Geographic Division: An Ignored Factor Affecting Kurdish Unity

By Rojin Mukriyan

Since the revolt of Sheikh Ubeydullah of Nehri in 1880, the Kurdish people have been struggling to achieve a form of political liberty based explicitly on the notion of Kurdish national unity.[1] Despite this continuous struggle, the Kurds are still dominated. This leads to an important question: why have the Kurds failed to achieve political liberation based on national unity? Some scholars such as Umair Muhammad and Kardo Bokani claim that the Kurdish people follow an unsuitable path in terms of ideology that does not fit the Kurdish question. While their reasonings are valid and convincible, this essay argues that the internal Kurdish disunity have played an imperative role in impeding the Kurdish liberty. Engaging with this question, first, I explain how the geography of Kurdistan is the primary cause of the Kurdish disunity and ideological diversity. Then, I lay out some historical evidence of how Kurdish intra-disunity played a major role in impeding the Kurdish national and political liberation. The geographical issue is one that has been heavily ignored by academics on possible sources of Kurdish divisions.

There is much discussion in contemporary academic literature on the plight of the Kurdish people, who are the largest stateless people in the world.[2] The primary concern is with trying to properly articulate and answer the so-called ‘Kurdish question.’ This question asks, essentially, ‘what is to be done with the Kurds?’ Or, it is occasionally more actively put as, ‘what are the Kurds to do?’ Attempts to answer this question often fail to note what it presupposes. To understand the nature of the Kurdish question, it is important to note there are two different, yet interrelated, Kurdish sub-questions. There is an inter-Kurdish question and an intra-Kurdish question, a question concerning Kurd’s relations with other states and peoples and a question concerning Kurd’s relations with themselves. The inter-Kurdish question deals with mostly the Kurds’ relations with the four states that presently dominate them and divide Kurdistan: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Additionally the issue of the status of the Kurds in the international community is covered under the inter-Kurdish question.

The intra-Kurdish question, on the other hand, deals with the reality of the many feuds, tribalism, rivalries, and overall disunity that characterize the Kurds’ relations with themselves. The intra-Kurdish question is as important as the inter-Kurdish question. However, the intra-Kurdish question in a sense often answers the inter-Kurdish question, which almost always entails the external domination of the Kurds. This means that the domineering powers over the Kurds always played an important role to prevent the resolution of the Kurdish intra-question by dividing the Kurds politically and geography. I posit that any acceptable answer to the Kurdish questions is to first solve the Kurdish problem. What, then, is the Kurdish dilemma? The fundamental problem facing the Kurds is that they are a dominated people. The Kurds are a people who are surrounded by other peoples who are attempting to prevent the Kurds from existing as a distinct people in the first place and thus on their own terms. To be in a position to start answering Kurdish questions, there must first be solution to the Kurdish dilemma. The solution to the problem of political domination is always political liberation. What would assist in solving the problem of the Kurds’ domination? Could it be that Kurds suffer domination not merely from outside forces, but from internal disunity as well? Is a possible source of this disunity a lack of consensus they have over how to achieve Kurdish national and political liberty in order to overcome their domination?[3] Or is there a better explanation for Kurdish disunity and thus the Kurds’ lack of liberty?

As some Kurdish scholars like Kardo Bokani and others such as Maria Theresa O’Shea have argued, the geographical location of Kurdistan is a key determinant of the of the Kurdish domination and therefore an important aspect of any explanation of Kurdish disunity. Topographically speaking, Kurdistan is landlocked and sandwiched between the Zagros and Taurus Mountain. These mountains have, as O’Shea demonstrates, contributed to the heterogeneity of ethnolinguistic makeup of the Kurds as it made communication and physical interaction difficult. Following this, Karl Deutsch also argues that a national identity formation also necessitates a complex organism of social communication and physical interaction. From this perspective, one can argue that the harsh Kurdish mountainous terrain obstructed the passage of national circulation, (to borrow Eugen Weber’s words) preventing cultural integration and national unification.[3]

Moreover, Kurdistan has always been at the frontier and crossroads of empires, civilizations and continents. It has thus always been a battlefield for, and a buffer zone between these powerful forces. This is to say that the inability of the Kurds to answers their questions and, moreover, solve the problem of their domination stems from a geographical and historic fact about the exploitation of the Kurds than has thus far been studied or focused on. In other words, Kurds have always been penned into a territory by superior imperial forces that leaves them disconnected from each other and underdeveloped, both politically and economically.

