Kurds would be wiser if they could make common cause, rather than play the neo-imperialist game of the regional powers.