Contentious Kurds

Is Turkey Right to Fear the PKK in Kobani?

Turkish riot policemen lift their shields to block the view of journalists as a convoy of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga leaves a compound at the border town of Suruc, October 31, 2014. Yannis Behrakis / Courtesy Reuters

On October 23, three off-duty Turkish soldiers were gunned down on a busy street in Yuksekova, a small, rugged town in the southeastern province of Hakkari. The following day, also in the southeast, a member of a Turkish paramilitary squad was found tied to a pole in an empty field, his body riddled with bullet holes. Turkish authorities immediately blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group whose enemies include the Turkish army and, as of late, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The killings were believed to be revenge for the deaths of three PKK militants who were involved in an attack on a hydroelectric power station the day before. The PKK quickly denied any involvement. But it wasn’t long before another off-duty soldier, out shopping for food with his wife, was shot by masked assailants in Diyarbakir, the Kurdish political movement’s key stronghold. He died on October 30.

In Western capitals, the PKK’s stock has been rising. The group has emerged as one of the few forces willing and able to take on ISIS. This summer, hundreds of its fighters streamed down from their mountain strongholds in northern Iraq to stop the jihadists from reaching Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. In neighboring Syria, the PKK’s offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has squared off against ISIS for more than a year. In the town of Kobani, in full view of TV cameras and Turkish tanks standing idly on the other side of the border, PYD militants, assisted by U.S. air strikes, have resisted an ISIS siege now in its seventh week. 

Even Washington, which continues to label the PKK a terrorist group, has begun to embrace the group as a major asset in the war against ISIS. On October 19, the United States airdropped light weapons to the outgunned Kurdish units defending Kobani. Secretary of State John Kerry defended the move, noting that to do otherwise would have been “irresponsible” and “

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