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writing for godot

Terrorist groups and foreign fighters in Iraq

Written by Dr Mohammed Ilyas   
Monday, 18 August 2014 02:24
At present there is no independent Kurdish state but the ‘land of the Kurds’ crisscrosses Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. However, the Iraqi Kurds have been able to gain autonomy from Baghdad.

Kurdish aspirations for an independent state stem back to the days of Empire and the post First World War treaties, which carved up Ottoman territories. The two treaties that concern the Kurds are: Treaty of Sèvres signed in 1920, which mentions an independent Kurdish state and the Lausanne Treaty, signed three years later in 1923 that makes no mention of a Kurdish state.

Aspirations for Kurdistan

For the last few decades Kurdish nationalist groups have either been fighting to create an independent Kurdistan or gain more autonomy and rights. The Kurds experience marginalization and discrimination in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. This has forced some, especially political activists seeking asylum in Europe. In most cases they have settled in Germany, and some have established political groups to campaign for Kurdish rights. Among the nationalist groups is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which until 2013 was engaged in a guerrilla war against the Turkish state. It is used car and suicide bombings to advance its cause and separate from Turkey and form a new state. This has led Turkey, the European Union and the USA to added the group to the list of banned terrorist organizations.

Kurdish foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq

The current conflicts in Syria and Iraq has led to the PKK and its affiliate Syrian Kurdish PYD party to becoming involved in order to protect Kurdish dominated parts of both countries. This has resulted in clashes with an offshoot of Al Qaeda called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that is trying to re-establish the Muslim Caliphate.

ISIS has received a lot media attention because of its violence and vast territorial gains in Syria and Iraq. The attention has been such that a documentary has been made about the group and by VICE, an investigative journalist organization. In the documentary VICE journalists also speak to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, one fighter they interview moved from Germany to fight alongside his brethren in Iraq against ISIS. Although this is just one example of European Kurds travelling to defend their brethren but it does not rule out the possibility of other cases. If it could be evidenced that Kurds from Europe are involved in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts it then raises two important questions: Radicalization and recruitment as well as tension between different Muslim ethnic and sectarian groups. Both questions are important for countries such as Germany, which have a large Kurdish community.

Europeans travelling to other countries to fight in conflicts is not new. The Spanish civil war attracted European fascists, the 2014 Ukrainian conflict has attracted European neo-Nazis, the Syria conflict has attracted European Muslims and European Jews volunteer to fight for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Individuals are motivated to volunteer and fight in foreign conflicts because they have been affected in such a way that they experience and understand the suffering endured by their ethnic and religious brethren as their own. This experience then leads them to employ ideological justifications to why they ‘must’ volunteer.

PKK and the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts

The proverb ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ comes to mind when we look at the American and European policy in Syria and Iraq. In Syria they decided ‘not’ to provide military aid the rebels, which can be understood because they feared that the weapons might end up in the hands of terrorists. In the case of Iraq, the Americans and Europeans are not only providing heavy artillery but also carrying out airstrikes and surveillance flights to help the Kurds. This is understandable because of human rights abuses by ISIS and the need to protect political and economic interests. However, there is also a contradiction between the two policies. By arming the Kurds they are also arming the PKK, which is a designated terrorist group. According to media reports the PKK and its Syrian affiliate is fighting in Syria and Iraqi against ISIS. Media reports have suggested that the:

“Syrian Kurdish PYD party was the main group to safeguard Yazidi escape routes. The YPG has fought both Islamist rebels in Syria, as well as the forces of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad… Now, PKK fighters are manning the front line by the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Aided by U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State positions, they also helped take back the key town of Makhmour from the Islamic State on Monday.”

The involvement of the PKK and its affiliates has been vital in defending Kurdish territory against ISIS, as one international journalist based in northern Iraq has reported:

“Visits to front-line positions Monday made it clear that an influx of fighters with links to the Kurdish Workers Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK, had played a major role in driving the Islamic State from key areas within a 30-minute drive of Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.”

One reason for this success, as one Kurdish peshmerga fighter at a checkpoint outside Mahmour told an international journalist:

“They’re very experienced from fighting Daash in Syria and are true guerrilla fighters from their time in Turkey. They have more experience and training than we do.”

The involvement of the PKK and its affiliates in Syria and Iraq highlights the many policy conundrum facing America and its European allies. By providing the military aid to the northern Iraqi Kurds they have made a U-turn over their policy on ‘not to arm terrorist groups’, which is exactly what is happening in Iraq, although indirectly. The indirect arming of the PKK may also pose a future threat to Turkey, despite the ceasefire that both parties agreed in 2013. If relations between both become sour in the near future then the group could use the very weapons supplied by Turkey’s NATO allies against it, and reignite the decades old conflict. your social media marketing partner
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