PHOTO: Saleh Muslim, head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party, and Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani
Lars Hauch, who also runs MENA Roundup, writes his first article for EA:
Last month, Turkey expanded its operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), launching airstrikes on camps in northern Iraq. Claims also circulated that attacks in northern Syria, nominally against the Islamic State, hit the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed a campaign against “terrorism”: “If we will have one martyr, we will continue all operations on that organization that gave the order for the attack. They cannot dare test our patience and determination.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the Government would end the attempt for a political resolution of the Kurdish issue, after more than 30 years of conflict with the PKK: “It is not possible to carry on the peace process with those who target our national unity and brotherhood.”
Much attention has been paid to Turkey’s motives, with many claiming that Ankara is using the pretext of a “safe zone” in northern Syria, cleared of the Islamic State, to wage war against the Kurds. Less attention has been paid to the dynamics among Kurdish groups, who are far from a single entity.
There is the PKK in Turkey and the parts of Iraqi Kurdistan which they use as areas of retreat. Then there is the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the leading force in the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In Syria, there is the PYD and the YPG. There is the Party of Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) in northwestern Iran.
These are only the best-known among Kurdish factions in each country. And then there are the trans-national links between these groups and Kurdish communities.
So what is the prospect that Turkey’s attacks can be a catalyst for “unity” among these numerous organizations?
The Kurdish Movement Across Nations
After the Turkish strikes, the priority of Massoud Barzani, the KDP’s President of Iraqi Kurdistan, was local security in his “displeasure with the dangerous level the situation has reached”: “The PKK must keep the battlefield away from the Kurdistan region in order for civilians not to become victims of this war“. Barzani emphasized good relations with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which claims 29 of the 111 seats of the regional Parliament.
Barzani’s statement would appear to distance the Iraqi Kurdish movement from forthright support of the PKK against Turkey. However, the history of links among Kurdish groups could overtake his caution.
Those groups have found common cause in the last 12 years in battles with Islamist foes. Iraq’s PUK, assisted by US Special Forces, confronted Islamist groups in Halabja in 2003; since 20313, the PYD has faced a similar threat of in Syria. Given the common enemy, military ties between the PUK and PKK have developed, with Iraqi Peshmerga fighting side-by-side with the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish PYD in Syria.
In June 2014, as the Iraqi Army retreated before the Islamic State’s offensive in northern Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces occupied the city of Kirkuk together with PKK fighters. Two months later, YPG and PKK forces advanced on Mount Sinjar, opening a corridor for tens of thousands of Yazidis threatened by Islamic State militants. Under a joint command, the PKK and Peshmerga led the evacuation of a big refugee camp in Makhmour, home of approximately 15.000 Turkish Kurds since 1994. They secured the area and cleared the town and nearby villages of Islamic State militants.
This cooperation culminated in a joint operation room, coordinating Kurdish forces along the long frontline between their areas and Islamic State-controlled territory. PKK fighters also supported the Peshmerga in recapturing the Iraqi town of Jalawla in November 2014, three months after a retreat before the Islamic State offensive.
Kurdish forces united again on Syrian territory in the battle of Ain-al Arab (Kobani). PKK fighters crossed the border from Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, and a group of 150 Peshmerga Special Forces joined the battle, bringing heavy weapons. After months of clashes, with support from US-led airstrikes and Free Syrian Army units, they finally pushed back the Islamic State in late January 2015.
Drawing a clear line between some of the Kurdish groups is difficult, if possible at all. There is a vital flow of fighters between the PKK, YPG, the PUK and the Iran-based PJAK. Sharing the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and referring to the writings of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, thousands of PKK fighters have joined the YPG. The Wall Street Journal quotes Zind Ruken, a female Kurdish fighter from Iran: “It’s all PKK but different branches. Sometimes I’m a PKK, sometimes I’m a PJAK, sometimes I’m a YPG. It doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK.”
A Greater Common Identity?
Even though there is rivalry and tension between Kurdish groups, their greater common identity forges unions before collective threat.
In 2013, the Kurdish National Congress failed due to disagreements regarding the administration in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), with bickering between the PYD and the Kurdish National Council, backed by Barzani’s Iraqi Kurdistan Government.
But that situation changed as the Islamic State rose, with the Dohuk agreement negotiating Kurdish power-sharing and cooperation in October 2014. Aso Mamand, a member of the PUK political bureau in Kirkuk, said, “Serious steps were taken last year to convey the National Congress but in the end it failed. However, there are new discussions now and the project is back on the political agenda in the KRG.”
However, it is not certain if the advantages of Kurdish cooperation will outweigh power politics. In the past few years, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan under Barzani’s KDP have developed close relations, allowing the latter economic and political development and autonomy.
It is in this context that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has launched his campaign against the PKK. Erdogan has also labeled the Syrian PYD a terrorist organization. Last October, he declared, “At the moment, the PYD is equal with the PKK for us.”
That stance does not leave much space for negotiation. It ignores not only the YPG’s reputation as the military wing of the PYD, but also its position as a common force with public support ensuring security in a de facto autonomous region.
Such ignorance does not bode well for Turkey’s plan for a “safe zone” in northern Syria’s Aleppo Province along the Syrian border. Since the 98-km (61-mile) strip has a border with the Kurdish canton of Kobane, how do you establish such a zone in an area which may be contested by a group you consider to be terrorists?
The question of who will guarantee safety for the safe zone remains unanswered, while the YPG’s General Command expresses offense with the Turkish intervention. On August 1, it accused the Turks of bombardment of positions in Kobani:
We consider recent movements of the Turkish military as provocative and hostile actions, and we demand the Turkish government to officially clarify their attitude and immediately stop these activities. In fact, these provocative actions will have negative consequences if they continue, and Turkey government will be held accountable for the results.
Turkey is trying to limit the further consolidation of Syrian Kurdistan, using the strikes against the PKK — and possibly some YPG targets — as a warning to the PYD. Ankara has signaled that it expects distance between the PYD and PKK while warning that a Kurdish State will not be tolerated.
Turkey is virtually provoking conflict with the PYD. Indeed, it may be seeking that conflict, on a limited level, believing that the PYD does not have the capacities to fight against both Ankara and the Islamic State. Through that “moderate destabilization”, Turkey is paradoxically trying to maintain a status quo where Kurdish areas in Syria both serve as a buffer zone and are prevented from becoming too strong a challenge.
It is doubtful if this form of moderate destabilization will succeed because, with the potential of further escalation, Turkey is likely to spur the unity among the different Kurdish groups that it is trying to disrupt.
Even if political links on an official level are not pursued at this point, military links are. Both history and the current situation are guides: Kurdish fighters are mobile and willing to stand up for the cause when they see an enemy trying to contain it.