PKK and the battle against ISISAugust 22, 2014 in Iraq, Syria, Terrorism, Turkey
The battle against ISIS has created strange bedfellows. Most recently, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has joined the fight against the militants. The PKK is formally classified as terrorists due decades of fighting against Turkey for an independent Kurdistan. The conflict killed over 40,000 people between 1984 and 2013. Today, the PKK is working on the same side as Turkey to stop the advance of ISIS, while simultaneously lobbying the international community to remove their terrorist designation. The group has claimed their determination to work with other governments and groups to see the elimination of ISIS. One PKK fighter said, “This war will continue until we finish off [ISIS).” Another stated, “ISIS is a danger to everyone, so we must fight them everywhere.” The PKK’s role in battling ISIS presents a mixed bag for Turkey and the international community. While the group is still considered a terrorist threat, and the PKK has accused Turkey of funding fighters against the Kurds in Syria; an allegation that the Turkish government denies. Yet, they are the ‘lesser’ threat in the face of ISIS. PKKs efforts have been successful in fending ISIS off from Erbil, and have sent forces to Kirkuk and Jalawla. Their armed sister group, the People’s Defence Units (YPG) have successfully protected their autonomous region in Syria, and assisted in evacuating thousands of Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, where they had fled from ISIS. The evacuees had been trapped out the mountain with minimal food or water, relying on airdrops for supplies. However, PKK members are not fighting for Turkey, Syria, Iran or Iraq; they are fighting for Kurdistan, a state which is seeking autonomy for lands that cross each of these nations. Further, the PKK represents a threat to the existing Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which is a long time competitor of the PKK. For now, however, Kurdish Peshmerga, under the KDP umbrella, are working with the PKK and national forces against ISIS, which is heavily armed with weapons from abandoned stockpiles in their captured zones. However KDP leaders fear that PKK involvement in engagement against ISIS will hinder opportunities to gain national autonomy in the long run. In the short run, PKK involvement could prevent nations from sending much needed weaponry to the Peshmerga. Turkish officials have resisted addressing the significance of a resurgent PKK, or the possibility that their involvement will reignite tensions in Turkey, or between Turkey and Kurdistan. One official said, “There is no fear of a division in Turkey or a fear of unification of the Kurdish population outside of Turkey. Since there are no demands through armed conflict or violence from the PKK in Turkey, there is no need to panic.” Currently the PKK is opting for slowly decreasing national powers in the Kurdish region, eventually gaining their autonomy. Further their actions in the fight against ISIS are perceived to be a push toward persuading the international community to remove their terrorist designation. The EU, for its part, will not act without Turkish approval, which is unlikely to be forthcoming. Meanwhile in Syria, ISIS has clashed with Assad’s forces in Aleppo, and Raqqah. ISIS considers Raqqah the ‘capital’ of their state; weapons confiscated in Iraq have been steadily making their way into the city. Raqaa approximately 25 miles from a Syrian-controlled airbase at al Tabaqa, the last remaining government forces in the ISIS controlled zone. Assad’s military has carried out at least a dozen airstrikes, reportedly killing tens of ISIS fighters, and has also sent reinforcements to al Tabaqa. Analysts have differed as to the size of territory ISIS holds. Some believe ISIS has control of approximately 11,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of Belgium. Others believe ISIS has influence in as much as 35,000 square miles of territory, roughly the size of Jordan. It is believed that 6,300 fighters joined ISIS in July. Among that number, an estimated 5,000 are Syrian, and the remaining are Arab, European, Caucasian, East Asian and Kurdish. It is believed that as many as 1,100 of the 1,300 foreign fighters entered Syria via Turkey. Among ISIS’ most recent recruits, many joined from other radicalised groups such as the al-Qaeda backed Al Nusrah Front, and the Islamic Front. Al Nusrah, the Islamic Front, and Ansar al Din are fighting a battle on two fronts: they are opposed to ISIS and opposed to Bashar al Assad, and clash with both.