Is the formation of a united Kurdish army on the horizon?

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People watch as smokes rises from the town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on October 26, 2014, at the Turkish border near the southeastern village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province. AFP/Bulent Kilic

By: Franco Galdini, Andrea Lombardo

Published Wednesday, November 26, 2014

In a two-part series, Al-Akhbar English examines the mobilization and alliances, as well as challenges, between various Kurdish factions as they confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The following is part one of the series, in which context behind the developments and changes within the Kurdish ranks are explored. The second part, an interview with Havel Kani, a PKK field commander based at the outskirts of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, will be published on Thursday, November 27.

On October 29, peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq crossed the Murshit Pinar international border between Turkey and Syria to join the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Kobane alongside their Syrian Kurdish brethren. “Peshmerga forces crossed two international borders without leaving their country,” is an increasingly common refrain. The forces were composed of peshmergas both from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP, or ‘Parti’) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK, or ‘Yekiti’), under the authority of the Ministry of Peshmerga.

ISIS exploits on the battlefield and the Kurdish forces’ resistance to it has led to a series of significant shifts. The fractious Kurdish political arena has been unified as never before – at least for the time being.

ISIS vs. the Kurds

Over June 9 and 10, ISIS took over Iraq’s second city of Mosul facing surprisingly little resistance from the Iraqi army. The group’s cavalcade in the Sunni areas of the country alarmed both the KRG and the national government. Seizing the opportunity provided by Baghdad’s state of disarray, the KRG moved into the disputed territories between the central government and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Emboldened, the KRG leadership renewed calls for a referendum on Kurdish independence in Iraq.

In July, ISIS took its first unsuccessful stab at Kobane. By the end of the month, it had conquered the Syrian army’s 17th division base in Raqqah and the 121st brigade base in Hasakah. Armed with larger quantities of weapons, it crossed back into Iraq and launched an attack against the Yazidi population of Sinjar. ISIS then made a dash for the KRG capital, Erbil, sweeping through Tel Afar, Zummar and Makhmour. This dealt a severe blow to the credibility of the KRG leadership in the eyes of the Kurdish population, as its peshmerga forces were either unprepared to face ISIS or withdrew from the battlefield without putting up any resistance – depending on which narrative one chooses to believe.

Instead, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) franchise in Syria – fought their way to Mount Sinjar, opening a humanitarian corridor for tens of thousands of Yazidi civilians into Syria’s Kurdish regions. Correspondingly, on August 4, the PKK top military commander vowed in a live video statement to send guerrillas to Sinjar from the organisation’s stronghold in Qandil Mountains and followed through on his promise. The PKK also evacuated the population of a refugee camp in Makhmour, where between 10,000 and 15,000 Kurds from Turkey have lived since 1998.

At the local level, the imminent threat posed by ISIS united Kurdish fighters from the PKK and the KRG peshmerga, which found themselves confronting a common enemy at the front in Makhmour. A PKK volunteer who participated in the August 9 battle to retake Makhmour from ISIS spoke of 2,000 fighters, both Peshmerga and PKK guerrillas, under joint command. Military cooperation fast developed into coordination and spread to other frontlines, as in the town of Rabi’a – on the Iraqi-Syrian border – and on the Kirkuk front, bringing together old antagonists. This led to the creation of joint operation rooms along the 1,050 km long frontline between the Kurdish controlled territories and the IS.

“The cooperation between the PKK guerrillas and the peshmerga started in a very practical manner at the front line to fight effectively against ISIS. The next step was to create joint structures. This is a very positive step forward and has created the foundations of Kurdish unity on the ground, and we hope more cooperation will be forthcoming,” stated Sozdar Avesta – member of the KCK leadership council, the umbrella group that encompasses the PKK – in an interview with Al-Akhbar English in Qandil.

A change of gear in Kobane

The resistance against ISIS Kobane, however, has significantly changed political calculations in the Kurdish bloc, while further regionalising cooperation between different Kurdish formations.

“Kobane resisted for 40 days with virtually no outside help. This has taken on a symbolic meaning: it is the Kurdish Stalingrad. On November 1, people in 90 countries united in demonstrations in support of Kobane. It is not Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] that united the Kurds, it is the resistance in Kobane,” says Bushra Mohammed Ali, an Erbil-based Kurdish female activist from the Afrin region in Syria.