There is a plethora of historical examples of imperial forces using Kurdistan in such a way. One can go back to the Battles of Issus in 333 BCE and of Gaugamela in 331 BCE, both between the Hellenic League led by Alexander the Great and the Achaemenid Empire led by Darius III. More devastating was the battle of Chaldiran in 1514 between the Safavid and Ottoman empires, which led to a partition of Kurdistan that remains in a way until today.[4] The Treaty of Zuhab made these divisions official in 1639. These divisions not only paved the way for more minute partitions of Kurdistan in 1923, but also divided the Kurds between two different antagonistic branches of Islam: Shia and Sunni. These historical phenomena show that the Kurds have long been rendered pawns in regional power struggles. We can also say that the geographic conditions of Kurdistan have long sunk Kurdish attempts at unification into the abyss of tribalism, clannishness, clientelism, nepotism, partisanship, and overall myopic corruption, all of which both resulted from and enhanced the effectiveness of imperial interference. If Kurds suffer any sort of ideological conflict, it is not causally determinative of their disunity.

There are more recent examples of this phenomenon as well. In the early 20th century, in the aftermath of World War I and the Wilsonian emphasis on national self-determination, Kurds were robbed of their chance to form a nation-state of their own, which was promised in the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920. This was mostly again because of Kurdish disunity rooted ultimately in geographic separation and imperial interference. In the second half of the 20th century, Kurdish disunity primarily took the form of partisan differences, but these differences were still rooted in the exploitation of geographic differences by superior state powers. The dominant states of Kurdistan (Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) have played a key role in dividing the Kurdish people by applying the common method of ‘divide and rule.’ They did this in two main ways. First, these states divided the Kurdish people by lobbying their neighboring Kurdish political parties. For example, in the 1980s, Iran supported the Barzani Family and their Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, while the Iraqi government aided Komala and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). These ‘alliances’ contributed to further division among the Kurds. For instance, KDP engaged in several minor clashes with the KDPI after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Moreover, in 1982, KDP assisted the Iranian regime in expelling KDPI forces from Rojhilat (northwestern Iran). Another more recent example of this ‘alliance’ would be the alliance of KDP with Turkey, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with Iran. Based on this cooperation, Turkey has only heightened its cross-border military oppression against the Kurds since the 1990s in Northern Iraq as a pretext to neutralize any possible threat from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Iran also began to increase its political influence in Iraq since 2003 after the US invasion. This not only exacerbated the Kurdish division, but also imposed an existential threat on the semi-sovereignty of Başûr.

The second way the four states that dominate Kurdistan have guaranteed Kurdish disunity is by themselves remaining split in their goal to crush any possible nascent Kurdish unity, even though they have remained geopolitical rivals. Such rivalry, and thus mutual skepticism, has consistently shaped the relationships between these states, especially Turkey and Iran, which would be expected as they are competing for regional influence. For instance, Iraq and Syria have become the main theatres of their regional influence, as Ankara and Tehran support opposing proxies in Syria, Artsakh, Libya and so on. Despite all this, they are constantly united against the Kurds and have had many agreements to enhance their ‘security’ since 1923. One can refer to the Saadabad Pact of 1937 between Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, the Baghdad Pact of 1955, and the Adana Agreement between Syria and Turkey in 1998. Moreover, in 2017, Tehran joined Ankara to pressure the Iraqi central government to suppress the independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This is without even mentioning the impact of the artificial borders imposed across Kurdistan through the establishment of the Eurocentric nation-state model that led to further entrenchment of geographical divisions for the Kurds.

Partisanship, which rooted in the exploitation of geographic differences by superior state powers, is the contemporary form of Kurdish-intra disunity. Mutual political distrust among the Kurdish political parties and their desire for expanding their own domain of influence do not only exacerbate the Kurdish disunity and divisions, but also hinder Kurdish political and national liberty. In some cases, it has even led to Kurdish civil wars. Two examples of how Kurdish national disunity impeded Kurdish national and political freedom can be provided here. The first example is dispute among the two major parties in Başûr (Southern Kurdistan/ northern Iraq). And the second example would be the disagreement of the Kurdish political parties in the current revolutionary movement in Iran and Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan/ northwestern Iran).

After the establishment of a de-facto semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) in 1992, the two major rival political parties, KDP and the PUK agreed on a power-sharing model and political settlement called “50-50 split.” Based on this model, power and resources were divided equally between these two parties. However, this arrangement did not guarantee peace. The competition over custom revenues increased the internal dispute between these two parties, exacerbated partisanship, and led to the civil war in 1994. As a result of this Kurdish-intra war, the KRI divided into two zones based on their party flag colors; the area of Erbil and Duhok (the KDP “Yellow Zone”) and the PUK zone of Sulaymaniyah and Kurdish-held parts of Kirkuk governorate (the “Green Zone”). Again, geographical competition and divisions served to prevent Kurdish unity, and act as a tool used by various political parties to limit the influence of other rival Kurdish parties.

