There is a traditional saying: “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” As events unfold across the Levant, I fear this is becoming true.
This summer I returned to Iraq, the country of my birth, to visit the front line in the war against Isil. While I was there I heard harrowing stories from the victims of the conflict. I met an 82-year-old Yazidi man who had walked three days in the desert heat to get his grandson to safety; a man whose pregnant wife forced him to leave her behind to save their two children; I heard stories of husbands butchered and women sold into sexual slavery.
In the past month, more than 160,000 Kurdish civilians from Kobane, on the Syrian-Turkish border, have abandoned their homes, possessions and lives in the face of the Isil onslaught. They have survived four years of Syria’s brutal civil war, but the jihadists’ advance represents the threat of total extinction. Yet about 3,000 are thought to remain in the town – those too old or infirm to flee. Without swift action, Isil will commit slaughter on a scale that far exceeds what happened this August in Sinjar, northern Iraq.
The international community cannot hesitate in the face of such a calamity, and it is here that Turkey’s intervention, as a Nato member, is critical. But we too have a vital contribution to make.
Much of the recent debate over our involvement in Iraq and Syria has been clouded by the events of the past two decades. But this is not 2003, and we must not let the emotion of the past distort the facts of today. Importantly, we must also defend the legacy of a previous intervention: the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Under the protection of the no-fly zone established by the Major government in 1991, the Kurds have emerged from early years of internal conflict to form a young but flourishing democracy. Theirs is a pluralist and secular society that values everything we in Britain take for granted: freedom, tolerance and respect for minorities, all embedded within functioning institutions. The UK enjoys a special relationship with the Kurdish people, based on these shared values and our historic opposition to Baathist tyranny.
The argument that democracy does not work in the region is false. The Kurds have proved otherwise. Yet this progress is now under threat, not from secular dictatorship but from a warped and totalitarian view of Islam which is attempting to secure its place in the region. At this point, it is the Kurds who are ideally placed to launch counter-offensives against Isil – geographically and militarily. But for too long their fighting spirit and determination has been held back for lack of equipment. The Prime Minister’s announcement that the UK will supply and train the Kurdish Peshmerga is critical to remedy this.
But it’s not just about guns and ammo. As has often been said, the region also needs a long-term political strategy to unite various interest groups in a common effort against Isil. Sadly, we can’t assume this will come from Baghdad or Tehran. It is encouraging that the Iranians have engaged, but can they be relied upon to act pragmatically? By linking nuclear negotiations to actions against Isil, they encourage a backlash from both Saudi Arabia and Israel, and potentially compromise any shared gains.
It is only in recent weeks that Iraq’s central government has agreed to pay part of the Kurdish share of the national budget, after former prime minister Nouri al-Malaki withheld it for nine months. This was a deeply divisive act that crippled the Kurdish economy and left government employees, including the Peshmerga troops, without pay.
Now, with the strains of hosting more than 1.4 million refugees among a peacetime population of five million, the Kurdish economy is on its knees, preventing Kurds from either providing effective help to the refugees or taking the fight to Isil.
While there is hope that the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider Abadi, will avoid the divisive sectarianism of his predecessor, one month into a national unity government there is no sign of progress on the key disputes between Baghdad and Kurdish-governed northern Iraq, notably on Peshmerga salaries, the status of Kirkuk and the sale of oil from the Kurdish north.
We cannot expect the Kurds to do more than hold a defensive line if they have one hand tied behind their back. This is something the Turks have recognised since their recent reconciliation with the Kurds. In particular, Turkey has come out in support of the Kurds’ right to sell their own oil, which could provide a real lifeline to the Kurdish regional government. In Washington, Congress has already been considering how the Kurds can fund their own armed forces. The rest of the international community should take heed.
As Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region of Iraq, explained to me this summer, the Kurds know that taking on Isil is their fight, and they do not want British Servicemen and women to risk their lives on the ground. All they want is to provide for their people at their time of greatest need.
The reality is that degrading Isil will not be easy. Rather than wait to see if prime minister Abadi honours his commitment to share power, or hope the international consensus to take action against Isil won’t be dissolved by the various strategic forces at play in the region, we should do all we can to help the Kurds defeat the extremists.
In the Kurds we have true friends, and I hope our actions will allow them to say the same of us.
Nadhim Zahawi is Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon.