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Who’s Fighting ISIS? Kurdish Forces in the Regional Conflict

Marie Farley contributed to this post.

On September 22, for the first time in the three-and-a-half–year long Syrian civil war, the United States carried out airstrikes in Syria, as part of a campaign against the terrorist group that now refers to itself as the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL). “I made clear,” President Barack Obama told the nation, “the United States would take action against targets in both Iraq and Syria so that these terrorists can’t find safe haven anywhere.”

Missing Partners

“This is not America’s fight alone,” Obama added, going on to thank for their involvement “our friends and partners – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar. America is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these nations on behalf of our common security.” What is most telling about this list are the names that are not on it. There was no mention of NATO ally Turkey, which has been hesitant to lend its full support to the U.S.-led coalition.

Also absent were the Kurds, an ethnic group spread across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Kurdish fighters, in both in Iraq and Syria, have been battling IS since at least 2013, before the terrorist group rose to international infamy, and are now on the frontlines trying to halt IS’ advance, while Kurdish civilians are fleeing IS by the hundreds of thousands.

These two omissions are related. The outsize role of Kurdish fighters in the conflict and the potential that the U.S.-led coalition will arm and cooperate with them is one reason Turkey—which has long struggled to contain an armed Kurdish insurgency demanding autonomy from Ankara—cites for refraining from joining the fray. And, in turn, Turkey’s concern about the Kurds, particularly in Syria, has led to their increasingly dire fate. Early on in the conflict, Turkey supported radical Sunni groups, like IS, to battle an emerging autonomous Syrian Kurdish entity. Now, as IS has mounted an attack on the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria, Turkey is at least tacitly continuing this policy by blocking Kurdish fighters from joining the battle and civilians from fleeing the fighting.

The effectiveness of Kurdish fighters has not only altered the regional alliances of the Kurds—who are working together in pursuit of a common enemy for one of the first times in modern history—but also the perception of the legitimacy of Kurdish groups, shifting them towards allies in the fight against terrorism instead of terrorists themselves. This development is forcing Turkish leaders to make a tough choice: the Islamic State or the PKK. For the United States and the majority of its coalition, the choice seems clear. Yet, for Turkey, it’s more opaque.

Kurds on the Frontlines

As the United States and its allies scramble for groups on the ground to support efforts against the advance of the Islamic State, Kurdish groups, including fighters from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), known as peshmerga, the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States, and its Syrian Kurdish affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are on the front lines. (For a primer on different Kurdish groups, see below. A chart of how these groups relate to the other major actors in the region can be found here.)

For much of the Syrian conflict, Syrian Kurds have been the target of radical Sunni groups. The largely secular Kurds have clashed with Islamic militants over control of Syrian territory, particularly those rich in oil. Turkey, wary of the gains of the Syrian Kurds, lent its support to extremists such as IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, not only as effective fighters in the war against Bashar al-Assad, but also as a means of containing Kurdish ambitions.

As IS’ strength has grown, PKK fighters began joining the fight in support of their Syrian brethren. “The Kurds must take a common national position against IS terrorists and they must fight together, as the presence of IS is a danger to the democratic coexistence of the peoples of the region,” imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan said, calling on “all peoples” to fight IS. As IS advanced into Iraq, the head of the PKK Leadership Committee swore the PKK would “attack IS wherever it is found and with all our capabilities. We will not allow it to progress and achieve its goals. And we will be ready to lead a joint struggle alongside all those who resist IS and have a clear position about it, so that we inflict defeat on these mercenaries, liquidate them, and obliterate them from existence.”

In Iraq, the PKK and YPG have proven their effectiveness, helping to shepherd Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar to safety, and fighting alongside peshmerga forces in Makhmour, helping to retake the town. While the peshmerga have been touted as the only force on the ground capable of countering IS’ advance, PKK fighters have stepped in to bolster the peshmerga’s capabilities when they’ve retreated, fighting alongside them for the first time in history.

