Sanctions Against Kurdish Groups Complicate Humanitarian Effort

Kurdish political groups remain on the U.S. terrorist list, even as they’ve become crucial allies in the Islamic State fight.


Zaid Brifkani is in St. Louis finishing his kidney transplant fellowship, but this summer the doctor decided he wanted to do something to help Kurdish people near his home in northern Iraq who’ve been displaced by fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Brifkani and his group, Doctors for Kurdistan, started collecting money and medical supplies to send to Iraq’s Kurdish areas but when the group tried sending aid to the Kurdish part of Syria, it ran into roadblocks because the territory is controlled by political groups still designated as terrorists by the United States.

Humanitarian organizations have to tread carefully when they take aid to places controlled by groups that are blacklisted by the United States. Nevertheless, private aid groups could be called on to do more this winter after the United Nations World Food Program suspended food assistance to 1.7 million Syrian refugees Monday because it didn’t have enough money.

While larger NGOs have more experience navigating the complex legal terrain that keeps them on the right side of sanctions, smaller aid efforts such as Brifkani’s often simply have to avoid certain areas.

“It limited us; we spent a lot of time trying to make sure we cleared everybody who is helping us — everybody who is working there,” Brifkani said on the phone from St. Louis. “I think it’s ridiculous that the U.S. is doing business with [the Kurdish groups] directly but they’re still on the list.”

The U.S. government isn’t only doing business with them; Kurdish fighters have become indispensable U.S. allies fighting on the front lines against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Still, two main Kurdish political groups in Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, are listed as “Tier 3” terrorist groups under the 2001 USA Patriot Act. Being on the Tier 3 list doesn’t freeze assets like sanctions from the Treasury Department, but being associated with a listed group is grounds for not being let into the United States.

“If you’re in the country and it’s proven that you assisted one of these groups, you would be deportable,” said Georgetown law professor David Cole, who argued before the Supreme Court that the Patriot Act violated U.S. citizens’ rights to free speech and association. In 2010, the court sided with the government’s argument that any support, even charity or advice, to an organization that is also involved in terrorism is against the law.

Cole and others have argued that the Patriot Act’s Tier 3 terrorism definition is overly broad, sweeping in groups that are fighting oppressive governments. To many Kurds, the designation is simply a thumb in the eye of a diplomatic relationship that has been important since the Iraq War.

“It’s an insult to the friendship between the United States and Kurdistan,” said Alex Ebsary, spokesman for the Washington office of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Ebsary said it’s offensive to the Kurdish fighters who fought alongside U.S. troops to oust Saddam Hussein during the Iraq War. “How can we then go turn around and tell them that they’re terrorists?”

The two Iraqi groups were automatically listed as Tier 3 terrorist groups after the Patriot Act was passed in 2001. Congressional leaders and the Obama administration support the idea of removing them, but some fear it could set a bad precedent. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in April introduced a bill to take the groups off the list but it failed to gain traction.

Though the Tier 3 sanctions may be an insult, more problematic for Brifkani’s relief efforts is the designation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the State Department. Because the PKK has connections to rebel fighters that control territory in Syria, Americans who support them could be in violation of sanctions. Brifkani said one of the first things the Kurdish Regional Government, which helped his group figure out how to send its donations, gave him was a list of people they were legally prohibited from working with because of U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. government has used several different blacklists to restrict support for terrorist organizations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The FTO list is a Tier 1 terrorism list. U.S. persons and companies are forbidden from giving money or advice to groups on the State Department’s foreign terrorist list and banks have to freeze any assets they have that belong to a designated group or people associated with it.

Some analysts and former officials argue that the PKK should be taken off the U.S. blacklist because of its importance to U.S. foreign policy.

“These groups are U.S. allies; we’ve been working hand-in-glove with them for decades,” said David Phillips, a former senior advisor at the State Department who is now a director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. “The fact that they’re sanctioned is part of an antiquated diplomatic policy that should be changed.”

But the United States is also balancing an important diplomatic relationship with Turkey, which has long considered the PKK a terrorist group. The Turkish government has been wary of supporting the PKK’s fight against the Islamic State for fear it could empower the group’s long-standing separatist campaign within Turkey.

For now, the status quo continues: The United States is considering sending heavy arms to the Kurdish troops to fight the Islamic State, but their umbrella groups are officially labeled as terrorists. A new agreement between Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government in Baghdad announced Tuesday clears the way for the United States and its allies to send arms directly to Kurdish fighters. They’ve already received some military supplies from the U.S. government, but have argued they need more heavy arms to regain territory from the wealthy, well-armed Islamic State.

While the fight against the militants continues, Brifkani is trying to figure out how to get his next batch of donations to the refugees who need them. He originally started Doctors for Kurdistan in 2011 as an education organization to connect with doctors back home in Iraq, but then decided it would be a good way to raise donations too. He said the group still mostly exists online, as a Facebook group, but he’s in the process of registering it as a nonprofit organization in Nashville.

Larger humanitarian organizations with experience working in conflict zones are better equipped to handle the potential legal pitfalls of sanctions. With teams of lawyers to analyze the situation and local NGOs to work with on the ground, they are still able to work in areas that might seem too risky for start-up humanitarian efforts.

“The smaller NGOs, while facing the same legal regime, have many fewer legal resources, and it’s often much harder for them to figure out how to get aid into those areas than larger NGOs,” said Dustin Lewis, a senior researcher at Harvard Law School who studies how counterterrorism regulations affect humanitarian organizations.

U.S. sanctions officials have tried clarifying the rules for humanitarian organizations working in areas controlled by terrorist groups, but the risk remains that an NGO could be held liable.

“The big open point remains, ‘What if you have to pay a terrorist group in order to deliver aid?'” said Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

Keatinge said that in the U.K., charities that want to send money to Iraq and Syria have come under particular scrutiny.

“A lot of money has been raised but at the moment it is sitting unused because the NGOs that are meant to use the funds are struggling to get them through,” Keatinge explained.

Brifkani, who grew up in Dohuk, in the Kurdish part of Iraq, came to the United States when he was in high school. He said he started gathering donations in August when the fighting intensified. Because of his medical training, he couldn’t leave the country, but he wanted to find another way to help, so he and his colleagues collected medical supplies and other donations. A community center in Tennessee called the Salahadeen Center of Nashville coordinated the effort, called “All for Kurdistan.”

The local news in Nashville reported on the Salahadeen Center’s donation drive and word started spreading on Twitter and Facebook. Then donations started pouring in. A Kurdish community in San Francisco sent $10,000. Supporters in Dallas drove a U-Haul truck full of clothing, diapers, and blankets to Nashville. Thirty volunteers unloaded the truck in Nashville. The goods were then boxed up and shipped to Dohuk, Iraq, where the local government handled distribution.

Brifkani said the effort was logistically challenging and shipping costs were high. Next time they may just send money. Trying to get aid into Syria would present many logistical hurdles as well, but even if the group can figure out how to send money to Syria, they’d still have to figure out how to avoid individuals and groups on the U.S. terrorist list.

This story has been updated.

Courtesy of Doctors for Kurdistan and Salahadeen Center of Nashville

 Twitter: @jtrindle