No Friends but the Mountains: ISIS and the Kurdish Struggle

Special for the Armenian Weekly

On June 6, ISIS forces captured the Iraqi city of Mosul. The Islamist forces, outnumbered 15 to 1, overran the city, forcing Iraqi national army soldiers to abandon their weapons and flee. The militants killed soldiers and civilians, raided banks, and released fellow Islamists from prisons and integrated them into their army. The weapons they captured from the Iraqi Army included American-supplied guns and helicopters. The entire battle took less than a week and displaced thousands of people and left the city of Mosul empty of Christians. ISIS continued to loot the city, capturing weapons and desecrating religious sites like the Armenian Etchmiadzin Church. This new Sunni Islamist group seeks to create a caliphate—an Islamic state ruled by a political/religious leader, the caliph, who imposes Sharia law—on lands that stretch from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. ISIS is now a very well-funded and equipped army, and in control of key dams and oil refineries.

This sent Iraqi Prime Minister (now Vice President) Nouri al-Maliki’s government scrambling to face this new threat and essentially begging the U.S. to carry out air strikes against ISIS targets. For ISIS, it was an easy victory—the al-Maliki government had lost the faith of its citizenry, and also failed to foster vital alliances with Sunni chieftains who had initially fought against al-Qaeda. Iraq was essentially being ruled as a dictatorship, with the Shias as the favored majority. What differentiates ISIS from groups that preceded it? In short, its barbarity. ISIS does not distinguish between civilians and soldiers. When the U.S. and UK governments responded to the growing threat through airstrikes on ISIS targets, the group released videos of the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Alan Henning, both to put a stop to the airstrikes and as a propaganda tool. ISIS also gains funds from ransoming the lives of kidnapped European civilians.

Furthermore, ISIS has waged a campaign of extermination against the Yazidi community in Iraq. In August 2014, ISIS expanded westwards into lands inhabited by Kurds and, specifically, Yazidis. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled their homes to the cities of Irbal and Kirkuk in Iraq. Many fled to the mountains of Sinjar. With very little food and water and in temperatures reaching above 100 degrees, ISIS effectively put Yazidi men, women, and children in a siege on the mountains of Sinjar. Many died under the extreme heat and from thirst. Men were executed and women and girls were sold into slavery and forced into marriages. This prompted the U.S. to bomb some targets and drop humanitarian aid.

The Kurdish resistance

But with this campaign of utter brutality, ISIS has drawn the ire of Kurdish fighters who have made massive gains in the chaos that is now Iraq and Syria. Kurdish militants have had to fight against both Assad and Islamist forces in Syria. They have also been involved in the Iraq war, defending themselves against Baathist forces. The U.S. relied heavily on Kurdish fighters to accomplish many of its missions in the war on terror. It was the Kurds who captured Hassan Ghul in 2004, leading to the mission to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. Kurdish fighters in the area may not be as well-equipped as the hostile forces around them, but they have a long trail of experience.

A vast majority of the militant Kurds in the region have divided themselves up amongst political parties. Almost all tend to be secular, left-wing nationalists, with varying degrees of revolutionary leftist ideas. They also all have their own armed women’s groups. Two such parties are the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), founded in the 1970’s by Sabine Cansiz and Abdullah Ocalan, and the Kurdish Union Party (PYD), founded in 2003 and led by Salih Muslim. Both the PKK and PYD include revolutionary socialism and anti-statism in their ideologies, and form a part of the Group of Communities of Kurdistan (KCK), a catch-all organization of Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. The KCK stresses stateless communalism and libertarianism. Much of its political ideology was put forth by Ocalan as he read the works of the American libertarian communist Murray Bookchin while in prison.

One of the defining aspects of these Kurdish revolutionary organizations is a strong adherence to feminism. In a region dominated by patriarchy and strict conservative traditionalist values, many of the revolutionary Kurdish organizations, including the PKK and PYD, regard women as equals in society and actively recruit them as fighters.

Ever since the PKK’s founding, the organization has been repressed by the Turkish state, with many of its officials and members targeted by the Turkish intelligence community and right-wing death squads. At the time of the founding of the PYD, Turkey and Syria had warm relations, which gave way to repression of the PYD, with many of its leaders imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the Baathist Syrian state. During the Syrian Civil War today, the PYD has been able to fight against both the Baathist Syrian Army and Jabhat al Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Syria. They have also established coordination with leftist elements of the Syrian opposition forces.

