Conflict with 'outsiders': Crowds in the Qandil mountains wave PKK flags during Kurdish New Year 2015. (photo: Besaran Tofiq)
Last week Masrour Barzani, the head of Iraqi Kurdistan's intelligence services, said in an interview that the Syrian Kurdish militia units who had helped fight the extremist Islamic State group should really leave Iraq soon. Barzani, an influential figure in the semi-autonomous northern region, said that the militias should go back to the Syrian Kurdish areas they come from because in the long term they were not necessarily welcome in Iraq.
Syrian Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, are present in the Qandil and Sinjar mountain areas. The PKK is a group that has been fighting for independence in Turkey for years, in an ongoing conflict that has seen tens of thousands of both Turkish and Kurdish people die. In fact, the PKK is categorised as a terrorist organisation by some Western nations. And in Syria the PKK-associated movement has two wings, with the political side known as the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, and the military wing named the Popular Protection Units, or YPG. The military wing has hardened up on the battlefield since the beginning of the Syrian revolution.
Right now it seems highly unlikely that Barzani will get what he has asked for. The PKK's influence inside Iraq has been growing since the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the islamic State, or IS, began. And it would also be foolish to rule out further political participation by the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own borders, parliament and military.
In fact, the Islamic State, or IS, group has given the PKK some excellent opportunities to expand its influence. Formerly the group's guerilla fighters were limited to the mountainous areas in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they hid out in camps. Now they are a very visible and admired fighting force with troops firmly on the ground in Iraq. The big impact the PKK has had on the battlefield has won it plenty of admirers in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The PKK is the most influential fighting force in the Mount Qandil area, on the border of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. The PKK also has a large number of fighters in and around the Kirkuk area; although it is supposed to be part of federal Iraq, Kirkuk is currently under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military after the Iraqi army fled in the face of attacks from the Islamic State group. The PKK is also controlling the Mount Sinjar area and is an important force for Iraq's Yazidi minority, who say they were deserted by the Iraqi Kurdish military when the Islamic State fighters attacked.
“The PKK's guerillas are fighting the IS group on a number of fronts and they've been able to drive the IS group out of some fairly large areas, especially in the Sinjar area – battles are ongoing there,” Damat Akeed, a spokesperson for the YPG, told NIQASH. “Up until today, the PKK has lost 185 fighters in this war against the Islamic State. But the PKK has been able to kill many of the militants too.”
In Iraqi Kurdistan's September 2013 elections, the political party affiliated with the PKK present in Iraq – the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party, or KDSP – wasn't able to get more than a few thousand votes out of the around 2 million available to them; the party wasn't able to enter the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament either. However given the PKK's current, much more heroic status, that could all change in any upcoming elections.
And the PKK are not only having a good time in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are also making good use of their improved image in other Kurdish-majority areas in Iran, Turkey and Syria. For instance, in Turkey the Peoples' Democratic Party, which supposedly also has close ties to the PKK, did unexpectedly well in the most recent elections there.
The PKK's biggest impact though has been in Kurdish parts of Syria. There the group has evolved from a force for local resistance into a major militia that large countries around the world have been forced to acknowledge. The political wing, the PYD, now control large Kurdish-majority areas in Syria and that control has continued to firm up since the start of the revolution there in 2011. In 2013, Syrian Kurdish administrators created three independent cantons and these are being administered by the Kurds themselves, rather than the Syrian government.
“The PYD is now one of the major political parties in Syria,” confirms Gharib Hasso, who represents the PYD in Iraqi Kurdistan. “The party will continue to run the cantons in accordance with the principles of the party its related to, the PKK.”
Many Iraqi Kurds have looked at this newfound independence with admiration – they see what's happening in Syria as a major achievement and possibly a move toward a homeland for the Kurdish people, who remain the largest ethnic minority in the world without their own country; the population of a would-be Kurdistan is split between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
However there are also critics of the PKK-related administrators in Syria. They complain that the group is running its territories in an authoritarian way and that they won't let any other forces or political parties be active there. Another oft-mentioned criticism is the group's closer ties to Iran.
And what of the PKK's international designation as a terrorist organisation? It seems to many as though the PKK's role at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State group has changed international perceptions of it.
“The PKK's defensive work and their battles with the Islamic State group has led to support for their forces from the US and other allies,” says Niaz Hameed, a local political analyst. “It has become clear that the only forces that can fight the Islamic State group in Syria are the Kurdish.”
In fact, Redur Khalil, the official spokesperson for the YPG units in Syria, readily confirms that there is clear and constant communication between the PKK's fighting groups and the international coalition arrayed against the Islamic State – this includes a joint operations room, he says.
“There are continuous communications between us and the coalition planes,” Khalil tells NIQASH. “The planes also provide the YPOG with support during ground operations against the Islamic State group.”
All of these factors – international recognition, political and frontline success, better status inside Kurdish areas – equal a sort of golden era for the PKK. And this is why many in Iraqi Kurdistan also think that Masrour Barzani was wrong to insist on PKK-affiliated groups leaving. It is not the right time, these critics argue. Not only that, it would be a very difficult thing to achieve.That is why many political pundits in Iraqi Kurdistan believe that the PKK is here to stay in one form or another and that sooner or later, local officials will be forced to deal with them, building alliances rather than insisting on the PKK's departure from Iraqi soil.