Kurds search for unity amid relentless fight to defeat 'Islamic State' thugs

Kurdish fighters after liberating Maxmur.

By Dave Holmes

September 2, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Across northern Syria and Iraq, Kurdish forces are locked in fierce battles with the murderous “Islamic State” (IS) armed force. Whether directly or indirectly, the whole Kurdish people is being drawn into this struggle.

In late August the Syrian Kurdish resistance forces announced they had defeated an IS push around the town of Jazaa in north-eastern Syria, close to the Iraq border. Hundreds of IS fighters were killed in the August 19-31 battles.

The IS attempted to cut off the YPG-YPJ (People’s Defence Units-Women’s Defence Units — the military arm of Rojava, the Kurdish liberated area in northern Syria) from their forces over the border in Shengal (Arabic name: Sinjar). The IS wants to establish a corridor linking Mosul and its possessions in Iraq with Al-Raqqa, its main stronghold in Syria.

The YPG-YPJ intervened in Iraq in early August in order to save the Kurdish Yezidi community in Shengal. The Yezidis were threatened with extermination by the IS, which regards them as “devil worshippers”. Although many thousands perished and thousands of women were kidnapped, an escape corridor was established through which 200,000 refugees were evacuated to Rojava.

In western Syria, the city of Aleppo and its surrounds is menaced both by the forces of the Bashir Assad regime and those of the IS. Along with all rebel-held parts of the city, the Kurdish-controlled area is under great pressure. On August 22, the YPG and the Free Syrian Army concluded an agreement for a coordinated fight against these threats. As a condition of this pact, the YPG insisted that the reality of the liberated Rojava cantons be recognised.

Iraq: PKK forces joins struggle

In Iraq, it appears that the peshmerga fighters from the Federal Kurdistan Region have made some progress against the IS thugs. While they have been bolstered by US airstrikes, in a number of instances far more decisive has been the involvement of the experienced, disciplined, highly motivated forces of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which have been battling the government of Turkey for decades.

From its camps in northern Kurdistan, the PKK sent units of the Peoples Defence Forces (HPG) and YJA STAR (Women's Defence Forces) to join the battle around the Maxmur (or Makhmour) refugee camp 40 kilometres south of Hewler (Erbil), the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The camp was liberated on August 10 after four days of heavy fighting.

The peshmerga push to retake the refugee camp was stalled until the arrival of the PKK forces completely turned things around.

An August 11 McClatchy news agency report by Mitchell Prothero spells this out:

Visits to frontline 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 Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. It was Erbil’s possible fall last week that ended weeks of Obama administration inaction on Iraq.

“The PKK took Makhmour” a peshmerga fighter at a checkpoint outside Makhmour acknowledged, shaking his head in admiration. Then, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, he offered an explanation: “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.”[2]

KRG president Massoud Barzani came to Maxmur on August 13 to publicly acknowledge the contribution of the PKK fighters.

Struggle poses need for greater unity

The rise of the IS presents the Kurdish people with a struggle for their very existence. Divided between four main countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey), with a million-strong diaspora in Europe, and with a corresponding diversity of political parties, there is a pressing need to achieve the maximum political and military unity.

On the radical side, the main forces are the PKK, based among the Kurdish community in Turkey, and the independent but closely associated Rojava-based Democratic Union Party (PYD). Their main rival is the pro-capitalist Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani. The KDP wants to dominate Rojava but has been blocked by the strength of the PYD. In particular, the YPG-YPJ insists that it alone is the defence force of Rojava and no independent party militias will be allowed.

Control of the Kurdistan Regional Government is divided between the KDP and the equally pro-capitalist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, until July the president of Iraq. The peshmerga is not a true national army with a unified command but is divided between the KDP and the PUK. The defence of Shengal was in the hands of the KDP but as the IS attacked the peshmerga inexplicably withdrew, leaving the people defenceless and precipitating the massive humanitarian crisis.

The main effort to save the Yezidi community at Shengal was carried out by the YPG-YPJ and PKK forces. Local defence forces organised by the YPG also played a role, as did some peshmerga.

As the events in Shengal were unfolding PYD co-chair Saleh Muslim called for a Kurdish military council to coordinate the efforts of the YPG, PKK forces, the peshmerga and other elements of the resistance.

Call for a Kurdish National Congress

In July 2013, for the first time in modern Kurdish history, tentative steps were taken to convene a Kurdish National Congress. An organising committee made up of representatives from all four parts of historic Kurdistan met in Erbil and projected a three-day planning conference for late August with 500-600 delegates. But the project foundered on the political differences between the major forces.

In July this year PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, held in a Turkish prison since 1999, called for the urgent convocation of a national congress in view of the threat posed by the IS, particularly in Rojava.

