Kurdish groups from Iraq and three neighbouring countries are putting aside old rivalries to battle jihadist militants, but there are cracks in this newly-forged unity and it may not last.
Fighters from the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group have marauded through large areas of Iraq and Syria, sparking alarm across the region and international concerns that they may export the violence to the West.
With Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan and parts of Syria on the frontlines of the IS aggression, fighters from the two countries have been joined in their battle against the jihadists by Kurds from Turkey and Iran, both of which also have large Kurdish populations.
But their alliance is still paper-thin, and it remains to be seen what if anything it will yield long-term.
The Islamic State “is our common enemy… facing their terror has brought us together,” said Hamir Kamal Alaa, a senior official from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the three main Kurdish parties in Iraq.
“The danger posed by (IS) is huge, and it is necessary for us to cooperate,” he told AFP at a mountain-top Kurdish position.
– No merging of forces –
But while the various Kurdish forces are all fighting IS, they remain independent and operate alone on some fronts.
“Militarily, one can say the different groups are together against (IS), but there is no merging of the various forces at all,” Kurdish expert and activist Massoud Akko told AFP via Skype.
“Each force has its separate leadership with its own agenda.”
Prior to the current crisis, Kurdish groups from the four countries have operated alone to fulfil independent agendas, each considering itself to be the legitimate representative of the Kurdish people.
But, according to Akko, “the fact that all the groups are fighting means that (IS) is forced to fight on several fronts.”
“However strong a military force (IS) is, this makes it weaker.”
He added: “This harmony may be temporary, and it is a fruit of the current situation. As a Kurd, I hope it lasts, but things might change in future.”
– ‘Now, things are different’ –
Iraqi Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, are fighting the jihadists on several fronts in Iraq, backed by US air strikes and international arms and ammunition shipments.
Syrian Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), meanwhile, are battling jihadists inside Syria. They also helped secure the evacuation of thousands of Yazidis trapped by jihadists on Mount Sinjar in Iraq.
“Before this crisis, there had been (problems) between the peshmerga and the YPG. But now, things are different,” said Siamand Othman, who mans the Syrian side of the border crossing with Iraq at Fishkhabur.
Turkish Kurds from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have for their part fought against the jihadists in the Makhmur area of Iraq, with assistance from the peshmerga.
“The peshmerga were positioned behind the mountain, helping from there and sending us weapons,” PKK fighter Renas Marwan said in Makhmur.
The PKK, which has long had bases in northern Iraq, launched an insurgency for self-rule in Turkey in 1984 and has been listed as a terrorist group by countries including the United States, but began peace talks in 2012.
And the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan — an Iranian Kurdish group that has battled Tehran’s troops — announced in a statement that it would deploy forces to flashpoint Jalawla, an eastern Iraqi town that Kurdish forces are fighting to retake from jihadists.
– Future of unity unclear –
Even if the fragile unity lasts, it is unclear what it may eventually yield or whether it will bring the Kurds any closer to realising their long-held dream of having a state of their own.
While Iraqi Kurds have a large autonomous region and those in Syria also have territory that is largely under their control, the same is not true in Turkey and Iran, and any move toward creating an independent Kurdish state is likely to be opposed by the governments of all four countries.
“We Kurds have a dream… but the drama of the Kurdish movements is that they are hungry for power,” Akef Hassan, a Syrian Kurdish political activist, said in the Iraqi city of Arbil.
“At the military level, (the IS) offensive has forced the groups to work together. But unity in war is easier than in peacetime,” Sherwan Ibrahim, another veteran Syrian Kurdish activist, said alongside Hassan.
“Underneath the cooperation, I suspect that the divisions continue,” a Western diplomat said, adding that “they are very deep divisions”.
“If the question is, are they going to come together and help form a Kurdish nation, I don’t think that’s going to be the result.”