There’s Drama Between Kurdistan’s Two Best Frenemies
The PKK came to fight Islamic State—and then overstayed its welcome
When Islamic State launched a full-scale attack on Kurdish territory last summer, it caught Kurdish forces by surprise. The Peshmerga’s hasty retreat exposed Iraq’s religious minorities—especially Yezidis—to the jihadi group’s religious cleansing campaign.
Thousands fled to nearby Mount Sinjar for safety. To rescue the civilians, guerrillas with the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, and the People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, pushed into Iraq from Syria.
Kurdish forces fighting together against Islamic State has inspired Kurds all over the region. The PKK fighters are still working openly in Iraq, but their presence is becoming controversial.
The PKK is a radical left-wing nationalist party the United States and Turkey both consider a terrorist organization.
Some Kurds see the guerrillas’ role as an example of Kurdish unity in the face of an existential threat from Islamic State. Others complain that the PKK doesn’t cooperate with Iraqi Kurdish authorities—and is trying to exploit the war for its own political agenda.
At the same time, PKK officials complain the Iraqi Kurds don’t cooperate with them. To complicate the drama even more, if the PKK suddenly left Iraq, it could expose deep political divisions many Kurds are not ready to acknowledge.
To be sure, PKK and YPG fighters played an important role opening a corridor to Mount Sinjar. The move allowed thousands of refugees to escape the mountain to safety in Syria.
During last summer’s fighting, PKK guerrillas also moved south to Mahkmur, Kirkuk, Jalawla and Saadia. They even went as far south as Shekhan near the Yezidi Temple in Lalish.
In its official media outlets, the PKK claimed it sent fighters to protect the Yezidis’ holy temple.
But the fight between Kurdish forces and Islamic State was far from the temple, and Duhok’s governor said the PKK came to the region without notifying officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The PKK didn’t need to defend the holy site, anyway. Yezidi Peshmerga fighters in Shekhan said there’s no danger to the temple.
The governor asked the PKK to leave Shekhan, and the guerrillas complied, but are still fighting beside Peshmerga in other areas. At a recent funeral of a PKK militant killed during an Islamic State attack on Kirkuk, these latent tensions spilled out into the open.
“We are discussing withdrawing our guerrillas from the south,” PKK executive committee member Murat Karayilan said Feb. 7 during a ceremony in Qandil. “We stress that the KRG should change its attitude toward the guerrillas.”
Fighting their own way
There’s several causes behind the growing tension. But one problem is that there’s no effective coordination between PKK and Peshmerga forces.
The PKK has long expressed frustrations that the KRG doesn’t recognize its fighters on the front line—a claim Iraqi Kurdish officials reject. The PKK demands the government officially acknowledge its troops fighting Islamic State. But some KRG officials accuse the PKK’s fighters of trying to colonize the areas they’re defending.
“Officially, they do not belong to KRG, but belong to the Kurdish party in North Kurdistan,” Peshmerga spokesman Jabar Yawar told War Is Boring, referring to the Kurdish region in southeastern Turkey.
“We thank them for their help here, but their remaining or withdrawing is related to their plan and strategy, as there is no protocol between KRG and PKK.”
Faiq Golpi, the former co-chairman of the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party—a PKK affiliate in Iraq—said the PKK’s actions are political in nature.
“They have some opinions about the South Kurdistan situation and KRG doesn’t listen to them,” Golpi said. “That’s why Karayilan’s statement is like a protest toward [the KRG’s] position.”
But Zkri Mosa, a columnist at Erbil’s Hewler newspaper, told War Is Boring that the PKK haven’t exactly been cooperative on their end, either.
“The problem is, PKK comes to [the] front lines without getting permission from the KRG,” Mosa explained. “The Peshmerga going to Kobani did not create any threats for PKK and PYD, because they went on PKK/PYD request and put their weapons for PKK/PYD services.”
Mosa said the PKK has been particularly bold in its activities in Iraq, both militarily and politically. That explains some of the wariness Iraqi Kurds have toward the northern guerrillas.
