The battle between the Islamic State — formerly known as ISIS — against the Kurds and the Iraqis has taken several strange turns over the past few days.
Over the weekend, it became political football as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threw some chin music at President Obama over his Iraq policy. Those comments snowballed into a rebuke from former top Obama adviser David Axelrod. With 2016 in mind, this development falls somewhere between interesting and expected.
What is more interesting and less expected was that as the Kurds made gains (with the benefit of U.S. airstrikes), they were also propelled forward by the efforts of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whose fighters helped the Kurdish peshmerga forces stem the Islamic State's advance toward Erbil, the semiofficial Kurdish capital. As Mitchell Prothero explained:
Visits to front-line positions Monday made it clear that an influx of fighters with links to the Kurdish Workers Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK, had played a major role in driving the Islamic State from key areas within a 30-minute drive of Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. It was Irbil’s possible fall last week that ended weeks of Obama administration inaction on Iraq.
This would be a welcome change if the PKK weren't designated as a terrorist group by the United States and other countries for waging a battle for independence against Turkey over the past several decades. The group signed a ceasefire last March, but has yet to shake the label. This making of strange bedfellows didn't go unnoticed:
Deeply ironic that the PKK (designated by US as terrorist organisation) is most effective force vs. Islamic State (backed by US strikes).— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) August 12, 2014
Yep, undeniable that PKK right now instrumental in defending Sinjar. But at a certain point even Batman roots for Mr Freeze over The Joker.— Zeddonymous (@ZeddRebel) August 12, 2014
As we noted earlier, Sinjar is near the site where thousands of (largely) Kurdish-speaking Yazidis have been stranded, meaning that the PKK has also helped delay a potentially catastrophic Islamic State advance.
The reason for the label is in large part due to the group's activities, but also historically linked to the relationship between Turkey and the United States. But with the United States relationship with Turkey at a low point and the growing benefit of the PKK presence becoming evident, the calculus here could shift.