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23 October 2014updated 29 Oct 2014 10:29am

Why arming the Kurds is the only option – even for anti-war progressives in the west

These Kurdish units, which include all-women militias, have to all intents and purposes become the last line of defence against the genocidal fanatics of Islamic State.

By Mehdi Hasan

Quiz question: who said that the west must “strengthen the Kurdish fighters, who are doing a good job of fighting Isil”? Was it: a) US senator John McCain, b) former prime minister Tony Blair, or c) Respect MP, George Galloway? Yep, you guessed right. It wasn’t the neocon McCain or the “liberal interventionist” Blair. It was the anti-war Galloway, in a House of Commons debate on Iraq in late September.

It isn’t a contradiction to be anti-war and left-wing at the same time as being pro-Kurd and in favour of arming the Kurds. I have been a long-standing opponent of western military interventions in the Muslim-majority world, almost all of which – from Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 to Libya in 2011 – have resulted in civilian bloodshed and terrorist blowback. But I’m not a pacifist. And to pretend that the response to the beheaders, rapists and slave traders of the self-styled “Islamic State” (or IS) need not involve an element of brute military force is either ludicrously naive or disgracefully disingenuous.

So, too, is the lazy obsession with air strikes. “Wars, historically, have never been won by air power alone,” General David Richards, the former chief of the defence staff, told me in a recent interview, as he called for “boots on the ground”.

Another foreign military occupation of Iraq – or, for that matter, Syria – would be a disaster. More bloodshed, more blowback. There are, however, secular and Sunni boots already on the ground that we should all be backing against the jihadists of IS – those of Kurdish fighters not just in northern Iraq, where the peshmerga (literally, “those who confront death”) have fended off IS attempts to bring Erbil and Kirkuk under its terror-inspired “caliphate”, but also in northern Syria, where the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD) have been heroically holding off IS in the town of Kobane for more than a month now.

These Kurdish units, which include all-women militias, have to all intents and purposes become the last line of defence against the genocidal fanatics of IS. They are, as even Galloway observed, doing a “good job”. But they can’t do it alone, especially against IS militants equipped with US-made tanks seized in Iraq. Progressives in the west, especially of the anti-war variety, need to get behind the Kurds, loudly and publicly. First, we owe them. Kurds constitute the biggest stateless minority in the world, with a population of roughly 30 million, divided mainly between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have been bombed in Turkey, executed in Iran, gassed in Iraq and besieged in Syria. Oh, and betrayed by the west. Repeatedly.

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Second, they are worth fighting for. Take northern Syria, where the three autonomous and Kurdish-majority provinces of Rojava have avoided the worst excesses of the civil war and engaged in what David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, has described as a “remarkable democratic experiment”, ceding power to “popular assemblies” and “women’s and youth councils”. Why would any progressive want to allow the revolutionary Kurds of Kobane to fall to the theocratic maniacs of IS?

Third, the Turks next door have sat on their hands. The crisis could have been an opportunity for Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to build a new long-term alliance with his country’s embittered Kurdish minority against extremism and sectarianism. The Kurds’ PYD in Syria, however, is an offshoot of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been locked in a violent conflict with Ankara over Kurdish autonomy since 1984. Erdogan thus decided to seal Turkey’s border with Syria, in effect giving the green light to IS militants to seize Kobane and massacre its PKK-affiliated populace – and then to bomb PKK positions in southern Turkey for the first time since the group agreed to participate in a peace process in March 2013.

Shamelessly echoing the mantra of the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that “Hamas is Isis, Isis is Hamas”, Erdogan told reporters on 4 October: “For us, the PKK is the same as [IS].” The irony is that if it were the same as IS, Turkey would have done a lot more to help. The Turkish-Syrian border hasn’t been closed to IS fighters, only to PKK fighters. On 20 October, Turkey finally agreed to allow Kurdish fighters to cross the border into Syria, but only Kurds from Iraq and not from Turkey – and not with heavy weaponry, which is the main request of the YPG fighters in Kobane.

I asked a senior Turkish diplomat whether his country was prepared to take responsibility for the fall of the town to the jihadists. “We don’t care,” he replied defiantly. “We don’t care what the world thinks. We won’t be bullied by anyone.” He needn’t be worried. Western governments have never lifted a finger to help Turkey’s Kurds – or, by extension, Syria’s. They’re the wrong sort of Kurds, victims of a Nato ally, rather than a gang of jihadists. (“Kurds in Turkey are ‘terrorists’, but Kurds in Iraq are ‘freedom fighters’ and we’re not quite sure about the present status of the Iranian Kurds,” Tariq Ali once joked.)

So progressives need to get behind the Kurds, especially the brave Kurds of Kobane. Is there a danger that their struggle will be co-opted by western governments, which often shape outcomes in the Middle East to suit their own interests? Yes. Is there an alternative stance open to progressives, given how squeezed the Kurds are between Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan and IS? No. “Freedom,” in the words of an old Kurdish proverb, “is never given but taken.” 

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer. He works for Al Jazeera English and the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

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