Nothing is simple about Canada’s support for Kurdish fighters

Kurdish PKK fighters Photo: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr/Creative Commons
Kurdish PKK fighters Photo: Kurdishstruggle/Flickr/Creative Commons

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
February 18, 2016

There is a generation of British soldiers, civil servants and planters, now mostly dead, who swear bloodcurdling oaths at the mention of the name of Canada.

They were posted to the then-British colony of Malaya after the Second World War, and they blame Canada for training and arming the ethnic Chinese communists who waged guerrilla war against the colonial power from 1948 until 1960. About 12,000 people were killed, including nearly 3,000 civilians.

There is some justice in the British accusation against Canada, though not much. Canada’s purpose in Malaya in the 1940s was to arm and train the communist guerrillas to fight the occupying Japanese. Many of those involved were Chinese Canadians, who volunteered to fight in the expectation Ottawa would no longer be able to deny them full citizenship after the war. Chinese Canadians were given the vote in 1947.

Once parachuted into occupied Malaya and Burma, the Canadian commandos linked up with local fellow ethnic Chinese, who they trained in sabotage, ambushes, and all the dark arts of guerrilla warfare, and then led in attacks on the Japanese. When the Canadians left, the Chinese Malays remembered the lessons, hid their weapons and bided their time.

Today the Malay Emergency – the British had far too much experience of these things to be so foolish as to declare a “war on terrorism” – is remembered as one of the few textbook examples of how to defeat a guerrilla insurgency. And in what is now Malaysia, there is a pact that allows the minority ethnic Chinese to make money so long as they don’t challenge the majority Malays for political power.

Now Canada is doing something similar with the Kurds in Iraq as it did with the Chinese Malays in the 1940s. The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced the end of Canada’s deployment of CF-18 fighter-bomber aircraft, which with other coalition airforces have been bombing territory occupied by the Islamic State terror group. Instead, Canada will triple, to about 150, the number of special forces soldiers it will send to train and advise Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, known as Peshmerga. Ottawa will also be supplying the Peshmerga with small arms.

The reason for backing the Peshmerga is that they are killing more Islamic State fighters and reclaiming more territory than any other soldiers in the region. The Iraqi army is a disgrace, despite years of training by the United States. In Syria, Islamic State holds large swathes of territory and has its capital, Raqqa. The army of President Bashar al Assad, and the militaries of his allies Russia and Iran, are intent on trying to destroy the so-called moderate rebels, and are leaving IS largely untouched.

There are good tactical reasons to back the Kurdish Peshmerga. But, unlike in Malaya in the 1940s, the probable consequences of supporting the Kurds are clear. The Kurds hope to emerge from the current upheaval and civil war with an independent state of Kurdistan covering their traditional homelands in northern Iraq and Syria, which they already largely control. That, they hope, will be a stepping stone toward adding their homelands in eastern Turkey and north-western Iran.

There are about 32 million Kurds, the world’s largest distinct ethnic group without their own nation state. There are good arguments to be made that they deserve their own country. However, Canada’s NATO ally Turkey, home to about 15 million Kurds and about 18 per cent of Turkey’s total population, has been violently opposed to Kurdish independence, since the Kurds started a separatist movement in 1984.

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Kurdish occupied lands. Wikipedia/Creative Commons
Kurdish occupied lands. Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Many Canadians may support aiding the Kurds in creating Kurdistan. But Canada should be clear that that is the probable end result of Canada’s military policy in the war against Islamic State. Canada should have no illusions it will be a clean, cut-and-dried affair. We are, after all, trying in Iraq and Syria — to which one could add Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine — to clean up mistakes made a century ago at the end of the First World War. Then the collapsed Ottoman Empire was shared out as spheres of influence among European powers, principally Britain and France. From that emerged the modern states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, with the Kurds living in the mountains where the four boundaries meet. The Kurds have pursued the quest for Kurdistan with persistence and determination in the century since the end of the First World War. They even managed to briefly establish independent governments in their homelands in Turkey, Iran and Iraq. But these nascent Kurdistans were swiftly destroyed by the central governments.

It was the Americans who set the Kurds on their modern course to create an independent state. After the First Gulf War in 1991 United States forces withdrew without deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But Washington realised it had left Iraqis, and especially Kurds in the north, vulnerable to revenge attacks by Saddam’s forces. The U.S. and its allies therefore established a no-fly zone over the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. This created a de facto independent Kurdish state, which continues to exist as a self-governing region in post-Saddam Iraq. In November, Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani called for a referendum to measure support for de jure independence from Baghdad. He has said outright in the last few weeks he considers the Anglo-French Sykes-Pigott agreement, which carved up the Middle East 100 years ago, to be a dead document. The map of the region needs to be redrawn in line with ethnic, political and religious realities, he has said, and the creation of Kurdistan should be part of the new dispensation.