And in August, in an atmosphere dominated by the terrible events unfolding in Shengal, 400 Kurdish NGOs in Turkey also issued a call for a Kurdish National Congress that would be able to effectively organise the Kurdish people to deal with the tremendous challenges they face.

Explosive allegations

On August 28, a documentary screened by the online Kurdish-language STÊRK TV, Gang of Degenerates, made some explosive claims. It featured confessions made by 20 IS fighters captured by the Rojava public security forces and the YPG.

The most startling claim was made by one gang member, Sêrko Xêredîn Silêman. In a confession recorded before the IS assault on Shengal at the start of August, he claimed that following the fall of Mosul the Kurdistan Regional Government had made a deal with the IS to give it Shengal:

Before they were opposed to each other, but then they came to an agreement. The Iraqi Kurdistan government and ISIS made an alliance. The Iraqi Kurdistan government said: "let's give them Sinjar, so that they don't bother us and we don't bother them."[3]

If this allegation is true, it would explain the behaviour of the peshmerga defending Shengal, whose withdrawal from the town left its Yezidi residents completely exposed to the IS thugs and precipitated the disaster which ensued.

Silêman also claimed he was trained by Kurdistan Regional Government intelligence and sent to Rojava to carry out joint operations.

The captured IS fighters also spoke of how Turkey collaborated closely with their organisation, providing a transit corridor for fighters and providing logistical support, including weapons. Several Turkish towns had intelligence officers designated to work with the IS.

One revelation in particular shows the truly barbaric nature of IS. Many of the captured fighters explained that new IS recruits were subjected to multiple rapes and the whole process videoed. The new member would be told that if he didn’t cooperate, his family would be shown the video.

Turkey: Democratic Freedom Party makes big advance

Turkish support as described above is vital to the IS. Were Turkey to effectively close its borders to IS fighters coming and going, the organisation would be severely hampered. But while the consolidation of the IS in Syria would be a threat to Turkey, it also has no wish to see a flourishing, democratic Rojava right next to it.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s newly elected president, has made overtures to the large Kurdish minority (perhaps 20% of the population), easing some restrictions on the Kurdish language. He made a clear pitch for Kurdish votes in the August presidential election.

But in the event, while Erdogan won with 52% of the vote, Selahattin Demirtas of the progressive Kurdish-based Democratic Freedom Party (HDP) received almost 4 million votes (9.8%). This was a 50% increase on the party’s vote in the March 30 municipal elections. Demirtas took a majority of votes in the Kurdish areas and also polled strongly elsewhere, receiving around a million votes in Turkey’s major cities. As well as representing specifically Kurdish concerns, Demirtas attracted attention by his strong advocacy for LGBT and women’s rights.

But unrest continues in Turkey’s Kurdish areas. On August 15, in the town of Lice (70 kilometres north-east of the largest Kurdish city of Diyarbakir), a statue was unveiled of Mahsum Korkmaz, co-founder of the PKK. The statue stood in a cemetery containing martyrs of the long struggle for Kurdish rights. A few days later a court ordered it demolished. Thousands of soldiers were deployed to tear it down. Thousands of protesters mobilised to protect it but failed to stop its demolition. A demonstrator was killed.

This provocative action by Erdogan’s government cuts right across its claim to be committed to a resolution of the Kurdish question.

HDP: Rojava ‘an example for whole Middle East’

On September 1, World Peace Day, the HDP issued a statement dealing with the pressing concerns of the Kurdish people:

1. International public opinion should not remain silent at the massacre in Sinjar, and take immediate steps to aid those affected.

2. The regional administrations in Rojava that ensure different communities and beliefs can live together democratically in peace and equality should be recognised and supported. This democratic model should be seen as an example for the whole Middle East.

3. Forces for democracy and peace should come together and end the tragedies that are occurring from Sinjar to Gaza and from Nineveh to Rojava.

4. The AKP [Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party] government should not give covert or open support to ISIS [IS], lift the embargo on Rojava and open the border to humanitarian aid.

The government should also improve the conditions of Syrian refugees and ensure there is no conflict with local populations.

The AKP government should cancel all its military agreements with Israel.

5. Bringing internal peace to Turkey is as important as external peace. The government should lose no time in responding to the Kurdish people's demand for peace and take the necessary steps to ensure all legal and practical measures are taken in order to achieve concrete results in the process of peace and resolution in Turkey.[4]

Kurdish women fighters ‘demolishing taboos’

Some reports in the mainstream Australian media have noted the presence of women fighters in the YPG and PKK forces in Iraq. It is presented as a curiosity. It is well known that in the Australian and US militaries female personnel have to contend with continual sexual harassment. It is one scandal after another.

In the YPG-YPJ women make up around 30% of its forces. A similar situation exists with the PKK. Recently a leader of the organisation said in an interview that a third of their 10,000 fighters are women.[5]

A recent report carried by the Firat News Agency, “YPJ fighters demolishing taboos”, makes clear the appeal of the liberation armed forces for women in a very patriarchal society.

