The war-torn streets of Kirkuk, a city of much tension for the KurdsUS Department of Defense

On 25th April, Cambridge played host to the renowned Kurdish commander and former Socialist Party Leader, Mohammed Haji Mahmoud, who is widely known in Kurdistan as ‘Kaka Hama’. Mahmoud gained a fearsome reputation for fighting Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 1980s, and more recently has led a Peshmerga forces in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Having lost his own son to ISIS, the final of many injuries gained during battle forced Mahmoud finally to step back from the front line.

Speaking through a translator and accompanied by representatives of the Kurdish government, as well as journalists from Kurdish national television, there was no question of Mahmoud’s reputation or of his patriotism, in this talk hosted by the CUKurdSoc.

Mahmoud spoke much of the history of Iraq and of Kurdistan in particular, and was clearly and rightly proud of the Kurds’ progress towards a largely peaceful and democratic regional government, in particular since the fall of Saddam in 2003. Indeed, given their brutal treatment by Saddam’s Baathist regime, the Kurds were perhaps the only winners from the disastrous US-led invasion. Mr. Mahmoud stated openly that he doubts the country would be in its current “three country state” if the US and its allies had stayed to clear up post-Saddam Iraq. That changed, however, with ISIS’s sudden and dramatic advance through Iraq and Syria, eventually closing in on Kurdish territory in the north. While the demoralised Iraqi army fled in terror at Isis’s strength and brutality, the task of taking on this unprecedented insurgency was left largely to the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Proud and defiant, Mahmoud told the fascinated audience that in fact the Kurds were the only force having any noticeable effect at all on ISIS, emphasising that they fought not only for their own survival, but for the security and freedom of the wider world. “While the world is afraid of ISIS, ISIS is afraid of the Peshmerga!” exclaimed Mahmoud. Despite many in the room openly laughing, no-one was under the illusion that he was merely joking. He did, however, express his frustration at the lack of willingness of the West, who are vocally supportive of the Peshmerga, to engage fully in the conflict, and asked directly for troops on the ground. “Western air support alone”, he complained, “can’t even conquer a village.”

It is hardly surprising that the West is so reluctant to commit ground troops to the conflict in the Middle East given the disaster of the 2003 invasion. While the circumstances are wildly different with the essentially universal condemnation of ISIS’s brutality, no European government, or even the Obama administration, is willing to tell war-weary voters at home that they will once again place troops in a region where they so dramatically failed just a decade ago.

However, beyond domestic politics, there is a far more objective argument for not involving ourselves more fully in the conflict. To understand this, we must understand the circumstances that led to ISIS’s rise in the first place: Saddam’s regime was a Sunni one in a country with a largely Shia population (incidentally the precise opposite of the Assad regime in Syria). The deposition of Saddam and the catastrophically incompetent Shia government’s leadership led to the country’s Sunni population being left disenfranchised and even demonised. Not only this, but the disbandment of Iraq’s largely Sunni army saw many of the now unemployed, angry and highly-trained fighters join the Sunni insurgency from which ISIS has risen.

A legitimate fear in the West is that as well as being deeply unpopular at home, waging another full-scale invasion will serve only to provide further anti-Western sentiments among Sunnis in the region. It is easy to see how Western involvement in the conflict could serve only to widen the region’s sectarian fractures, resulting in even more bloodshed and instability for years to come. Not only this, but it will almost certainly provoke more attacks against the West on its own soil, as recently shown by those in Paris and Brussels.

There is yet another, highly intractable, problem with supporting the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq. This is the problem of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which has been under Kurdish control since the Iraqi army fled under ISIS’s advance in 2014. Kirkuk, with its Kurdish majority, has historically been of great importance to the Kurds, and they will not be prepared to give it up when the conflict finally comes to an end. Not only this, but the heroic efforts of the Peshmerga in their fight against ISIS will provide, as Mahmoud firmly stated, a virtually incontrovertible case for giving the Kurdish their dream of full independence (for which a referendum is expected in the near future), meaning that the fate of the city will be of vital importance to the future stability of Iraqi-Kurdish relations. 

What will come of this is currently unknown, but the fear is that the city will cause yet another sectarian rupture, this time between Kurds and the rest of the Iraqi population. In a country whose people Mahmoud describes as “not trusting one another”, a messy three-way conflict between Kurds, Sunnis and Shias is not unforeseeable. While Mahmoud expresses that it is his greatest hope to see an independent Kurdistan “working closely” with a stabilised Iraqi state, it goes without saying that the sectarianism that plagues the Middle East, and Iraq and Syria in particular, is highly complex.

This is only exacerbated with the geopolitical concerns of third parties including the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia colliding through proxies. Despite his decades of experience and unrivalled knowledge of the complexities of the Middle East, it is telling that even Kaka Hama could provide no clear solution to the problems. The question is what, if anything, will force these actors to step in, and if their involvement can help to liberate the region from the scourge of ISIS without provoking yet more bloodshed in this fascinating but tortuously convoluted region. What is clear, however, is that the Kurds and leaders such as Mahmoud are our best hope of defeating the aberration that is the Islamic State, and for that they deserve our highest praise and gratitude.

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