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Rescue of Swedish girl held by ISIS highlights role of Iraqi Kurds

The rescue of a 16-year-old Swedish girl by Iraqi Kurds highlights the differences among Kurdish groups and their varying degrees of cooperation with other countries. 

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    Street vendors take cover as Turkish riot police use a water cannon to disperse Kurdish demonstrators during a protest against the curfew in Sur district, in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey on Sunday.
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Iraqi Kurdish anti-terrorist forces rescued a 16-year-old Swedish girl from the Islamic State in Iraq, near Mosul, on Feb. 17.

The Swedish government asked the Kurdish Regional Government, which leads an semi-autonomous northern region, to help rescue Marlin Stivani Nivarlain.

“She [Nivarlain] is currently in the Kurdistan Region and is provided the care afforded to her under international law,” said the Kurdistan Region Security Council in a statement. “She will be transferred to Swedish authorities to return home once necessary arrangements are put place.”

The Associated Press reports that Nivarlain left a foster home in Sweden with her 19-year-old boyfriend in May, 2015, when she was just 15 herself. The teenagers were married in Sweden earlier that year, without their parents’ knowledge. By August, Nivarlain was reportedly six months pregnant.

Both Nivarlain and her boyfriend were originally recruited by a group with Al Qaeda ties, but were both captured in Aleppo, Syria, by ISIS fighters. Nivarlain’s boyfriend was then forced to fight for the terrorist group, while Nivarlain remained behind with a group of women.

At one point, another woman gave Nivarlain a cell phone, which she used to call her parents several times.

"I spoke to her yesterday and found out she has been moved to a group of women – she is not allowed to be with her boyfriend because they aren't considered married by IS,” said Nivarlain’s mother. “She was very sad and very scared."

Somehow, Nivarlain eventually ended up near the ISIS-held city of Mosul, in Iraq. Her rescue by Iraqi Kurdish troops is a reminder that although there are many different Kurdish groups in the Middle East, some more willing to cooperate with Western allies than others.

The recent history of the Kurdish people is complex. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish ethnic group was dispersed among four countries: Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Of the four, Turkey has the greatest number of Kurdish citizens, about 15 million. Turkey is also the country that has the most difficult relationship between the government and the Kurdish population. Syria has the smallest number of Kurds, with a population of just 1.7 million, but there is an active fighting presence there. 

The Kurds may lack a nation, but they do not lack a national identity.

“The Kurdish population is no different than the American population,” says Dr. Tad Oelstrom, the director of the National Security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It is not an easily done thing to pinpoint geographic differences.”

Although imperfect, perhaps the easiest way to draw distinctions is geographic. On Feb. 22, The Washington Post published a decoder to help readers understand the differences among the Middle East’s numerous Kurdish groups.

The most notorious Kurds, members of Turkey’s PKK (or Kurdistan Workers’ Party), have been labeled “terrorists” by the United States, the EU, and Turkey. Turkey has engaged in a bitter, decades-long struggle against the PKK, despite their mutual opposition to ISIS.

Today, even though groups like the PKK; and its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD); its fighting branch, the YPG; and the all-female YPJ all bear the "terrorist" label, they are major actors in the fight against ISIS. For that reason, the United States has provided some support to the anti-ISIS group, People's Protection Units (YPG) .

How does the United States justify its continued support for the YPG in light of the Syrian group’s close ties to the PKK, which the United States continues to label a terrorist group?

“The United States needs the YPG to fight the Islamic State,” says Henri Barkey, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East program, “The US says, yes, they have close links to the PKK, but the leadership is different, which is the most important thing.”

In recent month, tensions between factions have become more pronounced, as the UN attempts to coordinate peace talks among major players in the Syrian civil war. Russia supported the PYD’s involvement in the Syrian peace talks as part of the opposition delegation, but the government responded by calling the group “not real opposition.”

“We went along with the Turks,” says Dr. Barkey, “and we did not support that [Russia’s claim that the PYD should be represented on the opposition delegation], but we allowed our special coordinator to go into YPG territory. It was a way of having our cake and eating it too.”

According to Mr. Oelstrom at Harvard, “the Kurds in Iraq have been peaceful, but have also been given credit for military operations against ISIS.” Iraqi Kurdish militias are called “peshmerga,” and they have been deeply involved in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile, despite tensions between Turkey and Syria and their Kurdish populations, Iraq’s province of Kurdistan has a good relationship with Turkey.

“They are a pro-Turkish government because the Turkish government has invested in Northern Iraq,” says Barkey, “There is a very deep economic relationship.”

According to Barkey, Iraq’s Kurdish population is likely more sympathetic to Turkish and Syrian Kurds than its own government.

Iraq’s Kurdish government is more conservative and religious, Barkey says in a phone interview, than its Syrian and Turkish cousins, which have been comparatively left wing and secular.

Yet although Kurdistan has a reputation for stability, there are cracks appearing in that image. The Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are at political odds and command different fighting groups, though they work together in the region’s ruling coalition.

“Already the front line against ISIS is very fragmented,” Kurdish expert Gareth Stansfield told The Washington Post, “If you’re an ISIS commander, you are sure to be watching from afar and looking for weak spots.”

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