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Once a terrorist, always a terrorist? PKK vs. ISIL

Roslyn Fuller
Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is the author of Ireland’s leading textbook on International Law ‘Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective’ (Round Hall, 2013). In addition to her academic work, she has also writes for the Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Journal on topics of law, politics and education. Roslyn has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Way” (October 2015, Zed Books). She tweets at @roslynfuller and can be reached at fullerr@tcd.ie.
Once a terrorist, always a terrorist? PKK vs. ISIL
As the Battle for the city of Kobani continues, just whose side are we on?

There is a famous scene from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' in which several knights must answer a bridge keeper’s questions or face being cast into “The Gorge of Eternal Peril.” The questions humorously range from “What is the capital of Assyria?” to “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?” to “What is your favorite color?”

“Blue,” the knight in question instantly responds, before screaming “No, yellow!” as he’s chucked into the gorge for the audience’s amusement.

This is about the level we are at in determining just who is and who isn’t a terrorist, these days. The knee jerk reaction reigns. Fighting against Assad in Syria? Freedom fighter. No, wait. Terrorist. No, wait. Is this a trick question? Nothing illustrates this quantum state of international relations quite so well as the ongoing battle at Kobani. Leaving aside the grisly voyeurism of the world gathering round to watch the Kurds and ISIL go at each other in the first place, let’s look at who these two sides are.

In the blue corner, is ISIL, ISIS, IS, or whatever they choose to call themselves next week. According to the US State Department, ISIL has been on its Foreign Terrorist Organizations Listsince 2004, but somehow in the excitement over the Western-sanctioned freedom-fighting-fest in Syria, it was overlooked that ISIL received quite a lot of money fromdonorsin Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who were able to avoid the UN’s anti-terrorism finance measures with remarkable ease. It was almost as if no one were really trying to enforce those rules in regards to ISIL or other jihadist groups engaged against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Then for as yet unclear reasons, ISIL went rogue, cut a swath through Iraq and everyone suddenly remembered that they are not freedom fighters but terrorists.

Our favorite color isn’t blue, it’s yellow!

We don’t like ISIL, we like…Kurds!

The Kurds currently battling ISIL for the city of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border are almost always referred to in the Western media rather ambiguously as “Kurdish forces” or “Kurdish fighters.”

I am significantly younger than most of the people spinning out such phrases, which means that I am still more than old enough to remember a time when “Kurdish fighter” meant one thing – PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. As the name implies, the PKK is an armed group that strives to establish an independent Kurdish State, a socialist one with economic equality and labor rights and all that jazz. To this end, the PKK was fairly active in the suicide bombing and embassy attack line through the 1980s. This eventually landed them on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 1997, a full seven years ahead of ISIL, their soviet godlessness and program of gender equality apparently not having been considered as sufficiently mitigating points.

Both ISIL and the PKK remain on this list and many similar ones around the world.

However, there have been some differences in their treatment. While it is, apparently simply impossible to prevent Gulf sympathizers from funding ISIL despite a worldwide surveillance and financial tracking system ostensibly designed to prevent exactly this, bringing down anyone who even dares to publicly side with the PKK and their pipe dreams of a State where they can speak their own language while earning a decent wage seems to be a lot easier.

Take the example of Roj TV, a Kurdish language channel operating from Denmark. According to a US Embassy cablereleased by WikiLeaks, in 2009 Danish authorities’ promised Turkey to try to bring down the Roj TV station in return for Turkey “not blocking former PM Rasmussen's appointment as NATO secretary general.” Danish authorities had tried to pin tax irregularities on the station’s operators in the past only to be foiled by their frustratingly “open and cooperative attitude” to being audited. However, the Danes were still hopeful that they could have Roj TV’s license revoked on an allegation that they were not providing balanced coverage in regards to the PKK. In this, the Danes were not alone, but closely co-operating with American intelligence, as well as Belgian, German and French authorities, all doing their best “to think creatively about ways to disrupt or close the station, should criminal prosecution prove unachievable in the short term.” Roj TV, unable to withstand this combined onslaught iscurrently inoperativepending a court decision. So, in order to deserve this kind of vindictive and opportunistic grinding into the dust, where the law is no bar to persecution, the PKK must be really, really awful. Enemies for life, one would think.

