The Kurds always knew that the jihadists would come for them. The democratic, pluralist and dynamic Kurdistan region with its greater freedoms for women and the media is a standing affront to the lethal coalescence of Sunni extremists and Ba’athists who have taken control of a quarter of Iraq. It was only a matter of time.
And that time came this week with sudden advances by Islamic forces, which forced the overextended and under-supplied Kurdish peshmerga – the only efficient and effective military force in democratic Iraq – to make tactical retreats and to hold the line against possible incursions into their capital, Erbil, which was only 30 minutes drive from jihadist forces.
The pitiless and barbaric treatment of Christians and Yezedis and the new and more mortal danger to the Kurdistan region have finally forced a rethink by the United States and its allies.
It is understandable that America and its allies have no appetite for boots on the ground and indeed there is no need for this. Local forces can stem the jihadist tide. The Iraqi army is for now out of the frame, apart from its air force. But the main force that can hold the line between barbarism and civilisation is the peshmerga.
Incredibly, even when the very existence of Iraq is under mortal threat from the jihadists, Baghdad has refused to fund the peshmerga, has deprived the Kurdistan region of billions of dollars of its budget entitlement throughout this year (having underpaid for over 10 years) and is blocking Kurdish oil exports.
Kurdish civil servants and soldiers have not been paid and all this should end urgently by concluding a new pact in Baghdad with a new prime minister, along with the new speaker and (Kurdish) president. Whether this leads to a new and invigorated federalism or confederation is academic at this stage. Survival is the priority.
The Americans and the British have stepped up to the plate by agreeing to provide humanitarian supplies of food and water to thousands of Yezedis living in dire and biblical conditions on Mount Sinjar, surrounded by bloodthirsty jihadists who reserve the worse fate for these so-called ‘devil worshippers’.
The west has also agreed limited air strikes against jihadist forces and has drawn a red line in the defence of Erbil, the collapse of which would be a historical disaster as well as a massive humanitarian crisis. This is a good if belated start.
Kurdistan was under huge pressures before the Isis onslaught. The Syrian conflict had driven 250,000 refugees into Kurdistan. Last year, I saw their main camp at Domiz three times. It seemed well run and even happy but its expansion in space and time make that difficult to sustain. People are likely to be stuck there for years.
The jihadist onslaught on Mosul sent about 500,000 internally displaced people towards Kurdistan. More recent advances have added to the number. Kurdish government buildings, churches, mosques and parks are full of such people. All in all, the Kurdistan region’s population of about five million people has grown by about 20 per cent in a very short time. That would be a stretch for any country in a good time.
The Kurds now have much more on their plate. The threat from Isis is very real and powerful. The head-choppers acquired the arms of five defeated Iraqi divisions, including 1500 armoured Humvees, in June. They outgun the peshmerga, however motivated they are despite not being paid, and there is an urgent need to supply ammunition for their older Soviet-type weapons plus new small arms and ammo, heavy weaponry and help with intelligence and surveillance.
A mantra often employed in such cases is that there is no military solution, only a political solution. Of course, it is usually a mixture of the two and ultimately the crisis in Iraq will have to be settled through political negotiation.
In the meantime, however, military means are most necessary to cut Isis supply lines, destroy or capture their weapons and drive them into retreat. The Yezedis on Mount Sinjar can be saved from starvation and dehydration by dropping supplies but they cannot stay on the mountain for months. To come down they need to be safe and that means the disappearance of Isis who would slaughter them.
Putting Isis to flight can encourage Sunni tribes to turn on them. Moderate Sunni leaders who have been unable to return home can then play a bigger role in helping find a solution that allows the three major parts of Iraq to find a new way of sharing the territory. My best guess is that this will involve a much more developed autonomy for the Kurds, or even independence but the first priority is decisively defeating the jihadists. Arming the Kurds is crucial for them and for us.
Gary Kent is director all-party parliamentary group on Kurdistan and writes in a personal capacity
Photo: William John Gauthier
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