By Ralf Hoppe, Maximilian Popp, Christoph Reuter and Jonathan Stock SPIEGEL.DE
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.
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