The defense of the Kurdish enclave of Kobani in northern Syria against the Khmer Rouge-like Islamic State (IS) could be a game-changer. Kobani might be home to only some 200,000 people, many of whom have already fled north across the border into Turkey, and defended by little more than 2,000 lightly armed fighters, mostly belonging to the People’s Protection Units (PYG), but its significance in the civilisational war against IS cannot be overstated. True, the Obama administration has been keen to point out that Kobani is of little strategic value in its mission “to degrade and destroy” IS in Syria and Iraq, and yet the intensity of the US air campaign against the death cult besieging Kobani belies this.
Rojava (the self-declared autonomous Kurdish republic in northern Syria) consists of three non-contiguous cantons, Afrin in the west, Kobani at the centre and Jazeera to the east. Had the PYG retreated from Kobani and relocated to Afrin or Jazeera, both of which are easier to defend, the city would have fallen like all those other towns on the Syrian plains. But Syria’s Kurdish fighters did not retreat as some anticipated. Then again, few predicted the medium-sized city of Stalingrad (Volgograd) would become the site of a major face-off between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.
In September of this year, IS marched on the city of Kobani full of confidence. Why not? In January the movement captured the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramada. On June 10, 2014, Mosul fell – the second-largest city in Iraq, with a population of maybe two million people – when the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) shed their weapons and uniforms and ran away after 2,000 IS fighters turned up at the city gates. Events since then would do Osama bin-Laden proud. The only option for the 60,000 Christians living in the city, apart from being publicly crucified or converting to Islam, has been to steal away in the night for Iraqi Kurdistan. Up to 130,000 Christians from Mosul and surrounding districts are now under the protection of the Kurds in the north of the country. The horror stories are legion. Now there is the news of Iraqi writer Samira Salih al-Nuaimi being tortured for five days by IS and then killed in public. IS homicidal fanatics have shown a particular penchant for slaughtering professional women – lawyers, doctors, activists and politicians. Incredibly, Australian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson believes it would help if we stopped “demonising” the IS by calling them “terrorists”. I prefer the Peshmerga’s three-step solution: (1) Lay siege to Mosul by capturing every town and village in the vicinity of the place. (2) Enter the city and destroy the Islamic State’s nest of vipers. (3) Place Mosul – as per Kirkuk – under the provisional governance of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Northern Iraq.
Kobani is quite a distance from Mosul in more ways than one. The arrival of 150 heavily armed Peshmerga fighters in Kurdish Syria, having transited through Turkey on their way from Kurdish Iraq, is a sensational turn of events. The KRG of Northern Iraq has a businesslike relationship with Turkey, while the avowedly secularist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey is designated a terrorist organisation by Ankara. The Syrian Kurds have been closely aligned with the PKK, and until now only limited political or military co-operation has existed between the People’s Protection Units and the Peshmerga fighters. Needless to say, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having prevented the People’s Protection Units from the other two cantons of Rojava coming to the aid of their compatriots in Kobani, facilitated the passage of 150 Peshmerga fighters from the KRG only after the US applied immense pressure on him.
Since September, Erdogan has ordered the Turkish armed forces to do nothing in support of Kobani’s struggle against the Islamic State, arguing that a battle between IS and the People’s Protection Units is a “war between two terrorist organisations”. This past week, Erdogan railed against the West, America in particular, for focusing all its attention (and bombs) on the IS forces besieging Kobani instead of taking on Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. Erdogan is not wrong to insist that the survival of Assad’s homicidal regime has marketing value for the Islamic State. Assad’s genocidal deployment of “barrel bombs”, not to mention the regime’s systematic use of torture, means that much of Syria will never again be under the jurisdiction of Damascus. But that is only half the story.
