Iraqi Kurdish soldiers prepare to fight Isis militants 20km south of Kirkuk, 23 June. Photo: Getty
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In the Kurds’ make-do capital, Erbil, the message is clear: Iraq needs a three-state solution

Accompanied by a small army of peshmerga, I went as close as I dared to the front line, an army base in Kirkuk that the Iraqis had abandoned without putting up much of a fight.

It has been 23 years since I first visited Iraqi Kurdistan and despite the capture of swaths of territory by Islamic extremists further south, I am delighted to be back. In the words of T S Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, “In the mountains, there you feel free.” Kurdistan is defended by peshmerga fighters fiercely loyal to the idea of a Kurdish state, and I feel reasonably safe here. But so much has changed since the oilmen moved in. At Erbil International Airport you can pay $130 for “fast-track” passport processing and luggage collection. All this amounts to is being served a cup of Earl Grey tea in a comfy chair while somebody else takes your bags off the carousel. Erbil, the Kurds’ make-do capital, is now ringed by flashy skyscrapers, obscuring the view of the ancient citadel. My swanky hotel has lavatories in “dictator chic” black marble, with a presidential suite advertised in the lobby at a mere $15,000 per night.


Bell and Baghdad

When I visited in the 1990s, Kurdistan was still recovering from Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks. The doctrine of western military intervention for humanitarian purposes was newborn and unsullied by the wars of the next decade. British and American troops protected a Kurdish “safe haven” from the Iraqi dictator’s helicopter gunships at the end of the first Gulf war. I drove across the country in a jeep with the late Christopher Hitchens, who at the time was reading novels by the Bloomsbury Set, possibly the only person to do so in Iraq since Gertrude Bell herself. It was Bell who helped map this British creation of a country, and even though those lines she drew in the sand appear to be blurring, she did come up with the useful phrase, “No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.”


Power vacuum

The Kurds do know what they want and always have done, Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraq’s president, tells me. “The Iraq we knew that is unitary, centralised, governed by the centre, is over,” he says flatly when we meet in his fortified government office. Not that Tony Blair is at fault here. “Removing Saddam has no bearing on the crisis,” he says, blaming Iraq’s politicians for failing to make the most of the opportunity the 2003 invasion gave them. Iraq’s Kurds seem to be waiting for the country to fail so that they can say, “There, I told you so.” Qubad’s father, Jalal, a jovial bear of a man, is no longer in Baghdad banging sectarian heads together but receiving medical treatment in Germany. I ask Qubad if Iraq will still exist when his father comes home. “That’s a tough question to answer,” he says.


Better not together

The peshmerga commander Jafar Mustafa is a fiery, moustachioed general and does not beat about the bush stating what should happen next. He says he’s lost 20 men fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) along Kurdistan’s borders and that because the Iraqi army’s 12th Division has deserted, the Kurds have no choice but to look after themselves: “If you want to create a peaceful Iraq, you have to divide these three nations into three countries. It is the only solution.” I reflect that Britain is busy running a “Better Together” campaign – and that the nation Gertrude Bell helped dream up for Iraq has been in trouble for decades, never more so than now.


Urban guerrilla warfare

I hear the same talk of partition from a Sunni fleeing from Tikrit. I find Nawfal Moussa and his family sheltering in a school classroom, having driven north to Kirkuk in the Kurdish-controlled zone. The message Isis gave him before he left was that the militants would unseat an unjust government and would not hurt him, but he wasn’t taking the risk. A fear of government air strikes seemed to weigh as heavily on him as the threat of jihadi execution.

Even the ousted governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi, admitted that Isis had been broadly welcomed in Sunni areas of Mosul because Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government is so hated. Should America bomb Isis, I asked? Their camps in the desert, yes, but if the extremists become an urban guerrilla force, then certainly not.


Lessons of the Humvee

Accompanied by a small army of peshmerga, I went as close as I dared to the front line, an army base in Kirkuk that the Iraqis had abandoned without putting up much of a fight. The dormitories had been left in such a hurry that they were full of clothing, with berets and khaki flung to the ground. Still parked inside were scores of US military vehicles, many of them burned in the hope of preventing Isis from using them. One in particular, a charred Humvee, seemed to symbolise America’s thwarted ambition here. Twenty-five billion dollars spent building an army – and it comes to this.

Jonathan Rugman is the foreign affairs correspondent of Channel 4 News

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.