Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008. This article was originally published on 19th November – we republish it today ahead of the vote on air strikes against ISIS in Syria.
By attacking Paris, ISIS made a grave mistake: it attacked the Western power most willing to use force in its own defence. It did so because it is under significant military pressure. Last Friday it lost Sinjar, the district from which it abducted thousands of Yezidi women as sex slaves and in which the mass graves of men and older women are now being uncovered after Kurdish forces liberated it. Sinjar overlooked Highway 47, which used to connect ISIS’s two main cities of Raqaa, in Syria, and Mosul, in Iraq, but is now in Kurdish hands.
I was in Kurdistan last week where Kuridsh peshmerga commanders briefed us at another front south west of the city of Kirkuk, some four kilometres from ISIS-held territory. In the last year they have lost 1,300 men, and accepted more than one million refugees, a 20 per cent increase in their population.
But Iraq’s national government in Baghdad has refused to pass on the share of oil revenue to which the Kurdistan region is entitled, and the Kurds have resorted to exporting oil, less profitably, because of murky law, through Turkey. Kurdistan is, to all intents and purposes, a state: it has its own security forces, and it ignores illiberal Islamist parts of the Iraqi constitution, such as restrictions on women’s travel without a male guardian. But without official recognition it cannot trade freely as Baghdad regulates commercial airspace, nor equip its armed forces as it sees fit. Western aid, though not insignificant, must come through and be approved by Baghdad. Though the Foreign Office has an interest in maintaining the formal territorial integrity of Iraq (opening up the Middle East’s borders for negotiation is unlikely to be a good idea right now), it would be wise to hedge, and secure its relationship with the one region that possesses state institutions that function reasonably well.
Where they are infinitely superior to us in the West is in their hospitality to refugees. Most of them have come from Iraq’s Sunni Arab regions, fleeing both ISIS, and, as one father explained to us, Baghdad’s Shia militias known ominously as “popular mobilisation forces.” This community was the backbone of Saddam’s Iraq. By way of comparison, imagine Israel had been asked, in 1960, to accept a few hundred thousand German refugees.
Kurdish authorities are aware that ISIS is trying to subvert their government and infiltrate terrorists, under the guise of displaced persons, into their territory. But their reaction has been measured, serious and calm. Where the Polish European Affairs Minister demanded that no more Syrian refugees be accepted, American governors that only “proven Christians” be let in, and the Daily Mail publishes a cartoon showing rats and refugees crossing into Europe, the Kurds take practical steps to ensure security and admit them.
It’s now nineteen years since Osama bin Laden published his Declaration of War against Jews and Crusaders; fourteen since 9/11; innumerable books have been published; countless conferences has been held; yet still the reaction to these latest attacks has been dominated by two myths that refuse to die.
The first is that Islamic culture and religion are inherently and especially incompatible with liberal western life, and that there is mysterious essence in Islam that makes coexistence with liberal democracy possible. This is nonsense, as anyone who has met a reasonable number of Muslims knows. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Islamist radicalism is its use of secular arguments and concepts: that it resists oppression, brings justice, and appeals to collective identity. The language, symbols and rituals are Islamic, but the arguments and emotions are universal.
Second, that the phenomenon is somehow about “us”, and is conceived in reaction to our civilisation’s crimes. Of course the west’s cycle of involvement and neglect (like funding the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, then leaving the country to fester once the Soviets had been expelled) played its part, but it is hardly the only example: we supported the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, and it colonised Eastern Europe for 45 years. Islamist movements have their own agendas, plans and choice of tactics. They will, naturally, take advantage of what they consider our mistakes but are anything but a mechanical reaction to Western activity.
By its very existence Kurdistan dispels both myths. Kurds are mostly Muslim, and their political culture is pluralist; their elite liberal and outward looking. Islamist parties exist, but only attract minority interest. And we should not forget that their freedom was only secured thanks to what is usually thought of as the greatest foreign policy error of the 21st Century: the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Intervention has benefits as well as costs.
In Kurdistan, those benefits are clearest. At the American University of Iraq, based in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya, I spoke to a young Yazidi man who had started studying there. His eyes were full of excitement at the world his education was opening up for him, and what he could achieve by re-connecting his culture – its poets, writers, artists and scientists – with liberal reason, after decades of isolation forced upon it by dictatorship and obscurantism. We need to see to it that he, not the terrorists in Paris, are the future.