As Beston Ausen Arif and Tunku Mohar Mokhtar (2022) argue, this civil war had a significant longstanding impact on the KRI’s governing system. The internal dispute among these two major parties impeded the region from establishing effective governmental institutions. It hindered socio-economic development and prevented even the formation of a national defense system. The PUK-KDP rivalry also drove each party more into dependence and cooperation with the states such as Iran and Turkey.[5] As a result, Başûr is surrounded and entangled with the multi-faceted interests of Turkey and Iran. This rivalry fragmented the Başûri Kurds and prevented the greater national unity among the Kurds.

Another example of this partisanship is the political stance of Rojhilati political parties in the faces of the ongoing revolutionary movement of ‘women, life, freedom’, in Iran and Rojhilat. There are four major Rojhilati political parties. Each party has its own para-military wing. KDPI, Komala, Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), and Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). The political and military bases of KDPI, Komala, and PAK are in Başûr and PJAK are based in the Qandil mountains. These four political parties, despite their ideological conflict, believe that the Rojhilati Kurds could achieve their political and national liberty through the establishment of a Democratic Confederalalist Iran.[6] However, these parties failed to organize a unified platform to become the voice of Rojhilati Kurdish people after four months of this movement. Despite the unity of the Rojhilati people inside Iran, these parties are still heavily divided. While the realities of post-1979-revolution of Iran demonstrates that the Rojhilati Kurds need to form a national political organization.

The examples above show the long historical pattern of regional forces remaining unified in their attempt to keep Kurds disunified, and the success of these attempts being rooted not merely in their superior force, but in their exploitation of Kurdish regional differences, expressed today in terms of partisan differences, that are rooted in the reality of Kurdish geography. Of course, one could also argue that being sandwiched between the Zagros and Taurus Mountain ranges also played a crucial role in preserving a unique Kurdish identity and culture from forced assimilation. Though Isolation and separation can have that effect as well. However, it should be noted that while Kurds have remained perpetually unassimilated, they have also remained perpetually disunified given these same contributing geographic factors. We all know the cliché that Kurds have no friends but the mountains, but what I have tried to present here is that the mountains might not have always been friendly to the Kurds. While mountains can be friends, even better friends would be fellow Kurds, and perhaps the best way to strike that friendship would be for Kurds to not be so reliant on their mountains, but each other. As each mountain peak may have acted as a barrier to the formation of a united national Kurdish identity.[7] Perhaps today, now that we have technologically superseded the limits of geography with novel forms of instantaneous communication, Kurdish national unity can now become a genuine possibility.


  1. For more on the revolt of Sheikh Ubeydullah of Nehri, see: McDowall, D. (2004) A Modern History of the Kurds.New York: I.B.Tauris, pp.53-8.
  2. Gunes. C (2019) The Kurds in a New Middle East: The Challenging Geopolitics of a Regional Conflict. Switzerland: Palgrave, Macmillan.
  3. For example, some Kurds believe that the Kurds can overcome their domination only by establishing an independent Kurdish state. While some other think that national and political liberation of the Kurds can better achieve through the establishment of ‘Democratic nation’ based on the principles of ‘Democratic Confederalism.’
  4. Weber, E. (1976) Peasonts into Frenchmen: The Modernisation of Rural France; 1870-1914. United States: Stanford University Press, p.218
  5. Bokanî, K. (2016) Social Communication and Mobilization in Turkey. Moldova: Lambert Academic Publishing. p. 56.
  6. For more on this see: McDowall, D. (2004) A Modern History of the Kurds.New York: I.B.Tauris, pp.387-91.
  7. Bokanî, K. (2016) Social Communication and Mobilization in Turkey. Moldova: Lambert Academic Publishing.


  • Rojin Mukriyan

    Rojin Mukriyan is a PhD candidate in the department of Government and Politics at University College Cork, Ireland. Her main research areas includes political theory and Middle Eastern politics, especially Kurdish politics. She has published articles in the Journal of International Political Theory, Philosophy and Social Criticism, and Theoria. Her research has thus far focused on the areas of Kurdish liberty, Kurdish statehood, and Kurdish political friendship. She is also currently a researcher at

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