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2 October 2014

Despite western promises, these jihadists won’t be “squeezed out of existence” so easily

Jonathan Rugman on the west’s distinctions between “good Kurds” and “bad Kurds”.

By jonathan Rugman

Where are you on air strikes? Brigadier Amir Ahmed is desperate for more of them. He watched a missile land in northern Iraq three days ago and tells me that the US-led coalition is hitting the right targets.

I am chatting with this Kurdish commander while hiding behind earthworks that have been dug along a canal, south-west of Kirkuk. All around us is the detritus of war – discarded plastic bottles, bullet casings, human faeces and burnt-out military vehicles. The black flag of the so-called Islamic State (IS) flutters like an Unjolly Roger across the canal from us, a mere 25 metres away.

It is awfully quiet on this western front. The jihadists have gone to lunch in the heat of the day. Brigadier Ahmed points to the village of Buwaitir and tells me that they are hiding there, using their fellow Sunnis as human shields against air attacks, and will reappear at their sandbags at dusk. I reflect that maybe they only turn up for the big set pieces, like extras in a film.

“The Arabs support them over there,” the Kurdish brigadier says bitterly. Western commentary deplores the evils of IS but it sometimes ignores how welcome the jihadists are in some places. The land that British Tornado fighter jets are now seeking to defend is a patchwork of settlements by Arabs, Kurds, Shias and Turkmens: groups that may be in conflict with one another long after IS has gone – if it ever goes.

David Cameron’s vow that the jihadists will be “squeezed out of existence” seems unlikely to be honoured. It is more likely that they will morph into something else. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t help the “caliphate of fear” fade away.

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The question is how to respond in what diplomats call a “calibrated” way. Everyone I have met in the Kurdish-controlled north welcomes foreign military intervention but some are anxious about their ability to complement it with concerted action of their own. How to develop a “joined-up” strategy for Iraq and Syria, when those countries are so disjointed?

Yet this is the plan – foreign air strikes, local ground forces – and the going is slow. On this, my third visit to Iraq since IS swept in to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June, the muddy berms along the front line have an air of permanence. Two months of air strikes have liberated Mosul’s dam from the dark side but not much else. Those villages that have been “liberated” are deserted, because the jihadists have booby-trapped cars and buildings as mementos of their brief reign. One half-mile stretch of road was found to contain 25 bombs.

“The air strikes make them think they are losing and make them feel exhausted,” the Kurdish brigadier tells me. “But if we had modern weapons and were trained how to use them, we could defeat them.”

Those weapons are on their way. However, it could take at least six months to train and arm local forces to take advantage of air cover and move forward significantly across a front that is 600 miles long. Much of the Iraqi army has disintegrated. Shia militiamen look to Iran. The fighting is perilously close to Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Britain is sending weapons and ammunition to a Kurdish leadership seeking statehood and inspired by stirrings in Catalonia and Scotland. I found myself endlessly being photographed alongside Kurdish fighters, some of whom are good at striking a warlike pose and possibly not much else.

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I spent a day on Mount Zartak, watching the distant crump of shelling on the plains leading to Mosul below: a no-man’s-land of abandoned Christian and Muslim villages. The Kurdish fighters up there have only one piece of artillery and cannot “call in” air strikes in real time.

A major general told me that he had to drive two hours to Erbil to sit with US military planners. He gives them co-ordinates, they show him surveillance photographs (some possibly taken by British jets) and then they all discuss which targets to hit. By which time the men of IS could be long gone.

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If you want to know what a real lack of co-ordination looks like, look no further than Kobane. I recently spent several days there, peering at the besieged Syrian town through the razor wire of the Turkish border. That was until a crowd of sympathetic Kurds from Turkey knocked concrete posts down and stampeded across in solidarity.

The crowd was demonstrating because Kobane is not getting the arms, military advice or co-operation now afforded to Kurds in Iraq. That is presumably because it is defended by Syrian Kurds allied with the PKK, a group outlawed as a terrorist organisation in Europe as well as in Turkey.

You see, there are good Kurds and bad Kurds in western foreign policy: some we help and some we don’t. The US has launched air strikes near Kobane, though Kurdish commanders have complained that they weren’t warned in advance; and as the IS shelling there continues, the risk is that the air war may have encouraged the militants to move towards the town for cover, rather than away from it.

If Washington co-operates with these fighters, it might inadvertently sponsor a Kurdish state in Syria. This would also upset Turkey, a Nato ally that sometimes seems as if it can’t decide which neighbour it would dislike living alongside more – crazed jihadists or nationalist Kurds.

The demonstration I witnessed along the border was quickly beaten back with Turkish water cannon and tear gas. Even though Turkey says it has taken in over 140,000 Kurdish refugees within the space of a fortnight, Kurdish grievances inside Turkey are once again boiling over.

Jonathan Rugman is a foreign affairs correspondent for “Channel 4 News”