The Kurdish people are facing an unprecedented challenge. Across a vast swathe of northern Syria and Iraq, the region’s Kurds are locked in a desperate and heroic struggle with the genocidal forces of the so-called Islamic State (IS).
Fighting is raging across a huge front hundreds of kilometres wide, from Aleppo and Kobane in Syria to Mosul and Kirkuk in Iraq — and all points in between.
Flush with money seized from banks in Mosul and armed with US-supplied heavy weapons abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi army, the IS (formerly ISIL — the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) now has a formidable military capability.
The relatively lightly armed Kurds are up against a murderous and determined opponent equipped with armoured personnel carriers, tanks, artillery, heavy mortars and rocket launchers.
With financial support from the Iraqi government no longer coming through, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has even had trouble securing ammunition and paying their peshmerga fighters, who have families to support.
A big loser from the post-World War I big-power settlement, the Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own. They are divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran with a large diaspora in Europe.
Whether directly or indirectly, the entire Kurdish people is being drawn into the conflict.
Kobane resists IS
In Syria, the Kurds mainly live in the north of the country. Over the past few years, the Syrian army has largely pulled back from the area. Last year, the Kurds declared an autonomous region there called Rojava (West Kurdistan).
A militia called the Peoples Defence Units (YPG) has been established. With more than 45,000 fighters, strongly linked to and supported by the community, disciplined and well led, it has proven to be a very effective force. It includes the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
The dominant Syrian Kurdish political group (though not the only one) is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), co-chaired by Saleh Muslim and Asiyah Abdullah. It has strong links with the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
For two years, the Kurdish area has been under sustained attack by IS forces. A flashpoint of the fight is the town of Kobane, hard up against the Turkish border, 135 kilometres north-east of Aleppo.
The town and about 100 surrounding villages are under sustained attack by 5000 IS fighters. The district’s normal population is about 200,000, but now holds perhaps 500,000 due to an influx of refugees.
Kobane is important to the IS because it wants to be able to freely move between areas it control, especially Raqqa in the east and Aleppo in the west. At the moment, the IS has to make a big detour. If Kobane falls, the IS will move in force against other Kurdish towns.
The YPG-YPJ has so far held off the IS gangs and dealt them some very heavy blows. But many Kurdish fighters have also fallen.
PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, serving a life sentence in a Turkish jail, has issued a call for Kurds everywhere to mobilise to defend Rojava.
From July 9, thousands of Kurds in Turkey flocked to the border near Kobane and established four tent camps, including one directly opposite the besieged town. They used megaphones to shout encouragement to their compatriots.
Another purpose of the camps was to stop wounded IS fighters entering Turkey for medical treatment. Turkish police and soldiers attacked the camps with water cannon and tear gas, but were repulsed.
Responding to Ocalan's call, at least 800 fighters entered Kobane from Turkey in mid-July to join the YPG’s defence effort. Most were from Turkey, but Kurds from Europe have also returned to help defend the “Rojava revolution”.
Demonstrations in support of Rojava and Kobane have been held in Germany and other European countries in the last two months.
Although it is a war zone, the struggle in Rojava is deeply progressive.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in efforts to empower women. They serve in large numbers in the militia — both in mixed units of the YPG and in the YPJ — and have provided their share of martyrs to the cause.
In a February article on OrganizedRage.com, British human rights lawyer Margaret Owen reported after a visit to Rojava: “[E]verything I learned about the PYD administration had impressed me.
“There is an all-women’s party, the Star Union, and all other institutions, not just the PYD, but all associations, political, educational, medical, military, police, social and financial services, are headed always by two co-chairs, one man and one woman: an excellent method of ensuring gender equality across the whole spectrum of society, from the top echelons to the grassroots.
“In every town and village there is a Women’s House, where women and girls can access advice, counselling, protection, and shelter, in the face of many forms of gender-based violence, honour killings, post-traumatic stress, and physical and mental health problems.
“Domestic violence is widespread, especially among the IDPs, and many women have been victims of sexual violence. Everyone I met had experience of traumatic deaths of close relations, in prisons, on the battlefield, and through abductions and torture.
“The Women’s Houses, the Women’s Academies, the 'Families of the Martyrs', the Peace Mothers associations all work together to address this endemic violence and support the displaced without any outside humanitarian aid and on a completely voluntary basis.”
The PYD has its critics. One complaint is that it has stopped other Kurdish groups from establishing their own militias. It has insisted that they join the YPG-YPJ. In particular, it is claimed that the PYD has prevented supporters of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) from establishing an armed presence in Rojava.
This stance seems completely justified. A desperate struggle is under way and unity of the fighting forces and unity of command is absolutely vital.
As for the PYD’s overall record, columnist David Romano put it this way in a July 24 Rudaw.net opinion piece: “Let us look at the PYD’s concrete record of action since it took control of large parts of northern Syria and declared autonomy in the cantons of Kobane, Cizre and Afrin.
“They held municipal elections. They provided refuge to Arab, Turkmen, Christian and other refugees from all over Syria.
“They incorporated not just Kurds, but also Arabs, Turkmen and Christians into the autonomous administrations of all three cantons. They protected all of them from both ISIS and the Assad regime ...
