Splits Among Kurdish Parties: Cracks Appear in Political Landscape
Enab Baladi – Investigations Team
No sooner had the first Kurdish party emerged than it faced trouble, confronting a series of pressures related to the Syrian political situation at the time. Some writers and historians have described the experience of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), founded in 1957, as “underdeveloped” as a result of ideological instability and the recurrent changes to the party’s goals as well as its political program. Others take the view that the emergence of a Kurdish in an era filled with political uncertainty was an advanced form of political action.
The “political will” that drove the establishment and rise of the party may not have been entirely or fully mature as it also reflected a great deal of egoism and desire to monopolize power, which caused the party to split into three separate parties. These three parties then gave birth to a complex political map with many divisions.
It would be unfair to say that the fragmentation of the party was caused by subjective factors alone. The weight of many political pressures faced by Kurdish political action and activism in Syria were significant during the period of unification between Syria and Egypt, followed by the rule of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. However, the relative political stability of the 1980’s did not mean that the splits within the Kurdish political movement subsided, despite the “relative openness” towards the Kurdish issue. Many Kurdish politicians recognized this new openness, which saw Hafez al-Assad permit the admission of three Kurdish political figures to the parliament alongside the easing of cultural and social restrictions on the Kurdish population.
Marxism, the parliament and openness to the “public sphere”
How did the Kurdish political movement develop in Syria at the end of the last century?
The Kurdish political movement has not enjoyed long periods of prosperity since its emergence in the 1950s. With each stage of its development, the movement came up against imprisonment, constant regional shifts, as well as old deficiencies in its own structures. This necessarily led to a series of “splits” within the party and it is difficult to predict when they will end or even slow down.
At the end of the last century, especially during the last two decades, political conditions were more suited to the expression of a “Kurdish political sentiment”. Yet, at the same time, it was necessary for the Kurdish movement to be highly cautious, given the nature of that phase, the Kurdish desire to maintain certain gains, and a sense of hope that “participation” in Syrian political life and other demands would soon be achieved.
Enab Baladi spoke to Zardasht Mohammed, a member of the Political Bureau of the Kurdish Yekiti Party, to discuss the major aspects of the revival of the Kurdish political movement at the end of the last century and the Kurdish move towards entering the parliament, as well as the ensuing splits that continue to divide Kurdish parties.
Marxism and student activism
According to Zardasht Mohammed, the early 1980s witnessed the beginning of the spread and revival of Marxist-Leninist ideology within the Kurdish political milieu and among young elites. During that period, the movement saw the spread of cultural discussion circles on leftist thought organized by the banned Communist Labour Party. This was linked to interaction with emerging Kurdish political groups in Turkey after Kenan Evren’s coup d’état and the arrival of some of their young members in Syria. The rise of Kurdish political action was also influenced by the spread of leftist nationalist ideology as well as the increasing sense of nationalism among Kurds. These circumstances created an active political–social milieu in Syria, both in terms of dissemination of Kurdish political ideas or in terms of defending a specific Kurdish identity by Syrian Kurdish parties.
On the other hand, the increasing number of Kurdish students in Syrian universities, especially in the University of Aleppo, turned such facilities into active centers of political activism as well as social work. Kurdish national events were celebrated, especially “Nowruz”, which was transformed into a festival for political and social activism.
Regarding the intellectual trends during this stage, Mohammed explains that two political currents emerged at the time within the Kurdish political movement. The first called for “the liberation and unification of Kurdistan and working and struggling within the most important area, which was Greater Kurdistan”. The second “based its political agenda on a specific program for each part of Kurdistan, with respect for the special characteristics of each area and its particular circumstances, as well as non-interference in the internal affairs of these regions”.
Zardasht Mohammed sees that these mentioned factors, in addition to the easing of security restrictions on Kurdish political activists, especially after the events that took place in the 1980s in Aleppo and Hama, generally helped to boost political activity and attract large segments of Kurdish society to engage in political action.
The Parliament and “raising the Kurdish issue” publicly
The 1990s began with the parliamentary elections in Syria, at a time when the Kurdish movement was active both at the political and social levels. It was the first time that the Syrian regime allowed all political forces to compete, within a permissible margin, on electoral lists, especially in the provinces of al-Hasakah and Aleppo.
The Kurdish Syrian movement was able to reach agreement on establishing a unified list in the province of al-Hasakah. Within the permissible margin for political competition, three candidates from the Kurdish list were elected to the House of Representatives on behalf of al-Hasakah province, in addition to some representatives for the province of Aleppo. This political achievement took Kurds around 40 years of political work. According to Zardasht Mohammed, Kurdish politicians were able to convey the voice and demands of the Kurds as a Syrian national cause and reach official Syrian circles. During this period, Kurdish parliamentary representation succeeded in raising several Syrian Kurdish issues, such as the issue of the “unfair census” and other demands.