Thanks to Putin’s Russia, the Islamic Republic of Iran and local anti-Sunni sentiment, a portion of old Syria – beginning at the Mediterranean and then winding around Lebanon like a boa constrictor before stretching towards the border with Israel – will forever remain beyond the grasp of the Islamic State. In other words, the “instruments of darkness” – à la the president of the Turkish Republic – tell half-truths in order “to win us to our harm”. Translation: never trust a single word from the mouth of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the short term, at least, either the Kurds save civilisation from the Islamic State or nobody does. The West might provide air cover, armaments and military training, but while Obama remains the leader of the Free World chances are that is all the West will make available to the anti-IS forces in the region. Circumstances can always change, but if I were living in Mesopotamia I would not count on the US cavalry turning up any time soon. Yes, ISF can be expected to defend what remains of Iraq, just as the Syrian Armed Forces will make every effort to preserve Assad’s rump state, but everything else between Damascus and Baghdad is pretty much up for grabs, Aleppo included. Unless the Kurds, in conjunction with various tribal, religious and minority ethnic grouping, defeat IS, then the black flag of Jihadi nihilism will flutter indefinitely over the sands of Mesopotamia. And if there is an incontrovertible case for “smothering ISIS in its sandpit” – as Keith Windschuttle argues in the November 2014 edition of Quadrant – the import of Kobani comes into even sharper focus.
None of this is to suggest that the Kurdish people of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran are bound together by an indissoluble unity and constitute some kind of invincible force. For instance, a small proportion of Iraqi Kurds back the Islamic State, some of whom are providing useful intelligence to IS in the battle for Kobani. Similarly, a number of Turkish Kurds are Islamist in orientation and have no time for their fellow Kurds, who are mostly secular-leaning Muslims. That said, the disintegration of Syria and Iraq and the growing reach of IS in those two lands has brought the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iraq together in unprecedented ways. PKK fighters, for instance, lent a hand to the Peshmerga when IS declared war on the Kurds at the height of the summer and momentarily threatened Erbil, capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. Finally, while the three Syrian Kurdish autonomous regions are not contiguous, it is a different story at the northernmost point of the old Syria-Iraq border, where the Jazeera canton and the Kurdish Regional Government adjoin. A once concealed nation begins to emerge, slowly and painfully, into view.
On June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), announced the foundation of the Islamic State with Mosul as the provisional capital. Al-Baghdadi was henceforth to be known as Caliph Ibrahim. Let the selling of Yazidi women into sexual slavery and the beheading of infidels begin. The apocalyptic nature of the IS death cult was confirmed with the appearance of Dubiq, its official online magazine, in October this year. The theme of Dubiq – and the Islamic State itself – is “End Times” or “The Final Hour of History”. In other words, the Islamic revivalist movement, inaugurated by Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, has become a hotbed of millennialist madmen. Richard Landes’ Heaven on Earth (2011) – read Quadrant’s review here – is as good a place as any to begin comprehending the nightmare that now confronts civilisation.
The only antidote, in the end, to Jihadi nihilism is enlightened patriotism. We see it in the State of Israel. We observed it last year when the people of Egypt, in partnership with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Egyptian Armed Forces, overthrew Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. And we have surely witnessed it in the brave struggle of those who are defending Kobani from Islamic State fighters. If Kobani should fall then the secular and democratic spirit of Rojava will live on in the cantons of Afrin and Jazeera, places where religious and ethnic minorities are treated with respect and Islamic supremacism is kept in check. We do not need to glamourise the Kurdish women – the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) – who have taken up arms to keep the depravity of IS barbarity at bay. There is nothing chic about these women risking their lives in horrific conditions in order to save themselves from monsters. The pity is that so many of them will be slaughtered well before we awake from our long slumber.
There are signs, though, that some in the West are beginning to realise that the struggle of the Kurds is our struggle. Not only do US jets continue to pound IS targets in and around Kobani, but at last the Kurdish Regional Government of Northern Iraq is being provided with lethal weaponry by countries such as Britain and Australia, and the Baghdad government is disallowed any say the matter. Thanks to (allegedly) private benefactors in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, IS is cash-rich and bristling with all manner of arms. The Peshmerga requires tanks and attack helicopters to take the fight to IS. In some ways, of course, we are back to the days before the Second Iraq War. I am reminded of the passage from Bernard Lewis’ Notes on a Century (2012) in which he insists – accusations to the contrary – that he never countenanced the 2003 invasion of Iraq. What he advised – to both Bush Senior and Bush Junior and Bill Clinton – was that the US recognise the Kurdish zone in Northern Iraq as a “provisional government of free Iraq”. Everything else, including the demise of the tyrant Saddam Hussein, would eventually fall into place. The Kurds, apparently, were the answer then no less than they are the answer now.
Daryl McCann blogs at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au