The Inter-relation between the PKK-KRG-PYD: Kurdistan between Iran and Turkey

The Inter-relation between the PKK-KRG-PYD:
Kurdistan between Iran and Turkey


This article[1] focuses on the positive overall effect of growing unity and cooperation between Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) actors on the Kurdish movement to achieve Kurdish harmony as interrelated paradigms vis-à-vis their influence and interaction with regional and international players. The effect of the Arab Uprisings on the interplay between state and non-state entities and the emergence of multiple players of non-state status, as intrinsic element of on-going transition in the Middle East, is revealed. Given the KRG’s importance as the first actual Kurdish de facto state entity, and the rise of the Kurds in Syria, the role of the PKK is critical for unifying the relatedness of the Kurdish movements in Iraq and Syria. An empirical understanding of the Kurdish case, explained through a diagram explicates further inter and intra Kurdish inter-relations.


The current political landscape in the Middle Eastern region is defined by the repercussions the Arab Uprisings (December 2010) have brought upon the regional balance of power. As far as the Kurdish movement is concerned, the theatre of operations has primarily and severely affected both the Kurds of Iraq and Syria along with the Sunni Arabs to the advantage of Tehran. So far, Syria is still paying the highest toll as the country has descended into chaos with a seemingly unending bloodshed. Yet the situation in Syria has regional repercussions and thus tremendous impact on its neighbouring states’ foreign policies. What Ankara saw with the crisis in Syria was a ‘new Middle East about to be born’ with Turkey being ‘the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East’ as stated by former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.[2] Therefore, according to former Turkish President, Abdullah Gül, ‘the Government has to change its foreign policy line in regard to this region and act on the basis of what has emerged, rather than on what it would like to see emerge’.[3]

For the Kurdish side, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) leader[4], Abdullah Öcalan, has stated that the peace process in Turkey cannot be treated independently from the developments in Rojavayê Kurdistan (Western Kurdistan – a de facto autonomous region in North Eastern Syria). In that sense Kurdish autonomy raises concerns that ‘Turkey cannot permit a fait accompli, there is no question of accepting such a thing in Syria’.[5]

Contrary to Turkish expectations, Bashar Al Assad’s ability to preserve his unparalleled strength both in warfare and weaponry, so that the Syrian regime retains a firm territorial grasp, deepened the crisis. Yet, a post-Assad Syria, either federal or confederal but united, with or without Assad matters little in the face of the daily suffering of the population. Regional instability facilitated, most obviously, Tehran’s policies as it distracted regional and international attention from Iran’s own domestic and foreign policy problems and took the focus off its own territory and crisis. The question though of whether Tehran has the capacity to sustain its expansion throughout the region utilizing the support of its Shi’a population around the world, from Baghdad to Sana’a, is debatable.

The Kurdish Case

Within this context, Kurdish long engagement in the warfare in both Iraq and Syria on the one hand has complicated their drive to achieve the goal of self-determination, while on the other suggests that once the movement achieves to come out of this situation, the Kurdish military strength can emerge stronger than before, especially with the support of the international community. The same dilemma was also the case with the Kurdish movement in Turkey, when the capture of Abdullah Ӧcalan in February 1999, contrary to expectations all but strengthened Turkey’s Kurdish movement in due course. The capture of Ӧcalan seems to have had a positive influence on the Kurdish cause to the extent that it resulted in the movement’s empowerment since it was not dissolved, but continued to pursue its own foreign policy agenda and accelerated its on-going peace talks with the Turkish state.

As far as the Turkish case is concerned, the importance of the Kurdish role in regional politics was revealed, long before the outbreak of the Arab Uprisings, with the onset of the United States’ (US) relations with the Kurds of Turkey (apart from the Kurdistan Region in Iraq) with direct US involvement in Turkey’s Kurdish issue in the capture of the PKK’s leader. Considering US foreign policy’s long lasting support of human rights, including those of the minorities, and US need for regional allies, its role then as a mediator in Turkey’s Kurdish issue is not surprising.

Turkey might well have been diplomatically advised or pressured by the US administration to solve the Kurdish issue –one explanation of the AKP’s gradual foreign and domestic policy change. The potential resolution thus of the Kurdish issue not only does not contradict the US commitment to safeguard the protection of the state of Israel, but furthermore it also fits in with the broader context of George W. Bush’s enduring ‘Middle East Partnership Initiative’, dictated by US aspirations for regional democratization and ultimately having a positive effect on the region’s Kurdish issues.

These developments, including the establishment of the Autonomous Cantons in North Syria in November 2013, are steadily increasing the role of the Kurds as significant actors both in the regional and international state foreign policy context and in the formation of the new Middle Eastern order. This process has been accelerated further by the phenomenon of the Arab Uprisings, a reflection of attempts in search for democratic rights and bringing an end to regional despotism, and a detrimental factor which has by and large influenced the emergence and mobilization of multiple players of non-state status.