But after a century of separation into four different countries, the Kurds are no longer a homogenous group, if they ever were. Barzani himself is a good example of the complexities that will cloud the creation of a broad Kurdistan.

Barzani is a vehement Kurdish nationalist, but he is also very close to the Turkish government of President Recep Erdogan, who is in the midst of a renewed military campaign against the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after the breakdown of a cease-fire last year.

The relationship between Barzani and Erdogan is crudely practical. The Iraqi Kurds seized control of the major oil fields around Kirkuk in July 2014. This has given Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government control of about 40 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves, which it is exporting at a rate of up to 600,000 barrels a day through a new pipeline to Turkey and earning an average of $US600 million a month.

In return for being able to use Turkey for oil exports, Barzani raises little outrage when Erdogan’s forces attack Turkish PKK camps in northern Iraq.

Barzani has been a fixture as the president of the Iraqi Kurds for more than a decade. His last elected term ended in 2013, and he now refuses to step down. This has spawned a significant opposition movement. In October last year, supporters of the main opposition party in the Kurdistan parliament, Gorran, attacked offices of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and five people were killed. In retaliation, Barzani expelled four Gorran ministers from the Kurdistan government.

Turkey is watching the political infighting in Irai Kurdistan with some anxiety. If Gorran or some other opposition party were to come to power, it would likely be far more sympathetic to the Turkish Kurds PKK and far less willing to allow Turkish forces to attack PKK bases in Iraq.

The political context of emergent Kurdish independence in Syria is just as fraught. There are about 1.5 million Kurds living in Syria, mostly along the country’s northern border with Turkey. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime never regarded the Kurds as a natural enemy or threat the way he regards the Sunni Muslim Arabs. As the Sunni insurgency mounted in 2011 and 2012, Assad withdrew his forces from the Kurdish areas, leaving the Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) free to operate self-government in three prefectures: Efrin close to the Mediterranean coast, Kobani on the central border region with Turkey, and Jazirah in the northeast. Over the course of the five-year civil war, the Syrian Kurds and their militia, the People’s Defence Units (YPG) have extended their territory so that they now control over half the nearly 900-kilometre-long border with Turkey. The main gap is a stretch between Azaz and Jarabulus, which is a battle ground between moderate Syrian rebels and hardline jihadists of the Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. It is through this corridor that supplies from Turkey have been reaching Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which is held by moderate Syrian rebels. But on February 3 Assad’s forces, supported by Russia’s air force, veteran Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and under the direction of officers of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, captured the territory north of Aleppo and cut the city off from its life-line to Turkey.

This may well give the Kurdish YPG forces an opportunity to take the land between Efrin and Kobani, and complete their aim of a contiguous Kurdish free state along the Turkish border.

This campaign would require air support from the U.S. and allies, especially the capture of the city of Jarabulus, and it is by no means certain the YPG will get it. Erdogan and the Turkish government are deeply suspicious of the YPG and the Syrian Kurds’ political wing, the PYD. Ankara sees the PYD as heavily influenced by Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Turkish Kurds’ PKK, who is now in prison serving a life sentence after being abducted from Kenya by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency in 1999. Thus if the Syrian Kurds are able to keep an independent state based on Ocalan’s political philosophy, Ankara fears this will become a long-term encouragement to Turkish Kurds and the PKK to ramp up their campaign for independence.

Ankara has already made it clear it would regard the capture of Jarabulus by the YPG as a red line requiring stern military action. It is to try to forestall this eventuality that the Erdogan government keeps calling on NATO and other allies opposed to the Assad regime to enforce creation of a safe zone for Syrian refugees in the border region between Jarabulus and Azaz. For Ankara, the zone would be to foil the Syrian Kurds as much as to save the refugees.

Because Turkey is a member of NATO, the extent to which other NATO members, such as Canada and the U.S., should encourage the creation of a wider Kurdistan is a significant question. In a world of harsh pragmatic politics, is the creation of Kurdistan, however much it is justified, worth the potential fracturing of NATO? That question has special potency when Turkey has the second largest NATO military after the U.S., and is a major element in containing Vladimir Putin’s rampant Russia.

On the other hand, Turkey’s Erdogan seems far more interested in making his country a power broker in the Middle East rather than looking west and, for example, pressing to join the Europen Union. Erdogan is also boosting Islamism in Turkey and seriously undermining democracy. He is trying to diminish the role of parliament and create an executive presidency with himself at the helm.

As I said at the beginning, the major reason for Canada and other allies to support and arm the Peshmerga Iraqi Kurdish fighters is that they are the best foot soldiers available and are killing more Islamic State fanatics than anyone else. But the fall out from such a decision can last a long time and have untold implications.

