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Australia is keen to aid the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State, but less keen to admit we deem them terrorists at home. By Mike Seccombe.

Kurds targetted at home now key allies in fight against IS

Members of Sydney’s Kurdish community at a rally to express support for the people of Kobane in the fight to repel IS.
Credit: Newzulu

The raids started before dawn. State and federal police targeted multiple locations in multiple cities around the country, looking for Australian supporters of Middle Eastern terrorists.

These were not the raids of four weeks ago, which involved a reported 800 police and have resulted – so far – in exactly one man being charged with a terrorism-related offence. They were another, even more anti-climactic, and far less justifiable, counterterrorism operation four years ago.

On August 19, 2010, heavily armed police descended on 17 sites in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. They took away large hauls of files, books and computers from business premises and private houses, and left behind scores of shocked and angry Muslim Australians. It was a very dramatic media event.

But the whole operation also proved to be an enormous, costly fizzer. The police found no evidence of a crime. No one was ever charged.

The salient point about the 2010 raids, however, was not their large scale or singular lack of success. It was their target: Australian Kurds.

“People were terrified. In some places the police even used dogs,” recalls Mahmut Kahraman, the spokesperson for the Kurdish Association of Australia.

“But we are not terrorists. I would like to tell this to my fellow Australians. Kurdish people are secular, democratic and multicultural. We believe in human rights, women’s rights, equality and social justice. We are not like the radical groups. The values we support are not different from Australian values.”

Raids a pre-election election stunt

Now, as Australia gets itself bogged down in yet another war in the Middle East, it is worth going back over the circumstances leading up to those raids, for what they can tell us about political expediency and naivety in our handling of perceived terrorist threats, and about the adequacy or otherwise of our understanding of the complexities of Middle East politics.

The putative reason for the operation was that members of the Kurdish community were suspected of sending money to support the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group the Australian government had in 2005 designated a terrorist organisation.

However, there is reason to suspect the raids were a political stunt. They happened just two days before the 2010 election and in the wake of vigorous lobbying by the Kurdish associations of New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia to have the PKK taken off the list of terrorist groups – coincidentally the same groups that were raided.

In a virulent submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, these groups suggested that the PKK’s activities in Turkey should be considered in the light of the Turkish government’s “oppression, prosecution, genocide, ethnic displacement, torture, rape and murder” of Kurds over decades.

Certainly Chris Ryan and Rob Stary, lawyers who acted for the Kurdish subjects of the raids, believe the police action was politically motivated.

Ryan, at the time the principal lawyer for Melbourne’s Moreland Community Legal Centre, which represented the Kurdish Association of Victoria, recalls that about a week before the raids the centre received a rare visit from then attorney-general Robert McClelland, in company with the local Labor member, Kelvin Thomson.

Ryan says he had words with the minister about the proscription of the PKK, and complained that members of the community felt threatened as a result.

Whatever the real reasons for the raids, one thing we can be sure of is that they had nothing to do with any imminent terrorist threat to Australia. The police said as much at the time.

Why PKK are listed terrorists

The bigger question is why the PKK was ever put on the list of proscribed organisations in the first place. And there is even stronger evidence to suggest that was driven by politics.

The decision to list an organisation as a terrorist group is supposed to be one for the attorney-general, acting on a threat assessment provided by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

But the precipitating event for the PKK being declared a terrorist organisation appears to have been a visit to Australia by the then prime minister (now president) of Turkey, Recep Erdoğan, from December 6-10, 2005. It was a week later, on December 17, that the PKK was listed.

No doubt it posed – and still poses – a threat within Turkey, where conflict between the state and the PKK has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives, mostly Kurdish, over the past three decades. But it certainly does not meet the usual test for inclusion on the list of proscribed organisations in Australia. The PKK’s listing has been controversial ever since. In 2006, after the joint committee on intelligence and security reviewed the listing and ASIO’s evidence about the PKK’s activities, two committee members, Duncan Kerr and John Faulkner, issued a minority report calling for the government to reassess the proscription.

The joint committee is a heavyweight and serious institution, not given to the petty partisanship that attends most deliberations in Canberra. Faulkner, Labor’s elder statesman of the senate, and Kerr, now a Federal Court judge, are serious players. Theirs is believed to be the only such dissenting report in the history of the committee.

Faulkner and Kerr argued that the PKK represented no threat to Australia and that its banning posed a “potentially catastrophic community impact on persons of Kurdish origin in Australia” who might be treated as terrorists, simply for supporting a group they saw “not as a terrorist organisation but as a legitimate national liberation movement”.

In another review of the proscription in 2012, ASIO itself conceded: “There are no known PKK links to Australia [and] no known direct threats from the PKK to Australian interests.”

