When thousands of Yazidis were rescued from Mt. Sinjar in Iraq last week, Western media reports generally credited “the Kurds”, along with U.S. air support, for the operation. These weren’t just any Kurds, however. The forces involved were affiliates of the PKK, a group that has fought a guerrilla war in Turkey for decades (and which the United States, among other countries, still officially designates as a terrorist group). The Financial Times reports:
The PKK’s sister group in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), was the main force battling Isis and helping [the Yazidis] escape.The YPG—whose numbers are believed to be over 20,000—is probably the most successful group fighting Isis. The jihadi group got its start in war-torn Syria and launched some of its first offensives against Syrian Kurds, who managed to defend most of their enclave.
Historically, the PKK has been the bête noire of Turkey when it comes to relations between the government and the Kurds living there; the war between the PKK and Ankara has claimed at least 40,000 lives over the years. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, meanwhile, has long viewed the PKK as an unwelcome rival. In July, however, nearly a thousand PKK fighters streamed over the Turkish border into Syria, seemingly unchecked by the Turks, to help the Syrian Kurds fight ISIS.Perhaps the Turks see an enemy of their enemy as a new friend. When ISIS captured Mosul in June, it also took 49 Turkish diplomatic workers hostage. Experts reckon these prisoners are being used as leverage to keep Turkey from attacking ISIS directly.This situation leaves the Turks with diminished influence over Kurdish affairs, as American Interest contributor Henri Barkey pointed out to the FT:
“Wars are always a very important catalyst for change . . . In a year’s time the position of the PKK is going to be much stronger than it is now,” said Henri Barkey, a former US State Department official now at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. […]“Turkey is not going to be in a position to say to Barzani: ‘Don’t work with the . . . PKK.’ Because he will say: ‘I need them,’” Mr Barkey said.
Will all of this boost the cause for Kurdish independence in Iraq? As Barkey wrote for TAI recently, probably not—or at least not yet. The Kurds still need friends in the neighborhood (who are not necessarily always friendly); they need the PKK, evidently, for military help; they need Iraq for financial security in the matter of their ongoing oil standoff; and they need Turkey.But the cooperation on display at the moment does indicate that ISIS is a threat serious enough to overcome the differences among its enemies. Just as competing Shiite factions coalesced in Baghdad, the different factions of Kurds appear ready to fight together against a common foe.