A flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region flies next to an Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter as he takes position to monitor the area in Bashiqa, north-east of Mosul. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
President Masoud Barzani with Peshmerga commanders
I do not have too many close friends. I have lots of acquaintances, but I keep my inner circle really small. And if there is one thing I value most in friendship, it is loyalty. I consider myself a loyal friend. I would go out of my way for a friend; and I also never forget those who stand with me when the chips are down. They are the ones to whom I give the utmost priority. I have always been that way. And so, I guess in the same vein, I also expect that in the field of international relations, nations would stand by those who stand with them in their hour of need. This brings me to the issue at hand- the impending Syrian peace talks. Ever since the UN announced that the talks would begin in Geneva, Switzerland, there has been a lot of chatter about just who is invited to the table. The important power players e.g. USA, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia; would all be at the table. Within Syria, the Assad government is expected to be represented; along with mostly Saudi-backed opposition fighters. For obvious reasons, ISIS is not invited! But what struck me as odd, is the fact that despite their massive and important involvement in the war against ISIS, an invitation has not been extended to the Kurds.
The Kurds are a minority group found in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and even in Iran. Over the years, they have fought for their independence in a Kurdish homeland. They have also been victims of political segregation and even genocide. In 1988, Saddam Hussein used poison gas to wipe out approximately 150,000 Kurds, in what the Kurds now refer to as the “War of Annihilation”. In Turkey, the government has labeled the Kurdish PKK as a terrorist organization and a threat to its national stability. For this reason, they have carried out attacks against Kurdish YPG positions in Syria. Nevertheless, the Kurds have persevered.
As ISIS sprung up in 2014, the Iraqi army fled. Their abandoned weaponry and equipment were taken by the terrorists as they grew and advanced. As territory after territory fell to the ISIS onslaught in Iraq and Syria, the Americans were in desperate need of effective fighting units; especially as Barack Obama had declared that “there would be no American boots on the ground”. The Kurds thus, stepped in. Brave men and women volunteered themselves in the fight against ISIS. The Kurds have proven to be a highly disciplined group, and a formidable fighting force. They have been essential in relaying vital intelligence to US military commanders, in order to carry out effective airstrikes against ISIS targets. Even when their requests for weapons have been declined by the Americans, time and time again, the Kurds have fought on. As one Kurdish mother lamented the death of her 3 sons in battle, she proudly and defiantly declared that she had 2 more sons who were willing and able to sacrifice themselves in defense of their homeland, if need be. The female Kurdish Peshmerga (Peshmerga, meaning those who face death) are just as brave as the men folk. In fact, it is said that ISIS fighters dread been killed by a female Peshmerga. According to them, this would take away their chances of going to paradise! As the war has progressed, the Kurds have been able to regain most of their territory previously seized by ISIS. They were vital to the liberation of Sinjar, and are also thought to be highly essential to any planned future assault to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. In fact, it is widely asserted that Iraq’s fighting force would be ineffective in Mosul, without Kurdish input. The Kurds have been a vital military ally for the Americans in Syria and Iraq, and many of them have lost their lives fighting. They have been responsible for the death of thousands of ISIS fighters, even with obsolete weaponry. It is therefore mind-boggling that the United States is willing to exclude them from the Geneva talks. It is also quite strange, that it is the Russians who are vehemently pushing for Kurdish inclusion at the talks. According to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, the Kurds have been an effective fighting force in Syria. They also account for 15% of the Syrian population, and it would thus be “counterproductive”, if they are not present at Geneva. I agree.
On the other hand, while Russia wants the Kurds present at the talks, the Americans are not so keen; even though the Kurds have been a very important military ally in their anti-ISIS war efforts. This is because of regional considerations- particularly in deference to Turkey which sees the Kurdish fighters as terrorists. For a very long time since the outbreak of the Syrian War, the Turks refused to allow the US use its airbases as take-off points for coalition forces in anti-ISIS aerial bombardment; even though they are both NATO members. When they finally agreed sometime in 2015, one of the conditions was that there would be zero ISIS presence, and also zero Kurdish presence along the Turkish-Syrian border. Within Turkey, there are allegations of terrorist activities by the Kurdish PKK and last year, the Turkish government cracked down on PKK members, essentially ending the previously established truce. And Turkish disdain extends to the wider Kurdish population; especially the Peshmerga in Syria.
Some people are of the opinion that the Kurds do not necessarily have the same end-goals as the United States. That while the main goal of the Americans is the defeat of ISIS; that of the Kurds is the establishment of a homeland. But even if this is true, no one can deny the fact that in seeking the creation of a homeland, the Kurdish Peshmerga force has perhaps been the most effective ally the Americans have in Syria and Iraq! I therefore think that it is a slap in the face of every Kurdish soldier, that the USA would not push for Kurdish inclusion at the peace talks. It is also a spit on the grave of every Kurdish soldier killed in the battle against ISIS.
As I have gotten older and weathered fickle friendships, it has become more important to me, to take note of the friends who have proven to be willing to “ride or die” with me. US Secretary of State, Ash Carter, speaking to Fareed Zakaria during the recent World Economic Forum which held in Davos, stated that America would certainly win the war against ISIS; and that when they did, they would remember those who stood with them, and those who didn’t. The Kurds have shown that they are trusted allies. They have proven their friendship, time and time again on the bloody battlefields of Syria and Iraq. They have sacrificed their lives to stand with the United States, and have essentially become America’s “boots on the ground”! Now, it is time for the United States to show just how valuable the Kurdish alliance is to them. Now is the time for the Americans to show just how appreciative they are of the Kurdish war efforts. The Kurds should not be excluded from the all-important peace talks to determine the future of Syria. Now is the time to give them a seat at the table- the negotiation table. The Kurds have stood- and are still standing- with America…will America stand with the Kurds?