On Nawroz, the Persian New Year, last March, Isis sent a holiday greeting to the Kurds. They published several videos of Peshmerga fighters, now prisoners, kneeling, handcuffed and wearing the usual orange jumpsuits. In one video, a prisoner is shot in the back of the head; the rest have their heads sawn off with a knife. In a deliberate twist, no doubt relished by the leadership of the so-called Islamic State, the killers were themselves Kurds. ‘You all know the punishment for anyone who fights the Islamic State,’ says one. ‘It is death.’
The executioners did not wear masks and were quickly identified by Kurdish intelligence. Retribution followed. In an incredibly risky operation, a small team of Kurdish special forces slipped into Isis-held Mosul and killed one of the men who had wielded the knife. ‘We sent them a message,’ said the Kurdish official who told me about the hit, a tight smile of triumph on his face.
The Kurds are ‘our plucky allies’, often outgunned by Isis yet still taking the fight to the enemy. If you visit Kurdish northern Iraq, the politicians and their commanders are not just accessible but hospitable. Many speak English, having been refugees in Britain or the US in Saddam’s time. Everyone loves the Kurds and so they have benefited from uncritical, sometimes fawning, coverage of their war with the jihadis. This has led to serious problems being glossed over.
The war against Isis began badly. During the Isis blitzkrieg two years ago, the vaunted Peshmerga — literally ‘those who face death’ — fell back again and again. A western diplomat told me the first to run were the officers, ‘some with quite famous names’. They fled Sinjar, leaving the Yazidis to their fate. It even seemed as if the Kurdish capital, Erbil, might be abandoned; it was saved only when the US began airstrikes. One analyst explained it by saying that Peshmerga recruits, just like teenagers anywhere, were now more likely to have played Call of Duty than to have fired a real weapon. To some, the myth of the Kurdish mountain warrior was just that.
I’ve seen the reality first-hand. That summer, while filming a report at a little town called Jalawla, I found myself cornered with half a dozen Peshmerga fighters in a filthy, rubbish-strewn basement, Isis on both sides of the building. For an agonising 15 minutes, it seemed we would be overrun. I crouched on the stairs, looking up in terror. A fighter next to me was shot in the thigh. If we survived the gun battle, all of us expected to end up in the orange jumpsuits. At times, the Peshmerga seemed gripped by panic. I can’t blame them. But such a firefight would probably look very different today, with the Peshmerga’s two years of combat experience.
The Kurds have pushed Isis back, taking territory they hope will one day form the borders of an independent state. The Arabs who live there are seen as a threat to that ambition. A report from Amnesty International last month is a reminder to western governments that in supporting the Kurds they are intervening to help one side in a civil war. Amnesty accuses Kurdish forces of ‘destroying entire villages’ in areas captured from Isis in northern Iraq, something it says may amount to war crimes. ‘When the Peshmerga retook the village the houses were standing,’ one Arab resident tells Amnesty’s researchers. ‘Later they bulldozed the village. There is nothing left.’ There are dramatic satellite pictures: one before-and-after image of a village shows 95 per cent of the buildings razed.
The report details such destruction in the countryside around Jalawla, where our frightening brush with Isis took place. A Kurdish general there told me the town and its villages were 90 per cent Arab because Saddam had colonised the place in the 1970s. And most of the Arabs sympathised with Daesh (Isis), he said. He was probably right on both counts. But that makes it no less of a crime that, as one recent visitor to the region told me, houses are daubed with graffiti saying ‘Kurds only — Arabs out.’
The Kurdish representative in Washington, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, is acutely aware that the West went to war twice, in Bosnia and in Kosovo, over ‘ethnic cleansing’. Brought up in the UK, she was a journalist on the Observer in London at the time. She tells me that where damage has been done, ‘in all cases, either the village has been destroyed by Daesh or by airstrikes.’ She also says that many Arabs chose to leave voluntarily ‘because frankly they know they shouldn’t have been there in the first place’.