“Their attempts to set up an administration for Yezidi in Sinjar increased the doubts about their intentions in coming to South Kurdistan, especially when they tried to establish a military force inside the KRG for Yezidis,” he explained, referencing the People’s Sinjar Protection Force.
“To solve these problems, it is better for PKK to coordinate with the Peshmerga ministry and change its attitude toward South Kurdistan.”
Mosa said he thinks the PKK took advantage of the tragedy that befell the Yezidi people, and are trying to gain Yezidi support by discrediting the Peshmerga.
“[They should] stop their psychological warfare against the Peshmerga that they started when ISIS attacked South Kurdistan,” he said. “PKK exploited the Peshmerga retreat and Sinjar genocide for political gains, and are still intervening in KRG issues.”
PKK official Murat Karayilan accused the KRG of putting pressure on the media to not discuss the guerrillas’ presence on the battlefield. He said the PKK doesn’t accept Iraqi Kurdish authorities trying to deny the party’s role.
He has a point. Golpi pointed out that after Islamic State attacked Kirkuk in late January, Kurdish media didn’t mention the PKK or the casualties it took. Golpi suggested this could be a factor in worsening relations.
But Ari Harsin, the chairman of the Peshmerga Affairs Committee in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, is skeptical of this claim.
“In parliament and government, we thanked PKK for what they did in the recent fights, and the media always talks about it,” Harsin said. “I don’t know what is their aim of saying KRG and media deny their role.”
Peshmerga spokesman Jabar Yawar released casualty numbers in a Feb. 4 press conference, but didn’t mention PKK casualties. This may be another reason the PKK accused the KRG of downplaying its contributions.
But Yawar is adamant it’s not part of a cover-up.
“I’m a KRG spokesman, and PKK is a North Kurdistan party,” he explained. “Talking about their activities is not related to my job.”
According to Golpi, the PKK is threatening to withdraw as a way to get the media’s attention and gauge public opinion. In other words, the militants want to know if Iraqi Kurds will ask them to stay. If they do, the PKK fighters are likely to remain in their positions.
“The number of PKK guerrillas [on] the fronts is small, but their role is good,” said a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s politburo. “The KRG, KDP and PUK should talk to them to know what their problems are, and convince them to stay.”
But Harsin said it’s not the KRG’s place to make requests of the guerrillas.
“PKK is not from KRG, so we cannot say to them it is your duty to stay,” he explained. “In previous months they joined the front lines voluntarily. We didn’t ask them to come. That is why they are free what to decide.”
Yezidi Peshmerga commander Qasim Shasho told BasNews it would be wise for PKK forces to withdraw. “Their staying is making problems in this region and may cause a brotherhood war, so we will thank any PKK commander who withdraws their forces,” he said.
To stay or go
Golpi mentioned that the KRG could keep Western weapons and ammunition—like German arms shipments—away from the PKK’s fighters. He suggested this could influence the guerrillas’ decision whether to withdraw their forces or not.
Many Western nations consider the PKK a terrorist group, which officially prohibits any weapons transfers.
According to Golpi, if the PKK withdraws its forces from the front lines, it will hurt the KRG’s ability to fight Islamic State. Despite the PKK’s limited numbers, its fighters are highly organized and active combatants.
Harsin said that he doesn’t want to deny the PKK’s role, but insisted that if it withdrew, the move wouldn’t harm Peshmerga morale on the front lines.
But Mosa—though critical of some of the PKK’s actions—said its departure would be a definite blow to the war effort.
“The KRG needs every single Kurd to defend Kurds’ lines in South Kurdistan, and it needs PKK guerrillas in fighting against ISIS,” he asserted.
“KRG does not have problems with Rojava Peshmerga and parties from East Kurdistan [in Iran] who participated in the war from the beginning, because they put their services under KRG,” he explained. “Like the Peshmerga did in Kobani when they put their services under the PYD.”
Mosa said the problem is that the PKK says it wants be treated as equals, while the party insists on acting on its own. He asserted that the party’s leaders need to accept the KRG’s authority in Iraq, and work more closely with Peshmerga commanders.
But a victory over Islamic State would mean the removal of their common enemy. So if the KRG and PKK come to any arrangement, it’ll likely be a temporary one.