Kurds against Kurds: who shoots first, will lose

Early in September, KDP peshmerga fighters murdered seven PKK fighters. At least that’s what the PKK says, and they are demanding an explanation. The KDP denies the charge. Earlier this summer, five KDP peshmerga were killed and the PKK was reportedly responsible. The PKK denied the accusation and demanded an investigation. For months now, accusations have been going back and forth between the two Kurdish groups on the Iraqi side of the Turkish-Iraqi border. And while Turkey stokes the fire, among Kurds the fear of an intra-Kurdish war is growing. How justified is that fear? Will there be brakujî – fratricide?

Text and photography: Fréderike Geerdink
There is also a Dutch version of this story.

The warriors don’t want war. I saw that with my own eyes, when I watched them meet each other and have tea together under the walnut trees in the Qandil Mountains. It was early July 2016, and I had just begun the year that I spent with the PKK to write a book about the organisation. The camp where I stayed that summer was far from the frontline. PKK members were working on translations of all kinds of books, mostly from Turkish to Kurdish, and in the education camp, a twenty minute walk down the creek, fighters and a handful of foreigners, among whom me, were being taught Kurdish. Because of forced assimilation, many Kurds don’t know their mother tongue very well or not at all, and the PKK gives them the opportunity to learn it. On the path that ran alongside the camp – rather unusual because camps are usually built on spots where civilians don’t pass – it was rather busy because it was Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that ends the month of Ramadan, and people were on the way to visit their families. Two men in traditional festive clothing passed by and greeted the guerrilla fighters, who offered them tea.

The two turned out to be peshmerga fighters of the KDP. They sat down on plastic chairs next to the fire that had been used to make tea. A conversation unfolded that was marked by the differences between the peshmerga and the PKK. The ‘pesh’, employed by the KDP that has been lead by the Barzani-clan since its foundation in 1946, are usually on duty half of the time, earning not enough to make ends meet, and work as for example a taxi driver the other half of the time. In general, they have a family. PKK members live as guerrilla fighters, without family and without income. The organisation provides them with everything they need.

There weren’t many tensions yet at the time. The conversation was amical, but sharp. “I would never”, the PKK fighter said, “want to fight for a clan, like you. The system you are expected to give your life for oppresses us all.” The plain-clothes fighters didn’t deny it. But what choice did they have? One of them said: “We have families, we need the income.” Everything about their body language said: it is what it is. The PKK fighter was a tad arrogant. He only fought for the people, and for nobody else. But there was one thing they deeply agreed on: the very last thing they ever wanted, was to use even one bullet against each other.


The conflict that could now lead to an intra-Kurdish war boils down to Turkey wanting to use one Kurdish group, the KDP, to eliminate another Kurdish group, the PKK. Turkey has been fighting the PKK since the early 1980s but has intensified the war over the last year: the Turkish army increasingly uses armed drones, is involved in several ground operations in PKKterritory and is rapidly expanding the number of army bases in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. The KDP, the party in the Kurdistan Region that officially governs the area where the PKK has its headquarters, leans heavily on Turkey economically. KDP leader Massoud Barzani has cordial relations with President Erdoğan. So the KDP helps Turkey in its war against the PKK.

The PKK is a threat for both Turkey and the KDP. The PKK, founded in 1978, wants full political and cultural rights for the Kurds in Southeast-Turkey, and far-reaching decentralisation. That goes against the centralist, dictatorial character of the Turkish state. But the PKK also resists, with its roots in Marxism, the traditional Kurdish clan-culture, in which patriarchs exploit farmers and workers. The KDP is an eminent representative of it. The PKK doesn’t directly undercut the KDP’s power, but the Kurdistan Region’s economy is in tatters, and ever more civilians take to the streets to demonstrate against the corruption and nepotism of the KDP. The PKK has become more popular.

Home and refuge

It hasn’t always been like that. In the 1980s the KDP’s peshmerga were based in the mountains and fought against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which suppressed the Kurds and subjected them to a genocidal campaign using chemical weapons.  Across the border in Turkey, army generals seized power in 1980. Many members of the still fledgling PKK, among whom founder Abdullah Öcalan (who has been serving a life sentence on a prison island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul since 1999), had gone into exile in Syria and elsewhere in the region even before the military coup. Öcalan and Massoud Barzani, the son of KDP founder Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who passed away in 1979, agreed that the PKK could settle in the mountains. Ever since, the area where the PKK calls the shots, along the Turkish and Iranian borders, is called Qandil, named after a kind of mountain rug. In those years, Kurdish opposition groups from Iran also took to the mountains. They had supported the Iranian revolution, but promises made to them weren’t kept and the subsequent uprising was put down with much violence.

The mountains have been both home and refuge for Kurds for centuries.