It is abundantly clear then that the reason the PKK was put on the list was to appease the Turks. Australia did it, as the United States and European Union did shortly before us, because relations between the Turkish and Western governments had deteriorated sharply in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Turkey feared that the fall of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a safe haven for the Kurds in northern Iraq could provide added impetus for the long-repressed Kurds in Turkey to also assert their independence. And Turkey has been resisting Kurdish independence, often brutally, for the better part of a century.

They had some reason for concern. For two decades previous, Western governments including Australia’s had largely steered clear of the Turkey/PKK conflict for a couple of reasons. First, because the PKK presented no threat to them. Second, because the PKK was a classic manifestation of the old saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Turkey had a long and sometimes brutal history of oppressing the Kurds stretching back almost 100 years, and was seen to be reaping what it had sown via the equally brutal tactics of the PKK.

But after the Iraq war, that changed. In order to keep Turkey onside as we set about the quixotic task of rebuilding the Iraqi state, we determined that we would declare the Turks’ enemy to be ours also.

Fast forward to the present, and the PKK is still a proscribed terrorist organisation. This is despite the fact that its battle-hardened fighters, along with various other Kurdish forces to which they are allied, have proved to be the only effective ground forces in the fight against our enemy du jour, the one that calls itself the Islamic State, and which we variously call ISIS, ISIL, SIC, Da’esh, or simply, when we want to be particularly emotive, a “death cult”.

Kurds the effective opponents of IS

Consider just one of the many examples of the PKK’s effectiveness: when the fighters of the Islamic State, intent on exterminating all those it considered apostates, chased some 30,000 members of the minority Yazidi sect from their homes and onto the arid peak of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq back in August, who was it who rescued them?

It wasn’t the Royal Australian Air Force, although they dropped supplies to the Yazidis, who were dying of hunger and thirst. It wasn’t the United States Air Force, either, although they carried out air strikes. It was the Kurds who cleared them safe passage.

The Yazidis themselves, when interviewed by Western media such as The Washington Post after their escape, were quite clear who they credited: the PKK, and to a lesser extent the official military wing of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government, the Peshmerga.

Yes, to the extent that any of the dozens of parties to the conflict in Iraq and Syria can be relied upon, it is the Kurds. They will fight, which is the reason we in the West are delivering weapons to them even as we continue to officially characterise some of their number as terrorists.

Our government will not admit this, of course. Nor will the Labor opposition, which has marched into the quagmire in lockstep with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. So a distinction is drawn. The rocket-propelled grenades, the mortars and ammunition are being handed over to the Peshmerga, they say. Of course, on the ground the Peshmerga, the PKK and the various other Kurdish factions, which originate in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, are fighting shoulder to shoulder. Few informed observers doubt there is at least some “leakage” of ordnance between the groups.

But one reason for this pretext is legal.

As Bret Walker, SC, who was until recently Australia’s Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, explains: “It’s an offence to supply arms or the wherewithal to obtain arms to a [proscribed terrorist] organisation. And it would be an offence, whether committed by our military, our minister, our public servants, or private individuals.”

In other words, our national leaders would be guilty of breaking their own laws if they acknowledged supplying arms to the PKK.

Turkish appeasement

Another reason is strategic: we are still appeasing the Turks.

“The biggest problem right now is that to successfully degrade and destroy IS we need Turkey on side,” says Sebastian Klich, a research scholar in the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University.

And Turkey is not fully onside. Its “number one priority,” says Klich, “is removing [the government of Bashar] al-Assad from Syria.”

To that end, Turkey has been the major conduit for foreign extremists entering the warzone to fight for IS, and has blocked Turkish Kurd fighters seeking to go in against IS. Even now, as Kurdish forces desperately fight to avoid an IS holocaust in the Syrian city of Kobane, just across the border from Turkey and in easy range of Turkish guns, they have done nothing.

“Erdoğan seems relatively happy for YPG – the Syrian affiliate of the PKK – and ISIS to smash each other into oblivion in Kobane,” says Rodger Shanahan, military strategist and non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.

“There is no way he would give them assistance because he sees that as assisting the PKK. Turkey’s played a horrible hand in this whole thing. The Turks don’t really support America, and they don’t really want to do anything about ISIS. Erdoğan’s playing everyone off against each other.”

Yet the Western allies including Australia maintain the pretence – or perhaps the delusion – that the Turks are on our side. It’s all about competing and constantly shifting interests.

Says Shanahan: “Since time immemorial people, governments, have allied themselves with others who have common interests, whether or not they have common values.”

Indeed there are those among our allies in the current fight whose values are arguably closer to those of IS than to ours.

Tony Abbott argues the IS “death cult” must be opposed because it beheads those it considers apostates. But Saudi Arabia regularly beheads people for apostasy. Abbott argues IS must be opposed because it wants to export terrorism from the Middle East. But the history of the past couple of decades shows the major sponsors of international terrorism, including the September 11 attacks, were Saudis.

