At present only one military force is effectively combatting Islamic State (IS) on the ground – the Kurdish guerrilla fighting force known generically as the Peshmerga (“Those Who Face Death”). For weeks, IS has been losing ground in northern Iraq to Iraqi Kurdish fighters; now they are succumbing to Peshmerga troops in Syria. On January 27 it was announced that the Kurdish forces had “expelled all IS fighters from Kobane and have full control of the town”. After more than four months of intensive fighting, the Kurdish fighting force had chased IS out of the strategically important town situated on the Syrian-Turkish border.
In fact almost all of the recent victories over IS have been achieved by Kurdish guerrillas, willing to fight where others have collapsed – like Iraq’s security forces, with some million men under arms, which fled in the face of IS’s lightning advance last summer. More to the point, perhaps, the Peshmerga are the force with “boots on the ground”, unlike any of the 62-nation strong anti-IS coalition, established by President Obama. All of them promised, and many are providing, financial, logistical, military and humanitarian assistance by the bucketful, but not one fighting soldier on the ground, at least officially.
It is true that the Peshmerga’s military successes might not have occurred so quickly, or so conclusively, without the aid of substantial American support by way of air cover, training by US special forces (and perhaps something more than training, albeit unacknowledged) and the plentiful provision of weapons. For example, prior to the Kurds securing Kobane, US-led coalition aircraft pounded IS positions 17 times in just 24 hours. Nevertheless, the Kurdish guerrillas are the ones actually undertaking the fighting, the victories are theirs to celebrate, and they deserve the congratulations of all nations opposed to the brutal and inhumane IS organization and its unacceptable ambitions for the future of the world.
How can the world repay these doughty soldiers, fighting on humanity’s behalf?
The Kurds yearn for the restoration of what might be called “Greater Kurdistan”. The Kurds are an ethnic group some 30 million strong who inhabit a distinct geographical area flanked by mountain ranges. It was once referred to as Kurdistan. No such entity is depicted on current maps. What was once Kurdistan, together with all its 30-plus million inhabitants, was carved up in the negotiations following the First World War, which dismembered the old Ottoman empire. Following the treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the territory that had been Kurdistan was divided up and allocated to the sovereign states of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Kurds currently form the largest minority in Syria, while within Iraq, following the downfall of Sadam Hussein, they have developed a near-autonomous state across the north of the country which has taken the name Kurdistan.
Most Kurds, however, live within Turkey’s borders. They comprise about 20% of Turkey’s 77 million population and have long been a pressing political problem for Turkey. In the 1980s an armed insurgency challenged the Turkish state, which responded with martial law. In the subsequent, and on-going, conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish independence movement, the PKK, more than 40,000 people have been killed. Which is the most obvious explanation for why Turkey’s president, Rece Tayyip Erdogan, apparently preferred to see IS retain control of Kobane rather than assist Kurdish fighters to recapture it, and sat on his hands for months while the battle raged just over the Turkish border.
But the recapture of the town by the Kurds is precisely what has happened, with the aid and support not only of the US, but of the 62 nations who oppose IS and are dedicated to its destruction. In short, Erdogan has been backing the wrong horse – and not only Erdogan. World opinion as a whole has not been noticeably supportive of the idea of Kurdish independence in the past. Western policy in Iraq has been to attempt to retain the disparate areas – Sunni, Shia and Kurd – in one unified state, rather than permit the Kurds to transform their autonomous region into a sovereign entity.
One notable exception has been Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In a speech delivered on June 29, 2014 at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, he declared that Israel supports the transformation of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan into an independent Kurdish state. “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence,” he said. “They deserve it.”
Following that lead, in August 2014 Senator Conrad Burns urged the US government to support the Kurds in their aspiration. “The people of Kurdistan have been striving for independence and the right of self-government for generations,” he wrote. “They have been close several times only to be struck down by outside world powers. They have endured atrocities and have paid the price for freedom. It is therefore time that the United States took heed of these sacrifices and fulfilled its moral obligation to support the people of Kurdistan and their ambitions for freedom and national sovereignty.”
Britain’s traditional stance has been to back Kurdish autonomy, but to oppose statehood. In a recent editorial, the London Daily Telegraph asked whether that would remain the UK’s position after IS was beaten. “Britain should be thinking not just about how to defeat IS” it wrote, “but what might lie beyond.”
Meanwhile gallant Kurdish fighters are still putting their lives on the line, combatting the dark forces that glory in violating accepted standards of humane and decent behaviour in pursuit of their political and religious aims. The Kurds deserve the grateful thanks of each one of the 62 nations that have signed up to the anti-IS alliance. When the final battle has been fought and won – or even in advance of that happy event – supporting the Kurds’ desire for an independent sovereign state would be a suitable gesture of appreciation.