Fighting has continued across Syria and Iraq between ISIS (“Islamic State”) forces and Kurdish militia and Iraqi military. Airstrikes around the town Kobane (in Syria near the Turkish border) of by the US-led military coalition have intensified, and the march of ISIS has been slowed.
However the airstrikes have not forced back ISIS in either Iraq or Syria. The prospect of a drawn-out conflict remains. Four hundred ISIS fighters are reported to have entered the Iraqi towns of Fallujah and nearby Karma. The town of Hit, 80 miles from Baghdad, has also been claimed by ISIS. While ISIS has been driven away temporarily from several towns and strategic infrastructure, it has also managed to take and retake territory. The chronic inability of the Iraqi army to maintain discipline and troops on the ground following bouts of fighting is a big factor here.
According to diplomatic sources, 12,000 Iraqi troops have deserted since June and a further 6,000 have been killed. The Iraqi state claims their army is 60,000 strong but almost two-thirds are said to be “ghost soldiers”, people who have their salaries paid direct to their commanding officers but do not fight. One anonymous Iraqi general told Reuters, “Our forces are starting to buckle in the face of repeated assaults by the Islamic State.”
Fighting has been particularly fierce in Anbar province where the US, with the support of Sunni militias, forced out Al-Qaeda in 2007. The centre of hostilities there has been the strategic roads through Ramadi and the other western areas that link the cities with the desert where ISIS is strongest.
An estimated 30,000 ISIS fighters are spread over Iraq and Syria, with a ready flow of foreign fighters and supporters who are able to join them with vast military experience from previous conflict. With the weakness of Iraq’s military and reluctance of the Sunni minority to fully commit to destroying the ISIS, the fear is that Baghdad could not survive a prolonged attack without outside assistance.
US airdrops to Syrian Kurds fighting under the organisation of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have provided some heavier weapons. That will help the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to continue their fight to defend Kobane and the now largely autonomous Kurdish region. The air drops put the US at odds with the Turkish government, which has consistently opposed the demands of the Kurds in Syria including help with getting arms.
Turkey’s refusal to directly aid the Kurds in Kobane stems from a long-running hostility; they see them all as members and supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has have fought a guerilla war with Turkey for over 30 years.
There is evidence of growing support for ISIS fighters in Turkey, and even that activities of small cells of ISIS supporters and the stockpiling of weapons has been tolerated.
The PYD enjoys the patronage of the PKK and the support of its fighters. Its aim is to self-govern the three cantons which include Kobane and make up the area known as Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan).
The attempted kidnap of Syrian rebel Abu Issa by ISIS as he was being driven through Turkey has further fuelled speculation that the Ankara Government has done little to quash the influence of ISIS and even sees them as a potential “solution” to the problem of the PKK.
Turkey has continued to suppress Kurdish demonstrations that call for aid. Its troops remain at the border with Syria preventing weapons and fighters from Turkey getting into Kobane.
However a deal has now been brokered between Turkey and the Kurdish regional government (KRG) in Iraq so that a unit of Peshmerga fighters (the official KRG military) can go to Kobane with weapons and bolster defence of the area. Whilst Turkey is happy to maintain a standoff with Syria’s Kurds, it has strong economic ties with the KRG. Additionally, Turkey wants to bolster KRG forces in opposition to PKK-inspired forces.
In 2013 a deal was reached between the KRG and Turkey to complete a pipeline that would link oil fields under the KRG into the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Iraq’s largest pipeline for the export of crude oil. This deal helped to cement a close relationship between Turkey and the KRG.
The KRG’s far closer relationship to Turkey has increased animosity between the KRG and PYD forces in Syria. The friction between Kurdish groups has been a block on the necessary support needed to successfully defend Kobane.
Going back to before the 1991 Gulf War, the PKK has had an uneasy relationship with other Kurdish forces, particularly in Iraq. Nonetheless in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was able to operate across the borders of the states, maintain training camps, and become a major player in drug trafficking. In the aftermath of the war the heroin trade was increasingly run through Iraq.
An increase in its income and allies allowed the PKK to renew attacks against Turkey without having to base its forces there. It was able to protect itself from destruction through arrest or fighting.
In 1997 warring Kurdish factions in Iraq fought for control of the KRG. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) fought the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PKK backed both sides at one point or another.
Turkey intervened, ostensibly to bring about a ceasefire, but also to protect its economic ties and create a relatively stable Kurdish administration.
One of the conditions of its brokering of a ceasefire was for both factions to cut their ties with the PKK. This led the PKK to relocate their base to Syria. Turkey renewed its operations to destroy the PKK. PKK eventually disavowed by the Syrian government. Its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was deported and eventually arrested in Turkey.
A new deal has now been reached which potentially carves out new Kurdish autonomy. The Syrian PYD and the parties that retain close ties to the KRG could govern a 30 member council with equal representation. Both the KDP and PUK will seek agreement with the PYD over the ongoing defence of Rojava and resolve the governance of Kurdish majority areas. Negotiations concluded that the PYD and KRG would take 12 seats each on the council, with the remainder open to small organisations and representatives of minorities within the cantons.
The Iraqi Kurdish website Rudaw reports the KDP as saying, “This agreement brings us together, and itself is a significant answer to enemies who did not intend the Kurds to be united.” Salih Muslim, the leader of the PYD, has declared that “All Kurdish people are under attack, so they should be united.”
However the PYD say they are in favour of political representation and freedom for all parties and groups, but the military command in Syria must be led by them and other groups who wish to join the fighting must do so under their direction. The PYD has asked that no further troops are sent to Kobane without their approval. In part this is to prevent the influx of unarmed and untrained Kurds into the area, but it is also to maintain their control of the region and prevent an armed take over by one of the Iraqi based parties who they distrust because of the close relationship with Turkey.
The PYD’s governance of Rojava is meant to represent a practical attempt to govern the area with a change of style from the nationalism and Kurdish separatism of the PKK. Formerly the PKK no longer considers itself a nationalist organisation. It says it is part of the “Kurdish freedom movement”. Although it remains committed to armed struggle in defence of Kurds says it will no longer attempts to dictate the way it or groups like the PYD will liberate the Kurds.
The Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) is the umbrella organisation that brings together the PKK and all its international affiliates, political parties and campaigning organisations. The change of line followed the imprisonment of Öcalan. He has now written 40 books and begun to develop a ideas on governance which he calls “Democratic Confederalism”.
Under the extreme pressure of war, Kurdish groups are realigning and discussing new possibilities for Kurdish territorial and political autonomy. Past attempts have been stopped, often with brutal repression.
But there are of course much more immediate dangers for the Kurds and other peoples in the region from ISIS.
The duty of socialists is to express clear solidarity with the Kurdish forces fighting in Kobane, demand that countries in the region continue to allow arms and fighters across the borders to reach Kobane, and highlight and oppose the Turkish government’s repression of its own Kurdish citizens and Kurdish refugees from Syria.