After months of fighting, the Kurds have held firm against ISIS and its brutal legions. Battles between the Kurds and ISIS rage today along a line more than 600 miles in northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurdish fighters, also known as peshmerga, have withstood sophisticated and relentless ISIS assaults. Backed by U.S. airstrikes and assistance from Iraqi and Iranian forces, the Kurds have defended their autonomous province in northern Iraq against some of the worst tactics ISIS can dish out.
Recently, this included the use of chemical weapons. On March 14, Iraqi Kurdish officials announced ISIS forces operating on a highway between Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the Syrian border had used chlorine gas against peshmerga troops. Reliance on chemical warfare, long banned by international conventions, is simply the latest in a string of outlaw practices by ISIS. For the Kurds, it was not the worst onslaught they have faced—or even the first time they have endured the use of chemical weapons.
The ardor and pluck of the Kurds are not surprising for those familiar with their background. The Kurds are a nationless people treated unkindly by history. They live largely in a sprawling, bulky crescent of land that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to western Iran. The area is called Kurdistan, but this is something of a misnomer. They are a nation in theory only. The Kurds have the misfortune of living in portions of multiple countries, all of which guard their own sovereignty carefully. Kurds populate parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. Only Iran and Iraq have recognized a measure of autonomy for the Kurdish areas within their nations.
The Kurds have all the traditional characteristics of a people who merit self-rule. They have their own language, Kurdish, an ancient tongue which derives from Persian. They have their own unique cultural practices, rooted in nomadic traditions. Sunni Muslims, the Kurds boast as their most famous ancestor the sultan Saladin, best known for successfully battling infidels during the Crusades. For many centuries, the Kurds have been socially cohesive and tenaciously independent, this despite never being an independent country or enjoying self-government.
For all their rugged national identity and yearning for autonomy, events and political intrigue have conspired to deny the Kurds the nation they warrant. Turkey has been especially aggressive in suppressing the Kurdish drive for independence. For years, the Turkish government dismissed them as mere “Mountain Turks” and outlawed the Kurdish language.
In Iraq, where Kurds now battle their latest enemy, ISIS, they have gained more freedom than elsewhere, but at great cost. Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party sought to uproot the Kurds from oil-rich areas in Iraq where they predominated. The Saddam regime settled Iraqi Arabs there and forcibly relocated Kurds from the area, particularly around the city of Kirkuk and along the Iranian border. In 1988 Saddam systematically used chemical weapons against the Kurds. Some 5,000 people died from mustard gas and other agents.
The proud Kurds rose up against Saddam and tried to throw off his yoke amidst the instability and power vacuum that followed the Persian Gulf War. For this rebellion they suffered brutal retaliation from Saddam, spurring another Kurdish exodus from the area. They finally achieved a measure of semi-independence in Iraq with the support and protection of U.S. forces following the Iraq War.
For all of America’s miscues in Iraq, the U.S. policy decision to protect and empower the Kurds has paid off handsomely. Over the past year, the Kurdish peshmerga have proved one of the few fighting forces capable of checking ISIS. U.S. air strikes in Iraq, which began last August, have bolstered the Kurds’ fortunes. These combined actions have helped blunt ISIS’s assaults throughout northern Iraq.
Yet ISIS remains on the march. Even after being pounded by U.S. bombs and an Iraqi ground counteroffensive, ISIS still holds the key parts of the critical city of Tikrit. Iraqi government officials have sought to claim victory in Tikrit, but they recently acknowledged ISIS still controls the more populous part of the city west of the Tigris River. A fierce battle over Kirkuk has been joined, as well.
Ironically, Americans and the West must hope the Kurds live up to the fighting spirit of their archetype, Saladin, in waging their new crusade—against radical Islam.
- Andrew Thomas, Founder and Editor, Stars & Banners