New Alignments The Kurds' Lonely Fight against Islamic State Terror

The terrorist group PKK represents the West's last hope in the fight against Islamic State. Their lonely resistance to the advancing jihadists will result in lasting changes to the region. Some developments are already well advanced.

Christian Werner/ DER SPIEGEL

By Ralf Hoppe, , and

The headquarters of one the world's mightiest terrorist organization is located in the mountains northeast of Erbil, Iraq. Or is it the nerve center of one of the Western world's most crucial allies? It all depends on how one chooses to look at the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

All visits to the site in northern Iraq's Qandil Mountains must first be authorized by PKK leaders, and the process is not immediate. But after days of waiting, our phone finally rings. "Get ready, we're sending our driver," the voice at the other end of the line says. He picks us up in the morning and silently drives us up the winding roads into the mountains. At one point, we pass the burned out remains of a car destroyed by Turkish bombs three years ago, killing the family inside. The wreckage has been left as a kind of memorial. The driver points to it and breaks his silence. "Erdogan has gone nuts," he says.

Just behind the Kurdish autonomous government's final checkpoint, the car rounds a bend in the road and suddenly Abdullah Öcalan's iconic moustache appears, part of a giant mural made of colored stones on the opposite hillside. The machine-gun toting guards wear the same mustache. "Do you have a permit, colleagues?" they ask.

Officially, we're in the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. Really, though, it is a PKK state. A region of 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) of rugged, mountainous territory, it provides a home for PKK leadership in addition to training camps for fighters. It also has its own police force and courts. The surrounding hillsides are idyllic with their pomegranate trees, flocks of sheep and small stone huts. But they are also dotted with Humvees, captured by the PKK from the Islamic State terrorist militia, which had stolen them from the Iraqi army.

It is here in the Qandil Mountains that PKK leaders coordinate their fight against Islamic State jihadists in the Syrian town of Kobani and in the Iraqi metropolis of Kirkuk in addition to the ongoing battle in the Sinjar Mountains. Turkey, some fear, could soon be added to the list.

A Preposterous Collaboration?

Just a few years ago, the idea of the West working together with the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan would have been preposterous. Over the past three decades, PKK has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Turkish civilians, providing the US and the European Union ample reason to keep the group on its lists of terrorist organizations. For many in the West, however, these former outlaws have become solitary heroes in the fight to save the Middle East from IS. With an estimated size of 15,000 fighters, PKK is the strongest fighting force in the region and the only one that seems willing and able to put up a fight against Islamic State. They are disciplined and efficient in addition to being pro-Western and secular.

The West would have preferred to rely on the PKK's Kurdish rivals, the 100,000-strong Peshmerga force of the northern Iraq autonomous region. But Peshmerga was overpowered by Islamic State. Furthermore, they have little combat experience, a dearth of modern weaponry, insufficient training and no central command. It isn't really even a true army, merely a hodgepodge of extracurricular clubs, partisan troops and special units. In August, they ceded the Sinjar Mountains to IS virtually without a fight, forcing thousands of Kurdish Yazidis to flee. The Peshmerga retreated elsewhere too in the face of IS advances.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, the president of northern Iraq, is essentially a family-run business with an associated small state, as corrupt as it is conservative. The PKK, and its Syrian counterpart YPG, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. The tightly run cadre isn't democratic, but neither is it corrupt -- and in Kobani, they are giving their all in the fight against Islamic State. Indeed, it was the PKK that succeeded in establishing a protective corridor in Sinjar that enabled tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee. It was also PKK that defended the cities of Makhmour and Kirkuk in Iraq against Islamic State militias.

The US Air Force is now air-dropping weapons for YPG fighters in Kobani, while the German military is delivering bazookas to the Peshmerga -- and not to Kobani where they are far more urgently needed. Everyone is assuring that these weapons won't fall into the hands of the PKK. Meanwhile, Turkey has acquiesced to allowing Peshmerga fighters to join the fray in Kobani and politicians in Europe and the United States are timidly considering removing PKK from their lists of terrorist organizations. To many, it seems like a necessary step when establishing a partnership with the PKK, even if it would mean conflict with Turkey.

A Difficult Balancing Act

It's a perplexing alliance in an abstruse conflict and it raises a number of prickly issues. Is the delivery of weapons to the Kurds a defensible strategy for the West? Is it even a moral obligation, to prevent a massacre? And what happens if those weapons are then one day used against Turkey? What happens if the Kurds' growing political and military self-confidence ultimately manifests itself in a demand for independence?

It's a difficult balancing act for the West. It has to ensure that the Kurds win the battle of Kobani -- not just to ward off IS, but also to save a peace process between PKK and the Turkish government that has been jeopardized by the conflict. At the same time, it wants to prevent a broader Kurdish triumph that could destabilize the entire region.

