The Kurds and the Fight Against Daesh

June 14, 2016
The Kurds and the Fight Against Daesh
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

Recent bomb attacks in Turkey draw attention to the destabilizing effect of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq.  Retired four-star U.S. Army General and former head of the CIA David Petraeus has called the Syrian civil war a, “geopolitical Chernobyl—spewing instability and extremism over the region and the rest of the world.”  Trying to lay out who is fighting whom in Syria and Iraq, produces a jigsaw puzzle map that is constantly shifting.  Clearly, global focus is on Daesh and its self-proclaimed Islamic State that crosses the international boundary of Syria and Iraq.  In recent months, Daesh has suffered significant losses in territory and its attractiveness to foreigners wishing to fight for it is waning.  Playing a significant role in the fight against Daesh are Kurdish Peshmerga units in Iraq and other Kurdish militias in Syria.  The Kurdish elements of this battle represent one of the more complex relationships in an already complicated environment.  That Turkey can be attacked by both Daesh and Kurdish suicide bombers (two groups in open conflict in Syria and Iraq) is evidence of that.

Practically speaking, there are no promising options for de-conflicting the delicate relationship that relies on support from Turkey, Iraqi Kurds, and Kurdish militias in Syria—some of whom are considered terrorist organizations by Turkey, the Untied States and the European Union.  The complexity of the alliance against Daesh must be acknowledged, and intelligence resources dedicated to tracking the shifting battlefield map.  It will be impossible to fully separate moderate from more extremist factions, but situational awareness will allow policy makers to anticipate problems and react appropriately to maintain the fragile alliance.

A Complex Battlefield

After the Iraqi army melted away under the fire of an advancing Daesh insurgent force, the only remaining effective fighting force in Northern Iraq was the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia.  After the fall of Mosul, the Peshmerga led the fight against Daesh in towns across their frontier, such as Kobane, and the Mosul Dam.  To repel suicide bombers, Kurdish authorities constructed a 1000 km trench along their southern frontier.  When Daesh occupied the town of Sinjar, the Yazidi community faced brutal violence and fled to nearby Mount Sinjar.  As Daesh mounted a siege, they were confronted by the Peshmerga with airpower and intelligence support from the United States, eventually liberating the town of Sinjar in November of 2015.  Forcing Daesh out of Sinjar and surrounding areas effectively cut the most direct logistical supply route between Raqqa and Mosul, understood to serve as Daesh’s capital cities in Syria and Iraq, respectively.

Peshmerga battlefield successes draws attention to the Kurdish facet of the complex multi-faceted battlefield in Syria and Iraq.  Reliance on Kurdish militias in the fight against Daesh (and other extremist groups operating there) requires scrutiny of the wider Kurdish political topography and the difficult history of the Kurds in the region.  Ultimately, Peshmerga victories against Daesh may not mend deep divisions among competing Kurdish factions, but they do solidify Kurdish control over the land their militias seize, while doing little to assuage Sunni Arab anxiety at an ascendant Kurdish state.  Indeed, at the press conference where Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, announced the liberation of Sinjar, he asserted that, “The peshmerga alone liberated Sinjar, and the only flag you will see raised in Sinjar will be the flag of Kurdistan.”  Competition among Kurdish political figures and the parties they represent, competition between Kurdish and Arab populations in Syria and Iraq, and the long-troubled history of the Kurds in Turkey all work to make a complicated situation even more difficult.

The Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920, divided the territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire after the close of the First World War and demarcated an autonomous area for the Kurdish people.  The new independent nation of Kurdistan was described as, “east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia as it may be hereafter determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia.”  Sevres was concluded between the victorious Allies and representatives of vanquished Ottoman Turkey; the treaty served to severely reduce the land area of Turkey.  When the nationalist government led by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk assumed power and established the modern, secular Turkish state, it rejected Sevres.  The 1923Treaty of Lausanne, negotiated with the new Turkish government, made no mention of Kurdistan, and effectively divided the Kurdish population over the new frontiers of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey.

