Fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have been in the thick of the battle in Iraqi Kurdistan against the so-called Islamic State – the Al Qaeda offshoot that now holds significant chunks of territory in northern Iraq and in Syria.
The PKK is a separatist group that has long fought the Turkish government in an effort to carve out an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey. PKK members have long lived in a refugee camp in Makhmour, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan that earlier this month was the front line in a battle to prevent an IS advance on Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital.
Sharp fighting, aided by US airstrikes, managed to stem the IS advance, at least for now. And in recent weeks US military advisers have been in Baghdad and Erbil, trying to coordinate efforts by the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Kurds peshmerga fighters to craft a joint strategy for taking on IS. France has promised to send weapons to Iraq's peshmerga and the UK is also moving to arm the Iraqi Kurds.
Reporters in Iraqi Kurdistan have spotted PKK fighters working with the peshmerga near Makhmour, and elsewhere, in recent weeks, so it's likely that some of the foreign support will end up in their hands. The Obama administration is likely to use airstrikes again if IS threatens Erbil or other Kurdish population centers.
What this means, wittingly or unwittingly, is that the Obama administration has been effectively working with the PKK. A problem? Well, Ankara might complain, but the situation was desperate, and losing large chunks of Iraqi Kurdistan, long the most stable corner of Iraq, would be a disaster from almost everyone's perspective.
But the PKK is also a designated a "Foreign Terrorist Organization" by the US, and has been since 1997. What this means is that any assistance to the group by the US is illegal. A Financial Times reporter spoke with PKK fighters yesterday in Erbil, who left little doubt about the group's growing role in Iraqi Kurdistan.
"Our support is just as important for the peshmerga as these US strikes – bombings alone can’t get rid of guerrilla groups – we know from personal experience,” says Sedar Botan, a female PKK commander who came with seven units from the group’s stronghold in the Qandil mountains to help secure Makhmour, a strategic point between the regional capital Erbil and the oil rich Kirkuk province. “We will keep fighting until all of Kurdistan is safe.”
..."This is the first time we have military co-operation with the peshmerga, and we plan to increase it,” says PKK commander Tekoshar Zagros, speaking from the group’s hilltop base overlooking the plains beyond Makhmour, as white smoke from Kurdish rocket fire rises up from below.
Here's how the State Department explains the ramifications of designating a group a "terrorist" organization:
It is unlawful for a person in the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to knowingly provide "material support or resources" to a designated FTO. (The term "material support or resources" is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 2339A(b)(1) as " any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safehouses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel (1 or more individuals who maybe or include oneself), and transportation, except medicine or religious materials.” 18 U.S.C. § 2339A(b)(2) provides that for these purposes “the term ‘training’ means instruction or teaching designed to impart a specific skill, as opposed to general knowledge.” 18 U.S.C. § 2339A(b)(3) further provides that for these purposes the term ‘expert advice or assistance’ means advice or assistance derived from scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge.’’
Presumably the US government can do things that a US "person" cannot. And most people would agree that if the US has an important interest in stemming the advance of IS in Iraq, ignoring the niceties of the FTO designation is the right thing to do.
But this should shine a light, perhaps, on the expansive nature of the terrorist designation list itself, and that in times like this, it makes the US government look like hypocrites, with the constant proclamations that "terrorists" are never to be dealt with and must be destroyed.
The PKK, whose ideology is a bland of ethno-nationalism and Marxism, isn't a group of sweethearts. In the 1990s they used terrorist tactics against the Turkish government both inside the country and in Western Europe. As recently as 2012 the group took responsibility for a suicide car-bombing that killed a Turkish policeman in Pinarbasi. In 2009, the US Treasury Department accused three senior PKK leaders of being heavily involved in international narcotics trafficking, and the US says the group funds its activities by transporting heroin into Europe.
The group has long used Iraqi Kurdistan as a safe haven, and Turkish forces have periodically conducted airstrikes inside Iraqi Kurdish territory against the group, as recently as 2012. But the group has toned down its efforts in Turkey substantially since 2013, when a cease-fire was declared and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan opened up peace talks with Ankara. Thousands of PKK fighters withdrew to Iraqi Kurdistan that year.
Are the US and its allies doing the wrong thing in northern Iraq? It's an ugly situation, and sometimes you have to work with people you don't like in service of a greater goal.
But it's worth remembering that while there's a State Department list of "terrorists," not all terrorists are created equal, and the US can and does work with such groups when it thinks necessity demands.