God bless the Kurds!

THERE APPEARS, at present, to be little light at the end of the tunnel that is Iraq. The thugs of ISIS are proving to be much nastier than anyone anticipated, and more successful, having pushed further east from the recently conquered city of Mosul. And what had been considered a sure thing, the Kurdish peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government, turned out to be not as effective a fighting force as they have long been held up to be.

The very viability of the Kurdish autonomous region appeared to be called into question, as peshmerga, apparently heavily outgunned, yielded to ISIS gangs who came within cooee of Erbil, the Kurdish capital. This was terrifying enough because until then the peshmerga had been thought of as an effective bulwark against the ISIS fanatics.

More immediately horrific was the prospect of mass slaughter unfolding with the world in attendance – via social media. ISIS rolled Sinjar, a town that has been home to the heterodox Yazidis since time immemorial. In their ignorant and blinkered ideology – which they claim is a version of Islam – the ISIS hoods saw the diverse threads that make up Yazidi belief as reason to put them to the sword. As is well documented now, thousands of Yazidis who fled the ISIS onslaught were stranded without supplies on Mt Sinjar. A place of mystical significance for the Yazidis, Mt Sinjar is also remote and shelterless. Refugees huddled here at the mercy of the elements during the height of an Iraqi summer.

Mt.Sinjar

Mt. Sinjar

Fortunately, a public switched on via social media raised an outcry that galvanised action. As beleaguered Kurdish peshmerga sought to beat a path to the stranded Yezidis, Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish President appealed for military support. In the meantime, the US rallied support for a humanitarian mission to deliver supplies to the Yazidis atop Mt Sinjar (see some dramatic footage here of supplies being dropped, and the mad scramble to escape for some of the trapped refugees) and provided air cover for Kurdish forces. After the woes visited on Iraq’s Christians, Türkmens and Shi’ite by ISIS in recent weeks, something had to be done. The Guardian rightly pointed out that it was imperative that the US and UK take decisive action because they “have a humanitarian duty to the endangered minorities, and a debt of honour to the Kurds”.

The plight of the benighted Yazidis on Mt Sinjar touched a nerve. Yazidi communities in Georgia and Armenia raised their voices in support of their stranded brethren and in Israel the Holocaust Museum added its voice condemning the genocidal behaviour of ISIS. Disgust with ISIS is clearly widespread and communities across the region are stepping up to support the victims of its gratuitous evil – Najaf, the city of Shi’ite pilgrimage in southern Iraq, has opened its doors to Christian refugees expelled from Mosul, while Iran has also pledged to help Iraqi Christian refugees.

For an Aussie, with little to be proud of as regards our government’s conduct on the world stage at present, it was pleasing to see that Australian troops were involved in the humanitarian mission carried out on Mt Sinjar. An Iraqi photolibrary Metrography has some startling images of the Yazidis as they left Mt Sinjar and sought shelter in Syria and Kurdish-held areas of Iraq. (It is a measure of the desperation of their plight that they have trekked across an unforgiving desert to find refuge in Syria, of all places.) I’ve ‘borrowed’ one of the images from Metrography, here. Looking at this image I have only one word: respect! To me it exemplifies the strength, the resilience, the love, the humanity of the Yazidis.

Image: Zmnako Ismael,  via Metrography

Image: Zmnako Ismael, via Metrography

Perhaps the most important thing to emerge out of this whole sorry tale is that the Kurds exhibit these very qualities: strength, resilience, love, humanity. Kurdish elements from across borders came together to rescue the Yazidis, to take on the ISIS murderers . A quick glance at the history books indicates that the Kurds have long been divided and have been hung out to dry by outside powers many a time. But here, the Kurds came together to confront an evil challenge.

Of course, the Syrian Kurds have been fighting ISIS for some time, entirely unheralded and unsupported. It is the YPG militia (People’s Defence Units) of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Unity Party) that has fended off ISIS and prevented it extending its reach to the Turkish border. The enclave of Kobanê, one of three that makes up the Rojava autonomous zone, in particular has come under concerted attack, but local Kurds have held their own, and then some. The Rojava Kurds are credited with much of the heavy lifting involved in rescuing the Yazidis.

It seems that it was not just Rojava Kurds involved in the rescue mission, however. In effect, the Kurdish cavalry arrived. German MP Ulla Jelpke was in Rojava to observe goings on and she remarked that (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) PKK fighters – listed as terrorists by Turkey, the US and the EU – also rallied to the cause and effectively amounted to a “guarantee of life” for the Yazidis.

The Kurdish cavalry – in days of yore...

The Kurdish cavalry – in days of yore…

PKK units had also made their way to Kurdish-held Kirkuk, apparently receiving a hero’s welcome as they went. It was also PKK fighters who were instrumental in reclaiming Mahmour, just on the outskirts of the Kurdish capital Erbil, that had earlier fallen to the ISIS thugs. And it seems that the Iranian Kurdish militia of the KDP-I (yes, there are a lot of acronyms in Kurdish affairs!) also joined the fray at the shoulders of their cross-border compatriots.

There is now serious talk that the US State Department and the EU should remove the PKK from their lists of designated terrorists. (A petition to that effect is awaiting signatures.) Whatever outrages the PKK perpetrated in Turkey in decades past – and outrages there certainly were – do not necessarily reflect the ambitions or potentials of the group now, nor do they necessarily impugn fighters who are now rallying to a worthwhile cause and acting not only in the interests of Kurds, but other peoples in Iraq and Syria, and more broadly in the interests of the West. I think it’s time to bring the PKK into the fold.

So while an anti-ISIS front might have been formed by disparate Kurdish groups, there are still petty rivalries at play and proverbial roosters are jousting. But for now, the Kurds continue to be a resilient, resourceful and honourable presence, people of valour, generosity of spirit and immense humanity in the benighted lands of Iraq and Syria. Long may they prosper.

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