For a terrifying insight into the cluelessness of today’s Western foreign-policy debates, look no further than the virtual silence on ISIS’s military gains against the Kurds in northern Iraq. It is remarkable that more people, particularly politicians, are not talking about this. For what we have seen in northern Iraq over the past 48 hours is a dramatic turning point in the unravelling of the Middle East, a severe blow against a group, the Kurds, who, largely by default, were the last line of defence against the spread of the post-nationalist, cosmic extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). We have watched as one of the few remaining peoples who adhere to the ideals of state sovereignty and nationhood have been routed by a self-consciously border-defying Islamist outfit, taking the dismantling of the old order in the Middle East to a horrifying new level, and yet no one seems particularly perturbed.
There are reports of awful attacks and events in northern Iraq over the past two days. Having already conquered huge swathes of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and declared the establishment of the Islamic State, ISIS has now made serious inroads into northern Iraqi regions that were being protected by Kurdish military forces, getting closer to the semi-autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq. They have taken Kurdish-protected towns in the Dohuk province, the most significant being the ancient town of Sinjar. This is not only home to some Kurds but is also the ancestral home of the Yazidi religious group. ISIS denounced the Yazidi people as ‘apostates’ and ‘devil worshippers’, and according to the United Nations 200,000 Yazidi have fled their homes in 48 hours. (Question for the West’s anti-Israel obsessives currently refusing to talk about anything other than Gaza: why haven’t you commented on this act of what you might call ‘ethnic cleansing’?)
Alongside conquering Sinjar, ISIS has taken other economically and strategically key towns that were being protected by Kurdish forces, including Zumar, which has some of Iraq’s most important oilfields, and Wana, a town close to the Mosul Dam that supplies electricity and water to Iraq. So ISIS is not only controlling greater amounts of Iraqi territory – it is close to controlling Iraq’s resources, too. Wana is 30 miles from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which ISIS captured in June and is already governing severely.
What is significant about the gains made by ISIS against towns and territories being protected by the Kurds is that, in post-war Iraq, where the Western-installed authorities enjoy little legitimacy and have displayed little commitment to governing and policing any territory beyond the heavily fortified confines of Baghdad, the Kurds came to be looked upon as one group of people who are so devoted to defending their ancient homeland from external threats that they would be able to stand firm against ISIS in a way that the ersatz Iraqi police and military have not.
So when Iraqi police forces abandoned their posts when the ISIS onslaught started in June, Kurdish fighters known as the peshmerga moved into some of those areas and held the fort – partly as a means of staking their claim to territories in northern Iraq that fall outside of semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan but which Kurds believe should be theirs, and partly because they had been encouraged by both outside forces and Baghdad itself to try to stem ISIS’s spread. Although there is very little love lost between Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Kurdish governors of northern Iraq, still al-Maliki has over the past two months sought Kurdish military assistance in protecting parts of northern Iraq that had been abandoned with extraordinary swiftness by Iraqi forces as soon as ISIS arrived. The West also pleaded with the Kurds to help save Iraq. Most significantly, in late June, after three weeks of ISIS’s spread from Syria across western Iraq, US secretary of state John Kerry visited Iraqi Kurdistan to meet with its president and, as one headline put it, ‘urged the Kurds to save Iraq from collapse’. Recognising Iraqi Kurds’ long-term thirst for national independence, Kerry nonetheless pleaded with them to fight ‘in the near-term [for] a stable, sovereign and unified Iraq’.