Ethnic Kurds in Iraq and Syria are on the front-lines against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). They receive US training and weapons and work closely with the US-led military coalition. However, the two main groups receiving US assistance—the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—are different entities with competing political visions and rival armed groups. The PYD, in turn, is a subset of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organization that the United States, Turkey, and the European Union have all designated as a terrorist group.
The PKK, in turn, is divided into numerous subgroups, responsible for different aspects of the group’s political vision. The PKK advocates for the establishment of autonomous regions inside of established nation states. The group no longer advocates for an independent state, but it and its affiliates instead seeks to gain de-facto administrative control over areas within Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Currently, subsets of the PKK have taken up arms against the Turkish government to realize this goal.
The KRG, in contrast, has numerous political parties, a parliament, and operates autonomously within Iraq’s federal structure. The KRG’s political parties each have allied militia, who together are members of the Peshmerga.
The Atlantic Council has mapped these two groups, both to distill the key differences between the “Kurds” and to help policymakers better understand the PKK and the numerous organizations affiliated with it.
Alev Erhan is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Aaron Stein is the Senior Resident Fellow for Turkey with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.