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Empower Kurdish secular democrats to defeat Islamic State

Peter Tatchell at protest

Peter Tatchell (left) demonstrates in London, September 2014.

The British and US governments seem determined to repeat the mistakes of the past, with plans for Iraq war number three. The first was in 1991, the second in 2003 and now the third in 2014. It’s only air strikes – for now – they pledge. And only in Iraq, not in Syria (yet). But judging from the past, this limited intervention may be hard to sustain. Mission creep tends to be norm. Have our leaders learned nothing from two decades of disastrous foreign and military policy? It seems not.

To save lives and protect human rights, the genocidal fundamentalists of ISIS must be stopped. But not by the West and not for the reasons often advanced by David Cameron and Barack Obama.

Despite the ostensibly broad-based anti-ISIS coalition assembled by Washington, it’s the US that is the puppet master pulling the strings. The other foreign partners are, to a large degree, White House proxies. This is where the whole Obama strategy falls down.

A Western instigated and led external military intervention will inevitably be a propaganda gift and recruiting sergeant for ISIS. It will energize and expand the ranks of Islamist extremism. ISIS will portray it as Muslims under attack by Western crusaders and their stooges. They’ll trumpet their own actions as godly self-defence against infidel imperialism. Images of Western air strikes, and the inevitable civilian casualties, will be plastered across social media and cited as evidence of yet another attack on Muslim lands and people. This will doubtless lead to a flood of new jihadi recruits.

ISIS will be aided by the ‘national interest’ justifications offered by Cameron and Obama, who claim that ISIS must be defeated because it poses a threat to Britain and the US. In truth, the main threat is to Muslim people in Iraq and Syria. They are already bearing the brunt of ISIS brutality and remain at gravest risk in the unfolding genocide. By comparison, the danger to Western nations is minimal. Lesson one: don’t exaggerate the threat to the West and draw attention away from the main victims in Syria and Iraq.

Further evidence of this distorted Western-centric focus is the way British and US leaders are suddenly tub-thumping that swift, strong action is needed against ISIS, while effectively ignoring that an anti-ISIS fight back has been going on for more than a year in places like Kobane, northern Syria, led by Kurdish troops. During all this time, as the Kurds led the resistance to ISIS, the Western powers looked the other way. Lesson number two: don’t act like it was the West that originated the idea of action against ISIS and insinuate that the people of the region haven’t been resisting the so-called Islamic State.  

The truth is that if the US and Britain are serious about fighting ISIS they should start by aiding the people on the ground who know the region best, have local roots and who are already leading the fight against the jihadist menace – the peshmerga army of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq and guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and allied local self-defence movements in Syria. Anti-Islamist, they support democracy and secularism. As authentic local movements with mass support, they are the best bulwark against ISIS.

But the Kurdish forces are under-equipped and lack the heavy and sophisticated weaponry needed to defeat the Islamic State. They need urgent assistance to empower them to liberate themselves.

International aid to the Kurds – in the spirit of aid to republican Spain in the 1930s – could include training, advisors, weapons, military intelligence, food and medical equipment. With extra assistance and supplies, they could be an even more powerful, effective counter-force to ISIS.

Kurdish protesters in London have made this appeal for international aid and solidarity; believing it can enable Kurdish fighters to roll back the ISIS advance.

Belatedly, some Western governments are offering to assist the Iraqi-based peshmerga but not the forces of the leftist PKK, which is still wrongly branded a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. Yet it is the PKK fighters and their allies that are holding off ISIS in northern Syria. They are a key bulwark against the spread and triumph of the Islamic State – and deserve international recognition and support.

Sadly, the UK Stop The War Coalition (STWC) has allowed its opposition to war to trump support for democracy, secularism and human rights. It is laudable to oppose Western military attacks but a betrayal to show no solidarity with the democratic, secular, liberal and Left forces in Iraq and Syria who are fighting ISIS and President Assad’s blood-soaked tyranny.

Not backing military aid to these progressive Kurdish forces, as an alternative to Western intervention, is a serious misjudgement. STWC’s failure to support those fighting an emerging genocide has a whiff of de facto acquiescence and collusion.

I hate war and see it as a last resort. But to stave off a bloodbath and enslavement, the progressive anti-ISIS Kurdish fighters deserve assistance from the West and from the whole international community. If military aid to partisans fighting Nazi fascism was the right thing to do in the 1940s, then surely support for those opposing ISIS’s clerical fascism is the right thing to do today.

More information about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns can be found on the Peter Tatchell Foundation website.

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