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German police raid leftist for posting Kurdish YPG flag

August 19, 2017

Police in Munich have raided the home of a left-wing activist who posted the flag of Kurdish militia YPG to Facebook. The YPG has helped German intelligence and receives arms from the US military in Syria.

YPG fighters in Raqqa
Image: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

Germany's conflicted attitude to Kurdish fighters was exposed once again this week when Munich police raided the home of a left-wing activist who posted the flag of the YPG on Facebook. The YPG, or People's Protection Units, is a 50,000-strong militia heavily involved in the war in Syria that has both helped German intelligence and is supplied with weapons by the US.

A special police commando raided a shared apartment in the Schwabing district of the Bavarian capital at 6 a.m. on Thursday morning, having tracked down one of its inhabitants who had, according to their search warrant, posted an image of the triangular yellow YPG flag in March.

'Intimidating search'

The taz newspaper identified the target of the raid as Benjamin Russ, a left-wing activist, who told the newspaper that he had posted the flag on his Facebook page in March in protest at a new ban imposed by the German Interior Ministry on all symbols related to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK is a leftist separatist party affiliated with the YPG that is in a long-term armed conflict with the Turkish government and is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the US.

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"The police action was aimed at intimidating us," one of the people living in the apartment told Bavarian public broadcaster BR. "The officers did not listen to our requests not to enter the other rooms. They basically besieged the whole building." However, a spokesman for the Munich police insisted that only Russ' room had been searched, and that the other rooms were only entered for security reasons.

Russ said he had been aware that he was under investigation by the police since May, but that he was in Greece at the time of the raid, during which electronic devices were confiscated.

The friendly 'terrorists'

Songül Akpinar of Munich's Kurdish Social Center said the ban on Kurdish emblems had had a serious effect on the Kurdish community. "A lot of people are affected by this and suffer from it," she said. "A lot of Kurdish people get criminal investigations against them, or have their residency or citizenship procedures blocked. Kurdish people see it as unfair."

Mako Qocgiri, spokesman for Civaka Azad, a Kurdish community center for public communications in Germany, pointed out that not only were armed groups on the banned list, but also political parties. "The importance of YPG has increased a lot for Kurdish people since the attacks of IS," he said. "A lot of Kurds joined the YPG from outside Syria to defend the areas that are inhabited by Kurds - young people also went from Germany to take part in the fight against IS." 

Qocgiri said that Kurds have been following the battles against IS very closely, and that many even have acquaintances that are fighting there. 

Many German left-wing activists have shown sympathy towards the YPG, but so has the US military, which provided air support to the group during the siege of Kobane, northern Syria, in 2015, when it fought the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) terrorist militia. 

Though both the Turkish and Syrian governments criticized the US at the time, the intervention helped the YPG score an important victory over IS alongside the Free Syrian Army and the Peshmerga, another armed Kurdish group. In May 2016, US troops training Kurdish fighters in Syria were even photographed wearing YPG patches - much to the annoyance of the Turkish government.

That policy hasn't changed under Donald Trump's administration, which is still supplying arms to the group. The Pentagon began sending thousands of assault rifles as well as armored vehicles to the YPG in May, describing it as "the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa (an IS stronghold in Syria) in the near future."

The political paradox

The YPG has also helped the German intelligence agency, the BND - something that emerged as the strange case of Ali R. was unraveled in a Munich court. The 32-year-old former Berlin taxi driver was sentenced to three years in prison in September 2016 for belonging to IS. He had apparently traveled to Syria in 2014 and joined the group in a desperate attempt to rescue his estranged wife, who had traveled to Raqqa with their three children.

According to Bavarian public broadcaster BR, Ali R. had contacted the German authorities, and the BND had helped him and his three children escape with the help of a YPG driver, who had passed him on to the Peshmerga in Iraq. The German government, for its part, has supplied the Peshmerga with weapons.

These contradictions have led many German politicians to call on the government to lift its ban on displaying YPG insignia. In a statement issued on Friday, the Left party's interior policy spokeswoman, Ulla Jelpke, said the government needed to "ask itself seriously what side it's on in the fight against IS."

"The description of the PKK as a terrorist organization is out of date. From our point of view, the ban on Kurdish emblems is just a compromise for Turkey," said Qocgiri. "We think Germany is still very close to Turkey, and is smoothing the problems in the relationship with Turkey on the backs of the Kurds."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight