Politics Keep Syrian Kurdish Troops From Fighting in Their Homeland
Never mind Islamic State—one faction rejects another’s fighters
Back in September, Kurdish Peshmerga forces attacked the Islamic State-held village of Hassan Sham, just 30 kilometers from Mosul in northern Iraq. Six Pesh died in the fighting.
Three of them were from Syrian Kurdistan, two from Iraqi Kurdistan and one from Turkish Kurdistan. Their deaths in battle—and the way Kurdish forces returned their bodies to their families—illustrate the complexity of the Kurds’ anti-Islamic State coalition.
While pretty much all the various Kurdish factions are fighting Islamic State, they aren’t necessarily fighting Islamic State together. And one possible reason … is a chilling one.
Some Kurds have suggested that the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, which has systematically oppressed Syrian Kurds, is now backing some Kurdish factions in Syria in order to open up an eastern front against Islamic State.
If true, Al Assad’s support could be driving a wedge between the Kurds, all of whom oppose Islamic State—and most of whom also oppose Al Assad.
The three Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga who died in Hassan Sham—Jomard Msho, Sulaiman Hamza Haji and Daleel Ahmad—first came to Iraqi Kurdistan as refugees from Syria’s three-year-old civil war.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurdish National Council—the latter a Syrian entity—offered some of these refugees military training. The goal was to reinforce Syrian Kurdish fighters in their struggle against both Al Assad’s brutal regime and Islamic extremists.
But this new force was unable to enter to Syria from Iraq because of disagreements between the Kurdish National Council and another Syrian-Kurdish group, the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan.
The factions still hadn’t resolved their disagreements by the time Islamic State attacked Iraqi Kurdistan this summer. So the Syrian-Kurdish Peshmerga troops instead joined the KRG’s own Iraqi Peshmerga in battling the militant invaders.
Yes, it’s confusing.
On Sept. 17, Syrian-Kurdish Peshmerga troops, officials from the Iraqi KRG and Syrian Kurdish parties and thousands of Syrian refugees living in Iraqi Kurdistan gathered to honor the three Syrian-Kurdish Peshmerga who died in Hassan Sham.
They assembled on the Iraq-Syria border crossing at Peshabour. Peshmerga troops carried the bodies into Syria, where another crowd waited to receive them.
Mustafa Shafeeq Ari—the KRG’s deputy prime minister—recited a speech. He told the crowd that the six Peshmerga who died were martyrs not just for Kurdistan, but for all humanity.
“The Peshmerga are not only fighting for Kurdistan, but fighting against the brutality that is trying to darken all human life,” Ari said. “Until now our fighting was for life and death in Kurdistan. But from now, this fight is about the victory of light against darkness.”
Ari insisted that deaths of Syrian Kurds fighting in Iraq has symbolic significance.
“What’s special about these martyrs is that Peshmerga from three parts of Kurdistan sacrificed their lives in one land,” he expounded. “This is a sign of victory for Kurdish people, who have had their land divided between countries.”
“And it is a message for the occupiers,” Ari added, essentially threatening Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Islamic State with the specter of Kurdish solidarity.
But that’s just talk. In fact, the Kurds are deeply divided between themselves.
The Kurdish National Council had gathered Kurdish refugees and deserters from the Syrian military—including Msho, Haji and Ahmad—and trained them in Iraq with KRG assistance, according to Saeed Omer, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria.
Omer said the KNC even had an agreement with the Syrian-Kurdish PYD, the political wing of the YPG militia that heads the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan—to allow the KNC-KRG fighters access to the PYD’s territory in northeastern Syria.
The KNC force is moderate and well-organized—and many Syrian Kurds have asked for the KNC troops to come to Syria to help protect civilians, according to Omer.
But as the KNC force neared readiness, the PYD seemingly changed its mind about partnering with the new force. Suddenly the KNC-KRG troops couldn’t return to Syria to fight. “There is a force that doesn’t allow us to go and fight as Peshmerga or under the name of Peshmerga,” said a Syrian-Kurdish lieutenant who gave us only one name—Abdi.
Abdi said he knows why. He accused several of the Kurdish factions in Syria of receiving aid from the Syrian regime in exchange for fighting Islamic State. The PYD, in particular, essentially aligns with Al Assad.
And that has torn the Kurds apart. Abdi for one said he refuses to work with anyone Al Assad backs, even if they did want his help. “I don’t want to put myself in Syrian regime hands and fight for them.”
Without a firm guarantee of cooperation, the KNC hesitated to send the Syrian-Kurdish Peshmerga back to Syria. “There’s fear of an internal war if they go without a PYD agreement with the KNC,” Omer told War Is Boring.
Instead, the KNC force deployed to southern Kurdistan in Iraq. That’s how the three Syrian Kurds Msho, Haji and Ahmad ended up as casualties in Hassan Sham, fighting far from the home they wanted to protect.
However, this week, on Oct. 14, the representatives of the various Syrian-Kurdish parties began talks in Duhok hosted by KRG president Massoud Barzani. The plan is to talk about how to unify Kurdish parties inside Syria in the fight against Islamic State.
But these parties have reached agreements twice already. It’s sticking to the agreements that they struggle with. And until they can, the Kurds will remain divided.