In none of these countries were the Kurds particularly welcomed.  In the 1970s The Baathist governments in Syria and Iraq attempted to “Arabize” the northern frontiers of their countries, displacing Kurds south and moving Arabs north.  In Iran, Kurds—for slightly less than one year—established the Republic of Mahabad in 1946.  After the Iranian Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini declared a holy war against the Kurds, resulting in hundreds of deaths, displacement, and arrests.  In Turkey, where the greatest number of Kurds live, the nationalist government officially designated Kurds as “Mountain Turks,” their language was banned, and they were forbidden to wear traditional Kurdish clothing in Turkish cities.  As late as 1991, it was still illegal to speak Kurdish in public; presently, the government of Turkey does not officially recognize “Kurdish” as an ethnic designation for census-taking purposes.

Kurds are not only geographically but also politically divided, with some groups openly hostile toward each other.  For example, in northern Iraq, in the Kurdistan Regional Government, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) refuses to acknowledge the existence of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK, founded in Turkey, operates in Iraq and is discussed extensively below); the KDP is actively opposed by former President of Iraq Jalal Talibani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).  The KDP was founded in 1949 as a national liberation movement in Iraq.  Masoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa, served as its first party president from 1949-1979.  The PUK split from the KDP in 1975 after the Peshmerga—led by Mustafa Barzani—was defeated by the Iraqi army.  These political fissures between Kurds in Iraq exist in what is clearly the Kurds greatest success at self-governance.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) arguably has all the defining characteristics of an autonomous state, but lacks formal international recognition; it has a defined border, a people, a government that promulgates laws, schools that teach in Kurdish, even a military and effective foreign relations with other states.[1]  The KRG has even conducted independent negotiations regarding the extraction and sale of natural resources lying within its territory.[2]  The KRG came into being as a result of the “no-fly zone” established in northern Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and was further reinforced after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that ousted the Saddam Hussein regime.  The KRG began an advertising campaign in 2006 touting itself as “the other Iraq,” one that was at peace, prosperous, and welcoming.  For many years, commercial flights were available to Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, while none flew to Baghdad.  The benefits—and burdens—of self-government on the part of the Kurds required cooperation across a border where formerly a relationship could not have been contemplated.  Despite the long history of Turkish governments repressing Kurdish identity in Turkey, the KRG has developed a positive, cooperative relationship with its northern neighbor.[3]  The KRG has allowed Turkish military activity (cross-border action) against PKK elements that have taken refuge south of the border.

In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) was founded in 2003 and claims close political and ideological affinity with the PKK.  This group, along with other allied Kurdish groups, recently voted to create an autonomous federal region in northern Syria.  Being an affiliate of the PKK, the Syrian PYD is not acknowledged by the leading Iraqi Kurdish parties and has been alienated from other Syrian Kurdish groups.  This declaration, and responses to it, typifies the complexity of Kurdish politics.  It was simultaneously denounced by the Bashir al-Assad regime in Damascus and the Turkish government, two bitter opponents in the Syrian civil-war.  Neither was it recognized by Kurdish leaders in Iraq, who enjoy the comfort of their own autonomous region.  Finally, though the United States has provided support to the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby stated, “We don’t support self-ruled, semi-autonomous zones inside Syria. We just don’t…What we want to see is a unified, whole Syria that has in place a government that is not led by Bashar al-Assad…Whole, unified, nonsectarian Syria, that’s the goal.”

Meanwhile, United States Special Forces operators are providing weapons instruction and tactical training to the YPG operating in Syria against Daesh.  In late May, some U.S. soldiers were photographed wearing a YPG shoulder patch on their uniforms; Turkish President Erdogan reacted to those photographs with unequivocal condemnation.  “The support they [the United States] give to…the YPG…I condemn it.”  Erdogan continued, “The PKK, the PYD, the YPG, Daesh (Islamic State), there is no difference.  They are all terrorists.”  Since the photographs were circulated, U.S. military personnel in Syria have been ordered to remove YPG insignias.  Turkey has regularly used artillery against YPG formations in Syria; for its part, the U.S. government has pressed for a halt to that artillery bombardment, and a halt to territorial expansion by Kurdish groups operating in northern Syria.  Clearly, NATO allies Turkey and the United States cannot sustain a state of affairs where one could fire at and kill soldiers of the other.