Inter and Intra Kurdish Interactions: An Imperative

I argue that both the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) as well as the Kurdish movement in both Syria and Turkey are interrelated paradigms whose unity and cooperation can only exert a positive effect on the Kurdish cause. Following the Erbil Agreement in 24 July 2012 and its successor, the Dohuk Agreement, which stands out as a critical initiative in the same vein as the example of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)- Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) strategic agreement to deal commonly with the Shiite-dominated Baghdad does, for the Kurdish movement to gain momentum, inter and intra Kurdish unity is critical at this stage.

The PKK is an established regional entity identified by long-standing military and political power among the Kurdish movement with influence in both the Syrian and Iranian parts of Kurdistan with the establishment of Free Life Party in Kurdistan (PJAK) (2004). Despite the Kurd’s non-state status in Turkey, the PKK has been the official negotiator between the Kurds and the Turkish State since the 1990s up until the present day. In addition, the empowerment of the KRG from 2005 onwards, constitutes a landmark that has had a positive influence on Turkey’s Kurdish movement which in turn has already, following Ӧcalan’s decade-long stay in Syria, formed relations based on cooperation with its strongly affiliated Kurdish movement in Syria, specifically with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) (2003).

Diagram 1: The relations between the KRG and the PKK-PYD alliance

This diagram outlines the relations between the KRG and the PKK-PYD alliance. The arrow in red portrays PKK’s dynamic whereas KRG’s is shown in yellow and PYD’s in green. The reason for selecting PYD –among Syria’s Kurds –is because it represents the majority of the votes along with KDPS, which is already affiliated with the KRG. The PKK-PYD cooperation arrow clearly aligns with the KRG’s arrow as one of the two dimensions for the achievement of the Kurdish cooperation and thus unity.

The relations between KRG, the Kurds of Syria (Rojavayê Kurdistan) and the PKK can be thus perceived as triangular. Considering the long established interactions between the PKK and the KRG as well as the PYD-PKK cooperation, the PKK stands out as an influential parameter that could bring KRG and PYD closer, so that unity of the Kurdish movement could be ultimately achieved. The PKK could thus exert positive influence on the KRG–PYD relations that could permit further cooperation as far as a unified Kurdish strategy is concerned beyond and above any ideological differences.

The role of the PKK is thus critical in exerting positive influence on PYD to strengthen relations between the KRG and the Administration in Rojavayê Kurdistan vis-à-vis PKK’s links to PYD and its enduring relations with the KRG. The PKK’s increasing power should thus satisfy the KRG as it mutually contributes to the Kurdish strategy of the establishment and further consolidation of the Kurdish status in the region.

Simultaneously, the KRG, as an established and recognized regional player with considerable regional neighbouring and international diplomatic relations can ensure support, whether regional or international, for the facilitation of the Kurdish cause in Syria and can thus affect positively the Kurdish movement in Syria, to the same extent of establishing relations with the majority of Syria’s Kurds. The KRG could thus help Rojavayê Kurdistan to achieve regional and international recognition, especially in light of Turkish Premier Ahmet Davutoğlu’s declarations ‘that the PYD does not represent all Kurds. On the contrary, there are some groups that have been extremely disturbed by the pressure of the PYD. These groups have asked for our help’.[6]

In turn and given the PYD’s contacts with Iran and other revisionist forces in the region in combination with the KRG’s balanced relations with both Ankara and Tehran, it could possibly have a mutually positive effect on the KRG and further its regional relations. KRG and PYD-PKK cooperation reveals thus that the PYD is also the connecting point between PKK and KRG.

I thus advocate that the KRG, alongside other dominant Kurdish players in Turkey and Syria, can bring about a unity which could benefit the Kurdish movement as a whole; arguably one of the last regional actors with the potential for improvement.


The Arab Uprisings and in particular the Syrian crisis have facilitated the emergence of non-state actors, and enhanced their interplay with state entities. The Kurdish case examined in this paper in addition to regional events such as the KRG’s empowerment from 2005 onwards and external pressure for reforms in Syria, reaching their peak in 2011 with Bashar Al Assad’s granting of citizenship (April 2011) to 120,000 Kurds who had been stripped of their Syrian nationality and marked as unregistered (maktumeen) or infiltrators from Turkey and Iraq (ajanib) since 1962 set the regional frame is revealing of the increasing role of the Kurds in the international relations of the Middle East. The creation and rise of Rojavayê Kurdistan along with the mobilization of Syria’s Kurds, as an especially relevant case in point as well as the consolidation of the Kurdish status in view of the KRG’s de facto independence, as the first legitimized non-state Kurdish entity of regional and international recognition, are indicative of the future role of the Kurds as an intrinsic part of the on-going transition in the Middle Eastern region. Their emergence, growth and power have been further boosted, due to the contemporary situation of the Middle Eastern region, sunk in a facile Sunni–Shia divide, showing the Kurds to be one of the most reliable and stable actors in the region.