As the conflict against IS expands and gains international legitimacy, the PKK will likely look to expand its role and upgrade its armaments. As a result, the peace process the Turkish government opened with the PKK last year may become less of a priority for the PKK. Instead, Turkish columnist Amberin Zaman wrote in al-Monitor, “it is the PKK’s prowess on the battlefield, rather than its peace overtures to Turkey, that is propelling it to international legitimacy.” Though the United States declined to remove the PKK from its terrorist list, out of deference to its Turkish ally, an online petition calling on it to do just that due to the PKK’s status as “a partner in defending Iraq and Kurdistan,” is rapidly gaining signatures.

Conflict in Kobani

Although recent attention has been focused on IS’ territorial gains in Iraq, it has also been seeking to expand its holdings in Syria. Most recently, it has advanced into the Kurdish region of Syria, drawing close to the strategically located town of Kobani (also known as Ayn al-Arab), near the Syrian-Turkish border. Fighting over the weekend of September 20 spurred a massive wave of Syrian Kurdish refugees to seek shelter in Turkey. Turkish armed forces originally stopped them from crossing the border, with Prime Minister Davutoğlu announcing that Turkey was “ready to help our brothers who are gathering along the border regardless of their, ethnicity, religion, or sect,” but cautioning that “our priority is to deliver aid within Syria’s borders.” Despite this initial reluctance, and skirmishes on the Turkish side of the border between troops and locals protesting the closed border, Turkish authorities later opened border crossings for the fleeing Syrian Kurds, resulting in an influx of 130,000 refugees in only a few days, according to Turkish government estimates.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that Turkey is already home to nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees and has spent $4 billion caring for them since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. As fighting rages near Kobani, UNHCR representative in Turkey Carol Batchelor warned: “quite frankly we don’t know when those numbers will end, we don’t know what the future holds. It could well go again into the hundreds of thousands.”

Turkey Blocking Kurdish Assistance

While conflict displaces Syrian Kurds, other Kurdish fighters are flocking to fight IS in Kobani. As IS militants seized villages, encircling the city, the PKK called for Turkish Kurds to join the fight. “Supporting this heroic resistance is not just a debt of honor of the Kurds but all Middle Eastern peoples. Just giving support is not enough; the norm must be taking part in the resistance,” the PKK said in an online statement, “ISIL fascism must drown in the blood it spills …the youth of Northern Kurdistan [southeast Turkey] must flow in waves to Kobani.”

Turkish Kurdish politicians are repeating the PKK’s call, with People’s Democratic Party Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş, saying that the youth of Turkey, including Turkish, Kurdish, Alevi and Sunni people, should join the fight in Kobani. The PKK says that it has sent fighters to Syria armed with anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank missiles and rifles. A spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) reported that “Our brothers in northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) have started a campaign to send youths to Kobani to defend it,” adding that “there are some youths who have crossed the border from Turkey to Kobani who are now on the frontlines.”

But Turkey is preventing this military assistance from flowing to Kobani. The town is cut off from other territories under Kurdish control, leaving Kurdish fighters in Syria trying to reach the embattled city two options: to travel through territory controlled by IS, or to cross through Turkey. The latter option has been denied them. Similarly, as Kurdish youth answered the PKK’s call, flocking to the Turkish-Syrian border, they were met by Turkish security forces, preventing them from crossing. “Turkey is preventing not only PKK but all Kurdish men from entering Syria,” said a spokesman for the YPG. Leader of the PYD Salih Muslim had harsh words for Turkey’s refusal to allow Kurdish fighters through its borders: “They are not intervening. They at least should not obstruct others from helping. Should Kobani fall, who will be responsible? Turkey.”

Turkey and the Kurdish Question

Turkey, despite its status and NATO ally and its geostrategic location, has proven a reluctant partner in the fight against the Islamic State. Notably, Turkey refused to sign a communiqué negotiated in Jeddah, committing Middle Eastern nations to work to counter IS only to the level they deemed “appropriate.” While Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon agreed to sign the document, Turkey declined, citing the sensitivity of its efforts to secure the release of 46 Turkish hostages held captive by IS fighters in Iraq since June, including the Turkish Consul General.

However, in an operation planned by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, the 46 hostages were recently freed. While details of the operation have not been released, Turkish news reported that the 46 Turkish hostages (and 3 Iraqi nationals taken captive at the Turkish consulate) were released in exchange for 50 IS prisoners held by Syrian rebels.