In 1943 the British were sending arms to royalist partisans fighting German occupying forces in Yugoslavia. But Prime Minister Winston Churchill was not persuaded the royalists had their hearts in the fight. Churchill called in a young veteran of the Long Range Desert Patrols, forerunner of the Special Air Service, in North Africa. Fitzroy Maclean later wrote that his mission was “simply to find out who was killing the most Germans and suggest means by which we could help them to kill more.”

Maclean got into Yugoslavia and made his way to the headquarters of the communist partisans led by Josip Broz Tito. Maclean had no illusions about with whom he was dealing. Before the war he had been a British diplomat in Moscow and knew all about Stalinism. His accounts of Joseph Stalin’s purges and show trials are riveting. But Maclean came to the conclusion the royalist Chetniks were at best half-hearted and at worst collaborating with the German occupying forces. Only Tito and the communist partisans were an effective force, Maclean told Churchill. They were killing Germans and should be supported.

And so it happened, with the inevitable result that both Maclean and Churchill had foreseen. Tito took power in Yugoslavia after the war, and held it until his death in 1980.

Tito’s regime was not as repressive as the Soviet Union satellite states in Eastern Europe, but it was no holiday camp either. After Tito’s death the unresolved ethnic and political complexities of Yugoslavia began to unravel into conflict. By the mid-1990s what had been Tito’s Yugoslavia had shattered into fighting between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Montenegrans, Kosovans and Albanians.

The United Nations dived in to separate the combatants, the Canadians, ever willing to don blue helmets with them. And then in May 1995 came a moment that should have been the end of innocence for Canada.

Canadian Capt. Patrick Rechner, an unarmed UN military observer, was captured by Bosnian Serb soldiers at Pale and chained to a lightning rod outside a warehouse holding mortar bombs. The aim of the Serb fighters was to stop NATO aircraft bombing their positions, and distressing pictures of Capt. Rechner were broadcast world wide. Capt. Rechner was held for 24 days, and the pictures became a clear statement that the age of classic UN peacekeeping was over.

Anyone overcome by nostalgia, who hopes that the rededication of the new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the UN will mean Canada again being able to wrap itself in the cosy blanket of classic peacekeeping, is dreaming in Technicolor.

And the greatest irony is that the Bosian Serb fighters who captured and held Capt. Rechner were commanded by Nicholas Ribic, a Canadian who travelled to Serbia in 1992 because he “wanted to fight Muslims.”

In years to come there will undoubtedly come a time when people will ask how wise it was to train and arm the Kurds simply because they were killing more Islamic Group fighters than anyone else.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

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War on Islamic State caliphate boosts the birth of Kurdistan. Jonathan Manthorpe, October, 2014

Before going to war it is always a good idea to have a clear purpose and outcome in mind.  Yet six Royal Canadian Airforce CF-18s are set for bombing missions in the Middle East without any clear vision of what victory will look like. The whole thing is depressingly reminiscent of the Libyan campaign in 2011 when allied warplanes enabled rebels to oust and kill dictator Moammar Gaddhafi. But then they all declared “mission accomplished,” packed up their kit and headed home. Meanwhile Libya has turned into bloody chaos and a killing ground for rival Islamic factions, tribal fighters and would-be new dictators. There are many days when Gaddhafi, for all his evil, looks a lot better than what Libyans have got now. … read more 
Related: Nation of Kurdistan springs from Arab chaos. Jonathan Manthorpe July 4, 2014

REUTERS/Umit Bektas/Files

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Ethnic groups flee as Syrian Kurds advance against Islamic State. By Humeyra Pamuk

 Cemal Dede fled his home in a remote Turkmen village in Syria after warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State bombed the house next door. He had no idea he wouldn’t be coming back. Dede says the Kurdish YPG militia did not let his family of seven return to Dedeler near the Turkish border, telling him it was now Kurdish territory and Turkmens like him had no place there.

Who are the Yazidis? By Christine Allison

In 1918, the Yazidis of Sinjar mountain received an ultimatum from Ottoman forces – to hand over their weaponry and the Christian refugees they were sheltering, or face the consequences. They tore it up and sent the messengers back naked. The Sinjaris are the “Highlanders” of the Iraqi Yazidis – tough and proud. After suffering terrible casualties and appealing to the allied forces for help they were able to survive the subsequent attack and live out the war in their mountain homeland.

Facts and Opinions is employee-owned and relies on the honour system: enjoy one free story. If you value independent, no-spam, no-ads,expert journalism, support us with a minimum of .27 per story, a $1 day site pass, or $20 per year. Donate below. Details here.


Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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