Kurdish ‘Terrorists’ Are Fighting Islamic State

The Kurdish Workers’ Party is making friends with old enemies

Joseph Trevithick

While Americans see the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government—or KRG—as an ally, Washington officially says the Kurdish Workers’ Party is a terrorist organization. But the group now appears to be getting tacit support from Washington and Turkey to fight Sunni extremists from the Islamic State group.

Since the 1970s, the militant movement—known by its Kurdish acronym PKK—has fought the Turkish security forces for the right to establish an independent socialist state. Ankara also has accused Iraqi Kurdish authorities of turning a blind eye toward the militants in the past.

But last year, Ankara concluded a historic ceasefire agreement with the PKK. As part of the deal, insurgents left Turkish soil for camps in Iraq.

This summer these Kurdish fighters found themselves in the path of the Islamic State’s rapid advance in northern Iraq. Now the PKK is calling on all Kurds to fight the Islamists.

PKK fighters have deployed in Kirkuk and Makhmour and benefiting from American air strikes that have destroyed some Islamic State artillery and vehicles. Still, these “terrorists” don’t appear to be in line for any direct aid from Washington—at least not yet.

There’s precedence for a reversal. The State Department also had sanctioned the KRG’s two main political parties in the past. Now, the Kurds’ Peshmerga militia expects to get American military aid very soon.

KRG and American troops together in 2011. Army photo

Plus Turkey is sending humanitarian aid convoys that might help the country’s former Kurdish enemies. Ankara has come to view the KRG—and Iraqi Kurds in general—as important regional partners.

The PKK’s newfound international support, indirect as it might be, is especially impressive considering recent events. The Pentagon had been spying on them for the last five years.

The group became an active target of America’s war on terror in late 2007. Air Force spy planes and drones shot pictures, filmed video and listened in on insurgent radio chatter.

The Pentagon shared this intelligence with Ankara. Turkish warplanes and artillery then attacked the PKK camps in Iraq based on the info, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

After American forces pulled out of Iraq, the flying branch continued part of this mission—nicknamed Operation Nomad Shadow—from the Turkish side of the border. Predator drones flew over Kurdish areas from Incirlik air base, according to a presentation by the U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation.

Of course, political strangeness seems to be the order of the day following the rise of Islamic State. Syria and Iran—both almost categorically opposed to American foreign policy—also bombed targets in Iraq last month.

In the end, Sunni extremists in Iraq may unwittingly help foster new diplomatic links … and maybe even an independent Kurdish state.

You can follow Joe Trevithick on Twitter at @FranticGoat. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.

War Is Boring

From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

    Joseph Trevithick

    Written by

    Freelance Journalist for @warisboring and others, Historian, and Military Analyst. @franticgoat on Twitter

    War Is Boring

    From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world