The Kurdish term “Peshmerga” is increasingly familiar to many horrified by the sickening spectacle of ruthlessly beheading helpless hostages such as Alan Henning whose only “crime” was helping Syrian children.
The Peshmerga, the brave army of the pluralist and secular Kurds, could help beat the black-hearted barbarians of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) if they have the tools for the job.
I have learnt much about Isis on four trips to Iraqi Kurdistan in the last year. Isis slowly infiltrated Iraq’s second city, Mosul and set up extortion rackets. They found fertile ground because the Shia dominated government in Baghdad savagely suppressed Sunnis, including dropping barrel bombs.
Many had a sneaking or more eager regard to Isis and their allies from Saddam Hussein’s old security forces.
When Isis sent a small column of mainly foreign fighters to Mosul in June, thousands joined as the Iraqi Army melted away, to everyone’s surprise. And left billions of dollars of top-notch American military kit - armoured Humvees with the keys in the ignition, machine guns and tanks.
We should not be fooled into thinking that Isis brutality - genocide against minorities, mass executions, rape and selling women into slavery - makes them merely a bloodthirsty cult.
They are a serious military force, taking ground through Kamikaze and Blitzkrieg: waves of suicide vehicles with explosives to breach defences, followed by artillery salvos, then tanks and fighters.
But we should also put this into perspective. Isis has about 30,000 men spread across an area the size of the UK. Sunnis who increasingly resent their ruthless rule could turn on Isis if Baghdad embraces a power-sharing deal that respects their rights.
The Kurds are a vital part of the equation. Just after the fall of Mosul, senior leaders told me it was just a matter of time before Isis came for them. They moved suddenly in early August and got close to the capital but were stopped by American airstrikes. Isis has now moved elsewhere, most notably trying to capture the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. Here the women and men of the Peshmerga may yet defeat the once supposedly invincible Isis, again with the help of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
The Kurds also have profound problems with Baghdad. Incredibly, the Peshmerga have never been paid by Baghdad. The Kurdish budget has been withheld for months, people have not been paid, investment projects are stalled, and oil exports blocked. The hopefully more inclusive government in Baghdad could settle these disputes.
This would enable the Kurds to defend their homeland and go on the offensive against Isis. The liberation of Mosul is vital.
But the Kurds need heavy weapons. The Peshmerga are using pea-shooters against Isis in a new David and Goliath story. Some British light arms have reached them but they need tanks, artillery, and helicopters as well as training in tactics, first aid and demining.
Isis can be defeated by arms and ideas. Their primitive politics could be their undoing as people choose between enslavement and freedom but it will take time.
The imminent but less evident crisis in the normally five-million strong Kurdistan is in sprawling camps for over a million refugees from Syria and internally displaced Iraqis, which I have seen six times in the last year. Some are good, some more basic and the Kurds are doing their best to make life bearable for their residents, mainly women and children.
It is a race against time. It was warm last week in Kurdistan but will soon turn very cold or wet. The camps will become muddy or frozen lakes of misery. Maybe 150,000 people will have no shelter. Many will succumb to illness or death unless the UN and Baghdad get their act together pronto.
Local people are helping. Kurdish-born surgeon Deiary Kader’s charity, the Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers, has collected blankets, sleeping bags and money. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0191 4453045.
Isis is our sworn enemy and will hurt us if they can, as we saw in Canada. But they can be stopped. The pro-British Kurds are our best allies and we should not let them down.
- Gary Kent is the Director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region, has visited Iraq 19 times since 2006, and writes in a personal capacity