And that’s why the Kurds at Kobani are officially “Kurdish fighters", "Kurdish forces,” or “Peshmerga.” After all, the entire time that the PKK and all who speak of them have been hunted over hill and dale, lest someone as useful as former Danish Prime Minister and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen suffer a career setback. Kurds, in general, have been portrayed as the innocent victims of Saddam Hussein and, of course, now Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. This is particularly true of the Kurds of northern Iraq, who, after a long history of repression, suddenly found themselves in the right place at the right time. The regional government of Iraq’s predominately Kurdish territories has proven quite pragmatic and is busily shipping oil to Turkey,Chevron and Exxon Mobil,Hungary, and possibly evenIsraelat discount prices. The fact that this means they are technically selling off Iraqi national resources without being authorized to do so is a fact rarely alluded to in Western media, which prefers to focus on the pluses of life in what is already being termed “Kurdistan,” where thanks to oil revenues you can now own a million dollar apartment, provided, of course, that you also own a million dollars.

It’s these Kurds and their armed forces, the Peshmerga, that one tends to think of at Kobani. There’s only one problem with this. Iraqi Peshmerga forces (all 150 of them) arrived in Kobani on Saturday the 1st of November, mainly at the insistence of Western powers that strong-armed a reluctant Turkish government into letting them in. The battle for Kobani has been going on since mid-September. The specific Kurds that have been holding down the fort are mainly the YPG (Syrian-Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” and the militant wing of the Syrian Kurdish PYD). The YPG is considered by many sources to be a wing of the PKK, orallied to the PKK, while PYD members have denied the connection but referred to jail PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalanas their leader. The PKK itself issued a call to its members tojoin the fightat Kobani and Al-Jazeera has covered incidents of known PKK fighters having beenkilled in the battlethere.

So, to recap here: Peshmerga – good; YPG – too new to be on a terrorism list, so good, except for kind of having something to do with PKK; PKK – initially bad, but now maybe good?; ISIL – bad, then good, then definitely bad again; Roj TV, judging by the action taken against it, apparently the most dangerous party in all of this.

The lack of a uniform narrative stems from a sudden reconsideration of the regional situation. Having been asked about our favorite color, we’ve said, “Blue!” very firmly, because it sounded like the quickest way to get what we wanted, but now we are thinking, “Wait. Maybe yellow makes more sense.” The decision hasn’t been made yet, so anything could happen. Turkish authorities are even talkingto the imprisoned PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalan, who apparently is willing to stop being a socialist and become a proper freedom fighter who knows his way around an oil pipeline.

Could this all end in a free Kurdistan with Ocalan in the role of Nelson Mandela (once also, of course, an erstwhile terrorist with a socialist platform)? Are the Peshmerga being sent into Kobani so that they, or at least the ambiguous “Kurdish fighter,” can be credited with whatever successes against ISIS may be found there? Is the entire ISIS vs. Kurds scenario a convenient way of allowing ISIS and the PKK/YPG to destroy each other? Will an independent Kurdistan be formed in Northern Iraq, while Kurds elsewhere get short shrift, having dared to pick up a weapon while holding the wrong set of beliefs about social justice?

Whatever the outcome is, the official narrative will someday show that whatever happened it was consistent, and even inevitable, all along. After all, who remembers that Nelson Mandela was getting money for weapons off Gaddafi these days?

However, behind that convenient façade lies a deep problem. By conducting foreign policy on a level of inconsistency that even Monty Python couldn’t accept, we ensure that we embark on an endless cycle of violence that ignores any existing law on the situation as a matter of expediency and coats it over with a layer of moralizing absolutism. One minute someone is trying to shaft you for forgetting to file a receipt and the next minute you’re a glorious freedom fighter. It’s a level of instability that makes progress impossible, compromise infeasible and political instability inevitable. Indeed, our perpetual inconstancy in the quest to find an unrealistic Holy Grail of simple “good guy/bad guy” foreign policy is exactly what lands us again and again in the Gorge of Eternal Peril.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.