A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Underreported Role of Turkey's PKK and the Syrian PYD in the Kurdish Fight Against ISIS

Promoting Kurdish Unity: Kurdish Leaders from Several Countries
KRG Flag
Because most Western reporting on the Kurdish fight against the Islamic State (which I still prefer to call "ISIS" rather than "IS") are reporting from Erbil or occasionally Suleimaniyya, it is easy to come away with the impression that when reports say that Kurdish Peshmerga have taken a town, it refers to the formal armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which in turn combine the militias of KRG President Mas‘oud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). (In the poster above, Barzani is third from left, Talabani second from right.) They are surely the best armed and best trained (and Iran is now supplying arms and perhaps advisers), but there has been much less emphasis on the role of Peshmerga forces from Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its Syrian Kurdish allies, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The fact that the US still lists the PKK as a terrorist organization may be one reason its role has not been emphasized (though it has engaged in an on-and-off peace process dialogue with Turkey in recent years, though its leader, Abdullah Öcalan is still in a Turkish prison. (He is at far left in poster above, though in a very old picture),

The PKK Flag
In fact much of the front-line fighting against ISIS around Jabal Sinjar and inside Syria has apparently been led by the PKK, which seems to be gaining prestige in Kurdish parts of Iraq and Syria. Its Syrian allies in the PYD, whose leader Salih Muslim is the man with mustache, white shirt, and tie, fifth from left above, have also reportedly been active.

Syria's PYD Emblem
If my impression that the PKK in particular has been particularly aggressive against ISIS is correct, the PKK will have some claim to a say in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially if it declares independence, It may also enhance its strength in Turkey's Kurdish region.

There is an irony here: ISIS claims to be abolishing colonial boundaries and proclaiming "the end of Sykes-Picot," but one boundary it may have succeeded in erasing may prove to be that dividing Kurdish groups in various countries.

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