19 January 2016

The Kurds should not be denied our support

The Kurds should not be denied our support
Nick Cohen, Saturday 16 January 2016 
Online, you can watch a jihadi driving one of the thousands of armoured vehicles Islamic State plundered from the Iraqi army toward Kurdish troops.
They are frightened of a suicidally ferocious fanatic, so determined to kill he has packed the vehicle with explosives, which will kill him when he kills them. But they are not as frightened as the Iraqi army, which just ran from Isis and didn’t stop running for months. They pour fire into the Humvee and set it ablaze. They hold the line, as they have held 1,000kms of front, ever since Islamic State burst out of western Iraq in the summer of 2014, massacred the Yazidis of Sinjar and threatened to roll on to Baghdad.

The romance of modern Kurdish history can be as striking as its unspeakable horrors. The largest nationality on Earth without a state of their own; a despised and massacred people, spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, has become our bravest and best ally.
Isis’s nemesis in Iraq were the Peshmerga (“those who confront death”) of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is the one part of Kurdish territory with real autonomy.
For all its many faults, it recovered from the chemical weapons Saddam Hussein dumped on his captive ethnic minority and a civil war between rival clans. The regional government has broken as free of Baghdad as it can and built a pluralist and secular society, whose democratic record is not bad by the standards of a wicked world, and frankly miraculous by the standards of the Middle East.

To the delight of true feminists everywhere, Kurdish women fight in the Peshmerga. In Iraq, an Isis misogynist will not find 72 virgins but armed and exceptionally dangerous women. “Men say women can only look after children and the house,” explained one. “This makes me angry.” Western governments support them. But the support is tentative and has the habit of vanishing when it is most needed. In his great anti-fascist speech, Hilary Benn said how proud he was that the RAF had helped the Kurds end Isis murders of Yazidi women too old to be raped and sold into sex slavery.

But the Kurds need ordnance too. The only weapons powerful enough to stop a suicide driver in a Humvee Britain has given them are 40 heavy machine guns. “They might as well be old iron rusting in a field,” Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdish regional government’s representative in London told me. The Peshmerga has run out of bullets and the British won’t supply any more until the central government in Baghdad approves the sale. As it, like its predecessors, regards the Kurds as racial inferiors, it has shown no inclination to do so.

Without bullets, Britain’s guns are useless. The morality of western foreign policy isn’t in a much better state either. We expect the Peshmerga to be our ground troops and die in our mutual endeavour – 1,300 have lost their lives so far. We expect the Kurds to help retake Mosul. We expect them to guard the Mosul dam, which would submerge Baghdad in floodwaters if Isis could blow it up.

We expect all this, even though Iraqi Kurdistan’s economy has collapsed under the blows of war, the fall in the oil price and the pressure of looking after two million refugees and internally displaced people in a territory of five million inhabitants. (Imagine Britain having to take 24 million asylum seekers, and you will appreciate the burden.)

The Shia Arab government in Baghdad refuses to give Kurdistan the tax revenues it is due and the Peshmerga soldiers have not been paid for three months. Yet Britain has not invited a representative of Iraqi Kurdistan to next month’s international aid conference in London on helping the victims of the Syria/Iraq war. In other words, the west expects much and gives little in return. Most notably, it will not acknowledge the moral argument for an independent Kurdish state, or the practical reality that on the ground in northern Iraq at least a Kurdish state exists in all but name.

The worst of the left is worse than the establishment. Jeremy Corbyn regarded Hilary Benn’s defence of the Kurds’ determination to fight the slave masters of Islamic State as “jingoism”. At least the Foreign Office has never sunk that low. Indeed, many political thinkers believe that its refusal to acknowledge Kurdish statehood is a moral position in itself.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Sykes–Picot agreement. I have barely seen it mentioned in Britain. But it will not pass unnoticed in the Middle East. In 1916, Colonel Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, adviser to the war cabinet, and Fran├žois Georges-Picot of the Quai d’Orsay divided the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence without a thought for whether the inhabitants were Sunnis, Shias, Arabs, Turks or, most egregiously, Kurds.

The survival of the Sykes-Picot borders, and the borders left by other colonial administrators, appears astonishing. But there is an argument for keeping them. As Stephen Pinker says in his account of the decline of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the violation of borders has become a “taboo”. Like the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, the “sacralisation of arbitrary lines on a map” may seem perverse, but at least it stops leaders using imperial conquest as a means of inflating their popularity.

Instead of changing borders by war, the modern world, or at least the best of it, wants universal human rights so minorities are protected wherever they live. No nation is ethnically homogeneous or a cultural or confessional unity. New nations create new minorities. There are good arguments in favour of leaving well enough alone.

But in terrible circumstance sacred lines must give way to profane reality. The “taboo” against using chemical weapons did not stop Saddam Hussein gassing Iranian troops and using them in his attempted genocide of the Kurds, or Bashar al-Assad gassing Sunni Arabs.

That both got away with a supposedly unthinkable crime shows that Syria and Iraq are failed states. The Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria will not rise up against Isis, as we wish them to, if all their “liberation” will entail is rule by vengeful Shia militias from Damascus and Baghdad.

The Kurds have endured two attempted genocides by invading Arab armies within living memory and are not going to accept anything less than full autonomy either. The best way to treat our allies as friends is to let them govern themselves.

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