Likewise the charges that IS oppresses women and enslaves its enemies – the same charges can be laid against various of our allies. Religious intolerance, of one kind or another, is common to most of them.

Meanwhile the Kurds, some of whom we consider terrorists, are relatively secular, and an ethnic rather than religious group. Maybe 90 per cent are Muslim, and most of those Sunni, but there are Christian Kurds, Yazidi Kurds, Zoroastrian Kurds, even some Jewish Kurds. They are atypically respectful of women’s rights, have never exported terrorism, and have shown themselves to be the only parties in Iraq or Syria capable of governing themselves in a relatively functional way.

“The Kurds,” says Shanahan, “are essentially small ‘m’ Muslims.”

How Turkey sees IS and the PKK

The old maxim holds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But the picture in Syria and Iraq is much more complex than that.

Turkey’s attitude to the PKK, for example, might be summed up thus: the temporary ally of my friend, who is the enemy of my enemy’s enemy, is still my enemy.

The whole picture is immensely complex, as Abbott observed in his own way a year ago, when he was counselling against military engagement in Syria. “It’s not goodies versus baddies,” he said. “It’s baddies versus baddies.”

Now we find ourselves having to choose between baddies.

What changed?

The military experts, such as Shanahan, argue it was the rapid success of IS in Iraq, particularly the fall of Mosul in June this year: “Most people believed that although Fallujah and other parts of Anbar province had fallen six months earlier, that it was localised.”

But when three armoured divisions of the Iraqi army, allegedly trained by the West to be an effective fighting force, collapsed “virtually overnight,” he says, “that was the game changer.”

There was another factor, too: opinion polls.

A Washington Post/ABC news poll in June found a majority of Americans remained opposed to air strikes against IS in Iraq. What massively shifted public opinion was something much less dramatic, in geopolitical terms. It was the release of a video by IS showing the beheading of US  journalist Steven Sotloff at the start of September.

Within a week, 71 per cent of Americans, according to the same pollsters, wanted US  engagement. President Barack Obama, who infamously admitted on August 28 that he had “no strategy” for dealing with IS, quickly realised he had to come up with one.

And as always, Australia followed.

But it wasn’t much of a plan: call in air strikes and hope someone else could hold IS at bay on the ground while we retrained the dispirited Iraqi army.

“I personally think [Obama’s] been doing quite a good job in horrendous circumstances,” says Shanahan. “I’m yet to hear anyone come up with a risk-free policy option that aligns values and interests, because there are none.”

But why get involved in a fight if you have no real idea of how to win it, or even a realistic view of what your broader objectives are? It’s a question for Australia as much as the US.

Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, seriously doubts the prospects of success.

“The focus over the past few months has been on IS, both because of their spectacular military success and their highly theatrical beheadings and so on, which has seen the government encourage the view that IS is a threat to Australia that needs to be targeted.

“And that is a very significant misunderstanding. IS is a symptom of something much bigger: the collapse of Iraq and Syria as functioning states.

“The problem we all face – the people in the region more than us – is that these states have fallen apart and nobody’s got any idea how to replace them. And in the absence of those states there is terrible, sustained, multi-dimensional civil war.”

There is, he reckons, “zero chance” that the current campaign of air strikes will solve the problem.

“And I think there is zero chance that the training we are giving to Iraqi and Syrian forces themselves will provide them with the capacity to defeat IS, let alone achieve a stable outcome in the region.”

A new Middle East needed?

It may well be that order is only restored when the old borders in the Middle East, arbitrarily drawn by Western nations almost a century ago, are wiped away. Maybe that will mean a Kurdish state in northern Iraq and Syria, a Shiite state in the south of Iraq, and a Sunni one in the middle.

“If the old borders are no longer viable, our best interests and their best interests are likely served by the quickest and most painless establishment of a new set of institutions and boundaries,” White says. “There’s very little we can do to help bring that about.”

Ergo, we should not be there. The idea that we should or can “fix” the complex conflicts of the region, says White, “is a post-imperial delusion”.

But what about the fear that the conflict will spread terrorism outside the Middle East?

“What we are doing in Iraq will make absolutely no difference to removing that threat,” says White.

Indeed, he notes, IS appears to be banking on the notion that the engagement of Western nations will serve to radicalise more people in the region and around the world.

“They [the Australian government] are right to focus on the risk of returning terrorists. That is real. But it has been with us for a decade or more. It might be somewhat larger now, but not much. It’s not qualitatively different,” White says.

“What will manage that threat is good intelligence and good police work.”

Which means targeting real extremists. Not those like the poor Kurds we raided, fruitlessly, in 2010.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 18, 2014 as "Raided Kurds now key allies". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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