With Turkey’s hostage crisis resolved, the United States expressed cautious optimism about Turkey’s greater involvement in the anti-IS coalition. “They first needed to deal with their hostage situation,” Secretary of State John Kerry said, adding “Now, the proof will be in the pudding.”

Turkey’s response, however, does not seem to be an indicator of increased cooperation. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu rebuked Kerry for having the “gall” to test Turkey, saying “everybody should know – something that I also told Mr. Kerry when I was the foreign minister – that Turkey does not have to prove anything. Turkey has always displayed that it can take a decisive attitude in line with facts that it believes in. They witnessed how Turkey was attentive even at times when [our] allies did not take enough care for some of our sensitivities.” More recently, Turkish President Erdoğan shifted his rhetoric, saying “we will give the necessary support to the operation. The support could be military or logistics,” but providing no details.


“You’ve got to pick your poison. It’s either [IS] or the PKK,” an American official stated bluntly. “The problem,” he went on to add, “is Turkey.” With the United States unwilling to put U.S. “boots on the ground,” it appears willing to work with the PKK, but Turkey has yet to come on board. Given its wariness of the potential adverse effects arming the PKK regionally might have on its fragile settlement process at home, which we will discuss in an upcoming post , Turkey is unlikely to accept that degrading and defeating IS’ capabilities requires arming and empowering the PKK. At the very least, however, the United States should work with its ally to prevent it from worsening the situation on the ground by blocking military and humanitarian assistance to Syria’s Kurds.

Primer: Regional Kurdish Groups

Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK, Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan): Formed in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan, now imprisoned in Turkey, the PKK is a Kurdish political and military organization which has fought an armed struggle against the Turkish government for cultural and political rights and self-determination. Since a March 2013 ceasefire, the PKK has been in negotiations with the Turkish government for an end to the conflict.

Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK): The KCK is an organization founded by the PKK to put Öcalan’s ideology of Democratic Confederalism into practice.

Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD): Affiliated with the PKK, the PYD is a Syrian Kurdish political party formed in 2003. Previously repressed by the Assad regime, the PYD has consolidated control over predominantly-Kurdish areas in northern Syria.

Kurdish National Council (KNC, Enumena Nistimani ya Kurdi li Suriye): The KNC is a Kurdish political organization involved in the Syrian Civil War. This group pushes for Kurdish autonomy and has occasionally come into conflict with the PYD until 2012, when the two groups joined to form the Kurdish Supreme Committee.

The Kurdish Supreme Committee: The Kurdish Supreme Committee is a governing body of Syrian Kurdistan. Its member board consists of an equal number of PYD and KNC members. Its armed wing is the YPG.

People’s Protection Units (YPG Yekineyen Parastina Gel): The YPG is the official armed wing of the Kurdish Supreme Committee of Syrian Kurdistan, often associated more specifically with the PYD.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG, Hikumeti Heremi Kurdistan): The KRG is the official ruling body of the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. It has a unicameral parliament with 111 seats known as the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP). The majority party selects the cabinet and the prime minister. The president is directly elected and is the commander of the Peshmerga Armed Forces. Relations between Baghdad and the KRG are usually tense.

Peshmerga: The Peshmerga, literally “those who confront death,” are the armed forces of the KRG. The PKK recently assisted the Peshmerga in recapturing positions taken by the terrorist group Islamic State.

Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK, Partiya Demokrata Kurdistan): The PDK is one of the main Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the party of KRG President Mahmoud Barzani.

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK Yeketi Nistimani Kurdistan): The PUK is an Iraqi-Kurdish political party in Iraqi Kurdistan, led by former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

People’s Democratic Party (HDP, Halklarin Demokratik Partisi): The HDP is a pro-Kurdish and feminist left political party in Turkey led by Selahattin Demirtaş. It is in a fraternal relationship with the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP).

Democratic Regions Party (DBP, Demokratik Bolgeler Partisi): Formerly known as the BDP, the DBP is a Kurdish political party in Turkey. The DBP ran parallel to the HDP in the 2014 municipal elections

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