“They have committed no massacres, and they continue to insist that they want only good relations with Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. They did all of this while being isolated, starved economically and pressured militarily from all sides.
Intervention for Shengal
In early August, IS forces seized the town of Shengal in western Iraq. Normally inhabited by about 30,000 people, this is the historic centre of the Kurdish-speaking Yezidi community, which practices an ancient religion which predates Christianity and Islam.
IS regards Yezidis as “devil-worshippers” who should be killed. The IS wanted to control the area so that it would be able to more easily supply their forces in Syria.
The town was defended by peshmerga of Barzani’s KDP. The IS forces attacked and at a certain point the peshmerga withdrew.
The reasons for this are not yet clear, but it left the people completely exposed. A mass exodus then took place as tens of thousands of terrified people streamed out of the town to seek refuge on stony barren Mount Shengal to the north.
Hundreds have since died of thirst, starvation and exposure. The IS has massacred hundreds of Yezidis and kidnapped large numbers of women.
Ekurd.net said on August 5 that PYD leader Saleh Muslim sharply criticised the withdrawal of the KDP peshmerga from Shengal.
Muslim said: “The peshmerga left the people there alone and fled. On such a day such a response was expected of the YPG and they did [what was expected of them] … the people said what they saw.
“The peshmerga left them alone. There were no clashes between the peshmerga and the ISIS in the region. They withdrew without a fight. Of course there must have been a mistake or it is possible the wrong order was given. If not I do not think the peshmerga would have fled from the fighting.
The YPG had long warned the KDP that the town was not adequately defended. In a dramatic intervention, a large YPG-YPJ force entered Iraq on August 3 through the border crossing at Til Kocher.
It first had to clear the border area of the IS gangs. At the same time, it pushed toward Mount Shengal and helped escort large numbers of refugees to safety in Rojava and Kurdistan.
The peshmerga have since regrouped and a large force has been sent to retake the town. The PKK has also sent militia units to Shengal from its camps in Kurdistan. Some 700 Yezidi refugees have joined the YPG and are taking part in the effort to recapture Shengal.
At first ignoring the YPG-YPJ and HPG-YJA STAR, the peshmerga have since been forced to conduct joint operations against the IS killers. The prestige and authority of Barzani and the KDP would seem to have been badly tarnished. (Barzani announced that the military commanders who withdrew would be subject to an investigation.) As of August 10, Shengal has yet to be completely retaken.
Turkey’s deceptive game
Turkey has been giving significant support to the IS. Large numbers of foreign Islamists seeking to join the IS have freely transited Turkey. Wounded IS fighters have crossed into Turkey for medical treatment.
But Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also wants Kurdish support for his August presidential bid. Kurds make up about 20% of the population. Erdogan has made several concessions to the long-oppressed Kurdish community, mainly on the use of their language.
Turkey also has close relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). About 1300 Turkish firms are active in the area; each year Turkey exports billions of dollars of goods to Kurdistan and takes most of its oil.
PKK leaders have called on Turkey to declare publicly where it stands as regards the IS.
The recent setbacks for the peshmerga have turned the spotlight on the KRG. The PYD and PKK are socialist-oriented groups. The KRG is run by two conservative nationalist parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani.
A great deal of investment money has poured into Kurdistan recently, much of it going into building fancy shopping malls. Corruption is widespread and the gap between rich and poor is growing.
The peshmerga is not a true national army. It is largely divided between the KDP and PUK. The KDP is hostile to the PYD. It has tried to establish an armed presence in Rojava but has been blocked by the PYD.
Adding to tensions, in April, the KRG dug a 26-kilometre-long trench along its border with northern Syria. The PYD and the PKK denounced it as project to isolate the Kurdish areas of Syria.
The KRG says it is aimed at stopping terrorists. There was certainly no prior consultation. Kurds on both sides of the trench protested.
The KRG is also short of funds since the central Iraq government has stopped paying its regional subsidy. The peshmerga’s weapons are old and no match for the new US heavy equipment the IS has acquired.
The PYD has been calling for unity of the Kurdish struggle for a long time. In the face of recent setbacks, the KRG has been forced to recognise that the Kurds face a national crisis of the very first order.
It seems that some sort of common front of the YPG-YPJ, PKK-aliged forces, peshmerga and exiled Iranian Kurds is being established.
The Kurds desperately need better and heavier weapons to counter the IS threat. Some US supplies have arrived in Kurdistan. The US has carried out limited airstrikes against IS forces threatening the KRG capital of Erbil.
The Kurds have every right to accept aid from whoever will give it. But the US is not the friend of the Kurds. The past is replete with its betrayals of Kurdish national hopes.
For example, Washington continued to deal with Saddam Hussein after he carried out the atrocious March 1988 gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, which killed over 5000 people.
In 1991, after the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War, the US encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Then, when they did, it stood back and let the regime crush the rebellion. The Kurdish uprising in the north was smashed.
In Turkey, Washington has supported Turkey’s long repression of its Kurdish population and its war against the PKK.
The US may step up the supply of modern heavy weapons to the KRG peshmerga, but it is hard to see it helping the far more radical YPG-YPJ forces fighting in Syria.
The Kurdish people face a very challenging future. They need solidarity from all progressive forces.
[A slightly longer version an be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]