The international coalition against ISIS has provided air support to Kurdish joint forces, which have emerged as the most effective ground troops against the group in both Syria and Iraq.

On October 19, the coalition air dropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to the YPG in Kobane, in spite of fierce Turkish opposition and the PKK still being on the US’ and the EU’s list of terrorist groups. This may signal a practical, if still unofficial, shift in American and European policy vis-à-vis the organisation.

In Iraq, the decision by the US, UK, Italy, France and Germany to provide the Kurdish peshmerga forces directly with advanced heavy weaponry was also unprecedented. Mohammedali Taha, a member of the KRG parliament for the KDP, told Al-Akhbar English that “some international actors sent military aid directly to Erbil, bypassing Baghdad. That means that Iraq is no longer a fully sovereign state.” This culminated with the dispatch of 150 KRG peshmerga special forces to Kobane.

In 2013, Kurdish parties in the region had tried to organise a National Congress in Erbil. This failed to materialise, however, due to deep divisions between them, in particular regarding the new Kurdish administration in Rojava, the Kurdish name for Syrian Kurdistan. The main bone of contention concerned power sharing between the KRG-backed Kurdish National Council – an array of parties with little presence on the ground – and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the sister-party of the PKK in Rojava and the political counterpart of the YPG. The urgency of the situation in Kobane changed that, too. Between 14 and 22 October, the Syrian Kurds negotiated a new power-sharing agreement for Rojava. The Dohuk agreement recognises the local administration in the three self-administered Kurdish cantons in Rojava – Jazirah, Afrin, Kobane – and the YPG as the sole legitimate defence force in the area. It also ensures the active participation of the KNC within the governing structures of the cantons.

In an interview in Qandil Mountains with Al-Akhbar English, Sabri Ok – also on the KCK/PKK six-member leadership council – asserted that his organization thinks “the time is ripe to reactivate preparations for a National Congress.” Aso Mamand, member of the PUK political bureau in Kirkuk, appears to concur, “Serious steps were taken last year to convey the National Congress but in the end it failed. However, there are new discussions now and the project is back on the political agenda in the KRG.”

“One of the main agenda points the PKK will table at the Congress,” Ok continued, “will concern the establishment of Kurdish joint defence forces” in the fight against ISIS, and to protect against future threats against the Kurdish people.

The Peshmerga commander for the south Kirkuk front, Major-General Rasoul Umar Lateef, while downplaying the significance of the PKK’s role at the front, echoes OK’s statement: “Cooperation between the different Kurdish factions has de facto been established on the ground.” This is tantamount to “a joint force.”

In practice, such intra-Kurdish cooperation is already happening at the local level in Kobane in Syria, as well as in Rabi’a, Makhmour, Kirkuk and Jalawla in Iraq.

A visit to the frontline in Kirkuk reveals how cooperation between Kurdish forces is already an established fact on the ground. The PKK presence there is more than just symbolic.

In Matara base, PKK fighters and peshmerga forces share the premises and their commanders meet to organise joint operations against ISIS. At the base entrance, one passes a peshmerga-manned checkpoint with a Humvee parked across to cover the guards from ISIS snipers, and seamlessly runs across PKK fighters resting and chatting.

Heval (‘comrade’) Kani, one of the PKK field commanders in Kirkuk, confirms that 200 PKK special forces are fighting in the Kirkuk region, with hundreds more deployed along the frontline with ISIS. Actions are planned and executed with the peshmerga under joint command. Kani adds, “due to the political sensitivities of the neighbouring countries and intra-Kurdish divisions, the official parties tend not to speak of this. Our long-term strategic aim is clear, though: the creation of a joint defence force that can be called upon to protect Kurds everywhere.”

Challenges ahead

Despite coordinating military operations along the frontline, many challenges still remain if the Kurds are to establish lasting structures of cooperation across political and military lines. The holding of a National Congress would represent a first important political step in that direction, with the objective of institutionalising such cooperation in a permanent body which would be tasked with devising a common diplomatic and defence policy for the Kurds.

This course of action finds its strongest advocate in the PKK, which appears poised to benefit from the current increase in cooperation with other Kurdish political forces. It has already gained widespread recognition for its prowess in fighting ISIS and has established a presence along the new de facto frontline between the KRG and ISIS. This has enhanced the organization’s leverage as a partner to the KRG government, opening an important channel for it to reach international actors. In exchange, the peshmerga are gaining in military know-how and effectiveness in their fight against ISIS, which has boosted their morale.

