Why arming peshmerga is not so useful, and maybe it will be dangerous

Before starting, it is necessary to make a few clarifications to the argument. There are no reasons to be against Kurdish people and to take no notice of their bravery or of their goodwill. On the contrary, their courage to join forces and fight against an awful enemy as the ISIL, with the only support of the “Ally” air forces, is the most appreciable fact in the so-called “war on the Caliphate”[1]. It is not by chance, however, that previously the words “join forces” were used. In fact, there are some aspects of Kurdish culture(-es) and history(-ies) that media ignore and one of that is the high fragmentation of Kurdish people in tribes and, then, of tribes in clans. Before analyzing this and other aspects, it is important to do a little introduction about the peshmerga and especially about the media approach to them.

PESHMERGA: DEFINITION, ROOTS AND THE PRESENT. The peshmerga is the term that refers to Kurdish armed forces (literally: “those who face death”). They had a fundamental role in the Iraqi (and Middle Eastern) past and, surely, they will have a much more important role in the future of Iraq, Syria and Turkey[2] because of the proclamation of the Islamic State. Although Kurdish people were used both by Turkey and by United Kingdom to cause border troubles in the first half of 20th Century, they never caused problems for Turks and British domination in the Middle East. The peshmerga role in Iraq increased with the leadership of “Barzani the Immortal” (Mullah Mustafa Barzani, 1903-1974) throughout the 1960s and 1970s; the Kurdish independence movement adopted guerrilla to obtain the independence from Baghdad that gave as result the signing of an agreement between the government of Iraq and the leaders of Iraqi Kurdish community that established the Kurdish Autonomous Region. After the first Gulf War, Kurdistan obtained independence de facto, but the economic crisis due to the war, the US embargo to Iraq and Iraq embargo to Kurdistan led to clashes between the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) that controlled the north of the Kurdistan and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan[3]) that controlled the south for the control of the whole of Kurdistan. These clashes resulted in a civil war between tribes and clans in Iraqi Kurdistan that finished with a cease-fire in the 1997 that created two Kurdish regional governments. In Turkey, the Kurdish independence movement, led by PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) of Abdullah Öcalan, but represented also by other minor semi-autonomous groups, never obtained a formal recognition from Ankara because of guerrilla and terroristic method that PKK adopted from 1984 to 2013[4]. These are the historical reasons why today with the term peshmerga, media indicate all Kurds are fighting for their independence against the States that dominate them[5]. Furthermore, media represent them as a continuum, as a unique and uniform community.

POINT IN QUESTION. That is the point! Kurdish people are not a monolithic group. Kurdish History is a History of tribes and clans and, above all, a History of clashes and feuds between them[6]. There are hundreds of Kurdish tribes in Middle East[7] but, in addition, there is also a high political fragmentation: KDP has problems with PUK[8], KDP has problems with PKK[9], PDKI (Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran) has problems with PKK and PUK, PKK has a Syrian wing, YPG that has problems with KDP-S (KDP Syrian wing[10]) and so on[11]. The war against ISIL – the common enemy – is reducing these rivalries between political and peshmerga groups[12] but is not simple to delete them. The West is arming peshmerga in the hope that they can repulse and, maybe, defeat ISIL but that is an improbable thing because despite the victories in areas inhabited mainly by Kurds and despite the questionable strength of air raid, the peshmerga has no possibility to defeat ISIL. How Metit Turcan said: “IS has about 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. One-third of these are trained and experienced fighters, with an estimated 1,000 foreigners among them. Former Baath cadres, Sunni tribes and organized smuggling rings are also active within IS. This gives IS an appearance of an ‘umbrella organization’ of about 25,000 fighters”. In addition: “The military profile of IS is best defined as lightly armored, highly mobile infantry units well trained in urban warfare. It has a fluid, versatile command structure that keeps changing. All its units are mobile and dispersed” and, on the other hand, “there is not a single offensive operation the peshmerga has won in its history. Its basic goal has always been to stay on strategic defense and compel the invading forces to withdraw after engaging them with an exhausting, low-intensity struggle”[13]. However, if the ISIS were defeated one day, probably the Kurds will claim their reward for the blood tribute paid: the constitution of an independent Kurdistan. Probably, US, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria will not want the proclamation of an independent Kurdistan, but this does not mean that peshmerga will not fight to obtain this and, maybe, they will fighting each other also to obtain the supremacy on the others tribes or clans or Kurdish political parties.

That is why arming peshmerga will be dangerous, as well as worthless. