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Strange bedfellows: terror groups, Kurdish factions unite against ISIS

PKK fighters resting in an undisclosed mountainous region in Turkey near the border with Iraq in May 2013. AFP PHOTO / FIRAT NEWS AGENCY

They were first spotted in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil on August 8, just as US President Barack Obama announced he had authorised airstrikes in northern Iraq against ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria) targets.

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In their distinctive khaki-grey uniforms, their ranks including battle-hardened female fighters – a rarity in most parts of the Middle East – they took up positions in and around Erbil, including the Sami Abdulrahman Park, a sprawling green expanse in the heart of the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

As the ISIS onslaught inched dangerously close to Erbil, the fighters from the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) -- a Marxist group that waged a 30-year armed struggle against the Turkish state -- had arrived to help their Iraqi brethren in their fight against the Islamist terrorists.

But the PKK also happens to be on the US and EU lists of foreign terrorist organisations.

In Washington, Obama was authorising airstrikes to help defend a city “where American diplomats and civilians serve in our consulate and military personnel advise Iraqi forces”. Meanwhile, on the battlefront thousands of miles away, fighters from a banned Turkish terrorist group were defending Erbil and its environs – presumably in plain sight of those US diplomats and advisers.

“The PKK and US Marines near the Sinjar area [in northern Iraq] apparently had some interaction assessing the situation,” said Shwan Zulal, from Carduchi Consulting, a London-based business intelligence and consulting firm specialising in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. “It’s rather odd that the US is working directly with a designated terrorist group.”

The lightening ISIS (also known as Islamic State) offensive, with its militarily sophisticated twists and turns, has forged unlikely alliances in the fog of war. As the Islamist group “breaks” national borders and attracts jihadists from across the globe, rival factions and proscribed groups have turned into unwitting bedfellows, united – for the moment – in the fight against a disciplined Islamist militant group.

The PKK entry in the latest conflict alongside Kurdish peshmerga fighters came as ISIS abandoned a hands-off policy toward the Kurds earlier this month.

In a report from the frontline earlier this week, a reporter from the US McClatchy news group noted that Iraqi “Kurdish officials are reluctant to discuss the presence of hundreds of PKK fighters.”

But that hesitance appeared to have dissipated by Thursday, when Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani visited PKK forces at a camp they seized from ISIS control in Makhmour, a town located around 50 kilometers south of Erbil. The visit was widely reported by local Kurdish news organisations, which noted that, “This is the first time the Kurdish president meets forces from the party.”

Barzani and Ocalan: Brothers in fratricidal arms

Despite their shared Kurdish origins, Barzani has not had the best of relations with the PKK – one of several twists in the decades-long, internecine squabbles between Kurdish factions spread across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Tensions have been simmering in recent years over Barzani’s close ties to Turkey – the PKK’s traditional foe – with the economic boom in Iraqi Kurdistan attracting massive Turkish investments, particularly in the energy sector.

The rivalries between the PKK, which was founded by separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, and Barzani’s KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) date back to the 1990s, when the two groups clashed during the deadly Kurdish civil war.

Relations between the two groups improved following Ocalan’s 1999 capture and detention in a Turkish jail, when Barzani allowed fleeing PKK fighters to set up bases in northern Iraq’s Kandil mountains.

Iraqi Kurdish officials also hosted PKK supporters in the Makhmour refugee camp, where Kurds fleeing the fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military have been based since 1992.

When the time came for the Turkish Kurds to help their Iraqi brethren, Makhmour saw some of the fiercest clashes between PKK and ISIS fighters in recent days.

Reporting from Makhmour earlier this week, a FRANCE 24 team found a yellow flag emblazoned with Ocalan’s face flying proudly over a building as a peshmerga commander hailed the PKK’s fighting skills.

“In the battle for Makhmour, they are the ones who fought the best,” said the peshmerga commander.

‘Shambolic’ Kurdish chain of command

Following a military campaign against Turkish security forces that was waged for nearly three decades, PKK fighters today are a disciplined guerrilla fighting force and a major asset in the Kurdish battle against ISIS.

“The PKK are very experienced fighters. They are mobile, agile, tactical fighters,” explained Carduchi Consulting’s Zulal. “Although you can’t compare the PKK with ISIS – who are deranged and ruthless killers – the PKK has been a match for ISIS.”

The Iraqi peshmerga have also been aided by fighters from the PYD, a Syrian-based Kurdish party linked to the PKK, who have been battling ISIS in northeastern Syria near the Turkish border.

But while the presence of battle-hardened fighters from Turkey and Syria has boosted the Kurdish fighting capacity in northern Iraq, a key problem remains the lack of a centralised command structure, according to Zulal.

Iraq’s homegrown peshmerga consists of fighting units from the two main Kurdish parties – Barzani’s KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) founded by former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

The peshmerga – which literally means “those who look death in the face” – still ultimately answer to the two dominant Kurdish parties.

Plans to overhaul the peshmerga and integrate them under a unified command are incomplete, and experts say the weakest units in the recent fighting were the mixed ones.

“The chain of command is shambolic,” dismissed Zulal, noting that the lack of organisation was “one of the major reasons” for the recent peshmerga losses against ISIS in the Sinjar area, which saw thousands of minority Yazidis fleeing to inhospitable mountain tops before US airstrikes helped turn the tide in favour of the Kurds.

Add the Turkish PKK and Syrian PYD into the mix of homegrown peshmerga units and the hopes for a centralized chain of command look bleak – to say nothing about the tricky diplomatic situation it presents for international partners arming the Kurds in their fight against ISIS.

Three levels of terror groups

But while experts such as Zulal admit it’s ironic that US military advisers are coordinating with a designated terrorist group, few express surprise over the latest battlefield cooperation.

They note that the Iraqi KDP and PUK are listed as “Tier III” terrorist organisations by the US State Department under a post-9/11 law that created a three-level scale for groups that have engaged in armed struggle in the past.

While the Tier III designation of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties has posed a US immigration hurdle for senior party members, the US government can easily waive sanctions against the KDP and PUK, according to experts.

The PKK case though is more complicated since it risks irking Turkey, a major US strategic partner in the Muslim world.

“The US is not really committed to keeping the PKK on the terrorist list – the PKK has never threatened the US,” said Zulal. “It was done because of Turkish pressure, because Turkey is part of NATO.”

While there have been efforts by Kurdish groups abroad to remove the PKK from the US and EU terrorist lists, Zulal believes most Western capitals are monitoring a peace process between the PKK and Turkish authorities launched in 2012 before considering a status change.

Turkey plays catch-up on Arab Spring fallout

But while the PKK’s involvement in the anti-ISIS fight in northern Iraq is undoubtedly being monitored by Turkish intelligence, there’s been a marked official silence from Ankara on the issue.

“I think Turkey has been very quiet and has not reacted so far,” said Zulal. “There’s been a lot of criticism of Turkey not taking the initiative with this latest crisis. In fact Turkey’s foreign policy over the last three years – on Egypt, Syria and the region – has been one of playing catch-up. I think Turkey’s response has been nothing short of a disaster since the Arab Spring.”

Over the past few weeks, Turkey has been consumed by the August 10 presidential election, the first by a popular vote, that saw winning candidate Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan extend his dominion over the country.

While domestic politics has dominated Turkish attention, Erdogan’s “open door” policy for Syrians fleeing the civil war has seen around 1.2 million refugees settled in camps and Turkish cities. The recent crisis in Iraq’s Sinjar area has sparked an exodus of an additional 2,000 Yezidis into Turkey, according to officials.

The social fallout of such a large influx of refugees has been largely overlooked in a country that’s scrambling to respond to the sheer enormity of the crises across its borders.

But then the same can be said for the larger international community. As EU countries such as France and Britain prepare to arm Kurdish fighters, little attention is being paid in Brussels and other European capitals on the likely consequences of that military support on Iraqi unity. Will the strengthening of Kurdish fighters hasten the fragmentation of Iraq – and if so, along what lines?

The answers will only be clear once the immediate imperatives of the battleground – which has engendered unlikely and probably short-lived alliances – are settled. But that may come a bit too late.

 

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