It's possible that the civil war in Syria and the fight against IS has already planted the seeds of a Kurdish spring that could radically shift the balance in the Middle East. Subjugated by foreign powers, some 30 million Kurds, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims, have for years been fighting for recognition and for their own state in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq -- mostly without success. Only once, in the 19th century Ottoman Empire, did a Kurdistan province exist, and it disappeared after just 20 years. After World War I, the Western allies promised the Kurds they would be granted their own state, but Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, didn't keep the promise.

Turkey even refused to recognize the Kurds as an ethnic minority and it banned their language and traditions. Kurds also faced discrimination and repression in Iran, Syria and Iraq. The tragic nadir of this persecution was the massacre at Halabja. In March 1988, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered his air force to drop chemical weapons on the city, killing up to 5,000 people in the attack.

A few decades later, Kurds today enjoy a broad degree of autonomy in northern Iraq, even possessing their own government and army. Northern Iraq has become both a model for, and the envy of, other Kurds in the Middle East. It's an interdenominational success, too, given that Sunnis, Alevis, Yazidis and Christians peacefully coexist with one another in what is the most stable and prosperous part of Iraq. With upheaval taking place across the Middle East, Kurds in Syria and Turkey are hoping to implement a similar model. Now, though, the Kurds have become a primary target of the Islamic state, even though the two groups share the same Sunni branch of Islam. It is precisely the Kurds' newfound strength that has placed them in the crosshairs of IS.

+++ The Qandil Mountains of Iraq: A Visit to PKK Leaders +++

After the driver passes the stone portrait of Öcalan, he applies the brakes in front of a farmhouse. A short time later, PKK spokesman Zagros Hiwa arrives. He inspects the cameras, collects our mobile phones and closes the drapes. He then pulls a PKK flag out of a plastic bag and hangs it on the wall. PKK often uses civilian homes, with its leaders constantly changing locations.

Shortly thereafter, Sabri Ok enters the room with his body guard and five fighters. The 58 year old has been a member of PKK since its founding in 1978 and he's part of the group's top echelon. He spent a total of 22 years in prison in Turkey, a stint which included an extended hunger strike. Peace negotiations between PKK and Turkey have been ongoing since 2012, but Ok says they will end if Kobani falls to IS. Should that happen, attacks and violence will return in Turkey.

He warns that many young PKK supporters are itching for a fight. "The new generation is different from us older people," Ok says with concern. "They are more radical. They have seen the war in Kurdistan and their brothers and sisters have died in Syria. It will be difficult to control them."

Ok believes that Turkey is merely using the peace talks to buy time and does not think that a peaceful solution is possible. "We're not a war-loving people, but the Kurdish question has to be resolved," he says. "It is absurd for North Kurdistan to conduct peace negotiations while the same Kurds are being murdered by IS in Kobani with Turkish support." He claims that the Turks are providing IS with artillery and money, that they are treating wounded jihadists and allowing fighters to cross its borders into Syria. There is no proof of his allegations about weapons and money, but the other claims are verifiable.

The YPG, he says, have been defending the city for 37 days. "Without them," he says, "Kobani would have already fallen 37 times by now."

Last week, Turkey reached an agreement on sending 200 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from Iraq through Turkey and into Syria in order to help in the battle to save Kobani, but Ok has little regard for the plan. "What Peshmerga?" he asks, grinning. "I fought with the Peshmerga -- that was 30 years ago. But it is no longer the same army. They've become weak. When people just sit around, they lose their will to fight." He says that weapons, medicine and ammunition are needed in Kobani, not Peshmerga fighters.

He believes that PKK's ongoing ban in Germany is unjustified. Doesn't the PKK share the same principles as the West, he asks? Things like women's rights, environmental protection and democracy? He discounts the darker side of PKK -- that involving contract killings, involvement in the drug trade, kidnappings and terror attacks.

He then invites us to lunch for a meal of wild honey, chicken and salad.

+++ Kirkuk, Iraq: The Front against IS +++

The old Saddam-era fortifications still encircle Kirkuk, built by the dictator as a bulwark against the Kurds. Today, they are manned by Peshmerga and PKK units, staring out at the black Islamic State flag flying across from them.

The Iraqi army left Kirkuk months ago, leaving the Kurds to defend the oil city on their own. Islamic State jihadists are now just a few kilometers away. The PKK and Peshmerga have fought against in each other in the past, but now they're working together. During the day, 150 Peshmerga guard the front, with 300 PKK fighters taking over at sundown. Most of the serious combat happens at night.

