Good Kurds, Bad Kurds


Is there such a thing as a ‘good Kurd’ or ‘bad Kurd’?

For over a century 40-50 million Kurds have been pitted against one another by the superpowers of the time: British, French, and American. There are many Kurdish factions throughout the Kurdish territory in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. In Turkey there are nearly 20 million Kurds with the largest armed Kurdish opposition, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). In Syria there exists the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), which is also said to be an armed wing of the PKK, which the PYD denies. In Iraq the two main political parties are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) founded by Jalal Talabani, former president of Iraq. Each of these political entities have their own armed forces called the Peshmerga. In Iraq there are also other Kurdish political factions, some pro-Muslim and one pro-change, or Gorran, which has no armed wing. In Iran, the oldest political faction is the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan-Iran (PDK-I) led by Mustafa Hijri.

The composition of the multiple Kurdish factions is a complex web; to simply label each of these as friend or foe would be immature. At one point or another they have all either worked together or against one another by creating an alliance with regional or external states. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that Kurds are only seen as pawns and tools to be used at the will of states, largely because they are reliable militarily.

The United States had previously designated both the PUK and KDP as terrorist organizations under the Patriot Act (PL 107-56) passed in 2001 as a Tier III terrorist group. This was due to previous Kurdish uprisings against Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime; Kurds believe these were acts of self-defense. Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani even declined to meet US President Barack Obama until the groups were removed from the list. This designation created tensions with the Kurds towards the Americans, as Kurds knew they were America’s most reliable ally in the region. The barrier prevented Kurdish officials from visiting Washington, who were forced to attain government-issued visa waivers. With the assistance of Senator John McCain, the US Congress passed the NDAA (The National Defense Authorization Act) and removed the PUK and KDP from the list in 2014. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) categorized the designation as “unfair, unjust, and psychologically damaging to the people of the Kurdistan Region”.

Today the Kurds in Turkey face the same challenges those in the KRG once faced. In response to the hostility of the Turkish state towards the Kurds, the now imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan as a mechanism of self-defense established the PKK in 1978. In 1997 the United States again designated a Kurdish group, the PKK as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization”. Although there have been civilian casualties in PKK actions, the PKK does not target civilians. Its military strategy is based exclusively against the Turkish government’s compounds, soldiers, military bases, etc. When we consider the policies Turkish regimes, past and current, have implemented against Kurds we can see why the Kurdish people consider them genocidal in nature and why they support the PKK to defend them. The United State’s and other international powers continue favoring Turkey’s demands largely because it is a NATO ally, despite the fact that now it is more of a burden than an ally.

In Syria, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, and Erdogan has likened them to Daesh (ISIS/ISIL). However, the United States has ignored Turkish calls for the same designation as the PKK. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby, has stated, “we don’t consider the YPG a terrorist organization, and they have proven successful against ISIL inside Syria”. Ironically the YPG has stemmed from the PKK in Turkey, even though its leaders deny this to avoid terrorization and criminalization. Turkey has an aggressive stance towards the YPG, tarnishing the progress it’s made inside Syria by allying itself with Arab rebels who at times work with Daesh.

In Iran, the PDK-I (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan) has once again resurfaced, renewing the fight against the Islamic regime after a 20-year cease-fire agreement. PDK-I leader Mustafa Hijri has stated that “the Peshmerga have joined forces with you (Kurds in Iran) in pursuit of interlocking the struggle in the mountains and the struggle of the Kurdish people in the cities”. Furthermore, Hijri states that it is due to the lack of “meaningful civic or political work” inside Iran which has forced the Kurds to rise up. Despite the fact that Kurds overwhelmingly voted for current president Hassan Rouhani (70%), Kurdish rights have not advanced. Public executions and imprisonment of political activists in Rojhalat (Iranian-Kurdistan) have risen under Rouhani’s rule. A member of the PDK-I, Mihammed Salih Qadiri has said that “the Iranian regime always tries to export its problems, accusing the opposition forces of being backed by foreign countries. However, we stress that so far there has been no foreign support for the Kurdish people in Iran”. The Iranian regime has accused states like Saudi Arabia of producing instability in Iran by supporting the Kurds.

The Kurds are not only fighting to realize self-determination for a Kurdish state or autonomy, but are continuously battling for individual rights within these confined areas. The notion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is ever prevalent in the Kurdish question. In relation to the territory and regime they were forced to fight against for survival throughout history, Kurds had no option but to create armed groups. The international community should be wary of defining the Kurds as terrorists; history has proven that this is not accurate. In essence, there is no such thing as a “bad Kurd”; there are only Kurds who are fighting for their individual and collective rights and for a country named Kurdistan. Without these groups, the Kurdish population’s rich culture, language, and deep rooted history would already have been wiped out by the regional states of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Originally published at Kurdish Question November 1, 2016

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