That sounds quite fraternal and it was, but in the 1990s, the dynamics started to shift. The Kurds in Iraq started an uprising against Saddam Hussein, encouraged to do so by US President Bush. But Saddam wasn’t ousted. Some 20,000 Kurds fled across the borders into Turkey and Iran, fearing Saddam’s wrath. The US then installed and enforced a no-flyzone above the north of Iraq to protect the Kurds (and in the south to protect the Shias), after which the refugees returned home. The defacto Kurdistan Region was born – and suddenly the KDP was a party with institutional power, not just a rebel group.

Meanwhile in Turkey hell had broken loose. The PKK had committed its first attacks against the state in 1984. The group quickly won popularity, partly because they also resisted Kurdish clan leaders who collaborated with the state against their own people and kept ordinary Kurds poor. The Turkish army raged through Kurdish lands, ruthlessly targeting not only armed fighters but ordinary citizens as well. Many hundreds of villages were destroyed, tens of thousands of people were displaced and ended up in impoverished circumstances in big cities; thousands of activists, politicians, journalists and ordinary people were murdered or forcibly ‘disappeared’.


The PKK had to be annihilated. Which comfortably alligned with the desire of the KDP and another player in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, the PUK, to get all the territory of Kurdistan in Iraq under their control. The PUK had been founded in 1975 and is a break-away from the KDP. As soon as the American no-fly zone was established, the leaders of both parties, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, flew to Istanbul to forge an alliance with the Turkish state. The three of them together would drive the PKK out. In late 1992, the operations started. The PKK was cornered and had to leave several areas in the mountains, but as soon as the fighting was over, they started to return to their camps. Qandil is rugged and Turkey couldn’t move about easily there with an army trained mainly in conventional warfare.

After that, between 1994 and 1998 the KDP and PUK went to war against each other, for political but definitely also for economic (oil!) power. Ever since, the Kurdistan Region, whose existence was recognised in the new Iraqi constitution of 2005, has been divided into a KDP-zone and a PUK-zone. The provinces of Erbil and Duhok are KDP, Sulaymanya and Halabja are PUK. Over the years, the KDP has become fully dependent on Turkey for its survival, while the PUK is leaning on Iran. Qandil is (mostly) located in the KDP-zone.

Somehow, I can’t quite figure out what the outcome will be of the scenario that is unfolding now, a quarter of a century after that last  intra-Kurdish war. Will the current tensions spiral into a war between PKK and KDP, encouraged by Turkey? Will there again be ‘brakujî’, fratricide?


What I do know, for sure, is that the Kurds don’t want it. The people, I mean. They may be living in four different countries – Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey – with a large diaspora mainly in Europe and North-America, but the solidarity among them is as profound as the shared pain about history and about ongoing suppression. That different Kurdish groups have different views on how Kurds can finally achieve freedom, has never weakened the brotherhood. Brakujî is treason.

To strengthen that public opinion, the Kurdish political movement in Europe – which highly values Öcalan – launched a peace initiative together with local groups in the Kurdistan Region. In early June, activists from several European countries flew to Erbil. There would be gatherings and press conferences in different cities to call for dialogue between the armed groups. I booked a ticket to Erbil to report on the visit. At the airport in Düsseldorf, from where affordable direct flights leave, I had already met some members of the peace delegation. The atmosphere was good, the expectations high. It instantly strengthened my belief that if there was anybody who could prevent a war between Kurds, it would be the Kurdish people.

Arzu Yılmaz agrees with me. She is one of the experts I get in touch with to sharpen my thoughts. She is an Alexander von Humboldt scholar at the University of Hamburg and taught Kurdistan’s position and policies in the Middle-East at the Kurdistan University of Hewlêr (the Kurdish name for Erbil) in the previous academic year. She recalls how some ten, twelve years ago she was teaching at another university in the Kurdistan Region. Her students wanted to study their Turkish with her, while she, a Kurd from Ankara, was planning to advance her knowledge of the local Kurdish dialect. “They followed Turkish series on TV”, Yılmaz said, “and admired Turkey.” That sentiment has radically changed. Yılmaz: “Turkey is replacing ISIS as the common enemy of all Kurds.”


Turkey’s positive image among young Kurds crumbled with one tragedy after another. In 2014 Turkey didn’t come to the Kurds’ rescue when ISIS came dangerously close to Erbil in its rapid advance. In 2015, only after intense international pressure did Turkey allow the peshmerga to pass through Turkey on its way to Kobani in North-Syria to help their brothers of the YPG break the ISIS siege . In 2018 Turkey occupied Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in Northwest-Syria. In 2019 Turkey occupied the cities of Girespi en Serekaniye (respectively Tel Abyad and Ras Al-Ayn, the Arabic names on the map in the link), also in North-Syria. In 2020 Turkey started a new offensive against the PKK in the mountains in the north of Iraq, in which not only the camps of the PKK were targeted but also Kurdish civilians died.

