The West Must Back the Kurds

‘In the savage quagmire of Iraq, the Kurdish enclave is a state in all but name—and one that displays Western traits of decency, tolerance, freedom, stability and prosperity’

Points East & West
Kobane: The West can still save this Kurdish border town (image: Karl Ludwig Poggeman)

As Mesopotamia’s boundaries are being redrawn in a bloody turmoil that is changing the regional balance of power, there is one obvious thing that Western nations should do to preserve their interests. They should play midwife to the birth of Kurdistan, by giving Kurdish forces the qualitative edge needed to defeat the barbarians of Islamic State.

In the savage quagmire of Iraq, the Kurdish autonomous enclave is a state in all but name — and one that displays those same traits of decency, religious tolerance, freedom, stability and economic prosperity that Western governments wish to foster as a counterbalance to extremism.

The United States should make supporting beleaguered Kurdish forces a priority — especially in Kobane, the Kurdish town on the Syrian-Turkish border that has been under siege by Islamic State since August. Instead, the Obama Administration is equivocating. Though it has dropped supplies to Kurdish defenders it sees unequivocal support for the Kurds as undermining its commitment to a unified, inclusive, federal Iraq and to a political solution to Syria’s civil war that keeps Syria together.

In Syria, where the Kurds are locked in a life-or-death struggle against IS in Kobane, supporting the Kurds would lead to a de facto endorsement of that country’s break-up too. Worse, from an American perspective, it would require backing an enemy of their Nato ally, Turkey — the terrorist-listed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). And it might eventually lead to the US directly confronting the remnants of the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad — something that would please Ankara but infuriate Iran, with whose leaders President Obama has been seeking a thaw in relations since he took office in January 2009.

Ankara has feared the pull of a prosperous and independent Kurdish enclave around Erbil over its 30 per cent Kurdish minority ever since 2003, when America’s invasion of Iraq planted the seeds of an independent Kurdish state. But sitting idly by, as a complicit bystander in the slow death of a city, while from afar the Obama administration, almost two months into its air campaign against IS, remains unwilling to achieve its stated goals of “degrading and destroying” it, are decisions that will come back to haunt both Ankara and Washington.

Several commentators have already evoked the parallel between Kobane 2014 and Warsaw 1944, when the Red Army stood still outside the Polish capital for two months as the Wehrmacht and the SS smashed the Polish Home Army’s uprising. The Polish resistance was not Communist, so Stalin preferred to let it be liquidated. By the end of the uprising, most of Warsaw lay in ruins. Tens of thousands of civilians were brutally slaughtered in a deliberate attempt to break the resistance’s will to fight. Then the Soviets moved in.

Though Turkey is not the Soviet Union and IS does not have the destructive power of an SS Panzer division, one can see why that comes to mind, watching Turkish tanks stand idly by on the border overlooking Kobane. The fall of the town would be a demoralising defeat for Kurdish forces, which in Kobane are affiliated to the PKK. Turkey’s army can always push back later — and with its stature as the Middle East’s largest and best — equipped military, it would have no difficulty in smashing IS if it wished to.

But the government in Ankara finds more ideological affinity with IS — a Sunni Islamist movement — than with the Kurds, whose nationalist aspirations threaten the survival of a unified Turkey more than a band of savages with scimitars and an abundance of zeal.

It is hard to see why. The PKK’s supremo, Abdullah Öcalan, has been languishing in a Turkish jail since 1999. And the shifting sands of the Middle East, with the collapse of the Iraqi state and the disintegration of Syria into a bloody pandemonium, should make the Kurds the least of Turkey’s worries. Making Turkey the saviour of the Kurds in Kobane also cannot hurt the peace process; and it would give Turkey a stake in the future of Syria’s Kurdish areas.

As for Washington, it should stop pretending that this crisis can be solved by retraining an Iraqi military that just melted away despite a decade of American support. Or that letting Assad stay can help thaw relations with Tehran. Or that if it talks of inclusiveness to Baghdad and Damascus the Middle East will somehow shed its old habits. Or that Obama’s new-found militant rhetoric against IS is a substitute for the grim business of war.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the West has largely stood by as genocide and ethnic cleansing ravaged Europe’s backyard in the Balkans, Africa’s Great Lakes region, and now Syria and Iraq. Arthur Koestler called Soviet inaction in Warsaw “one of the major infamies of this war”. Let Kobane not become another one in our own time.