Transnational Kurdish Cooperation
Cooperation amongst Kurdish elements from Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey against a non-state enemy is historically unique and represents a new era of intra-Kurdish relations. Armed Kurdish factions from Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran have transversed international boundaries of the Kurdistan Region in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). It is in this context that Kurdish forces from the aforementioned countries have intermittently allied to protect Kurdish territory and populace from the brutality of IS.
Demarcated political boundaries between the states of the Kurdistan Region are permeable and frequently ill-governed. Unofficial border crossings are common and assisted by the geography of the Qandil Mountain range in the tri-border area between Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Meanwhile. on the western frontier, the northern Syrian-Iraqi border has lost resemblance of a state regulated boundary and is now controlled by Kurdish forces located in Iraq and Syria. These factors have led to a situation whereby Kurdish armed forces are able to cross boundaries frequently and undocumented.
Kurdish forces are prevalent in extraordinary variety resembling both uniformed organized armies and civilian clothed militias. Despite transnational coordination, any formal joining of Kurdish forces has yet to be witnessed. Additionally, Kurdish militias often level accusations towards each other of poor tactical decision making. Furthermore, recent weeks have seen an uptick clashes between rival Kurdish militias.
- In Iraq, the most notable transnational force is the Peshmerga from the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) located in the north of the country. KRG Peshmerga are essentially the national army of Iraqi Kurdistan and the most official of all Kurdish fighting forces. After the fall of Saddam in 2003, the Peshmerga were the second largest fighting force in Iraq after the U.S. military. That being said, Peshmerga are increasingly centralized but are still divided between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
- Originating in Turkey , the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has also participated in ongoing fighting against IS with the military wing known as the People’s Defense Force (HPG). The PKK have a history of armed conflict with the Turkish government and have brought battle experienced fighters to the frontlines against IS. The PKK has long been a transnational force with a history of training base in the Korkmaz camp at the once controlled Syrian Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. At present, PKK camps are prevalent in the mountainous tri-border region between Iran, Turkey, and Iraq.
- In the western Kurdish regions of Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has emerged as the dominant Kurdish group fighting IS in Syria. The People's Protection Units (YPG) and subgroup the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) are the armed groups associated witht the PYD.
- From Iran, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) have reportedly sent contingents to aid in the fight against ISIS. The majority of Iranian Kurds have been located in the region of Kirkurk. PJAK has a history of armed struggle against Iranian government forces. Another group that has reportedly sent contingents to fight IS is the Organization of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan (Komala).
The majority of transnational Kurdish operations are defensive and counter-offensive, rarely venturing beyond the regions designated by Kurds to be historic territory. Kurdish forces have allied on a number of campaigns including joint although uncoordinated missions. A few noteworthy campaigns are the following, all of which were successful on behalf of the Kurdish forces.
- Beginning in December 2014 a counter-offensive against IS involving KRG Peshmerga, PKK, and YPG forces occurred in the Mt. Sinjar region.
- KRG Peshmerga, PKK, and PJAK units have been reported in fighting against IS in the Kirkuk region of Iraq.
- KDPI and KRG Peshmerga have reportedly fought alongside in the city of Gwer in December of 2014.
- Kurdish factions from the KRG-PKK-PYD allied in the January-February 2015 fight against IS in the northern Syrian city of Kobane. KRG Peshmerga have reportedly given the YPG mortar fire support in the fight against IS in Rojava.
Kurdish factions have proven to be a one of the few forces capable delivering territorial blows to IS. Meanwhile, the armed networks built between Kurdish factions of the Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey will likely strengthen. As the power makeup of the Middle East continues to evolve, newly empowered transnational Kurdish militias will continue to play a more significant role.