The Kurds as Proxies against the Islamic State

This is the fourth in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015. An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


There has much discussion recently about the role of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the current conflict with ISIL (IS/Da’esh) in Syria and Iraq. The Kurds appear to have become the regional proxies of choice that US and other Western forces can do business with in order to counter ISIL. But who are these Kurds and who are these ‘peshmerga’? These questions and others associated with this issue are actually not that easy to answer. It is important, however, as Western forces go forward in the conflict with ISIL, that some level of understanding is developed as to the nature of the various Kurdish forces operating in the region.

Western involvement in the conflict with ISIL first took shape in August 2014 on Mount Sinjar. A large number of Yazidis (a non-Muslim Kurdish group) were forced to flee there to escape the advance of ISIL forces across northern Iraq. Their plight drew in US special forces who landed on the mountain in order to assess the situation. They had expected these Yazidis to be guarded by peshmerga from the nearby semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq known as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). But they were no KRG peshmerga fighters there. The Yazidis were actually being looked after by fighters from the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group that had operated for so long in Turkey. Realising that they could not talk to such ‘terrorists’, the US forces quickly withdrew.

Common sense did later prevail and it was recognized in Washington and in other Western capitals that if the Yazidis were to be rescued then political niceties had to be put to one side and the PKK personnel had to be dealt with.

But why were the PKK on Mount Sinjar? And what had happened to the KRG’s peshmerga forces? Well, those peshmerga forces had melted away before the ISIL advance and had left the Yazidis to the tender mercies of ISIL. These peshmerga were, after all, simply ill-armed and ill-trained militia who, for the most part, acted on behalf of individual tribal or political leaders. But desperate to save the Yazidis, the President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, had asked for help from the Syrian Kurds across the border. In doing so, he was basically asking for help from his bitter enemies. The main Syrian Kurd political party – which is linked to the PKK – is known as the PYD. The PYD, like the PKK, is secular, left-wing and progressive in orientation. Such a standpoint stands in direct contrast to the politics of Barzani’s ruling party in the KRG – the KDP. This is, in nature, tribal and conservative.

The PYD did then send its best fighters to Mount Sinjar. These were from the armed wing (the HPG) of the PKK. But what were these PKK fighters from Turkey doing in northern Syria in the first place? Well, they had come across the border after the Turkish government and the PKK leadership had agreed a ceasefire in March of 2013. The PKK’s campaign in Turkey was thus supposedly over. But some renegade PKK members did not accept the ceasefire and left Turkey for Syria. There they joined up with the PYD, which itself had been formed from PKK members back in 2003.

And then the ISIL siege of Kobane began in September. The most effective fighters operating at Kobane were again from the PKK’s HPG. It was no wonder then that the Turks – despising the PKK and all its works – initially refused to allow any help to cross the border and assist the Kurdish resistance at Kobane. If they had helped, they would have been assisting their mortal enemy of the past 30 years. In many ways, the Turks preferred ISIL to take Kobane; at least they knew they could deal with ISIL. What Ankara ultimately fears, once the crisis in Syria is over, is the creation of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria that could act as a base for terrorist attacks against Turkey.

Ankara is, though, quite happy for a Kurdish entity to exist in the KRG under Barzani. It knows that, for various reasons, it can control what happens there and take advantage of Barzani’s antipathy towards the PKK. The Kurds in the KRG led by Barzani are Ankara’s ‘good Kurds’; their ‘bad Kurds’ are those of the PKK.

As Kobane burned, the world’s media watched on from nearby Turkish territory. A something-must-be-done call went up and Washington lost patience with Turkish intransigence. US aircraft made an airdrop of weapons onto Kobane in October. The irony is that the Americans were, more than likely, dropping Iranian weapons which had been provided by one of the political parties within the KRG – the PUK – which is opposed to Barzani’s KDP. This gave Washington the excuse (to Ankara) that it was not providing its own weapons to the Kurds at Kobane but rather those supplied by other Kurds. Wherever these weapons came from, Ankara was apoplectic. The view was that the Americans were delivering weapons to the PKK which could one day be used against Turkey. But this event did spark the Turks into life. They realised they needed to be seen to be doing something themselves to help Kobane in order to both quell domestic unrest among Kurds within Turkey and to prevent further U.S. airdrops – but they needed to be in control of that help. Thus we then had the movement, agreed by Ankara, of a convoy of peshmerga forces from the KRG crossing Turkish territory into Kobane. This took in ‘heavy’ weapons but only, on Turkish insistence, with the understanding that they would be taken out again once these KRG peshmerga pulled out. This reinforcement exercise actually only involved 150 peshmerga. The KRG wanted to send more, but the PYD/PKK fighters in Kobane did not want a larger number: their fear was that these KRG peshmerga, working for Turkish ends, might start to take over control of the situation in Kobane.

The issue now is that since the siege of Kobane has been lifted then the various groups of Kurds involved will no longer be unified by this common ‘Kurdish’ goal. They will go their separate ways. They will seek now their own goals within the situation of regional anarchy created by the collapse of central Syrian control and by the spread of ISIL in northern Iraq. A land grab involving different Kurdish elements now seems inevitable and in this land grab Kurd will be set against Kurd. We can see this already around Sinjar in Iraq. The PKK fighters who protected the Yazidis are still based around this town. Barzani’s KRG fears that the PKK will now try and set up its own ‘canton’ at Sinjar (and elsewhere inside Iraq) and represent a challenge to his own regional authority (and, indeed, Baghdad’s).

Such are the vagaries of taking on the Kurds as Western proxies. Without a common ‘Kurdish’ purpose they are just as likely to fight each other as they are to fight ISIL.

Image: “Peshmerga on a T-55-Tank outside Kirkuk in Iraq.” by Boris Niehaus – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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