Kurds and their ‘Others’: Minority Inclusion in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan

By Bita Mousavi

On August 10, 2015, the Constitutional Committee of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) met in Erbil to discuss a two council solution to the issue of minority representation.

As outlined, two councils — one for religious minorities and another for ethnic minorities — would work to safeguard the rights of minority groups, such as Yazidis, Chaldeans and Turcomen, and facilitate their full participation in civil society and processes of governance. Although thousands of internally displaced Arabs and Yazidis have turned to the KRG for refuge in the wake of offensive attacks by the Islamic State, non­-Kurdish minorities have voiced concern over the lack of political agency they are met with in the KRG, and the need for such a commission attests to the severity of the issue. 

Approaches to minority inclusion in Syrian Rojava further highlight obstacles facing the KRG. An opinion piece by David Graeber published in The Guardian took its central question as its headline: “Why is the world ignoring the Revolutionary Kurds in Syria?” The article described the Kurdistan Workers Party of Turkey (PKK) as “inspired by the Zapatistas in Chiapas,” the YJA Star, the woman’s service arm of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as reminiscent of the Mujeres Libres in Civil War­era Spain, and applauded provisions made for ethnic balance and gender parity in Rojava’s democratic decision­making bodies. In a situation with so many parallels to previous revolutionary situations, Graeber wondered if the international left would turn its back once again to efforts at democratization in Syria and repeat the same mistakes of the Spanish Civil War. 

Drawing on these recent events, this article seeks to compare contemporary approaches to the question of minority inclusion in KRG and Syrian Rojava. I weigh the theoretical outlooks of the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) and Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq, as defined by their respective political platforms and official publications, against their actual treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. To do so, I have evaluated government documents and party affiliated publications—official cabinet documents for the KRG and the “Social Contract” of the PYD—against reports produced by independent news outlets such as al­-Monitor, and international organizations like Amnesty International, Assyria Council of Europe, and Human Rights Watch. These sources suggest that the transnational, integrative approach to politics emphasized by the PKK and PYD has the potentialthough currently not fully securedto protect minority political rights in Kurdish regions. Conversely, I argue that the nationalist commitments of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and KRG are by their nature exclusionary and inhibitive of real minority protections.

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The KRG has, as Professor Nicole F. Watts suggests, a “mixed record” with democracy. To be sure, elections are relatively free as well as regularly held. In fact, in all of Iraq, the three provinces—Duhok, Erbil, and Sulaimaniyah—administered by the KRG had the highest voter turnouts in the 2010 parliamentary election.

However, dissent in the KRG is not always safe, nor do formal institutions always engender the sort of ‘horizontal power sharing’ they are designed to. Though the political freedoms and civil liberties enjoyed in Iraqi Kurdistan are greater than those in the rest of Iraq, the KRG has been scrutinized for its restrictions on and violations of civil liberties: attacks on independent media and dissident journalists; torture at the hand of government forces; and the increasing monopolization of state politics and commerce by a two-party­-regime.

In an act of reprisal for their coverage of the 2011 protests in Sulaimaniyah, the headquarters of independent news station Naila Radio and Television (NRT) were set on fire, leaving the building and all the costly equipment in it entirely unsalvageable. While attacks on independent media are undemocratic, the emergence of oppositional news sources has “[produced] a more pluralistic national narrative, offered alternative sources of information, challenged Kurdish political elites for control over historic memory, and provided civic and political opposition groups with new platforms to publicize their ideas and grievances.” Thus, the increasingly pluralistic nature of politics in Iraqi Kurdistan can also be understood as a step towards democratization.

The question of democracy in quasi­-states such as the KRG is further complicated by the competing demands of equal representation and Kurdish nationalism. With its existence grounded in the ethos of ethnic self-­determination, the KRG faces the dual challenge of maintaining national unity in the face of external crises and of governing in a democratic fashion, since their authority is legitimated by their supposed representation of “the people.” 

