Across Iraq-Syria Border, Kurdish Unity Is Elusive

Ideological Differences Keep Both Sides at Odds

With ISIS eager to pick fights with Kurdish targets in both Iraq and Syria, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq moving toward secession, the question of West Kurdistan, the northeast corner of Syria, in a complicated one.

Ideally, most Kurds envision unity between the two regions, and with ISIS in the mix, a common enemy would seem to be an ideal unifier. Yet ideological differences have kept the two sides at arm’s length, and two de facto autonomous Kurdish regions, which border each other, from unifying.

Iraqi Kurdistan has a much longer history of independence, carving out significant autonomy during the US occupation, while Syria’s Kurds were basically thrust into declaring themselves autonomous in the middle of a civil war, as they try to muster enough fighters to keep ISIS out.

The ISIS was has even been a major convenience for Iraqi Kurdistan, which used it as a pretext to seize disputed cities like Kirkuk from Iraq on their way out the door. Syrian Kurdistan, by contrast, is faced with constant attacks by ISIS, and a less substantial fighting force to counter them.

But the real difference is ideological, as Iraqi Kurdistan’s leadership, centered around the Barzani family, takes a very traditionalist approach, with major Kurdish families the real movers in KRG politics. Syrian Kurdistan’s ruling PYD has sought more direct democracy as opposed to tribalism, and has not appreciated Barzani’s efforts to set up friendly parties in competition to them.

Even as differences remain, Iraqi Kurdistan is on track to become an important economic player in the region, especially with the addition of oil-rich Kirkuk, and the relatively isolated Syrian Kurds will likely eventually have to come to some sort of terms with them.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is senior editor of