Kurds to the rescue: here's what the West needs to do in return

If we want Kurds to act as our 'boots on the ground' against IS, there can be no more broken promises

Robert Fox
(Image credit: RICK FINDLER/AFP/Getty Images)

The advance of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria has put the spotlight on the Kurds, and in particular the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq.

The fighters of the near 300,000-strong Kurdish militia, the pesh merga, are being invited to protect nearly half a million refugees in the north (some of them Yazidis, many not), save the Mosul dam, liberate Mosul itself and indeed generally defeat the fanatics of IS.

In effect, they are to be "the boots on the ground" for President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, both of whom hope to defeat IS without risking their own forces.

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The KRG are also required to help galvanise the Iraqi government’s own forces and make sure the new coalition under Haider al-Abadi gets a grip on things in Baghdad and holds Iraq together as one country.

It’s a tall order for the Kurds, particularly in view of their embattled recent history, which has seen them on the thick end of purges, discrimination and massacre in three of the four countries that are their main centres of population: Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

Over the past century, the Kurds have been victims of neglect, broken promises and sheer cynical opportunism of both regional and global powers, including the US and the UK.

The crisis brought on by the disintegration of Syria and the advance of IS puts the Kurdish Question back on the agenda. And the Kurdish Question deserves an enduring and honest answer.

The question of who the Kurds are, and where and how they should be allowed to run their own affairs, is about as old as recorded history itself. Every time I have reported from Kurdistan, the headline writers have come up with the same old clichés: that they are the largest national grouping without a state, that "the Kurd has no friend but the mountains".

Today there are about 35 million Kurds worldwide, including a diaspora of some three million, an important element of which is headquartered in London. The language grouping is broadly Persian, and the majority are Muslim, with minorities embracing different sects of Islam and faiths such as Yazidism, with a few Christians among them.

The most famous Kurd in medieval history was Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem in 1187. His mother was Kurdish, and chroniclers tagged him ‘Saladin the Kurd’. Interestingly he is one of the few Arabs – his father was Arab – to make a fist of uniting the Arab peoples.

The modern betrayal of the Kurds dates back a century. Although the Kurdish Hamidye regiment fought for the Ottoman Empire with distinction in World War One, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were ethnically cleansed from the eastern Turkish cities of Erzurum and Bitlis – a process matched only by the cleansing of the Armenians.

At the end of the war, the Armenians and Kurds demanded their own states, or autonomies at least. In a hall at the famous porcelain factory in the Paris suburb of Sevres, the powers drew up a treaty, which allowed for a Kurdistan statelet to be set up on Turkish territory.

But the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 turned out to be even more fragile than the porcelain of the same name: it was never implemented. Instead, the Kurds settled either in eastern Turkey or across the border in northern Iraq, neither government recognising their cultural heritage.

Over the past 50 years, Turkish governments have fought Kurdish insurgents of the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, with accusations of massacre, torture and expulsion, on both sides. For a time Kurdish dialect was banned, though at least 20 per cent of the Turkish population is Kurdish, and Kurds were referred to as either ‘Mountain Turks’ or ‘Eastern Turks’.

Worse was to happen in Baathist Iraq. In 1970 the Kurdish parties laid claim to interests in Kirkuk, one of the oldest and biggest established oil regions of Iraq (and which the Kurdish pesh merga are defending from IS forces today). Subsequently, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 encouraged Kurdish leaders to raise the flag of rebellion against Saddam’s Baghdad.

Saddam retaliated with a series of ‘anfal’ (spoils of war) campaigns in which chemical weapons were used. In March 1988, 5,000 Kurds in and around the village of Halabja were gassed by chlorine and mustard gas. Some of the PKK leadership fled to London.

The Kurds rebelled in March 1991 in the aftermath of Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. Saddam responded by forcing more than 1.5 million to flee into Turkey, with some 20,000 dying on the way.

But 1991 turned out to be a big opportunity. On 5 April 1991, UN Security Council Resolution 688 demanded humanitarian access to the Kurdish refugees and Kurds still in northern Iraq. It helped establish the no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq. Most important, it is the first document in the history of the UN to mention the Kurds or Kurdish peoples by name.

This paved the way a year later – May 1992 – for a Kurdistan Regional Government to be recognised, not least by Baghdad. But such is the fractious nature of Kurdish tribalism, the principal leaders began to fight each other.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of the Talibani clan drew support from Iran. Astonishingly, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) turned to Saddam Hussein, his people’s erstwhile oppressor, for armed back-up against his rival.

Today Massoud Barzani is president of the KRG. He has been something of a rough and ready moderniser, introducing genuinely democratic institutions on the one hand, but accused of being lax about political corruption. His fellow tribal leaders have benefited from a range of activities, including highly lucrative oil smuggling into Turkey. There are also charges of censorship, which led to the death of one investigative journalist.

Now the KRG and its pesh merga forces are being asked to man the frontline against the Sunni fanatics of IS. This is asking a lot of two institutions which, though not as fragile as the porcelain of Sevres, will need considerable help if they are not to collapse.

The pesh merga, between 275,000 and 300,000-strong, are divided tribally according to their origins. While Syrian Kurdish forces helped the Yazidis off Mount Sinjar, it was Turkish Kurdish forces who stepped up to protect Kirkuk. In remoter parts of the mountains, Kurds from one valley can barely understand the dialect of those in a neighbouring valley.

They are currently equipped with light weapons of the Soviet era, including a few man-portable missiles, and some artillery. Yet their foes in IS have American M1 Abrams tanks, modern artillery and rockets, all purloined from fleeing Iraqi national army units. It is essential therefore that the pesh merga are re-armed and trained.

More important, the Kurds deserve to be given some of the recognition they were denied at the abortive Treaty of Sevres - a fully guaranteed autonomy within the Iraqi federation, underwritten by treaty and UN guarantee.

This surely is a matter of principle, which makes the kind of pragmatic sense that even Barack Obama and David Cameron might appreciate. Though if I were Kurdish, I wouldn’t give up the friendship of the mountains just yet.

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