With unified Kurdish forces helping break the siege of Mount Sinjar, are we moving closer to Kurdish independence?by Michael Goldfarb / August 14, 2014 / Leave a comment
Things are moving at top speed in northern Iraq/Kurdistan. A week ago the marauding Islamic State militants were rampant in the region and talk of genocide filled the air. The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were in retreat, and tens of thousands of the minority religious group the Yazidis were trapped on Mount Sinjar near the Syrian border.
Now, according to the most recent report in the New York Times, the siege of Mount Sinjar is broken. A mere 24 hours after “dozens” of marines and special forces arrived near the mountain, only hundreds of Yazidis are left stranded. How did this happen? There weren’t that many US airstrikes against the jihadists.
Much credit has to go to the PKK, the Turkish Peshmerga fighters. Peshmerga is a Kurdish word that means “those who face death” and is used for any Kurdish fighting band, regardless of country of origin. Throughout the frenzied days of last week, as Iraqi Peshmerga abandoned territory to IS—more territory than the jihadists with a mere 15,000 troops and no administrative corps could possibly occupy—persistent wire service reports filtered onto the internet if not into actual newspapers and broadcast news programmes of the PKK fighting—and winning —against IS.
In Mahmour, a rough industrial town on the road between the Kurdish capital Erbil and the oil-city of Kirkuk, the PKK pushed IS back so that the vital link wasn’t cut.
Even as US warplanes were being ordered into the skies over the region, PKK fighters were leading groups of Yazidis off the mountain and across the parched plains towards the northern city of Dohuk, inside the autonomous Kurdistan region.
The PKK know the area well, they have been fighting IS in Syria for the last few years. The irony here is that the PKK is on America’s terrorist watch list, an historical remnant of the four decades when the group (PKK are Turkish initials for Kurdistan Worker’s Party) fought an insurgency against Turkey in which 40,000 people died. The insurgency started in the 1970’s as a civil rights movement, Kurdish language and culture was banned by the Turkish government. The PKK was brutally suppressed by the Turkish Army which turned southeastern Turkey, home to the Kurds, who make up a fifth of Turkey’s population, into an armed camp.
But that has changed in the last half-decade. Turkish Prime Minister, and now president-elect, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made a rapprochement with his country’s Kurdish population. There was even a Kurd on the ballot in last week’s presidential election. Selahattin Demirtas polled nearly 10 per cent of the vote. Demirtas’ HDP (People’s Democracy Party) is something like Sinn Fein to the PKK’s IRA, but he was not seeking an independent Kurdistan, rather he wants full rights within the Turkish state.
The fact that Erdogan allowed the PKK and its Syrian offshoot to take up arms against IS inside Syria is another measure of how big the change in the Turkish government’s attitudes is towards its significant Kurdish minority—and to the Kurdish question in general. In 2008, Turkish troops pursued PKK fighters into Iraq, today the PKK is effectively protecting the eastern segment of Turkey’s long border with Syria.
This positive change has got very little recognition in Washington. Relations between the US and Erdogan soured back in 2003, just after his AK Party came to power in February 2003. Erdogan refused the US permission to launch a ground attack on Saddam from Turkish soil. Turkish public opinion was very much against the war in Iraq and the new Prime Minister was merely reflecting that sentiment—but it offended Washington, nevertheless. Then came the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident when Israeli commandos raided a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza, during which nine activists were killed and dozens wounded. Israel’s many friends in Washington DC added Erdogan’s support for Gaza’s Palestinians to the charge sheet against him.
During the recent fighting in Gaza, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius channelled the official view of Erdogan as a supporter of Hamas and linked Turkey with Qatar as a “hardline Islamist nation.” It isn’t, and Ignatius should know better.
Erdogan started as a populist with a streak of the demagogue and has evolved into a full-blown autocrat but that still doesn’t undo the importance of changing the official Turkish stance towards its own Kurdish population and its pragmatic understanding that the PKK is the most experienced fighting force on the ground against IS.
The PKK isn’t the only Peshmerga group from outside Iraq fighting in the country. Fighters from Iran are on Iraqi soil as well. This cross-border linking of all the Kurdish forces comes against a background of more open talk of Kurdish independence, a view endorsed recently by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After the current crisis has ended, the pragmatism Turkey has shown towards the Kurds will potentially have to be emulated by other governments connected to the conflict—especially the US.
Keeping Iraq together is the official view of the main players in the region including the US, Turkey and Iran. But if it’s a Peshmerga coalition that ultimately pushes IS out of Iraq, what price do you think Kurdish leaders will ask of the international community—particularly the US—for their valour?