Yılmaz’ current students have become adults in those years. It’s a demography that matters, she said: “Don’t forget: some 60 percent of the population in the Kurdistan Region is younger than thirty.”

The leaders appear to be the weakest links. Interests, power, money, alliances, positions in the wider region. The tensions may be running high, but academic Arzu Yılmaz doesn’t believe it will be war. She said: “The struggle between KDP and PKK is also a survival strategy for both of them. Being anti-PKK strengthens the KDP in the eyes of its supporters, and vice versa for the PKK’s emphasis on KDP’s mistakes. But it’s not in the interest of both groups to go to war. There will be no winner in such a war. Whoever shoots first, will be the loser.”


Yılmaz warns Kurdistan-watchers against being misled by the daily news cycle and comments and opinions on social media. “Our minds are shaped by what we feed our ears, eyes and brain. I prefer to look at it from a distance and am not active on social media.” What does she see from that distance? Yılmaz: “From the bottom up, Kurds have already united behind the same cause, or let’s say, a common cause. That cause is to implement the Kurdish political will in Kurdistan. KDP and PKK may differ on how to achieve that, but they do agree that at least they must be able to manage not to fight each other.”

The expression ‘to implement the kurdish political will’ does justice to the radically different solutions that KDP and PKK propose for the problems of Kurds. The PKK, with its roots in Marxism, principally rejects the nation-state. The Kurds, and with them all nations and communities in the Middle-East, won’t benefit from more borders, and more heads of state who serve their own interests in the first place. They propose a system of local democracy that they call ‘democratic confederalism’ and in which the political, cultural and linguistic rights of all communities are respected.

The KDP does strive to establish a nation-state for the Kurds and wants to secede from Iraq – they organized a referendum on it in 2017. That the PKK rejects and aims to undermine such, in the eyes of the PKK, outdated concepts, is a fundamental threat for both Turkey and the KDP. Both Turkey and KDP strive to protect the status quo and make their analysis and policies according to existing structures, while the PKK resists those structures.

Arzu Yılmaz considers the messages that PKK and KDP spread during the current tensions to be just media spin. The KDP states that the PKK must leave the Kurdistan Region so Turkey can halt its violence in the area. The PKK says the KDP should stop it’s ‘converted war’ (encircling guerrilla territory, blocking paths used by the guerrilla fighters, sharing intelligence and developing tactics with the Turkish army) against the PKK.

Media war

I agree with Yılmaz to some extent, especially because Kurdish media that report the ongoing tensions are either paid by KDP (with Rudaw and K24 being the most important ones) or alligned with the PKK (like ANF and Mezopotamya Agency), but I also hesitate. The media war, the steering of public opinion, is co-determining the dynamics. The tensions are actually rising, there is actual violence and people are dying on both sides, the KDP doesn’t deny collaborating with Turkey. Yılmaz: “Armed clashes will be inevitable, even in the near future, but what I see is that both sides try to avoid a war. And it is only a war when they declare it, and when there are clashes on multiple fronts. That is not going to happen.”

For the PKK it’s a precarious balance. They are in a defensive position, and have been forced to give up some areas they controlled and allow the Turkish army to occupy mountain tops they have controlled for decades. They direct all their strength against Turkey and and fighting a war on another front is not in their interest in any way. When the KDP peshmerga come closer, they prefer to withdraw. But there is a limit to that: the group can’t afford to force itself to be pushed into a marginal position in the mountains.

I send a message to Zagros Hiwa, one of the spokespersons of the PKK. He says: “The KDP forces provide full logistical and intelligence support to the invading Turkish army. KDP forces have fully encircled the guerrilla areas and and block all the roads and mule tracks to isolate these areas and restrict guerrilla movement and deprive them of access to food and ammunition. Aware of the sensitivity of the situation and determined to prevent an intra-Kurdish war, the guerrilla forces have avoided clashes with the KDP forces. But if they continue with their provocative actions, clashes would be inevitable.” When would they arrive at that point? Hiwa: “That point has already come.”

Hiwa particulary mentions the Ranjbirakh areas, “regarded as the heart of the guerrilla areas in the Bahdinan region”.

“The PKK shouldn’t draw a red line it can’t enforce”, said Diliman Abdulkader, one of the other experts I talked to. He is the co-founder of the American Friends of Kurdistan (AFK), a Washington- based advocacy and education organization working to enhance US-Kurdish relations. And that is exactly what the PKK is doing, he said, because: “The PKK is not in a position to push Turkey and the KDP back.” It sounds as if the situation is hopeless for the PKK, but that’s not what Abdulkader means. He said: “Kurds don’t want intra-Kurdish fighting, and that’s also the message of the PKK to civilians in KDP-areas. The stronger the people oppose war, the more the KDP will restrain itself.”