The U.S.-backed Kurdish Peshmerga (literally, “those who face death”) failed to retake Sinjar, but the relentless assaults by YPG/YPJ (people’s self-defense units/women’s self-defense units, the armed wings of the Democratic Union Party) and PKK forces were able to open a corridor to safety for the Yazidis. Photos of male and female fighters in gray and green-clad uniforms fighting side by side to free distraught, hungry Yazidis flooded social media. Now, the joint communist forces have control of Sinjar, Kirkuk, Makhmour, and huge swaths of the lands bordering Iraq. This prompted a visit by al-Maliki to the PKK-controlled Makhmour camp. After all, the Kurds have become a force to be reckoned with.

The attack on Kobani

Presently, ISIS has turned its attention to the Syrian city of Kobani, where the PYD is headquartered. Kobani, founded by Armenians fleeing the Armenian Genocide, is located on the Syrian-Turkish border. It started as a train station outpost built by Germans to link Baghdad to Berlin. With the influx of Kurdish refugees, the village of Kobani became a city—one that was also home to three Armenian churches. During the migration of the 1960’s, most of Kobani’s Armenians settled in Armenia. The Kurdish population still remembers that chapter of the city’s history.

ISIS fighters have staged a three-pronged assault on Kobani, which would offer them a great strategic advantage, as the city is close to the porous border of Turkey and a base for more attacks on Iraq and Syria. The YPG/YPJ have staged a heroic defense of their homes, their people, and their city. During the beginning of the battle, airstrikes against ISIS fighters near Kobani remained ineffective, and the defense of the city was dependent largely on the population. Up until recently, the U.S. did not equip the YPG/YPJ with arms, nor did it drop humanitarian packages like it did for the Peshmerga and the Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain.

For the most part, Kobani’s Kurds have been left to fight with their arms against the better-equipped ISIS. Many of the female members of the YPJ reportedly save a bullet for themselves, refusing to fall captive to the Islamic militants. One member of the YPJ, and mother of two, Arin Mirkan, reportedly carried out a suicide bombing killing 23 ISIS members before she was captured. This is likely the first suicide bombing by a woman against ISIS.

ISIS forces have been able to penetrate the city of Kobani on the western side, raising their flag. But with the help of intensified American airstrikes, the Kurds have been able to recapture the hill and raise the flag of the Kurdish republic. Presently, the battle rages on and ISIS has retreated from the city, but still continues to bombard it.

On Oct. 19, U.S. C-130 transport planes finally dropped 27 bundles containing ammunition, small arms, and medical supplies that were sent from the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, according to U.S. officials. The U.S. and its allies in the Middle East have carried out over 135 airstrikes in the Kobani area, according to U.S. sources, while Pentagon officials recently acknowledged that ISIS was also sending heavy reinforcements to Kobani. The fear that Kobani may fall is real and still uttered by U.S. officials.

The battle for Kobani has lasted for about a month, with the city still standing. A group of poorly equipped, tired, and hungry Kurdish communists have held their city longer than the better-trained, better-equipped Iraqi army was able to hold Mosul.

Turkey and ISIS

The Turkish state has looked the other way while this new, ruthless Islamist group fights close to its border. Turkey has amassed tanks on the border, facing the opposite direction from Kobani. Whereas throughout the Syrian Civil War, the Turkish border saw an influx of Islamists going in and out of Turkey, and attacking cities such as Kessab, the Turkish Army has been able to keep out Kurdish anarchist and communist youth from joining their compatriots in the fight to defend Kobani—although according to recent reports, Turkey has expressed willingness to allow Iraqi-Kurdish fighters to travel through Turkey to join the Kurdish struggle in Kobani. However, the this latest news came after weeks of outrage and protests. Turkish troops have shot tear gas at protesters and reporters covering the defense of Kobani. During secret talks with Democratic Union Party leader Salih Muslim Muhammad, Turkish Army officials refused to help the YPG/YPJ and protect Kobani—that is, until they renounce their ties with the PKK. The Turkish state is trying its utmost to stop the military training of leftist Kurdish youth so close to its border. Protests have erupted in Kurdish-populated cities in Turkey such as Diyarbakir, where protesters have burned the offices of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as a statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Kurdish communities in Turkey and Germany have been attacked by supporters of ISIS, while many solidarity rallies have been held all over the world with activists bearing PKK and YPG/YPJ flags.

Whether Kobani falls into ISIS hands and the international community bears witness to yet another genocide, or the city is able to repel the Islamist attack, the bravery that the YPG/YPJ have shown is an example for us all in these trying times. The Turkish state may be safe from the growing threat of a well-equipped fundamentalist Islamist army today, but who is to say that the presence of such a tumor on its border won’t cause an extreme humanitarian crisis for its civilians in the east—civilians that Turkey has shown no desire to help time and time again? As for the Kurds, they have a saying: “We have no friends but the mountains.” A saying that, in the enlightened 21st century of human rights and democracy, rings all too true.

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Garen Chiloyan

Garen Chiloyan was born in Aleppo, Syria, and has lived in Watertown, Mass., for much of his life. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Connecticut. He is interested in economics and human rights, and is an avid reader of anything by Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde.

13 Comments

  1. The US armed the Islamic militants because a few years ago thee US wanted to depose Syria’s Assad, a friend of Iran. Iran is seen by Israel and the US as an enemy.

    Now we see the US attacking ISIS. Why?

    One reason is that Israel and the US want to retain the Kurdish areas as proxy mini-states. Israel has long armed Iraqi Kurds.
    Israel wants to break up the Middle East in a long-range divide and conquer strategy. The Kurds are seen as a fore that is non-Arab, and are not anti-Israel.

    By the way, I doubt that Kurdish groups are pro-feminist. Please.

  2. It’s time to take the gloves off. The US has in its arsenal of conventional weapons(bag of tricks) that would incinerate any opponent. I say let ISIS feel true wrath by using these weapons like we did in the first Gulf Iraq war. What’s holding the coalition back? Turkey? Some idealized bull_s on taking the moral high ground? Why should the coalition show any mercy? Quit pussy footing around! Let’s do it! Obama. And close this thing once and for all!

  3. Excellent and persuasive summary. Straightforward and informative, but passes one salient point: namely that ISIS is closely connected to Turkish intelligence and that Turkey’s fate is tied to ISIS. AKP is now very clumsily trying to play at neutrality. Also this article fails to mention that the important details that Sakine Cansiz was assassinated by MIT in Paris last year and that Abdullah Ocalan started out as a Turkish MIT infiltrator within the Kurdish movement. The progressive forces which finally have the reins of the PKK are Murat Karayilan and Cemal Bayik in the Qandil Mountains. There are also inspiring elements of the BDP very open to Turkish and diaspora Armenians.

    Maybe it goes without saying for the purposes of this article, but it is imperative to acknowledge how ripe the time it is for Kurdish-Armenian unity. Leftists in the Kurdish struggle are natural allies of the Armenian cause. In fact maybe our only natural allies out there.

  4. What? ISIS is a Turkish military/intelligence created “army”. It was created because the useless “free Syrian Army” thugs, were not effective enough to rid ASSAD, unless your goal was to kidnap civilians and profit off ransom money and torture. Also the USA didn’t want to supply them with weapons. SO this ultra vile “army” was created and they basically stole Iraq’s weapons and oil to use for cash flow. Make no mistake all this was facilitated by the Turks.

  5. Very interesting article and I just wonder if somewhere in the ranks of the YPD and PKK are Armenians, continuing the struggle against militant Islam, Turkish in particular, that our Fedayee heroes of some 100 years ago participated in.

  6. May God help the brave Kurd fighters and give Kurds great victory over the satanic muslim ISIS monsters. Even though the Kurd communists don’t believe in God, and say “We have no friends but the mountains.” May our Precious, Merciful, Glorious, Awesome God, be the very best friend the Kurds ever had.

    If our evil Western leaders continue to refuse to provide the arms desperately needed by the Kurds in Kobani and a satanic genocide takes place by the satanist ISIS monsters, Western leaders and Turkey will have the blood of innocents on their hands.

    I hate communism, but at least communists have humanity. ISIS monsters and their many supporters in Western countries, have none.

    Please God, give the Kurds great victory, Amen.

  7. I tried to found any foundation that promote support to Kurdish fighters and a modest sum , but I didn’t found.
    It’s a shame for the whole “civilized” world, the Kurds must alone to fight against this evil….

  8. even being aware the criminal deeds aimed at my people by the Kurds, I still want them survive and defeat the Islamic militants,
    Armenia is in no position the come to their aid, but if they allow the refugees shelter it will prove to the world what we stand for.

  9. I agree! I agree! Very, very perceptive and insightful. We Armenians know the score…been there, done that, got the T shirt for it!

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