A unified national front helps ward off external threats (real or imagined) but also discourages opposition and excludes minorities as well as other outliers as a result of its homogenizing effects. Watts summarily writes of this double-­bind, “Although nearly all commentators and politicians pay service to democracy, it is sometimes presented as a luxury the KRG cannot yet afford.” The need to differentiate Kurdish identity from Arab identity adds another point of pressure to democratization projects.

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Kurdish political elites, concerned with their international image, have always been sensitive to criticism of human rights abuses. Their reputation, however, is not the only thing on the line. With notions of Kurdish identity hinging on Arab difference, the “democratic-­ness” of Kurdish politics takes on an important existential dimension that has exacerbated issues of minority representation.

The KRG, on paper, is highly inclusive. Yet, while it allows for limited opposition and demonstrates a “vibrant political culture,” whether opposing ideas can be peacefully debated is another matter. The state’s ongoing clampdown on opposition parties, media outlets, and political activists constitutes a grave violation of civil liberties. The specter of external threat has been invoked to justify such abuses, but for the KRG, at this moment, the threat is real.

With the KRG and the Islamic State sharing an amorphous and violent frontline, another layer of difficulties is added to the question of democracy. It seems that at any moment a moratorium on political activity could be called and deemed acceptable, even recommendable, if such prohibitions could expedite the restabilization of regional security. It is important to recognize here that the same forces which helped facilitate the rise of ISIL, namely Western foreign policy, have historically impeded democratization in the KRG. Denise Natali explains, “the [U.S.] aid regime [has] left the region weak and dependent . . . Lacking a real understanding of the regional distinctions of Iraq, or refusing to accept them, the U.S. government developed a contradictory policy of trying to decentralize power at the local levels . . . while strengthening the central government.” Such confused U.S. foreign policy, along with competing imperatives inside the KRG, compromises attempts at democratization that might otherwise integrate non­-Kurdish minorities in processes of governance. 

The Rojava Revolution is a recent development in the Syrian Kurdish movement, and the political field therein has not always been so dominated by the PYD. Christian Sinclair and Sirwan Kajjo delineate the growth of the Syrian Kurdish movement along two major lines: the evolution of 1957 KDPS parties, characterized by their historical associations with regional powers such as the KRG and KDP of Iraq, and the emergence of PYD affiliated parties from 2003 on. The KDPS formed the Kurdish National Council (KNC) in October 2011 with the express aim of uniting disparate Kurdish parties and youth groups. While the KNC worked fruitlessly to iron out political differences, the PYD quietly expanded the footholds of its political, civil and armed organizations. As a result, when President Bashar al­-Assad’s forces withdrew from Kurdish areas, a political vacuum formed with the PYD positioned and ready to take control.


In what has been called the Rojava Revolution, the PYD subsumed government buildings and local services into their own institutions and closed off Kurdish areas from the threat of rebel fighters. The PYD worked more than any other party to affect immediate change. Through outreach programs, Kurdish schools, civil organizations and their People’s Protection Units (YPG), the party provided much needed direction and support, all held together by a coherent ideological narrative. The Syrian state, meanwhile, continued to provide its usual services to “liberated” PYD areas, allowing the PYD to govern with state­like power. Although the PYD has asserted itself as a legitimate governing institution in Rojava, the KNC continues to vie for power in Syrian Kurdistan.

In November 2013, the PYD declared northern Kurdish areas autonomous, and quickly after, on January 21, divided controlled areas into three Cantons or governing units: Efrin, Kobani and Jazira. Each Canton is administered in accordance with Abdullah Öcalan’s theory of ‘democratic autonomy’, which advocates local self­rule and the actualization of communal goals. This theory translates concretely into a presidential system and a legislative body of 22 ministries for each Canton. To further marginalize the KNC and other oppositional parties, the PYD articulated laws prohibiting the formation of parties that did not recognize the Social Contract governing Kurdish areas. To Harriet Allsopp, a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute, this reduced the KNC and other pro­Kurdish parties to the same status imposed upon them by the Ba’ath, “this time by another Kurdish organization.”

