FT 15 August 2014
To the west, they are terrorists, yet they are now fighting on the same side as their interests converge with the US in the fight to help Iraq’s Kurdish forces stave off a jihadi offensive.
Battle-hardened Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) militants have come to the aid of peshmerga fighters in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, augmenting US air strikes to halt the jihadi group’s advance into the autonomous region of northern Iraq.
Sun-baked men and women from the outlawed Kurdish group, in baggy sirwal pants and dusty sneakers, stand guard at their base in the recently recaptured town of Makhmour. They greet visitors cheerfully, but keep their grenades in hand.
“Our support is just as important for the peshmerga as these US strikes – bombings alone can’t get rid of guerrilla groups – we know from personal experience,” says Sedar Botan, a female PKK veteran commander who came with seven units from the group’s stronghold in the Qandil mountains to help secure Makhmour, a strategic point between the regional capital Erbil and the oil rich Kirkuk province. “We will keep fighting until all of Kurdistan is safe.”
The Kurds are one of the world’s largest stateless groups and their population spans parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The PKK’s decades-long war for autonomy from Turkey has gained it international notoriety – and placed it on terrorist lists in the United States and Europe.
Loathed by millions of Turks for its campaign against the country’s police and conscript army – which has involved executing unarmed recruits and placing roadside bombs that have killed women and children – it has begun a halting peace process with Ankara.
But Isis’s advances across Syria and Iraq have created strange bedfellows as well as challenging national borders, and Washington’s air strikes are indirectly supporting PKK fighters.
“Wars are always a very important catalyst for change . . . In a year’s time the position of the PKK is going to be much stronger than it is now,” said Henri Barkey, a former US State Department official now at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Relations between the PKK and Iraqi Kurdistan’s two dominant parties, the ruling Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who collectively run the peshmerga, have often been fraught. The groups have different political aims that often make them rivals rather than allies. It is not clear if their improved ties will last – local media has already reported rising tensions between PKK affiliates and the peshmerga on the region’s western front lines.
But relations are warmer than in the past. “This is the first time we have military co-operation with the peshmerga, and we plan to increase it,” says PKK commander Tekoshar Zagros, speaking from the group’s hilltop base overlooking the plains beyond Makhmour, as white smoke from Kurdish rocket fire rises up from below.
Isis ‘massacres’ Yazidi captives
Islamic State insurgents “massacred” some 80 members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority in a village in the country’s north, a Yazidi lawmaker and two Kurdish officials said on Friday, reports Reuters.
“They arrived in vehicles and they started their killing this afternoon,” senior Kurdish official Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters. “We believe it’s because of their creed: convert or be killed.”
A Yazidi lawmaker and another senior Kurdish official also said the killings had taken place and that the women of the village were kidnapped.
A push by Isis militants through northern Iraq to the border with the Kurdish region has alarmed the Baghdad government, drawn the first US air strikes since the end of American occupation in 2001 and sent tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians fleeing for their lives.
Yazidi parliamentarian Mahama Khalil said he had spoken to villagers who had survived the attack. They said the killings took place during a one-hour period.
The resident of a nearby village said an Isis fighter from the same area gave him details of the bloodshed.
“He told me that the Islamic State had spent five days trying to persuade villagers to convert to Islam and that a long lecture was delivered about the subject today,” said the villager. “He then said the men were gathered and shot dead. The women and girls were probably taken to Tal Afar because that is where the foreign fighters are.”
That account could not be independently confirmed.
Isis militants have killed at least 500 members of Iraq’s Yazidi ethnic minority during their offensive in the north, Iraq’s human rights minister told Reuters.
“We’re fighting defensively and don’t have a plan of attack yet, but it’s coming.”
The peshmerga were previously touted as the one force in Iraq capable of countering Isis. But when the militants launched surprise attacks, the peshmerga withdrew, sparking a temporary panic in the region. PKK fighters say their support – along with US strikes – helped the peshmerga regain its confidence to fight.
Turkey, one of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s closest allies, can do little to protest. Isis captured 49 Turkish consulate workers in Mosul this June – hostages who could now serve as human shields. At a time when Kurdish forces are in dire need of military support, Turkey’s hands are tied.
Masoud Barzani, the KRG president and KDP leader, visited the PKK in Makhmour on Wednesday to thank them for their help. At the PKK’s hilltop camp, peshmerga fighters deliver a truckload of bottled water.
“Turkey is not going to be in a position to say to Barzani: ‘Don’t work with the . . . PKK.’ Because he will say: ‘I need them,’” Mr Bakey said.
Ankara plays down the PKK role. “I don’t think their involvement is real,” a senior Turkish official said. “It looks more like a media campaign than a real military campaign.”
However, some Makhmour residents and peshmerga fighters disagree.
“The PKK sent a few hundred fighters from Qandil, and soon we regained control of the town,” says Delar Abu Bakr, a 26 year-old peshmerga in camouflage fatigues.
Turkey, constrained militarily, has focused on humanitarian aid, helping refugees such as the Yazidis – the minority that fled by the thousands from the western part of the region as Isis attacked.
But Yazidis may better remember the role of Ankara’s rivals. The PKK’s sister group in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), was the main force battling Isis and helping them escape.
The YPG – whose numbers are believed to be over 20,000 – is probably the most successful group fighting Isis. The jihadi group got its start in war-torn Syria and launched some of its first offensives against Syrian Kurds, who managed to defend most of their enclave.
“The only force that has consistently fought Isis for the past two years was the PKK, under the name of the YPG,” Mr Zagros said. “So who’s the one really fighting terrorism here?”
An online petition calling on the US to remove the PKK from its terrorist list because it “has been a partner in defending Iraq and Kurdistan” had gathered more than 16,000 signatures by Thursday.
Mr Zagros says the PKK deserves to be taken off the list, but acknowledges that a shared guerrilla identity makes his group so effective against Isis.
“The only other group in the region with fighters like Isis is us . . . Our guerrillas also committed suicide for the cause. Like Isis, we never surrender. That’s why we know how to fight them.”
Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)
Outlawed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU, the leftist PKK is based in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq but was formed and principally operated in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish southeast. Its war with Turkey has killed some 40,000 people. Abdullah Ocalan, the organisation’s jailed leader, has been in contact with Turkey over an eventual peace deal amid an uneasy ceasefire. Officially, the PKK has backed off its separatist aims and now calls for greater political and cultural rights within Turkey.
People’s Protection Units (YPG)
The PKK’s sister armed faction in Syria. It has been fighting militants, including Isis, in defence of Syrian Kurds for two years.
Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP)
The KDP is a conservative nationalistic party based around Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. The oldest and most dominant party in Iraqi Kurdistan, its leader, Masoud Barzani, is president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
Mr Barzani and his party are the most pragmatic Kurdish faction, developing strong business and political ties with Turkey, which has become increasingly open to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)
The PUK is a leftist nationalist party based in the liberal city of Suleimaniyeh in Iraqi Kurdistan. Unlike the KDP, which has a more limited focus on the Kurdistan region, the PUK has closer, longstanding ties with Baghdad, and has often provided the country with its ceremonial presidents, including its leader, former president Jalal Talabani. The party has good relations with the PKK and Iran, allowing it to play a counterweight to the KDP in Iraqi Kurdish politics.
The name, which means “those who face death”, describes both the PUK and KDP-led forces who were once mountain guerrillas fighting for Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq. It now functions as the Kurdistan Regional Government’s de facto army, yet most of its forces are still organised along partisan lines.