She points out that Kurdish northern Iraq is sheltering more than a million displaced Arabs. Sometimes, ‘the men have gone to the Daesh side and they have sent their women and children to the Peshmerga. They know we will put their women and children somewhere safe and leave them alone… Kurdistan is a multi-ethnic, multi–religious society. Whether we’re part of Iraq, whether we’re independent, we have to live with the Arabs, the Turkmen and everybody else.’
The Peshmerga are really two different forces loyal to the main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, which fought each other in the 1990s: ‘the darkest and most shameful period of our history’, Ms Abdul Rahman calls it. There are once again tensions between the two factions. ‘I am not at all convinced that the Kurds’ own civil war is over,’ says Professor Gareth Stansfield, an expert on the subject. This doesn’t mean they are about to stop fighting Isis and (absurdly) start fighting each other. But ‘they’re just a quick step away from reverting back to their old command structure. Everybody knows who is KDP and who is PUK. That’s a very big problem.’
The fragile accord was nearly ripped apart in the autumn when President Masoud Barzani of the KDP decided to remain in office, despite his second and ‘final’ term having expired in 2013. There were street protests — though they were as much about salaries as the political crisis. The Kurdish economy is in trouble. Oil, the main source of income, has fallen to $30 a barrel, from around $100 when Isis was on the offensive. The central government in Baghdad has stopped sending money to the Kurds. Wages for government workers, including the armed forces, haven’t been paid in months.
A foreign visitor attended a dinner recently hosted by some senior Kurdish officials. He watched as they uncorked several bottles of Château Margaux, a wine that costs anything from £200 a bottle to £1,200, depending on the vintage. ‘We’re sitting there drinking the Château Margaux and a minister says to me: “We don’t have enough money to pay our Peshmerga.” ’ The dinner had both members of the KDP and the rival PUK present — it’s no surprise that the street protests are directed in part at the whole political class as much as any one party. Diplomats refer delicately to ‘transparency issues’ — that is, corruption. There has yet to be a ‘Kurdish spring’, says Professor Stansfield.
President Barzani has seized the opportunity presented by Isis, promising to go ahead with a referendum on Kurdish independence. This might have been an attempt to distract people from their economic misery — or he might have been acting on the long-held and deep desire of Kurds for the safety of their own state. Regardless, western governments hope he is not serious, because they have always insisted on the territorial integrity of Iraq. ‘This leaves British policy in a shambles,’ says Professor Stansfield.
Iraq, though, is simple compared with Syria. There, the US-led coalition is bombing in aid of a Syrian Kurdish militia called the YPG, the most effective ground force against Isis. But the YPG are in a tacit alliance with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. They are advancing not just against Isis but against a range of rebel groups, including some armed by the Americans. In Syria, the US is involved in a proxy war against itself.
The Turks — whose chief fear is not Isis but Kurdish nationalism — have been shelling the advancing YPG. Which means that the US is backing both a Nato ally and the militia that ally is attacking. The YPG, for its part, may not be too keen on Kurdish independence in Iraq, because they hate President Barzani — who would be father of this new nation — and are allied to the rival PUK. The YPG is more concerned about Turkey than Iraq, which is not surprising given that it is effectively the same organisation as the PKK, the Kurdish nationalist group inside Turkey. Because the PKK is internationally proscribed as a terrorist organisation, Britain and other western governments have to pretend the two — the PKK and the YPG — are different.
That is a fiction, as Iraq is itself these days, and Syria too. But Iraq is a necessary fiction. The alternative might be truly bloody ‘sectarian cleansing’. One Sunni tribal leader told me he feared the genocide of millions of Sunnis in Baghdad. The truth is that both Iraq and Syria long ago ceased to exist as nations. ‘Iraq is broken,’ says Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman. ‘People talk about, “Oh the Kurds want to break up Iraq…” First of all, it’s broken already, and second, we didn’t break it. It was broken from the day it was created. It’s never worked as a country.’
The Kurds are putting that belief into action in the disputed territory of their future border. Consumed by the battle against Isis, all that western governments can do is to avert their eyes.
Paul Wood is a BBC Middle East correspondent.