Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Kurds aren’t always the good guys

Foreign fighters who join armed Kurdish groups become hostage to their political agenda.

Photo: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr
Photo: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr

I have written recently about the recklessness of Kurdish leaders in staging their independence referendum. Rather than advance the Kurdish cause, it has probably set it back years, if not decades. Despite its laudable efforts against Islamic State, the Kurdish Regional Government has demonstrated how its tactical prowess exceeds its strategic. This Financial Times article provides a good insight into the thinking that may have ed President Masoud Barzani to hold his expensive referendum.

Last week presented another example of a lack of strategic sense from Kurdish groups. As part of the post-victory celebrations following the defeat of Islamic State in their former Syrian capital of Raqqa, the Kurdish women’s unit within the YPG displayed and photographed themselves in front of a giant mural of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder of the proscribed Kurdish terrorist group PKK. Further social media posts have emerged of other YPG members singing the praises of Öcalan and his ideology.

The US-led coalition provided extensive military, logistic and financial support to the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which fought in Raqqa, and told everyone who wanted to hear that it was a mixed Kurdish-Arab force without ties to the PKK. Yet a single photo has allowed Turkey to further its claim that the US-supported YPG is simply the Syrian franchise of the PKK. The coalition criticised the actions of the Kurds involved, but the Turkish government was having none of it. The pro-government press has been unrelenting in its criticism of the Kurds and the Americans. 

It is worth pausing here to say something regarding the Australians who have volunteered to fight with Kurdish groups. The popular misconception is that the Kurds themselves have only one aim, to defeat Islamic State, and beyond that they are apolitical. By joining Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, Australians are simply doing what the Australian government is doing: fighting Islamic State. But when one joins armed Kurdish groups (or any other such groups, for that matter), one becomes hostage to their political agenda as well. They also become hostage to Kurdish military demands; the units in which they end up in will be employed wherever and whenever required.

Australians who think fighting for the Kurds should put them above the law are arrogant, naïve or both. The former Northern Territory Labor Party President Matthew Gardiner, who it is believed tried to join or did join the Kurds in Syria in 2015, has previously asked 'why is the law written so if an Australian helps the Kurds they are treated as criminals?’. Another Australian, Ashley Dyball, who fought with the Kurdish YPG in Syria, was the focus of a favourable 60 Minutes story. During a later ABC interview he said '(the government) say we can't fight for (the YPG), but yet you fund them…if I'm the bad guy, then f***ing charge me’. A third man, Jamie Williams, was arrested at the airport intending to join the YPG in Syria, but the charges were dropped on the direction of Attorney-General George Brandis without further explanation. ‘I think it is ridiculous to be honest. The Kurds are an ally of Australia. ISIS are an enemy of the world. For somebody to be prosecuted for trying to do something — whatever little they can — about this is absurd to me,’ Williams said.

The media coverage and the YPG volunteer narratives pay scant attention to the fact that the Kurds have fought against several groups in Syria during the conflict, including the Syrian military, the Turkish military, the Free Syrian Army (which accused them of coordinating with the Assad regime), and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups. Amnesty International has also criticised the YPG for its activities in areas it has conquered.

The complexity of the Syrian conflict and the multiple agendas of Kurdish groups fighting there illustrate just how difficult an operating environment it is. It is simplistic to simply declare that Australian forces are supporting Kurdish fighters and that Kurdish fighters are against Islamic State, so Australians should be allowed to join Kurdish armed groups. No conflict exists in a vacuum, least of all the Syrian one.

The Australian government doesn’t allow its citizen to fight for non-state actors, either proscribed or otherwise, because there is no guarantee that the roles they envisage themselves filling will be the actual roles they perform, or that the groups they thought they would fight are the ones they end up fighting. Foreign fighters perform the roles they’re assigned, and fight the people their chosen group fights. They may be groups the Australian government is operating against, or they may not be. The foreign fighter has no choice, as either the armed group itself, or circumstances, may conspire to change the operating environment rapidly.

War is rarely simple, civil war even less so. One image taken in far-off Raqqa has reinforced the utility of the law that forbids Australians fighting for non-state or semi-state actors. It is a law that should be applied to Australians who have travelled to fight for the Kurds.

You may also be interested in