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ISIS' Toughest Enemy Should Be Taken Off America's Terrorist List

Ahmed Deeb/AFP/Getty Images

In Syria, the American-led coalition has provided air support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG) as they march into the Raqqa Governate and liberate the strategically important ISIS city of Tal Abyad. So far the YPG have proved much more effective than the U.S.-created Iraqi Army which, despite their superior weapons, has been unable to mount much resistance. But America has kept its distance from the YPG, ignoring their requests for weapons to counter the U.S.-made ones ISIS is using, preferring to gloss over the Iraqi Army’s defeats and treat the “Kurdish militias” as minor actors in the conflict. This is because the American government still thinks the YPG are terrorists

Now, the State Department doesn’t really think the YPG are terrorists: In addition to the airstrikes—which the Pentagon has not-denied are actively coordinated with the YPG—there are American volunteers fighting in the YPG’s ranks (including Massachusetts native Keith Broomfield, who was the first U.S. volunteer to lose his life), and State has yet to take any action against them. American strikes defended the Kurdish city of Kobane in January, and we applauded the YPG when they ended the battle victorious. The surprisingly successful campaign for Tal Abyad is a boon for all anti-ISIS efforts in the region, and now the Kurds are said to be turning their attention south to the Islamic State’s capital, Raqqa. For most intents and purposes, the YPG is an important ally. So what makes them terrorists?

The YPG themselves aren’t on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, but the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is. The PKK was founded as a Marxist Kurdish national liberation organization, and fought a decades-long on-again off-again insurgency against the Turkish state. Because Kurdistan stretches across four countries (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria), the PKK has various affiliated organizations outside Turkey. The YPG is the military wing of the Syrian group, which administers a band of territory across northern Syria; a number of PKK cadres have crossed the border to join in the fight against ISIS. If the PKK are terrorists, then the YPG are too.

But are the PKK terrorists? In the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK engaged in a Maoist strategy of “People’s War” and direct confrontation with state authorities, including bombings that killed civilians. Like other national liberation movements of the time, such as the Irish Republican Army and South Africa’s African National Congress, violence was one front in the PKK’s liberation struggle. But where the IRA and ANC were successful and eventually integrated into the political process, Kurds remain the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. Turkey has continued negotiating, however, and in March 2013 the PKK declared a ceasefire.

Now, according to the PKK’s imprisoned founder/leader Abdullah Ocalan, the organization no longer fights for a Kurdish state. Instead, they’ve adopted the ideology of “democratic confederalism,” which holds that the state is an oppressive, masculinist construct. They’re fighting ISIS in the name of pluralism, feminism, and, of all things, the environment. As democratic confederalists, the PKK and its many affiliates are different in their ideology and strategy than they were in 1997 when they were added to the State Department terror list. They are no longer even technically separatists. The American government admitted as much when, in October of last year, State Department spokesman Jen Psaki confirmed that State had engaged for the first time in direct talks with the PYD, the YPG’s political wing. As for the YPG’s request for American military hardware: “We certainly are aware it’s a question,” Psaki said.

Informed by Marxism, traditional forms of Kurdish organization, municipalist anarchism, and 20th-century radical feminism, democratic confederalism is an attempt to move beyond the colonial state system that has caused havoc in the Middle East. In the ’90s, “there seemed to be only one viable solution: the creation of a nation-state, which was the paradigm of the capitalist modernity at that time,” Ocalan writes. “We did not believe, however, that any ready-made political blueprints would be able to sustainably improve the situation of the people in the Middle East. Had it not been nationalism and nation-states which had created so many problems in the Middle East?” Now they have abandoned that drive for recognition under the state system, pursuing instead a program of localized cooperative self-administration—including self-defense.

Still, NATO member Turkey has the last word on the PKK, and that word is “No.” Last week the EU voted down a proposal to remove the PKK from its terror list, angering some left-wing deputies. “We cannot rely on the PKK in the war against ISIS and at the same time call it terrorist. It’s a double standard,” Dutch Socialist Party MP Harry van Bommel told the Middle East news outlet Rudaw. But that seems to be exactly the West’s plan. Meanwhile, the PKK’s allies are advancing even within Turkish politics. Traditionally blacklisted, a new left-wing Kurdish party (the HDP) made the ballot and reached the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. Now the Kurdish freedom movement has their own Turkish MPs, who will agitate from the inside for Ocalan’s release and peace with the PKK. The Party has begun to integrate, if not into the state system then at least alongside it.

Perhaps America would be more eager to cozy up to the YPG if Ocalan and the Kurdish freedom movement were a little less radically imaginative. In Northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party is a close U.S. ally, even though it’s headed by a wealthy accused oil-smuggler who inherited the party leader job directly from his father. If America wants a predictable Middle East, then the democratic confederalists who call for “divorce from the five thousand years old culture of male domination” and the abolition of class society may not be the best bet. Their ideology is too progressive for the American mainstream to contemplate seriously, even as it plays a major role in contemporary geopolitics. 

As ISIS has expanded their self-declared caliphate, they have run head-on into the Kurdish democratic confederalist project. The PYD and the YPG control a region of Syria called Rojava, and it’s smack dab in the way of the Islamic State’s expansionist plans. Most observers, including the Pentagon, expected the Kurds and their Soviet weapons to fold when ISIS besieged Kobane. But against all odds, the highly disciplined protection forces drove the invaders from the town, and now the YPG is pushing hard into ISIS territory. After the fall of Tal Abyad, the United States must concede that the YPG is an important actor in the region, and a much tougher one than America’s official proxies in the Iraqi Army, which even President Obama says has an issue with “the will to fight.”

Basic logic says one of the following is true: Either the PKK are not terrorists and they should be removed from the State Department list, or the same State Department is publicly admitting to direct talks with a terrorist organization with an eye toward possibly arming them. Whether or not the United States ends up sending anti-tank weapons to the YPG, the list of foreign terrorist organizations shouldn’t just be an index of groups America hasn’t found it convenient to arm yet. It’s time to delist the PKK.