Currently the weakest link in Middle Eastern politics appears to be Turkey vis-à-vis the failure of Turkey’s foreign policy of ‘Strategic Depth’ following the Syrian crisis. As stated by the Iranian Chief of Staff Major General, Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi, ‘it will be Turkey’s turn if it goes ahead with Syria policies’.[7]

Considering the Kurd’s geostrategic location and the growing role of the PKK along with the consolidation of the KRG’s status, the Kurdish front bears its own importance. First, it is particularly significant against Iranian penetration in the region. Second, the majority of the Kurds are followers of the Sunni sect and Abdullah Ӧcalan’s 2013 Newroz speech on the religious relations between Turks and Kurds, Alevis or Sunnis, explains further the importance of the Kurds for Turkish politics and dictates Turkish rapprochement with the PKK who is active throughout the continuing peace process.[8] Distinguishing though between the PKK problem and the problem of terrorism in Turkey constitutes the basis for a successful foreign policy in Turkey and thus holds the same importance to the understanding of the nature of the Kurdish issue in Turkey as an issue with one rather than two dimensions.

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the Islamic State (الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, داعش, or IS, 2003) however, has acted as a brake for regional progress and development, for multiple reasons, not least of which incitement of regional and international political interventions. Yet, the phenomenon of the IS elevated the Kurdish status and brought the Kurds in the forefront of the international and regional attention.

Kurdish unity though presupposes the settlement of the Kurdish issues in each state of residence through the establishment an autonomous structure. The Kurdish autonomous political structure can be viewed historically in the Kurdish Emirates of the 14th century, a system very similar to the way in which the ancient Greek city-states were independent political entities. This implies that the inherent independence of the Kurdish mode of governance adds to the complexities for the formation and consolidation of their status to the extent that each Kurdish movement today is determined by its own political agenda.

On a macro level, the only possibility of achieving a Kurdish State seems to be through a Confederated Kurdish Entity consisting of four autonomous regions, whose leadership could consist either of a committee of four representations of each part of Kurdistan, or a one-person rule in the sense of a symbolic leadership consulted by a committee from all other parts. Yet, even in this case the problem of how to manage this administration more effectively and the question of who is going to rule Kurdistan remains the last major issue that needs to be addressed. If the Kurds achieve to counterbalance inter and intra Kurdish tensions and the jostling for power sharing they could then opt for their own regional fate.

In this context, the politicization of the Kurdish cause as envisaged by Abdullah Ӧcalan’s ‘Road Map’ (September 2003 – 1 September 2004) and a resolution of Turkey’s Kurdish issue on the basis of constitutional guarantees is explicitly linked to the success of the peace process between Turkey’s Kurds and Ankara, currently in the form of discussions rather than actual negotiations. A successful peace-process could then offer a partial solution to the Middle Eastern conflict, in view of the continuing crisis in Syria and its economic impact considering figures such as that Turkish exports of fresh vegetables to Syria amounted to $2,8 billion and the border trade more than $1 billion, the expansion of IS and the security challenges posed, let alone Iran’s influence in Iraq. Likewise, it is not accidental the change in the security dogma of Ankara (November 2012) according to which the ‘internal threats’ are being now replaced by the focus on the ‘external threats’.

Finally, in this political landscape, the role of the Gulf Arab states should be ancillary to the extent that their foreign policy drive is incited by a genuine motive to ease the severe tensions in the Middle Eastern region.

Dr. Marianna Charountaki, University of Reading, Politics and International Studies

Please cite this publication as follows:

Charountaki, M. (July, 2015), “The Inter-relation between the PKK-KRG-PYD: Kurdistan between Iran and Turkey”, Vol. IV, Issue 7, pp.42-52, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (


[1] Further information on this article could be found in “Kurdish policies in Syria under the Arab Uprisings: A revisiting of IR in the New Middle Eastern Order”, Third World Quarterly, Vol.36, Issue 2, pp. 337-356, (Taylor& Francis, 27 March 2015).

[2] Halil Karaveli, “Why Does Turkey Want Regime Change in Syria?” The National Interest (23.07.2012).

[3] Semih Idiz, “Gül calls for reset of Turkey’s Syria policy”, Al monitor (15.01.2014).

[4] Even though the PKK was renamed Koma Civaken Kurdistan (the KCK, Democratic Confederation of Kurdistan) in 2007, for reasons of convenience, I will use here the term PKK as the party was initially identified by.

[5] “Öcalan writes letter to Barzani”, Ya Libnan (15.11.2013) and “Turkey warns against Syrian”, Arab News, (16.11.2013).

[6] Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Davutoğlu: PYD does not represent all Kurds”, Today Zaman (27/10/2013)

[7] Today’s Zaman (7.08.2012) in

[8] (last accessed June 2015).



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