Leaflets and “unified national consciousness”
Zardasht Mohammed considers the 1990s as an era of social exchange with the Syrian social milieu in general for the Kurdish political movement. This was realized through meetings and visits paid to the various Syrian political forces as well as participating in social and cultural events. In fact, the 1990 witnessed the emergence and establishment of an “independent Syrian Kurdish national consciousness” based on the Syrian context with its specificities and direct and indirect conditions.
This emerging consciousness was expressed through the distribution of communiqués to offices and homes, in addition to leaflets. However, it was the conduct of the authorities that “helped more to spread this consciousness of the Kurdish issue in the Syrian milieu through the wave of arrests of a number of political activists”.
Mohammed also stressed that this phase triggered “the start of the Kurdish-Arab political dialogue, if one can describe it as such. The dialogue began in the prisons of the Syrian regime following the arrests”, developing later through joint political and cultural activities and extended exchanges between Kurdish parties and Syrian Arab parties, as well as interaction between various Syrian communities.
In Zardasht Mohammed’s view, this dialogue greatly contributed to moving closer towards the unification of the Kurdish movement. This era witnessed the unification of five parties in one single party, resulting in the formation of the Kurdish Yekiti Party in Syria. The party was founded as a Kurdish Syrian party launched from the Syrian context, seeking to establish political alliances with Syrian political forces and work to remove the imaginary walls around the Syrian political scene.
Thus, the “Syrian national political action” began through the participation in public political activities of Kurdish forces on the one hand and Syrian forces on the other hand. Additionally, community activities such as the revival of ceremonial events and demonstrations as well as joint sit-ins in Damascus were held to “bring the Syrian Kurdish political movement together within unified political alliances, as an expression of unity embodied by a Kurdish democratic coalition and a Kurdish democratic front”.
An experiment in unity versus constant splits
With the end of the nineties, the Kurdish movement was able to achieve more political interaction at the Syrian national level. Hence, the movement was able to stop being a purely Kurdish-focused movement and move towards a general national context, in addition to raising awareness of the need to consider the Kurdish cause as a national issue and resolve it within the Syrian national framework. Alongside various political forces and community actors, the Kurdish movement was able to establish a national political framework that included all of these actors.
According to Zardasht Mohammed, the Kurdish movement was to some extent able to unite and establish a Syrian Kurdish political discourse in addition to raising the Kurdish issue among the Syrian opposition as well as the Syrian authorities. The movement made use of all possible political, cultural, religious, economic and artistic platforms.
He adds that the Kurdish political movement was organized at that stage within the broad framework of the Democratic Alliance and the Democratic Front. Later, the movement was able to unify these two frameworks into a “joint body” between the Alliance and the Front until it later joined forces with those who had announced the Damascus Declaration.
Regarding the successive splits within the movement, Mohammed pointed out that it had become a pathological and unjustified phenomenon, as well as there being no legal or political basis to justify this “anomalous situation”. This phenomenon indicates that the Kurdish parties “failed to understand the circumstances of this specific political phase and establish a unified leadership on the one hand, and the role of external interference in their internal affairs on the other hand”.
Zardasht Mohammed hopes that the Kurdish political situation will emerge from the narrow framework of the party’s definition to a more mature political phase, by establishing political frameworks according to clear programs that help them transcend the current situation, respect Kurdish-Syrian particularities and seek to preserve national Kurdish interests and strategies in Syria. However, he believes that the surrounding circumstances, instability and imminent dangers have contributed to reviving the “bloated party ego” and caused many splits within Kurdish party structures, “many of which cannot be justified on logical grounds”.
Unification, separation and division…
Map of splits within Kurdish parties between 1980 and 2000
In the early 1980s, the Kurdish party landscape witnessed increased successive divisions between parties, which clearly continued until the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium. It is possible to summarize the most important characteristics of this period in three main points, the first being political divisions between the parties, mostly due to external interference in their affairs or to personal differences between their senior leaders, their positions towards the authorities, their demands relating to the rights of the Kurds, or the nature and form of their relationship with the authorities.
The second point is the expansion of political activity between Syrian Kurds, despite the deterioration in the organizational situation of parties within the political movement as a result of a combination of local, national and regional conditions. The third point is the success of Kurdish parties in finally winning seats in the Syrian parliament, organizing public activities and emerging somewhat from the phase of total clandestine work with the establishment of coalitions and new political frameworks between these parties, such as the Democratic Alliance and the Democratic Front.