Their commander, Agid Kellary, is based a little further to the south in Daquq. The PKK man has set up a make-shift office in a half-finished apartment. An Iraqi army helicopter roars overhead and shots can be heard. Kellary, a friendly and soft-spoken man who studied literature, explains, "We're in control here. If you don't show any strength, no one will respect you."

Kirkuk is located on the important arterial between Erbil and Baghdad. The area is flat, meaning that whoever has control of the city also has control of the surrounding area. Bulldozers push large ramparts around the camp and workers dig deep trenches behind the front. It looks like they are planning to stay. Kellary says he's looking forward to winter, in the hopes that snow and mud will restrict IS movements to major roadways, making them easier to stop.

But Islamic State is a powerful adversary, one with more than 30,000 fighters at its disposal, seemingly unlimited resources and modern heavy weaponry, much of it captured in recent months. Most has been seized from the Iraqi army, which was armed by the United States, but some has also come from the Syrian regime. Last week, IS even presented three fighter jets along with pilots, but it was likely just propaganda, an area in which the jihadists have proven themselves to be highly adept.

The next sentence that comes out of Commander Kellary's mouth would have been unfathomable only a few months ago. "We thank the Americans for their help," he says. "When they help us, they are also helping themselves. We share the same enemy." He says weapons deliveries from Germany to the Peshmerga are also nice, but that it would be more important for Berlin to finally abandon its support of Turkey.

Kellary says that, even as the battle of Kobani gets worldwide coverage, the ongoing fight in the Sinjar Mountains has been virtually ignored. "Our units are trapped, under constant fire -- it's the heaviest fighting that I can recall," he says. The corridor they had been using just a few weeks ago to deliver food and humanitarian assistance to the Yazidis in the mountains is now under Islamic State control and the threat of another massacre is growing.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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snowmanschmidt 10/30/2014
1. Shine on....
To anyone who has taken up the call to help thwart ISIS and the cruel and twisted way the are trying to impose a heartless world of their making, I say may you find the strength and honor to ban together with brothers of different faiths and unite under the power of wanting the light to dim the darkness. Your sisters and brothers of the world are behind you in spirit. Under no single flag need you declare your spirit go forth, but as a banded emblem of the threads of many fabrics. You are helping to form a new and vividly woven tapestry. All nations together know that this tapestry should be the one that hangs on all our walls. Many that have come to German, America and elsewhere for peace and freedom and are leaving now to go back to villages and try to find some way to keep these places from being defiled by the cruelty of madness and heartlessness. As you head into the belly of this beast on your own and wearing no stripes or stars of a government, let your own star shine, inside and out. You will be from many countries and many lands, please love one another no matter where you came from. Reconcile any hate that lingers when you meet up with a foreign comrade on the same side in this time of chaos. For if you fall and never arise because a hardened heart saw you as the enemy of darkness, and your blood stops pumping because you put your body and heart into all that you believe is right and just, you will have loved in your last moments and that love will transcend back to the people from all lands. If darkness does not take you down, then return with love and not hate, and disburse amongst the continents of our world, so you may plant a new seed of life. I want that seed to grow, be nurtured and adored. One seed can make the most beautiful bloom appear in a field of weeds. To all people of all countries who are independently making this choice to go to face cruelty and hostility in the name of goodness and justice and glory for mankind, be strong in your intent and resolve. We don't need to declare a war based on any one flag's declaration. There is no war to be declared. You are marching to the beat of the drumbeat of the heart. The heart of mankind. Thank you.
art.riordon 10/30/2014
Excellent, informative article. The US and Nato should dump Erdogan- he supports IS and the idea of a caliphate, only he wants to be caliph. The Kurds in all countries are natural allies of the west. Though the peshmerga might not be as as prepared as the YPG and PKK they will still turn out to be a formidable fighting force if the west will give them training and real weapons- like tanks and anti-tank missiles.
Salome 10/31/2014
3. Good and evil
Western powers - call a spade a spade. Secular movement for the independence of Kurdistan - good. Islamic radical movements - bad. Say it clearly and act accordingly. Turkey does not have a great humanistic record as the Armenians know too well, and they never apologized, did they? No, they actually prevent other countries from commemorating this genocide. And who sided with the Nazis during WWII? Stop appeasing and distinguish right from wrong. Western deepest interests defended by a handful of brave Kurdish women - amazing! And, aside - why is everybody so happy to support a Palestinian state but nobody supports a Kurdish (or Tibetan) state? Enough for hypocrisy.
david.stibbs 11/01/2014
4. Set-up?
Is it not unusual to see the same girls face on every book about the kurds fight? Every news outlet has the same pictures, videos, throwing in the face of ISIS that a girl is fighting them? This looks like a set-up to me, made for TV news.
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