Women have played a key role in the defence of Kobanê [Ayn Al-Arab] after the revolution, and have created a revolutionary transformation in social attitudes. YPJ (Women's Protection Units) fighters in the forefront of the defence of Kobanê are inflicting heavy blows on ISIS gangs and also demolishing taboos based on male domination …

Destan explained that before she joined the ranks of the YPG two years ago: “my life was between four walls. I had no social or economic life” …

Destan replied to our question as to what had changed after she had joined the YPG-YPJ, saying: “I never used to believe a woman could be the equal of a man before. For instance, in our family the man was always deemed the dominant one and I always considered that normal and legitimate. Here there is a genuine understanding of equality and freedom. I understood in the ranks of the YPJ that male domination was not a normal part of life but was, on the contrary, against the natural order. This created a great feeling of freedom in me.” …

A woman fighter named Roza, who joined the ranks of the YPJ six months ago, sums up the last two months of women's resistance thus: “The most important gain of this conflict has been, in my opinion, the breaking of feudal value judgments in Kobanê. In the last month women have been fighting on the frontline. It may be said that women have inflicted the most crushing blows on the ISIS gangs. Many women have died after putting up heroic resistance. It is now up to us to carry on the struggle in the path of all those who have fallen, first and foremost the women.”[6]

Support liberation forces

There is no doubt that the IS’s military capabilities were greatly increased by the huge amount of top-of-the-line US heavy weapons it acquired from the disintegrating Iraq army following the fall of Mosul. If the various Kurdish forces could acquire weapons of comparable quality and quantity, their capacity to counter the IS gangs would be much increased.

Also, the US airstrikes in Iraq have played a role is helping Kurdish and Iraqi forces to retake many towns from the IS. However, the question of weaponry and air support has to be kept in perspective.

First, the effectiveness of Washington’s bombing campaign appears to have been greatly exaggerated. As a Turkish military specialist explains, the IS forces do not present a conventional target:

The military profile of the Islamic State is best defined as lightly armored, highly mobile infantry units well trained in urban warfare. It has a fluid, versatile command structure that keeps changing. All its units are mobile and dispersed. The IS doesn’t have permanent military headquarters, operations centers, warehouses or any other military unit. This is why we see the US air attacks targeting moving vehicles, temporary lodgings, but not a fixed military installation. There aren’t any. IS commanders are allowed considerable leeway in their commands. Brief mission command notes set out what needs to be done, but leave it to the initiative of the field commander how to do it with minimal need for communications that can be monitored.

The mobile, dispersed combat style of IS also tells us that unless air attacks are backed by a robust ‘boots on the ground’ strategy they will not have much bearing on the end of this war.[7]

Second, there do exist “boots on the ground” that have consistently fought and defeated IS. In Rojava, for instance, the YPG-YPJ have been fighting and getting the better of the IS without any outside help for two years. In July, Kobanê was besieged by 5000 IS fighters armed with US weapons seized in Iraq but the liberation forces held them off and eventually dealt them a serious defeat.

The liberation forces in Rojava have even created home-made armoured vehicles out of pickup trucks and construction equipment. Military experts in the West may scoff but they have proved their value in a number of encounters. The struggle for Rojava is truly a people’s war.[8]

Oppose US bombing

We should oppose the US bombing campaign. Washington’s brutal interventions wrecked Iraq and created the present crisis. Expecting the very same US to resolve it is simply absurd.

The Kurds have every right to acquire the weapons they need to defend themselves, even from the US. But the historical record makes it absolutely clear that Washington is no friend of the Kurdish people and any confusion on this score is only going to lead to a lot of grief.

Two key conditions for defeating the IS would seem to be: first, the creation of a genuinely democratic, non-sectarian Iraq which -- among other things -- would address the grievances of the Sunni population and undercut its support for the IS; second, NATO member Turkey must stop supporting the IS gangs and reach a genuine “internal peace” with its own Kurdish population.

The United States and its imperialist allies won’t help here. It is up to the peoples to come together and fight for a very different Middle East. They need our support in this struggle.


[1] http://links.org.au/node/4002

[2] http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/08/11/236000/us-airstrikes-helped-but-kurds.html

[3] http://en.firatajans.com/news/news/horrific-confessions-of-isis-members.htm

[4] http://en.firatajans.com/news/news/hdp-issues-statement-for-world-peace-day.htm

[5] http://www.ekurd.net/mismas/articles/misc2014/8/turkey5088.htm

[6] http://en.firatajans.com/news/news/ypj-fighters-demolishing-taboos.htm

[7] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/09/turkey-syria-iraq-kurdistan-isis-military-pesmerga.html

[8] http://rojavareport.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/ypgs-self-made-tanks-are-protecting-the-revolution/