The PYD, mirroring the ideological traditions of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party of Turkey (PKK), rejects “the nation­state system as a model for the Middle East and [attempts] to replace it with a confederation of peoples: A process of radical change including both society and institutions of state. Yet, for all their emphasis on local self­rule, the PYD has been accused of draconian abuses including, but not limited to, arbitrary arrest and detention, restrictions on free speech and assembly, and violations of the internationally recognized fair trial laws. The totalizing nature of PYD rule has also helped facilitate the expulsion and exclusion of opposition parties and social organizations. Allsopp confirms that PYD opponents, especially those affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, were intimidated, imprisoned, or altogether expelled from PYD areas.

Competing Claims

On May 24, 2007, the KRG Cabinet released a “list of rights of nationalist groups, religions and religious communities of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq” in an attempt to satisfy demands made by religious and ethnic minorities for a more inclusive government. The document, written in Arabic and still not translated in full to English, is made up of fifteen articles that together guarantee full cultural, economic, legal, national, and political equality between Kurds and religious and ethnic minorities. Cabinet members recognize minority claims to indigeneity as equal those made by Kurds and promise to “encourage the return of persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities of the indigenous population of the region who have been forced to emigrate . . . outside the region or outside of Iraq” (2007, Article V).

Issues of forced migration and population disruption are, however, definitively attributed to Saddam Hussein’s regime, thereby foreclosing any possibility of KRG involvement in minority discrimination. By casting themselves as simply unfortunate enough to have succeeded a government which failed to respect the religious and ethnic pluralism of the country, KRG cabinet members wash their hands clean of any role in violence against non­-Kurds.

As recently as 2013, however, Assyrians, also known as Syriac Christians, complained that they are not recognized by the KRG, that their demands are ignored, and that threats are made against them. The Assyria Council of Europe (ACE), a lobbying organization based out of Brussels that brands itself “the voice of the Assyrian Diaspora communities,” released in March 2012 a “Human Rights Report on Assyrians in Iraq: The Exodus from Iraq” that details forms of job discrimination and limitations on freedom of speech suffered by Assyrian refugees in the KRG. Chief among the factors making it difficult for Assyrians to live as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraqi Kurdistan, they argued, are differences in language and bureaucratic mismanagement. In both employment and education, Assyrians struggle to integrate themselves into the existing civil and structures of a predominantly Kurdish­speaking region. Residency permits constitute another burden. They must be obtained from the KRG Interior Ministry and renewed annually, complications which impede their ability to search for and sustain employment.

Competition between the Baghdad government and the KRG for territories such as Kirkuk has also prevented the instatement of real minority protections. In Kirkuk, violence against Assyrians and other minority communities reached unprecedented heights in 2011. Four Assyrians were killed, five kidnapped, and three Assyrian churches were attacked that year, culminating in what the Assyira Council of Europe dubbed a “mass exodus.” Instability in Kirkuk and Mosul is an outgrowth of the conflict between the central Iraqi government, Kurdish forces, and rebel extremists for control over disputed territories. Both provinces used to represent some of the most ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse regions of Iraq, inhabited by Turcomen, Assyrians, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious groups.

In the absence of a clear political arrangement, attempts made by the KRG and the central Iraqi government to assume control of contested regions have left vulnerable minorities in an increasingly uncertain political situation. The presence of peshmerga security forces in Kirkuk and Mosul, outside recognized KRG borders, further inflames already existing tensions. The presence of ISIL makes the situation even more volatile. These conflicts lead to a tense environment, and minorities are caught in the middle of competing state and state ­like institutions, none of which firmly represent their interests. 

