Arming the Kurds won’t stop Iraq’s brutal civil war

It will be a disaster for Iraq’s Kurds if the West succeeds in hijacking their cause, argues Ken Olende


Peshmerga women fighters in Kurdistan

Peshmerga women fighters in Kurdistan (Pic: Jan Sefti/Flikr)


David Cameron has announced that Britain will arm Kurdish forces fighting the growth of the reactionary Islamic State group in Iraq. 

Many on the left think this a good alternative to direct Western intervention, which has been responsible for the spread of sectarianism in the region.

The Kurds live in an area divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey and have been fighting for a Kurdish state. Socialists support this struggle.

But only Western imperialism will benefit if in the process the Kurds become a pawn in the spiralling conflict.

Injecting Western arms will not stop Iraq’s slide into sectarian civil war. 

The West has always defended its own interests in the region through backing brutal dictators. 

The US backed the rise of Saddam Hussein and the war he launched against neighbouring Iran in the 1980s. His brutal suppression of Iraqi Kurds led Kurdish guerrillas, the Peshmerga, to fight on Iran’s side.

Hussein’s forces got revenge with the chemical attack on the city of Halabja in northern Iraq in 1988. 

This killed around 5,000 Kurdish people.

The US government did not call for “humanitarian” intervention. It blocked serious investigations into its ally’s war crime.

By 1991 the US had fallen out with the Iraqi regime, and armed Peshmerga forces during its first invasion of Iraq.

But its Nato ally Turkey had been fighting a guerrilla war against Kurdish separatists for a decade. It was determined that no Kurdish state should be established. 

The US has attempted ever since to make sure the Kurds in northern Iraq are strong enough to help US interests, but too weak to threaten Turkey. 

The war that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s showed the reality of the West arming rebels.

Nato called for “humanitarian” support for Kosovans who were being attacked by Serb forces. 

The British prime minister Tony Blair said in 1999 that a “new generation” of world leaders was enforcing “a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated”.

Many on the left knew that bombing would not help, but thought that arming the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas was an alternative. 

The bombing went ahead and the KLA was armed.

But far from supporting a multi-ethnic society, the Nato intervention oversaw the expulsion of 200,000 Serbs and Roma from Kosovo. The KLA was among the most enthusiastic ethnic cleansers.

More recently, after the Syrian revolution the US set out to find “trustworthy rebel partners” to arm. 

The CIA offered support to sections of the opposition in September of last year. The US wanted “moderates”. This excluded both Islamist fighters and revolutionaries.

Isis, as the Islamic State was then known, used the threat of Western intervention to declare war on rebels.

One opposition fighter in Homs said, “We know that this is a pretext for them to interfere in our country to end our revolution and attack the revolutionaries.”

Already in some parts of northern Iraq protests have taken place demanding the expulsion of Arabs from Kurdish areas, as if they were all Islamic State supporters. 

Poor nationalist movements can’t always choose who to source arms from. 

But despite the horror at what the Islamic State is doing, Western intervention will only prolong the fighting and intensify the divisions.

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