Why ISIS hates the Kurds

Why does Islamic State hate Kurdish armed groups? And why does Turkey try to equate the Kurds with ISIS?

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Uzay Bulut,

Uzay Bulut
Uzay Bulut
INN:UB

The Turkish government has repeatedly declared that the Islamic State (DAESH/ISIS/IS) is the same as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the PYD (the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party), and the YPG (the Syrian-Kurdish People's Defense Units).

However, ISIS (aka IS or DAESH) sympathizers strongly disagree with this comparison. According to a report by the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), the main agenda of Turkish-speaking ISIS supporters on Twitter is the PKK and YPG, and they refer to these two groups with a very hostile language. 

YPG, or the People's Defense Units, is the main Kurdish armed service of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the ruling party of the de-facto government of Northern Syria, which Kurds refer to as Rojava (Western) Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or the PKK, founded in 1978, demands autonomy for Kurds in Turkey. 

The ORSAM published the report in August of last year and declared it was the first “Twitter social network analysis on Turkish-speaking DAESH supporters.”

ORSAM’s researchers downloaded a total of 51,982 tweets from 2,567 accounts belonging to people who were identified as ISIS supporters and manually inspected them one-by-one for four months. The research was based on the content provided by these accounts and reveals information about the agenda of the Turkish speaking IS supporters. 

“The basic finding on this matter is that the first item of the agenda of the Turkish speaking DAESH supporters is a ‘worldly’ subject, i.e., PKK and related issues. Religious issues, which form the basis of their ideology, appear as the second tier on their agenda. It is intriguing that an organization with a religious reference does not have religion as its first agenda item.”

The basic conclusion reached by ORSAM is that “the conflict between DAESH and PYD/YPG in Syrian territory reverberates in Turkish territory as a DAESH-PKK confrontation.” 

Sociologist Erkan Saka, a professor at the School of Communication at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said that it is not surprising that groups with religious motivations also have ‘worldly’ aims, which are a part of their jihadist goals: 

“Most Islamic movements have similar rhetoric. Whatever the ‘world’ affairs of their era are, these affairs are reflected in their rhetoric. And for groups such as IS, a separation of religious and worldly affairs might be invalid in accordance with their ideology. 

“Their priority is jihad, which is a religious belief. And they consider the PKK and the YPG the main targets of their jihad in Turkey. So their fight against the PKK and YPG is also a part of their jihad, which to them is a religious obligation. So, in that regard, their targeting PKK or YPG is not so ‘worldly.’”


The Kurdish armed groups are the only forces in Syria that have been successful in the face of ISIS.
When we look at the propaganda sites and social media accounts of IS, we see that they have been making very harsh, hate-filled statements against Kurdish armed groups,” said Deniz Serinci, a Copenhagen-based political analyst. “This shows that Kurds have inflicted the heaviest blow to IS,” claims Derinci, who has written two books about IS, The Caliphate of Terror and The Yazidi Women who Escaped IS. 

“The YPG is the first force that has defeated IS in Kobane in January, 2015. This is remarkable because Kobane proved for the first time that IS is not undefeatable. The Unites States hits IS with airstrikes. And Kurds hit them on the ground. So IS have been verbally attacking the YPG on their websites and social media accounts.”

In August of last year, the Islamic State (IS) called on Muslims from all across the world − but “particularly the Kurds in Turkey, northern Iraq and Iran − to do hijrah [Islamic immigration] to, defend, elevate and advance the Islamic State.” The call was made in the Islamic State’s seventh online edition of its Turkish magazine, Konstantiniyye.

Deniz Cifci, a London-based political analyst and expert on terrorism, said that IS supporters are using Islamic arguments to label the PKK and YPG as “disbelievers”. 

“Firstly, Kurds are the only group in the region who are dedicated to their own cause as much as IS militants are. Hence, IS supporters are trying to eviscerate the meaning or goals of the political cause of secular Kurds by using Islamic references. IS supporters often refer to the PKK and YPG as heresies, kafir [infidels], atheists, and so on. Also, IS members are defeated by the YPG on many fronts. That is why, IS members are calling on all Muslims to join their fight and are using Islamic arguments in an attempt to discredit secular Kurdish groups.”

Professor Can Cemgil, an expert on international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said that IS-supporters in Turkey target the PKK and the YPG because they think these Kurdish groups are allies of the U.S. and “enemies of Islam”.

“At first glance the ‘basic analysis’ of the study by ORSAM suggests, the fixation of Turkish speaking IS supporters on PKK and related matters, it seems, is explicable as the spillover effect of the IS-PYD conflict in Syria. This fixation, however, must also be seen as an indicator of the fact that IS-supporters in Turkey are more Turkish nationalists than they are Islamists: one may even go as far as to saying that support for IS for some in Turkey has its roots in the IS-PYD conflict. That their nationalism can be expressed through Islamist extremism, in turn, is made possible by the successful amalgamation in the last two years of a specific form of Turkish nationalism with Islamism by the ruling AKP and President Erdoğan – a blend that also represents a distinct form of anti-Americanism, packaged as ‘anti-imperialism.’ The PKK and its affiliates, in this portrayal, are perceived as allies of the U.S. and become an object of enmity.”

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan targeted Kurds requesting official recognition and the right to self-rule, calling them “atheists” and “Zoroastrians” in a public speech last year. Also, the Turkish government has largely turned a blind eye to the IS activities in Turkey and allowed jihadis to use Turkish territory to go to Syria and Iraq to join Islamist organizations there. 

No matter how much the Turkish government tries to equate Kurdish armed groups with the IS, calling all of them “terrorists”, the actions of the government as well as of IS supporters tell a completely different story.

“The Kurdish armed groups are the only forces in Syria that have been successful in the face of IS,” said Faysal Dagli, an Istanbul-based political analyst and author.

“They are secular organizations in which female fighters also join in large numbers. These things seem to be beyond the understanding of IS. Also, IS members fight because they believe they will go to heaven and get 72 virgins as a reward for their fight. The PKK and YPG fight, as well, but not for religious motivations. They do not carry out suicide bombings for the ‘virgins in the afterlife.’ IS supporters must be stumped by that.”