For months, Kurdish forces barred displaced Arabs from returning to their homes in portions of Ninewa and Erbil, while permitting Kurds to return to those areas and even moving them into the homes of displaced Arabs.A February 2015 report published by Humans Rights Watch titled “Iraqi Kurdistan: Arabs Displaced, Cordoned Off, Detained” confirmed the negative effects of territorial disputes on non­-Kurdish minorities. It found that Iraqi Kurdish forces have confined thousands of Arabs to “security zones” captured, since August 2014, from ISIL. For months, Kurdish forces barred displaced Arabs from returning to their homes in portions of Ninewa and Erbil, while permitting Kurds to return to those areas and even moving them into the homes of displaced Arabs.

Some restrictions were lifted in January 2015, after Human Rights Watch reported their findings to the regional government, but others still remain. Local Kurdish residents confirmed these findings, reporting that KRG forces have destroyed dozens of Arab homes in the area, which the KRG seeks to incorporate into a Kurdish autonomous zone. Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch’s senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher reported, “Cordoning off Arab residents and refusing to let them return home appears to go well beyond a reasonable security response to the ISIS threat. The US and other countries arming the Iraqi Kurdish forces should make clear that they won’t stand for discrimination.” The US has pledged $350 million to help create three new peshmerga brigades, and, with the KRG hoping to renew its status as a geopolitical ally, the topic of minority discrimination has become a sensitive point of discussion for both U.S. and KRG officials. 

KRG checkpoint officials were also revealed to be refusing Iraqi-Arabs entrance into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq unless they had notarized sponsorship from Kurdish guarantors. In its statement to Human Rights Watch, KRG leaders denied such discriminatory practices, insisting instead that checkpoint procedures are security measures which apply “to everybody, including Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, [and] Christians.”

However in December, Human Rights Watch witnessed intelligence officials allowing Iraqi Kurds into the Kurdish autonomous areas while denying Iraqi Arabs entry. In two instances in September, Human Rights Watch saw checkpoint officials push Arab families away from checkpoints leading into Erbil and Kirkuk. Many displaced Arabs who lacked required sponsorship were found living in abandoned buildings outside of KRG borders. HRW found that emergency assistance set aside by the central government for displaced Iraqis able to reach Iraqi Kurdistan never reached them.

Yazidis have joined this chorus of minority discontent. A November 2015 article published by The Kurdistan Tribune reported that two Yazidi peshmerga officers had been killed following a dispute with a Kurdish truck driver, who was also killed, over the ownership of some sheep. Mount Sinjar had been liberated on November 13 through the joint effort of independent Yazidi forces, Kurdish fighters, and KRG peshmerga.

Also “liberated” were thousands of sheep who had been stolen from Yazidi shepherds by ISIL. On November 21, 2015, Kurdish peshmergas tried to transport some of these sheep into Kurdistan, but Yazidis in Shingal prevented the move, claiming the sheep belonged to them. Four days later, on November 25, a Kurdish truck driver tried to transport about a hundred sheep to Duhok when Yazidi Peshmerga stopped him. Some recognized the sheep as belonging to Yazidis and having been stolen by ISIL after the 2014 attacks on Sinjar. The incident, which came four months after August talks of a two council solution to minority representation in Erbil, shows that religious and ethnic minorities live in sharp contrast to the world of liberal diplomacy simulated by KRG officials.

In contrast to the KRG, provisions made for equal minority rights in the PYD Social Contract seems to be better attuned to the needs of non­-Kurdish minorities. Article 23A of the Social Contract, reprinted in its entirety in a Human Rights Watch report titled “Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD ­run Enclaves of Syria,” guarantees that, “All have the right to life according to the birth identity (ethnic, religious, ideological, traditional sexist, cultural, linguistic).”

togetherFollowing this is Article 24 which promises, “Every individual or group has the freedom of opinion, thought, conscience, and expression of itself, as long as they do not exceed the ethical community structure and does not endanger civil peace and do not aim at exclusion and hegemony.” The qualification succeeding the promise of free speech in Article 24 makes implicit reference to the ways in which ethnic and religious difference have historically been instrumentalized both by and against Kurds. Cognizance of this fact is expressed again in Article 32 which promises religious freedom, provided that religion “not be politicized and used as a tool to instigate and sow discord.” Together these articles, while safeguarding the equal rights of religious and ethnic minorities, ensure that the Rojava Revolution remains a project rooted not in Kurdish nationalism but in a transnational vision of radical democracy.

