IRBIL, Iraq — One unanticipated result of the military advances by Sunni Muslim extremists in northern Iraq has been the formation of a unified opposition front composed of oft-divided Kurdish factions from three nations—Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
Last week, Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, paid a visit to fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK; an unusual event since relations between the PKK and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan have long been strained. The visit came after PKK guerrillas joined with Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces to oust Islamic State militants from the town of Makhmour, southwest of Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
During his trip to Makhmour, where the secular, leftist PKK has a heavily defended camp, Barzani hailed PKK members as “brothers,” according to a video clip circulated online. He also denounced Islamic State a common enemy of the Kurdish people.
The PKK is regarded as a terrorist organization by two of Iraqi Kurdistan’s closest allies, the United States and Turkey. But the threat of the Islamic State extremists has fostered unity between rival Kurdish groups, at least for now.
The PKK has waged a three-decade war against the Turkish government. Its battle-hardened fighters have considerably more recent combat experience than the peshmerga troops of the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region. When Islamic State fighters attacked Makhmour earlier this month, Iraqi peshmerga forces promptly withdrew—a retreat that drew condemnation from many Kurds. PKK fighters, on the other hand, held their ground on the periphery of Makhmour.
In addition, the PKK and its Syrian Kurdish allies have played a central if largely unheralded role in rescuing tens of thousands of Iraqi Yazidis, the Kurdish-speaking religious minority group members who fled the onslaught of the Islamic State.
Yazidis, who practice an ancient non-Muslim faith, were ordered to convert or be killed and many left for the barren slopes of Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped by the Sunni extremists.
President Barack Obama has credited U.S. air strikes and humanitarian air drops with saving the besieged Yazidis. But while the American actions certainly helped, rescued Yazidis and aid workers on the ground say the bulk of the credit should go to militiamen of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, known as the People’s Protection Units. With the Syrian civil war raging on, the Syrian Kurds have carved out a quasi-autonomous enclave in northern Syria and their orces have been some of the most effective against Islamic State, a Qaida offshoot.
It was the Syrian Kurdish militiamen and their allies from the PKK—along with peshmerga forces from Iraqi Kurdistan—who helped create a critical humanitarian corridor that provided Yazidis with safe passage off their mountain redoubt, according to witnesses and survivors.
Currently, Kurds in Syria are fighting off a major Islamic State offensive targeting the northern Syrian city of Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobani in Kurdish. Little word about that fierce battle has filtered out to the outside world.
The Kurds say the Sunni militants are fighting for Ayn al-Arab with U.S.-made Humvees and other weapons seized from fleeing Iraqi government forces. Kurdish volunteers from various nations have arrived to assist in the defense of the city, which has been in Kurdish hands for two years.