Historic animosity, ideological differences, partisan interests, and mistrust, however, risk undercutting the current Kurdish rapprochement. This is particularly true of relations between the KDP and the PKK, and also the KDP and PUK.

“We still have two types of peshmerga. We are still living in the civil war mentality of the 1990s, with conflict and mistrust between the political parties,” remarked Mr Taha – the KDP parliament member – referring to the 1994-8 infighting between the KDP and the PUK. The KDP and the PKK fought a low intensity conflict throughout the same decade, which also witnessed a short-lived confrontation between the PUK and the PKK.

While expanding the room for cooperation, the recent de facto expansion of the KRG boundaries raises new matters for the Kurdish camp. On October 16, 2014, the KRG parliament opened its Kirkuk bureau to – inter alia – include voters from the newly acquired territory in the next parliamentary elections, to be held in 2017.

The bureau’s director, Latif Fatih Faraj, told Al-Akhbar English that “all components of society will be invited to participate in the KRG parliamentary elections. All efforts will be made to reach a consensus among the various communities in Kirkuk on whether Kirkuk ought to be an electoral province of the KRG. Should those efforts fail, one option would be to keep any seats created vacant in the regional parliament in Erbil. Whatever the case, Kurds from Kirkuk and the other territories have to have a chance to vote for their parliament.”

Holding elections before the contested status of Kirkuk and other territories has been settled, along the procedure spelt out in Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, will be perceived as unilaterally creating facts on the ground. This may provoke a severe backlash from other constituents in the city and beyond. Some in the Kurdish bloc are keenly aware of this risk.
“Unfortunately, there is little joint action and no common political programme between the different components of Kirkuk. We have invited everyone to the discussion table: the Turkoman have accepted, but the Arabs have so far refused. This is a dangerous trend for the future,” commented a member of Kirkuk’s Provincial Council.

Finally, regional powers, in particular Turkey and Iran, regard this new interaction between the Kurds across the Sykes-Picot borders with uneasy suspicion. Any efforts to strengthen the role of Kurdish political actors in the Middle East must be able to withstand pressure from both the old regional empires while navigating between conflicts of interests. This may prove difficult as political and economic relations are strong between the KDP and Turkey on one side, and the PUK and Iran, on the other.

The current situation has added new parameters to these relations, even if it hasn’t altered them significantly. The direct military and diplomatic engagement of coalition governments may also empower the KRG in this respect. International Crisis Group analyst Maria Fantappié highlights how “the international community should take an active role in bringing the Kurdish parties together, while giving those parties an alternative to their traditional regional partners.”

In the context of the current turmoil in Iraq and Syria, the war against ISIS has presented the Kurds with an historic opportunity to manoeuvre and position themselves anew on the political map of the region. New foundations for more coordinated and integrated working relations will have to be developed gradually, as trust and collaboration between the Kurdish fighting units, and inter-dependency of command structures, improve. Sharing resources and holding joint planning meetings have contributed to enhancing relations and creating first signs of camaraderie at the front.

Renewed calls for a Kurdish National Congress and proposals to create a joint Kurdish defence force indicate how military necessity has spawned a significant shift in the political mood. It remains to be seen, however, whether the current spike in cooperation on the ground will prove to be a real game-changer and seep upwards to the political level, or if it will reveal itself as a temporary alliance of interests between parties whose differences are too entrenched to consolidate permanent structures of significant cooperation.

Postscript: On November 23, 2014, peshmerga forces snatched control of the strategic town of Jalawla, in Iraq’s Diyala governorate, from ISIS. Initial reports indicated that the final assault to take the town was a joint operation between peshmerga and PKK fighters.

Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and analyst specialising in the Middle East. In 2013, he was the political and media analyst at the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Andrea Lombardo is a consultant and freelance analyst of Kurdish affairs.

Comments

Let's unite under one elected leadership. That way we shall have viable army in the eyes of the world.Once recognized, our army can be the start of nation building culminating in the formation of an independent nation.

Think they should postpone the establishment of the National Congress at a later date and concentrate on the joint operation so as to defeat Daesh. This would encourage camaraderie w/c would further unify the factions involved.

After Daesh has been defeated, then they could establish the National Congress...

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