Abdulkader states that the KDP wants to make the PKK leave Qandil without bloodshed through direct confrontations, without war. “The KDP can say they have the upper hand geopolitically. The PKK is a burden for the KDP because the PKK’s presence triggers violence in which also civilians die because of Turkish bombs, so the PKK has to leave.” Logically, it would make more sense to demand Turkey to leave – after all, it’s Turkey that is destructively raging through Kurdistan, while the PKK is at home there and has no other place to go. Abdulkader, keeping Turkey’s NATO-membership in mind: “Turkey is backed by the US because the US has designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation. So the PKK can’t expect to get any support from the US. The KDP uses that.”

“The KDP”, Abdulkader said, “must be careful not to overplay its hand. The party is digging itself into a hole it can’t get out of. Despite the brotherhood between Kurds, the KDP is mainly focused on survival as a clan and as a party. It’s always been like that. They assist Turkey, but it’s also about controlling territory they historically consider theirs.” He refers to the war between the KDP and PUK in the 1990s, in which the KDP even called in Saddam Hussein’s army, after which it managed to get its hands on Erbil. “In the long run, the party weakens itself this way.”

He points out that the problems of the Kurdistan Region will not disappear in the hypothetical case that the PKK leaves: “Getting rid of the PKK won’t solve corruption, won’t solve unemployment, won’t solve the difficult relations with Baghdad. The current tensions and the possibility of clashes or war only lay an extra burden on society.” That is confirmed by Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Dutch journalist and analyst who has been living and working in Erbil for years and is the co-author of  ‘The Kurds of Northern Syria’. I contacted him to ask if the PKK-KDP violence is the talk of the day in Erbil and beyond. Van Wilgenburg: “Not really. People are busy trying to make ends meet, pay their bills and buy bread.”

Diliman Abdulkader said something that makes his analysis even more dramatic: territory that the PKK withdraws from doesn’t come under KDP control but under Turkish control. Abdulkader: “Turkish bases and soldiers won’t leave when the PKK is no longer present. The KDP has to face that. Turkey will even expand its military presence in the Kurdistan Region, even into PUK-areas because the PUK is weakened and divided and the KDP will have increasing influence there. If it continues like this, in ten years Turkey will have bases in Sulaymanya and Halabja.” And he adds: “If Turkey occupies land, it’s there to stay. Look at Cyprus, at Afrin, Girespi and Serekaniye. And more than that: Turkey is eyeing cities in Iraq outside the Kurdistan Region. Mosul, Shengal, Kirkuk.”

Without getting into that dynamic too deeply, it is important to mention that Iraq is not capable of protecting its sovereignty. Late last month that became painfully clear when a journalist asked the Iraqi Minister of Defense, Juma Inad, questions about the ongoing Turkish military operations on Iraqi territory. Inad became angry and called the Turkish airstrikes and ground operations ‘justified breaches’ of sovereignty. For now, only the balance of power between Turkey and Iran keeps Turkey away from Iraqi territory outside the Kurdistan Region: Iran-backed militias, more or less united under the name Hashd Al-Shabi (or Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMF), have a solid presence in cities where Turkey would like to expand its sphere of influence under the guise of fighting terrorism (Shengal) or protecting the Turkmen commununity (Kirkuk).


Where Arzu Yılmaz and Diliman Abdulkader’s opinions differ is their judgement of the sincerity of both parties’ objections to an intra-Kurdish war. Yılmaz believes not much lust for violence will remain when the shell of rhetoric is peeled away. Abdulkader believes that the PKK is more sincere in its wish to avoid a war: “The KDP has lost touch with reality. I call them paranoid. They are very afraid to lose their power. The people start to see that more clearly.”

After arrival at the airport in Erbil, after the passport check and when many of the peace activists and I had already taken our luggage from the conveyor belt, we were stopped. I tried to remain calm but failed. I was so angry that I challenged the guards by asking them how it felt, as a Kurd, to obey orders from the Turkish president. Did they find it honourable to do exactly what Turkey wished of them, namely to not only deny entry to Kurdistan to me, a journalist, , but also to a delegation that had come to encourage dialogue. Erdoğan would be proud of them!

The guards remained calm, of course. They brought in tea while the peace delegation and I, in total some twenty or thirty people, were placed in a large room in the airport’s ground floor, awaiting our flights back to Europe. The atmosphere was activist and friendly at the same time, the relations with the guards polite, although agitation was at the surface. We could choose which route to Europe we would take and every now and then a small group left. The ones who left late, among them me, were served chicken and rice and salad. Right before I boarded the flight to Amsterdam via Dubai, I received my passport back, with a paper folded inside it stating that the result of the corona test I had done upon arrival was negative. The plan to make a story about a peace mission in Kurdistan, had failed.

For journalists who don’t have a long lasting and good relationship with the KDP, the party is not open to comments or interviews.