The Kurdish left
On February 15, 1980, three Kurdish parties – the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party led by Abd al-Hamid Haj Darwish, the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria led by Sheikh Mohammed Baqi, and the Kurdish Left Party in Syria led by Ismat Sida – signed a coalition agreement. However, after the signing of the agreement, the Kurdish Left Party witnessed splits due to the nature of the relationship that linked the signatories with the Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which resulted in the emergence of what is known as the Kurdish Workers Party in Syria led by Sibghatullah Hizani.
In addition, the Kurdish People’s Union Party in Syria was founded between 1980 and 1982, headed by Salah Badr al-Din. The party split in 1990 and a dissident group, which included Fuad Aliko, Hasan Saleh, Saad al-Din Mulla and Abdel Baki Youssef, formed a new political party with the same name.
In the early nineties, the Kurdish Workers’ Party joined the initiative to launch the Kurdish Yekiti Party. The Kurdish People’s Union Party, which split from Salah Badr al-Din, also joined the initiative. Meanwhile, the Kurdish Left Party, split into two factions in 1993 after the death of Ismat Sida and after Yusuf Dibu took the position of head of the party, the first faction headed by Mohammed Musa and the second by Khairuddin Murad.
In the early eighties, the Kurdish Socialist Democratic Party, headed by Saleh Kaddu, was formed. In 2002, the party merged with the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party led by Abd al-Hamid Haj Darwish before leaving the party in 2008 and joining the Kurdish Left Party (Mohammad Musa’s faction).
The Kurdish right
In 1982, the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party in Syria, led by Abd al-Hamid Haj Darwish, witnessed organizational rifts between the party’s leader and the Aleppo Organization during preparations for the general party conference. However, these disagreements did not lead to the establishment of a new party. In the nineties, however, the party faced a new crisis, which resulted in the establishment of two additional parties, the National Democratic Party in Syria led by Taher Sufuk and the Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party led by Aziz Dawei, who, in 2008, changed this party’s name to the Kurdish Democratic Equality Party in Syria.
“The Party” (Kurdistan Democratic Party – KDP)
In 1980, Kamal Ahmad Agha became Secretary-General of the KDP in Syria. In October 1981, after the Secretary-General invited members of the party to exercise their right to vote in the second legislative elections under Hafez al-Assad, the party faced an internal crisis after a member of the Political Bureau, Muhyiddin Sheikh Ali, issued a statement opposing the party leadership and calling for boycotting the elections. This was the start of the party’s fragmentation. The KDP in Syria turned into two parties with the same name. In 1983, the party led by Muhyiddin Sheikh Ali held a conference in which the party was renamed the Kurdish Democratic Action Party in Syria, which adopted Marxist-Leninist ideology.
In 1988, the KDP witnessed a new split, as a new party emerged from it with the same name under the leadership of Ismail Omar. In 1996, Kamal Ahmad Agha died and Nasser Eddin Ibrahim was elected as the new Secretary-General until 1998, when the party split again into two parties with the same name, the first led by Nazir Mustafa and the other led by Nasr al-Din Ibrahim.
Another split occurred in the same year within the KDP, which resulted in the establishment of a new party called the Kurdish Democratic Party – Syria, or the so-called Abdul Rahman Aloji Bloc.
Establishment of the Kurdish Yekiti Party
In 1990, the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (Ismail Omar’s faction) merged with the Kurdish Democratic Action Party (Muhyiddin Sheikh Ali’s faction) under the name “The Kurdish United Democratic Party”. In 1993, other parties joined this party, such as the Kurdish People’s Union Party (Fuad Aliko and Hasan Saleh’s faction), the Kurdish Workers’ Party in Syria led by Azad Ali, and another group that had split from the Kurdish Left Party led by Siddiq Sharnakhi. The party’s name was then changed to the Kurdish Yekiti Party in Syria and Ismail Omar was elected the party’s chairman.
The new Yekiti Party carried out a poster campaign in 1994, 1995 and 1996 during the commemoration of the exceptional census in al-Hasakah province to demand the rights of those who were deprived of Syrian nationality and the resolution of the Kurdish issue in Syria. This movement was the first of its kind in the history of the Kurdish political movement. It ended with the arrest by the Syrian regime of the party’s members and supporters. The party then witnessed disagreements between its members concerning the continuation of the campaign. Therefore, the party split into two blocs – the first bloc was the “Yekiti Party and the Workers’ Party”; and the second bloc was the People’s Union Party, whose members gradually left throughout 1997 and 1998. The bloc announced in 2000 that it had formed the Kurdish Yekiti Party in Syria led by Abdel Baki Youssef.
