In May last year, who in the West had heard of the “Peshmerga”? Wasn’t that a kind of scarf? No, the BBC, CNN and Sky News told us, these were warriors for freedom, brave Kurds, rallying against the ISIS threat when the Iraqi army had fled in disarray. Even Marie Claire, the woman’s lifestyle magazine, did a piece on them, highlighting with some justification the role that female fighters play in their ranks.
What’s more, the Peshmerga weren’t scary Arabs, which meant we could send them guns. And boy did we send them guns. The United States air-dropped Russian-made weapons almost immediately, although where they had bought them remains unclear. Then Washington agreed to send, via Baghdad, fifteen thousand hand grenades, eighteen thousand assault rifles, forty-five thousand mortar rounds, forty thousand RPG rounds and nearly three thousand RPG launchers.
Germany, in a rare example of the government exporting weapons to a live conflict zone, armed four thousand Kurds with equal alacrity, sending troop transport vehicles, Milan anti-tank rocket launchers, armour-piercing bazookas, heavy machine guns, sixteen thousand rifles, eight thousand pistols and six million rounds of ammunition.
Despite its slashed defence budget, even Britain joined in, gifting half a million more bullets, forty heavy machine guns and an unspecified number of mortars and sets of body-armour. While a British presence in Iraq is almost comically small (“David Cameron is not in Iraq”), the British Army has deployed its considerable expertise in training Peshmerga forces on how to avoid and defuse mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). We have also supplied fifty tonnes of non-lethal and medical equipment, according to the Ministry of Defence; meanwhile, RAF pilots have helped to deliver a further “three hundred tonnes” on behalf of other nations.
This, apparently, is still not enough. “Ninety per cent of the burden of this war is on the shoulders of the Peshmerga,” claimed Masrour Barzani, the chief of the Kurdish intelligence corps, “and ninety per cent of the work is done by the Peshmerga, but we are only getting ten per cent of the weapons.” Barzani’s brothers are both leading Kurdish generals. His father, Masud, is President of Kurdistan.
Now, let’s be clear, the Peshmerga are certainly brave and they are certainly holding back ISIS, but their rulers, the Barzani clan, are dictators and gangsters. Masud Barzani isn’t meant to be president; there is a strict two term limit on the post, which he’s just ignored. When a Kurdish poet wrote a satirical piece recently poking fun at the Barzani family, he was arrested and executed. If Kurdish businessmen don’t pay the right bribes to the Barzanis, they too face arrest. Numerous journalists writing critically about the clan have simply disappeared.
“You son of a dog, if you publish that magazine tomorrow, I’ll entomb your head in your dog father’s grave,” one newspaper editor was told. Eighteen months later, he was shot dead outside his home. When Arab Spring-inspired street marches hit Kurdistan in 2011, there were over three hundred and fifty attacks on journalists by the Barzanis’ thugs. There have been hundreds more since then.
The Barzanis also appear to be overseeing a campaign of ethnic cleansing, both directly in Iraqi Kurdistan and via their affiliated fighters in Syria. They deny these charges, but diplomats and several aid workers attest to seeing Sunni Arabs driven from their homes in their thousands, their former dwellings burned to the ground. Many of the displaced Sunnis have lived there for decades, having been encouraged to move there by Saddam Hussein.
Looting, arson and forcible removal hardly seems a recipe for ongoing stability, and with the West simply standing by, often the only place for the Sunni Arabs to go is into ISIS-controlled territory.
You will see or hear almost none of this in the Western media. CNN, Bloomberg and other major outlets have all interviewed Masrour Barzani, giving him a platform to call for yet more weapons to strengthen his nascent mafia state. The Kurds remain lionised in the media to the extent that former soldiers and Western adventurers have been inspired to fight alongside them. In reality, there are no good guys in this fight.
So while the Western arms continue to pour in for the Barzani clan and their troops, are we helping “degrade and destroy” ISIS, or simply propping up another local dictatorship? The Iraqi Kurds certainly haven’t shown any desire to attack ISIS beyond their own borders. Hats off to the Peshmerga for the work they’ve done, but let’s be realistic about what Kurdistan is; a deeply unpleasant autocracy run by mafia bosses who kill, imprison or displace anyone who gets in their way.