Thousands of Kurdish rebel fighters have joined the war against the Islamic State group in areas of Syria and Iraq, and they’ve become vital to the international community’s battle against the powerful Islamist insurgency.
While the deepening crisis is now being seen as an opportunity for these fighters – members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK – Turkey remains deeply suspicious of them and continues to enforce an embargo against Syrian Kurds fighting the IS.
Last month’s stunning advances in Iraq by the Islamic State group saw the jihadists move within striking distance of Irbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
What could have been an even bigger crisis was averted by PKK fighters in the Sinjar mountains, where thousands of members of the Yazidi religious sect had fled to escape slaughter by the jihadists.
“PKK emerged as the most effective fighting force against the IS,” said Kadri Gursel, a writer on Kurdish affairs and diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet.
As columns of IS fighters advanced, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s “peshmergas were leaving without firing a shot,” Gursel said. “… It was the PKK who took the position on the mountains of Sinjar to protect the Yazidis and stop the IS advance.”
Thousands of PKK fighters have joined the war against the Islamic State in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq, and have become vital to the international community’s battle against the powerful Islamist insurgency. While the deepening crisis is now being seen as an opportunity for the Kurdish rebel group, Turkey remains deeply suspicious of the PKK and continues to enforce an embargo against Syrian Kurds fighting the IS.
PKK fighting for rights
The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for greater minority rights for three decades. Most of its estimated 6,000 to 7,000 fighters are primarily based in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.
Both Washington and the European Union consider the PKK a terrorist organization. And, even though the PKK is involved in peace efforts with Ankara and observes a cease-fire, the Turkish government strongly opposes any talk of changing the group’s terrorist status.
But political scientist Nuray Mert of Istanbul University said international attitudes could be changing.
“Fighting ISIL made the PKK kind of a legitimate partner,” he said, using another acronym for the Islamic State group. “I am not saying the PKK will overnight be stripped from the list of terrorist organizations,” he said, noting the challenge of “how to define and how to deal with its Syrian branch.”
The PKK’s sister organization in Syria, the PYD, has created a de facto autonomous region amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war. Despite repeated attacks by Islamic State fighters, and an embargo by Ankara, the autonomous region so far has defeated the jihadists – a feat largely unmatched in Syria.
Observers say the international community is already unofficially reaching out to the PYD.
Such relationships may be part of the conversation when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Turkey, where he’ll arrive Friday for a two-day visit as part of his effort to build an international coalition against the IS jihadists.
Despite its strategic ties with the United States and its membership in NATO, Turkey remains wary of involvement in battling the insurgency.
Ankara insists the PYD is no different from the PKK and should be considered a terrorist group.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has voiced concern over weapons pouring into the region to fight the IS. He warns against the weapons ending up in the hands of the Kurdish rebels. Ankara is still insisting that the PKK disarm.
But such calls reveal how out of touch Turkish officials have become, political scientist Mert said: “It would be funny to ask PKK to disarm when they fighting against ISIL alongside with all international powers. I mean, Turkey has found itself cornered from all fronts – from the Kurdish issue, the Western alliance and regional alliances.”
With Turkey bordering both Iraq and Syria, making it a key gateway for jihadists, Ankara remains crucial in international efforts to battle IS. But observers say the extent Ankara can influence the international community on continuing to isolate the PKK could well depend on how much it cooperates in cracking down on the jihadists.
For now, the PKK is one of few groups to have defeated IS, without air support – and it offers a secular outlook in a region of rising religious intolerance.