With the recent events targeting Yazidis in Iraq, much attention has been paid to the Kurds as they battle with the forces of the Islamic State. Yet, too often commentators lump Kurdish political actors into one unified group, when they are actually a coalition of several groups, many of whom were at odds until recently. Indeed, before the events in Sinjar (called Shingal in Kurdish), Kurdish political groups seemed to be hopelessly divided. But now they appear to be fighting as a united front in the face of the Islamic State’s threat against Yazidis. The follow is a brief guide to Kurdish political factions currently fighting the Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan.
First, a note about the word peshmerga. Peshmerga is Kurdish for “those who confront death.” Historically Kurds used the term to refer to any of their armed fighters. However, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq institutionalized the term by naming their official army Peshmerga. Thus, today, it is mostly used to refer to those official forces of the KRG, as distinguished from, for example, fighters of the PKK or the YPG (although some purists would say that technically they should all be referred to as peshmerga).
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the fighting forces are split between two factions who together govern the KRG in a coalition:
KDP: Alternatively referred to by its Kurdish acronym the PDK, the Kurdistan Democratic Party is a party in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. It has the most seats in the current Kurdish parliament and is led by Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG. Fighters loyal to the KDP fight under the Peshmerga banner. The KDP advocates full-independence of the KRG and has good relations with Turkey and the United States.
PUK: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is the main rival party of the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan, although they govern the KRG with the KDP in a two-party coalition today. Led by Jalal Talabani (who until recently was President of Iraq), they are slightly to the left of the KDP. Because they are an official party in the Kurdistan Regional Government, their fighters are also referred to as peshmerga, however, their media outlets have been attempting to distinguish their fighters from KDP peshmerga.
(Note: there are other big parties in the KRG, such as the opposition Gorran party, but these two parties seem to be the only ones with fighters.)
Kurdish factions based outside of Iraq that are currently fighting in Iraq:
PKK: PKK is the Kurdish acronym for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is based in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. Led by Abdullah Ocalan (often referred to as “Apo”), who is currently imprisoned by Turkey, they are a non-state guerilla fighting force. Their ideology differs from the main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan: they come from Marxist-Leninist foundations, although recently their ideology has tended towards autonomy and what they call “democratic confederalism,” an idea that stresses self-governance of local autonomous communities. This is in strict contrast to the Iraqi Kurdish factions, particularly the KDP, which aim to establish a centralized state for the Kurdish nation (or for a part of the Kurdish nation). Due to their attacks in Turkey, the PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
The PKK is reportedly participating in the attacks against the Islamic State and rescue efforts of Yazidis in Sinjar, although their forces are often confused with the YPG, due to their similar ideologies and use of symbols.
PYD: PYD is the Kurdish acronym for The Democratic Union Party, one of the main Syrian Kurdish political parties and the only one with a significant fighting force. They are based in Syrian Kurdistan, what Kurds refer to as “Rojava” (Western Kurdistan). Views on the relations between the PKK and the PYD vary. Some claim the PYD is only ‘influenced by’ Abdullah Ocalan’s ideology. Others say that the PYD is simply the Syrian faction of the PKK.
The PYD’s semi-official armed wing is the People’s Protection Units (YPG is their Kurdish acronym). After the withdrawal of the Syrian army from much of Rojava in 2012, the PYD has basically filled the void as the dominant political player in the area, declaring Kurdish-majority areas in Syria to be divided up into three self-governing autonomous cantons. The YPG has been fighting the Islamic State with varying success since 2013, mostly in towns and villages around the province of al-Hassakeh (but also in some places in Raqqah and Aleppo provinces).
There has been much tension between the PYD and the Iraqi Kurdish parties in the last few months. The PYD’s calls for Kurdish unity in the face of IS attacks against them went mostly unheeded by their counterparts in Iraq. The atmosphere was even more polarized by KRG-aligned Kurdish parties in Syria accusing the PYD of monopolizing power. Nevertheless, the YPG is participating in the attacks and rescue efforts in Sinjar. Although some are simply referring to them as the PKK, it does appear that the YPG is making a distinct effort on its own.