Zheger Hassan is adjunct professor of political science at King's University College in London, Ont., and a fellow with MENARG at the University of Western Ontario
Last month, a violent skirmish took place in Sinjar, Iraq, between Kurdish peshmerga and Sinjar Resistance Units. The peshmerga involved in the violent clashes are not the same peshmerga that Canada is training and arming. Canada's support for the Kurdish region of Iraq and its peshmerga continues to expand, yet it is not clear that Canadian officials recognize the important differences and connections between the principal Kurdish group receiving Canadian military support and other Kurdish groups in Iraq and those from neighbouring Syria and Turkey.
Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan, and other Canadian officials, have inaccurately referred to the Kurdish peshmerga simply as "Kurds" and "peshmerga." This is consistent with a general assumption in Western countries that Kurds in the Middle East form one large allied ethnic group. The reality is far more complicated, as will become clear in the following outline of the key Kurdish groups. This will have an impact on Canadian interventions in Iraq.
The Kurdish region of Iraq is a semi-autonomous political entity with parallel administrations: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) governs the provinces of Dohuk and Erbil; and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) governs Sulaymaniyah province. Canada's activities in Iraq are conducted primarily with the KDP. It is the dominant political group and its leader, Masoud Barzani, is president of the region. This party holds a plurality of seats in the Kurdistan regional parliament. It also controls a large peshmerga force that is fiercely loyal to the party rather than to the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KDP's most important ally is the Turkish government, which, according to analysts, exercises significant influence over the KDP's decision-making.
The PUK remains relevant despite losing significant support from the population over the past decade. It has managed to do so because it controls its own peshmerga and receives substantial material and political support from Iran. In exchange for this support, Iran often uses the PUK as a vehicle to advance its agenda in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Iran is often accused of destabilizing the Kurdish region in an effort to maintain its influence in Iraq.
The political environment in the Kurdish region of Iraq is further complicated by the presence of peshmerga from Syria and Kurdish guerrillas from Turkey. The firefight in Sinjar involved three groups: Rojava peshmerga from Syria (Rojava is the name for the Kurdish region of Syria) and members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), as well as the Sinjar Resistance Units, who are Yazidi fighters (many of whom identify as Kurds) loyal to the PKK. It is generally believed that the Rojava peshmerga take orders from Mr. Barzani and the KDP.
The clash in Iraq suggests that the situation is untenable. The KDP has claimed the Sinjar region as its territory, but the PKK has established bases in Sinjar and it has ignored the KDP's appeals for it to leave Iraq. Instead, the PKK has entrenched itself in the Sinjar area and it has gained the loyalty and support of many Yazidis, who regard the PKK fighters as their saviours against the Islamic State. The base in Sinjar allows the PKK to simultaneously counter the KDP's growing influence in Rojava, and to launch military assaults against the very Turkish government that is allied with the KDP.
Canada is quickly becoming entangled in a web of competing political and military factions in Iraq and its new defence policy could make matters worse. One of the key pillars of the Liberal defence policy, entitled "Strong, Secure, Engaged," is the expansion of Canada's military activities abroad. Iraq is one military mission that should not be expanded, but rather curtailed.
Although it is well-intentioned, Canadians should be mindful that Canada is conducting its military activities with a specific Kurdish group rather than with some broader "peshmerga" and "Kurds." Kurdish rivalries have historical roots and violent clashes will continue to break out as each group attempts to expand its influence. Arming and training peshmerga committed to one political party will draw Canada into a protracted conflict.