Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Telling good Kurds from bad


Women soldiers at Kurdistan border

When in comes to moral conflicts and dilemmas, the issue of support is often called upon. As John Stuart Mill claimed, 'Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.' There is, however, a more fundamental riposte to this: evil comes from an overenthusiastic desire to do good, to right the dispute with imperfect knowledge and awareness.

It is the greatest of historical lessons that is never learned: sponsor at your risk. Un-civil wars do not yield reliable agents or factions. Money and finance for conflict is the necessary expediency to win battles and the conflict. Guns and mortars have no soul, agency or ideological outlook. They are used whenever they are obtained, against whoever the enemy of the moment is.

The Middle East is rife with such arrangements and Western powers should know. US and European powers supplied Saddam Hussein's brutal regime through the 1980s as it fought the Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Saddam got too big for his boots, and suffered two defeats – over his invasion of Kuwait, and in the 2003 invasion of his country by the clumsily termed 'Coalition of the Willing'.

Through the 1980s and persisting into the 1990s, the Islamic fighters in Afghanistan received backing from Washington. The now maligned Taliban received backing from Washington via traditional Saudi and Pakistani assets. The motivation there was keeping some form of centralised authority to protect gas and oil interests.

The game of backing and supporting misunderstood – and dangerous – groups persists. This is reflected in the near-schizophrenic frame of US alliances in the Middle East. On paper, it backs the state of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing the Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. This problem became absurd in exposures made in the light of 9/11 Commission Report which condemned the intimate ties between Washington and Riyadh. The Saudis have proven not so much prickly as duplicitous in their dealing with the noisy advocates from the free world.

The Islamic State is treated with a degree of mixed, if ambivalent support when it comes to their battle against the Assad regime in Syria. European powers and the United States draw the false distinction that there are good Islamic militants and bad ones, with the bad ones supposedly against the Western military program. It matters that they are our nasties, not theirs. But matters are different when it comes to their policies and advances made in Northern Iraq.

The same thing can be said of the Kurds, who are now riding the train of history with prospects for success. Just as Islamic State fighters will find themselves afforded different regimes of treatment depending on whether they fight in Iraq or Syria, the same can be said for the Kurdish fighters battling the regime in Ankara. In northern Iraq, they have become the poster boy (and girl) fighters for the drive against the IS.

Even Kurdish community leaders have expressed concern that Western powers select the appropriate horse. Ali Erdoglu, one such community representative based in Sydney, has made that specific point. Jacky Sutton from the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, is less concerned. The moral bleach is well and truly applied to Kurdish resistance against IS which 'has threatened genocide of some communities and has certainly made it very clear that this is a brutal nasty war being waged against civilians.

She chooses to see the Peshmerga, guerrilla forces formed in the 1920s, as knights in liberation armour protecting Kurdish villages. The same can be said about the Coalition government, and the Labor opposition, who see this crisis as different to 2003 for its 'humanitarian' implications, with the Kurds being emissaries of salvation.

Nowhere is there mention of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has made the battle against the Islamic State their fight. Their history is an important one. They are seen as the gravest of terrorist organisations in Turkey. This brings the alliance system into conflict as well, given that Turkey is an important NATO alliance partner. Again, we have that most artificial of distinctions: can we find a good Kurd, or a bad one, and supply accordingly?

While the Peshmerga are seen as the forces to support, the moral vessels of the moment, the PKK and its affiliates, such as the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), are not merely holding the fort but making gains. They are also finding rich recruiting grounds from refugee camps inhabited by Kurdish refugees who have fled Turkey's military. This conflict, in other words, does not merely involve the aggrieved fighting the brutal tactics of IS, or seeking freedom from the corrupt authorities in Baghdad. It involves a direct rebuke to Turkey.

For such reasons, a debate about arming, and reinforcing the Kurds, is not an open and shut case, which is what the Abbott government suggests. Australian armed forces have provided the means of supply for humanitarian supplies, and promises to become one for supplying weapons. But this patchwork solution is a dangerous one. For one, it may well see the rupturing of Iraq. How fitting, then, that the destructive invasion of 2003 should culminate in the partition of the very country whose dictator was removed to protect it, and Western interests.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Image of PKK soldiers near the Iraq-Kurdistan border taken by James Gordon in January 2013. Obtained via flickr under Creative Commons licence.  

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Islamic State, Peshmerga, Abbott, intervention, Kurdistan Workers Party, Iraq



submit a comment

Existing comments

A perceptive analysis indeed, Dr Kampmark. You are quite correct in bringing to light the ambiguous relationship between the USA and the Qatari and Saudi governments whose official Salafi-Wahhabi creed is very similar to that of the Islamic State's. Robert Baer, a longtime CIA officer and authority on the Middle East, is very, very dubious of the Saudis in particular. The Qataris, I believe, are somewhat more moderate as the were the prime supporters and funders of Egypt when the democratically elected Morsi government was in power. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are not as extreme as the main Salafist party in Egypt. The Kurds, an ancient race (Saladin was a Kurd) have a long and transnational presence in the region. The PKK is a radical secular movement with Marxist overtones. The Turkish government, which is becoming increasingly "Islamic" in its leaning still tries to ignore the fact that Turkey is ethnically and religiously more diverse than Kemal Ataturk and those who followed him gave out. That is possibly why Turkey regards minorities, whether religious (Alevi & others) or Ethnic (Kurds & others) with grave fear. The main long term danger in Northern Iraq is that Christians, Sunni Arabs and Kurds will live in almost hermetically sealed communities hostile to each other.

Edward Fido | 05 September 2014  

all the middle east boundaries were decided by the Western powers in the 1920's. The Kurdish people were not allowed to have their own state but were split between neighbouring states. The time has come to re-work middle east boundaries along ethnic lines

john ozanne | 05 September 2014  

Well, John Ozanne, some of us know about Sykes-Picot. As a very wise deceased officer of the Royal Marines said in a past sticky situation, when asked to comment on it from afar "Well, the situation on the ground is even more complicated." Sadly Kurd; Sunni Arab; Iraqi Christian; Yazidi; Turkmen all often claim the same piece of land. They often hate each other's guts and have old scores to settle in blood. It will take time. A long time. This is the Middle East after all.

Edward Fido | 05 September 2014  

Fantastic piece, Dr Kampmark. Though I find it difficult to clearly understand the intricacies. On the Australian side the Government desire to make it simple so as to go again to interfere in the Middle East is horrifying. The West having created ISIL is only too happy to have them as an enemy. Evil comes from a pretense of doing good when the evil means conveniently distracts from problems at home or it come from following slavishly the ally who never understands other countries but sells weapons and whose economy needs to keep wars going.

Michael D. Breen | 06 September 2014  

Similar Articles

Abbott's foreign policy flops

  • Tony Kevin
  • 12 September 2014

Since Richard Casey was External Affairs Minister in the 1950s, the three pillars of Australian foreign policy have been: a genuine reaching out to our Asian neighbours, adherence to UN-based multilateral values and institutions, and a firm but self-respecting defence partnership with the United States. All those pillars look pretty shaken now.


How to measure HIV stigma

  • Daniel Reeders
  • 02 September 2014

Global targets can be used to benchmark countries – but measuring a reduction in stigma is harder than it sounds. As one of my colleagues asked, 'what's the international standard unit for one stigma?'