The illusion that we can stand apart from events in Kobane is fuelled by little Englander insularity and hard-left anti-imperialism.
The illusion that we can stand apart from events in Kobane is fuelled by little Englander insularity and hard-left anti-imperialism
Kurdish Kobane may go down in history as the courageous town that resisted the Waffen iSiS to the bitter end but whose people were let down by the international community.
We should celebrate heroic defenders such as Dilar Gencxemis, the mother of two who blew herself up along with jihadist invaders, or the young peshmerga who is said to have saved the last bullet for herself rather than face rape and beheading.
These fighters may not have killed the ideology of the Waffen iSiS but they certainly made it less lethal by killing its foot soldiers. But their likely defeat in this strategic battle mocks the often heralded notion of ‘never again’ after some genocide or mass slaughter.
The US and others carried out airstrikes which slowed down but may not have stopped the enemy. Are airstrikes futile? The case for airstrikes in Syria and in Iraq was not that they would by themselves halt, reverse and defeat Daish – the Arabic abbreviation for the so-called Islamic State.
Airstrikes are only useful in limited circumstances against fixed positions and when enemy forces are on open terrain which they try to avoid. They must be combined with reliable intelligence on the ground. This has been the case in Iraq where airstrikes helped beat back Daish but not in Kobane, at least, perhaps, until very recently.
The Kurds and the Iraqis are not asking for ground forces, but need advisers to beef up their armies for self-defence within Iraq. The Iraqi Army is, however, demoralised and disorganised after its humiliating rout by Daish in June, and will take time to reconstruct together with Baghdad reaching out politically beyond its Shia fastness to disaffected Sunnis who acquiesce or collaborate with Daish and who could better eliminate them in western Iraq.
The bolder peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan faltered in some places in a few fraught days in August but can be more quickly licked into shape with supplies of heavy calibre weapons, and the professionalisation and unification of their command structures, plus ending the disgraceful economic blockade by Baghdad of the Kurdistan Region. Both armies can, however, only be expected to defend their homelands.
Syria is now the main cockpit of the conflict. We need to get serious about Syria if the aim of degrading and ultimately destroying Daish is to mean anything. Failure to intervene against Assad sowed the seeds of the aggressive and imperialist Daish. Western ground troops may also become a necessary part of the mix in Syria. It should not be ruled out.
Support for those fighting Daish is crucial. The defenders of Kobane include the Free Syrian Army, whose representatives I met in Istanbul earlier this year, and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the peshmerga of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which is linked to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The FSA has been shredded by the combined forces of the Assad regime and what is now Daish.
Turkey’s position is central and may be in the process of revision. The PYD/YPG are anathema to Turkey which fears that they become a thorn in their side. The continuing fear in Ankara is that these Kurds will challenge the Turkish state rather than seek autonomy and rights in more decentralised states, as they have long said they wish.
Kurds in Turkey, and elsewhere, have reacted with great anger to the inaction so far of Turkish military forces just over the border from Kobane and that the recent Turkish parliamentary decision to combat Daish makes no distinction between jihadists and the PKK. The glacially slow peace process between the Turkish state and the PKK could break down if there is no movement by next week. This can be avoided through diplomacy.
However, this is of little comfort to those who sacrificed their lives in Kobane or who face years of exile in refugee camps in Turkey, alongside hundreds of thousands of people marooned in Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon and Jordan, whose second biggest city is now that of refugees.
The sheer scale of this humanitarian crisis and the complexity of the politics in the context of the Shia-Sunni schism are difficult to fathom but the Middle East is being recast. The illusion that the UK can stand apart from this is fuelled by a little Englander insularity and hard-left anti-imperialism. These combine to scupper solidarity and ignore the centrality of the Middle East to our lives and economies.
The people of Kobane deserved, and still deserve, better and their town must be a priority for liberation so that those who fled can safely return. The overall role of the Kurds in the Middle East is becoming ever more crucial.
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