The splits in the Kurdish political movement did not stop at the end of the nineties. The first decade of the new millennium witnessed more splits and new mergers. These splits have remained a permanent phenomenon in the history of Kurdish parties in Syria for the last sixty years, ever since the establishment of the first Kurdish political party in Syria in 1957.
Splits within the Kurdish movement in Syria: Vultures devouring a dead body
The Kurdish movement in Syria, compared to other movements in neighboring countries, is distinguished by the large number of parties that emerge through splits that began in August 1960 with the imprisonment of the leadership of the KDP in Syria (founded in 1957). Between the beginning of the eighties and the end of the nineties, many successive splits occurred, with each party giving birth to two other parties, each of which then gives birth to two others, and so on. As a result, today the number of parties exceeds 40.
The most prominent of these splits is that which led to the formation of the Left Democratic Party and the Progressive Democratic Party in 1965. After a failed attempt to unify these two parties, a third party, the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria (Interim Leadership), was formed. This was followed by further splits that occurred mostly in the Left Party and the Democratic Party, and less so in the Progressive Democratic Party. The latter in its turn gave birth to some large parties such as the Unity Party (formed by dissidents from the Democratic Party) and the two parties of Yekiti and Azadi (both formed by dissidents from the Left), as well as a large number of other smaller and less influential parties.
Those who follow the Kurdish issue say that there are many factors that led to these splits, including the influence of major Kurdish parties, especially the “Party” (Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iraq) and the personal interests of second-tier leaders who split from their parties. Others take the view that these splits are the result of intellectual differences between dissidents. However, the lack of analysis of the role of these factors can be understood mainly by the fact that they cannot completely account for the very negative role in Kurdish political “life” in Syria, while the did not have the same effect in other Kurdish areas (especially in Turkey and Iraq) despite the existence of similar “personal interests” and “intellectual differences” in Kurdish parties (and the Middle Eastern in general) in those areas, as well as the relentless attempts by Kurdish parties to influence their rivals in Iraq and Syria.
The main difference between the Kurdish political movement in Syria and that in Iraq and Turkey is the exposure of the former to huge defeats, in relation to its size for relatively long periods of time, which made political work almost impossible in the eyes of Kurdish leaders in Syria. Thus, the foundational era and the political work that accompanied it ended in 1960 with the arrest of all the leaders of the party and many of its founders in the period of Syrian-Egyptian unity. Both wings of the Kurdish movement at that time issued political statements and considered that activity as the only possible form of “peaceful struggle”.
A similar situation occurred decades later, with the division of the Union Party after the Syrian regime’s 1992 wide campaign of arrests against the party’s leaders and founders after the publication of posters calling for Syrian nationality for Kurds who were denied it. This was an attempt to go beyond the usual traditional forms of political work, which were limited to issuing party statements. The Democratic Party saw its first split in 1975 following the failure of the Kurdish revolution in Iraq led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the most prominent supporter of the party, and after the arrest of its head, Daham Miro and some of its leaders in 1973.
We can see a similar situation in Iraq and Turkey, with the failure of the 1975 revolution leading to the split of the Patriotic Union Party from “The Party”. In Turkey, splits from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were accompanied with the arrest of its leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Unlike “The “Party” and the PKK, which were able to move quickly and re-open the way for political work (or military activities, as a form of political action), Kurdish parties in Syria were unable to quickly overcome the shock in order to restore their capacity for political action. They resorted to interpreting the political “peaceful struggle” as being limited to issuing statements, to the extent that this became the justification for refusing to participate in the demonstrations that occurred at the beginning of the nineties, based on their “commitment to the peaceful and democratic struggle” as if demonstrations were a military and dictatorial act.
It took a long time – over four decades – to see a change in the traditions of political work within the Kurdish movement. This change began with the Union Party, starting with the poster campaign in 1992, and then a decade later with the Yekiti Party (an offshoot of the Union Party), which began the demonstrations in 2002 in central Damascus.
Periods of total stagnation in politics played the biggest role in the phenomenon of countless splits in two ways. The first is that political parties became inactive where there was almost no role except for the head of the party, who rarely ever gave up his position, which pushed other senior leaders to look for a role to play by breaking off from the party and becoming the leader of a new party instead of endlessly waiting to become president of the same party. The second mechanism was that the political struggle, which contented itself with issuing statements, contributed to the weakening of political action and the management of parties, since this type of struggle only required one person and a printer, as Kurds often joke with regards to their political parties.