Kurdish Nationalist Terrorism

The Kurdistan Workers Party (in Kurdish, Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane, PKK) was founded in Turkey in 1978 as a Marxist militant organization primarily focused on carving out an independent Kurdish state in eastern Turkey.  A cult of personality developed around its charismatic founder Abdullah Ocalan, which persists to the present day.  Several western nations, including the United States, consider the PKK a foreign terrorist organization.  By far the most violent of the Kurdish terror groups, in it’s almost forty-year history, the PKK has been responsible for 3,875 deaths and 2,509 people wounded in 1,450 terrorist attacks according to the Global Terrorism Database.  Data by year is represented in Figure 1.  Most of this violence has been focused inside Turkey, but notably also in Germany (with a large Turkish migrant population) and Iraq.  Its most active period was in the early 1990s, but has been resurgent since 2012.  After its founder was captured, tried, and imprisoned in 1999, terror attacks in Turkey almost completely subsided for nearly ten years.   In 2013, Ocalan, from his prison-cell in Turkey, declared a cease-fire between the PKK and Turkish forces and ordered his followers to withdraw from Turkey into Iraq.  Cease-fires had been declared and broken before; this most recent pause in violence ended in June 2015 when the Turkish air force attacked PKK camps in northern Iraq.  Recent terrorist violence in Turkey has been attributed to both Daesh and Kurdish groups.  A relatively new organization, the Kurdish Freedom Hawks (or Falcons, TAK), claimed credit for a March 13, 2016 suicide attack in Ankara that killed twenty-seven and wounded seventy-five.

Englund Graph 1

Highlighting the complexity of the Syrian battlefield, according to the Associated Press, Turkish officials indicated that as of May 2016, weapons delivered by the United States to Kurdish groups in Syria have been found among PKK caches in Turkey.  U.S. officials have said that weapons, like the anti-armor weapon in question (likely the Saab-Bofors AT4), are provided to Kurdish militia groups in Syria fighting Daesh and are not meant for the PKK.  Furthermore, Amnesty International has assessed that Kurdish militants operating in northern Syria have forced the displacement of Syrian Arabs and demolished whole villages, actions which they view as amounting to war crimes.  The relationship between the PKK, the YPG militias in Syria and the Freedom Hawks in Turkey make it difficult to refute Erdogan’s sweeping condemnation of all of them as “terrorists.”  How to respond is perplexing.

There must be some way out of here

Keeping track of the elements active in the Syrian-Iraqi battlespace is a full-time job.  There are no good options for permanently de-conflicting the delicate relationship between the elements aligned against Daesh.  There is no simple way around the fact that Kurdish militias in Syria are aligned with the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, the European Union, and even the Kurdish government in northern Iraq.  After some time in dormancy, the PKK is reviving its strategy of terrorist violence in pursuit of its political objectives.  It will be impossible to keep weapons provided to some Kurdish militias in Syria from reaching the PKK in Turkey.  Incidents like those uncovered by Amnesty International need to be seriously investigated and condemned.  Western states and their Arab allies in the fight against Daesh need to acknowledge the promise and liabilities presented by working with the Kurds.  A relationship that is almost entirely positive in Iraq can be chaotic and unpredictable in Syria and cause very real problems in Ankara.  Even after Daesh is dismantled, the political realities for the Kurds forged during the battle will need to be negotiated.

[1] Soguk, Nevzat.  (2015).  “With/Out a State, Kurds Rising: The Un/Stated Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq,” Globalizations, 12:6 957-968;

[2] Natali, Denise.  (2012).  “The Politics of Kurdish Crude,” Middle East Policy, 19:1 110-118.

[3] Charountaki, Marianna.  (2012).  “Turkish Foreign Policy and the Kurdistan Regional Government,” Perceptions, 17:4 185-208.