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The Kurds: fighting the good fight?

William Gourlay |  22 September 2014

Illustration from Molla Nasreddin

Recent commentary has rightly highlighted the potential dangers and long-term implications of US President Obama’s decision to go to war against the ISIS. Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Australia’s involvement as a ‘fundamentally humanitarian mission’ is perhaps an attempt to downplay some of those concerns. 

What remains unequivocal is that ISIS is a clear and present danger to its immediate neighbourhood, and potentially far beyond, and that compachecking its advance sooner rather than later is crucial. Obama and his secretary of state appear intent on building a coalition, including Middle Eastern countries, to take it on. But the two major regional powers against whose borders ISIS jostles, namely Turkey and Iran, have, each for their own reasons, declined to participate militarily. 

The likelihood or benefits of working in concert with Iran can be debated long and hard, but in the meantime the Kurds clearly emerge as the immediate go-to allies in the forthcoming struggle. 

Of course, the Kurds are not novices when it comes to tackling ISIS. The YPG militia of the Syrian-Kurdish enclave of Rojava have been fighting ISIS for almost two years, and, it might be added, making a good fist of it. It was also units of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that came to the aid of the Yezidis who were stranded and at the mercy of ISIS on Mt Sinjar in early August. 

The wisdom of supplying and enlisting the Kurds to be the foot soldiers in the battle against ISIS raises spectres for some. Comparisons are drawn to the West’s courting of Saddam Hussein during the 1980s and of the Islamic militia that preceded the Taleban in Afghanistan. Here were two little-known entities, chosen as allies on an enemy-of-my-enemy basis. Engaging with both had spectacular, unforeseen, negative repercussions. 

The Kurds are an entirely different kettle of fish. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil in northern Iraq, through which aid and munitions will be channelled, is a legitimate political entity. Over two decades the KRG has established a functioning, if not flawless, democracy in its autonomous region, while also maintaining constructive relationships with Turkey, Iran and Baghdad.

For all that, the KRG understands that in a tough neighbourhood its existence is precarious and is dependent on support from the West. It was the no-fly zone imposed by the US and the UK after the first Gulf war in 1991 that allowed the Kurds to forge and consolidate their regime in Erbil. The KRG has since maintained a pro-Western stance and has, until recently, managed to avoid becoming embroiled in the strife that has plagued the rest of Iraq. It is also resolutely secular – hard-line, Islamist inclinations amongst Kurds are minimal.

This is not to say that the KRG does not have a political agenda of its own, but the chances of a Taleban-style, anti-Western Islamist blowback from the Kurds are negligible. 

The Kurds, spread across the borderlands of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, follow a plethora of political groups, often with associated paramilitaries. (Following Kurdish affairs requires mastery of an array of acronyms.) Concerns have been raised that weaponry delivered by the West may fall into the hands of the ‘wrong’ Kurds. It is the PKK, which originated in Turkey, that attracts most consternation. Turkey classifies the PKK as a terrorist organisation, as do the US, the EU and Australia, largely at the behest of Ankara. 

The PKK emerged with a Marxist agenda and the stated goal of creating an independent Kurdish territory within Turkey; its early campaigns involved terror tactics against Turkish targets. In recent years it has repudiated its original goals, however, and has engaged in extended peace negotiations with the Turkish government. It is generally following the same trajectory that the PLO did, that is from terrorist group to legitimate political actor. 

Those PKK members who are still militarily active are operating in campaigns only against ISIS in Iraq. In fact, PKK militia have proven to be more effective in fighting ISIS than have the peshmerga militia of the KRG. The complexity of intra-Kurdish politics, and associated rivalries between groups, is such that weapons or munitions supplied by the West to the KRG are unlikely to ever reach the PKK. Even if they do, they are even less likely to be used against Western interests, or against Turkey if Ankara maintains the momentum of negotiations with the PKK.

Of course, positioning the Kurds as favoured allies, and arming them, will change the dynamics of the region, but both the KRG and the PKK, of late, have chosen negotiation as the best option, resorting to military action only as a last option. Meanwhile, as ISIS continues its assault, common sense dictates that supporting the Kurds is the best way to stop it.

William Gourlay headshotWilliam Gourlay is PhD scholar at Monash University whose research focuses on notions of identity and citizenship amongst the Kurds of Turkey.




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Submitted comments

Thanks for this article, with suggests that my own (non-expert) my own prior views are largely reasonable. I've never really understood the value or justification for Iraq remaining a unitary nation, particularly the (forced?) inclusion of Iraqi Kurdistan. Indeed, the only plausible justification for Iraqi Kurdistan remaining part of Iraq is that if it does achieve autonomy, then Iran, Turkey and Syria may also face separatist movements among their Kurdish citizenry - which in my view is insufficient reason for suppressing emergence of a democratic secular Iraqi Kurdistan.

David Arthur 23 September 2014

Great to read an article by you in ES again William. This is a masterful summary of the situation vis a vis the various Kurdish groups, the Islamic State and the region and world. Thank you. This is the sort of analysis one gets from a Robert Fisk or Patrick Cockburn.

Edward Fido 23 September 2014

A great article. Some of the most sage words were offered by Cardinal Richelieu; "Treason is a matter of dates".

Peter Goers 24 September 2014

Thanks for the very generous comments. It's a complex situation, but interestingly the Iraqi Kurds winning more autonomy has not necessarily incited Kurds in Turkey or Iran. The Turkish government has engaged very productively with Erbil, while also negotiating with the PKK and granting more rights to Kurds in Turkey. The result is a - relatively promising - peace process. My feeling (perhaps naïve/simplistic) is that if Turkey/Iraq/Iran engage with Kurdish populations and address their legitimate grievances then separatist inclinations (and attendant struggles) will actually decrease. But who knows? The Turks say "basarilar dilerim" - I'm wishing for success!

William Gourlay 24 September 2014

Saudi Arabia (America's good friend) is the one who is meant to have financed ISIS in Syria, and yet Iran cannot participate in discussions or actions because Iran 'supports terrorists'. America does not have the 'Best Interests' of the world at heart.

Jude Silber 25 September 2014

I have previously written on Eureka Street:

"The US is currently rearming the KRG factions, in order to use them against the Islamic State (IS) group. Simultaneously, the ex-Marxist PKK and its Iraqi Kurdistan affiliate, the PCDK, have joined the PUK and the KDP in combatting IS in Iraqi Kurdistan. All three Kurdish groups have engaged in terrorist acts in the past — including against ordinary Kurds. All of them have displayed equal capacities to expend their own people’s lives for their faction’s material gain. None of these political thugs deserve our support."

The Kurds as cannon fodder http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=42042#.VLWijSdGI1Y

Paul White 14 January 2015

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