All the above indicates a connection between defeat and Kurdish divisions. Political re-evaluations just after defeat led to fundamental splits in the Kurdish movement in Syria, while political inertia, whose consequences accumulated over a long period after defeat, helped to provoke more minor splits in terms of their political influence on the Kurdish arena.
Kurdish figures who lived through splits in the political movement
Abdul Hameed Haj Darwish
He studied at the Arab Islamic Institute in Aleppo and traveled to Damascus to register at the Roman Catholic Secondary School. He did not finish his university studies at the Faculty of Law because he was persecuted, arrested and imprisoned several times by the authorities, according to Fares Osman, a member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Progressive Party of Syria.
In 1955, he founded the Society for the Revival of Kurdistan with Osman Sabri, Muhammad Salah Darwish, Abdul Majeed Darwish, Hamza Nuwayran and others. In 1956, he also founded with Osman Sabri and Hamza Nuwayran, the first Kurdish political party called the Kurdish Democratic Party.
In 1981, Darwish became chairman of the Committee for Cooperation and Coordination between the Progressive Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PKK Party – Turkey and the PDKI Party – Iran. He became a member of the Syrian parliament with Kamal Ahmad and Fuad Aliko after the legislative elections in 1990.
Darwish was one of the first founders of the opposition’s Damascus Declaration. He contributed to the establishment of the Kurdish National Council (ENKS) in Syria in 2011 and headed the Council’s delegation to the Geneva II talks in 2014.
His published works include “Focus on the Kurdish Political Movement in Syria”, “Kurds in the Syrian Peninsula” and “Four Years in the People’s Assembly”.
Salah Badr al–Din
Salah Badr al-Din was born on March 11, 1945 in the village of Naamatli in al-Qamishli, in northeastern Syria and lived with his family in the village of Jumaya.
Badr al-Din joined the Kurdish Democratic Party early on. He studied at the Faculty of Law of Damascus University and was arrested shortly before graduating, as he told Enab Baladi in an interview.
He spent most of his life in clandestine work and in hiding inside Syria, and later in Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia and Germany. He was imprisoned for one year in the Citadel of Damascus Prison before being transferred to the Supreme State Security Court in Damascus and stripped of his civil rights.
He held the position of Secretary of the Kurdish Democratic Left Party in Syria after the 1968 Conference and then Secretary-General of the Kurdish Popular Union Party after its name was changed at the Fifth Conference in 1980.
He founded the Kawa Association for Kurdish Culture in Lebanon as a cultural institution between 1975 and 1978 and has headed the Association in Iraq since 1999.
He established relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and received an award known as the Shield of the Palestinian Revolution from Yasser Arafat. He currently serves as president of the Kurdish-Arab Friendship Society.
He left his position as president of the People’s Union Party at the beginning of the 2000s and finally left party work in 2003.
Badr al-Din has written a large number of works on the history of the Kurdish political movement as well as hundreds of articles in Kurdish and Arabic newspapers and magazines.
Head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria (Yekiti)
Ismail Omar was born in the village of Qara Qawi in rural al-Darbasiyah in al-Hasakah province in north-eastern Syria in 1947. He graduated from the Department of Geography at Damascus University in 1969.
He joined the Kurdish Democratic Party (“The Party”) in 1963 and worked for the al-Darbasiyah organization. He remained in the left wing of the party after the split of 1965 until 1970, according to the head of the Syrian Kurdish Writers Union, Dilwar Zenki.
Badr-al Din was elected to the party’s Central Committee and Political Bureau in 1983 during the Third Party Conference. In 1988, a split occurred within the party, and a new faction emerged called the “Sixth Conference” faction, which held its exceptional conference in March 1989 and merged with the Kurdish Democratic Labor Party and leftist grassroots members in August 1990. This led to the emergence of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, of which Badr-al Din became Secretary.
Three years later, a three-way union took place between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the Kurdish People’s Union (which had split from the party of the same name) whose secretary was Badr al-Din and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, in a unification conference in April 1993. The new Central Committee assigned Badr al-Din the position of Secretary of the new party, which was called the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria (Yekiti).
Badr al-Din was chosen by the Kurdish political movement as one of the candidates for the National Assembly elections in 1994. In 2001, he was elected chairman of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria.
Badr al-Din was a member of the Supreme Committee and the General Council of the Kurdish Democratic Alliance, as well as a member of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration. He also represented the Kurdish Democratic Alliance in the General Secretariat of the Declaration.
Badr al-Din died in October 18, 2010 in the city of al-Qamishli and was buried in his hometown (the village of Qara Qawi) in rural al-Darbasiyah.