Yet, despite efforts made by the PYD to recognize and respect ethnic, social, and religious difference, international organizations like Human Rights Watch have singled out the PYD and the YPG for abuses ranging from arbitrary arrest and detention, fair trial violations, inadequate prison conditions, unsolved disappearances and killings, and the use of children in security forces.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria argues that verdicts and arrests enforced by the PYD are “politically motivated.” Relatives of three people convicted by PYD courts in April 2014 told Human Rights Watch that they had no information about the criminal charges brought before their family members, and that they believed their relatives had been arrested because of political activity. Asayish general commander Ciwan Ibrahim wrote to Human Rights Watch in May 2014, “We do not detain a single political prisoner . . . All detainees are charged with criminal or terrorism­related charges” Senior administration officials in Jazira similarly asserted the criminal basis of all individual arrests. Kanan Barakat, head of internal security in Jazira, reported, “We have no people arrested on a political basis.” He insisted that arrested political activists had all been charged with criminal offenses, mostly drug or arms possession or involvement in extremist groups.

Although both the PYD and KRG have been criticized for their contravention of civil liberties, an examination of international reports reveals that violations occurring in PYD­controlled Rojava are motivated at their core by the desire to circumscribe the political influence of rival parties such as the KDPS, while abuses in the KRG reflect differential treatment between Kurds and minority groups, a discriminatory policy that only takes on the skin of protective measures against possible terrorist infiltration.

This fact is reflected in KRG government publications as well. While the “list of rights of nationalist groups, religions and religious communities of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq” issued by the KRG Cabinet acknowledges some of the natural rights of minority groups, it firmly maintains the majority status of Kurds. The document states, “In Iraqi Kurdistan, alongside the Kurdish majority, [live] different national races and the followers of other religions, such as Turkmen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, as well as some Arabs.”

The decision to choose national races over minority groups as the proper appellation for non­-Kurdish communities reframes discussions on minority representation altogether. Without the label of “minority,” Assyrians and Arabs, to name a few groups, are deprived of the special political compensation and legislative attention that title carries.



In 1998 Abbas Vali explained that Kurdish nationalism is defined in no small part, “by the changing relationship of Kurdish identity to its ‘others.’ This relationship,” he explained, “is one of violence, of political exclusion and suppression of ‘difference’ . . . This dialectics of violence defines not only the ethos of Kurdish national identity, but also the modality of its relationship with its others. It assigns a specific character to Kurdish nationalism.”

Now, in 2015, despite the autonomy enshrined in the quasi­state status of Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish nationalism there continues to be articulated through the suppression of civil society. Thus, even with the tables totally turned, we see that the projects of Kurdish nationalism, because of its necessarily reliance on ideas of ethnic difference and its need for demographic homogeneity, reproduce the same exclusionary effects as any other possible nationalism.

Ernest Gellner expressed the inevitably of conflict inherent to nationalist projects in these terms, “[T]here is a very large number of potential nations on earth,” accordingly, “not all nationalisms can be satisfied, at any rate at the same time. The satisfaction of some spells the frustration of others.” This is not to say that pro-­Kurdish movements should be abandoned, but that another way forward be sought out. The autonomist project playing out in Syrian Rojava presents an alternative to Kurdish nationalism that, as such, allows for non-­Kurdish minority inclusion. The radical reworking of relations between Kurds and their “others” under the project of democratic autonomy has produced a new dialectic of interaction, one based not on notion of ethnic and cultural difference but class solidarity and radical democracy.

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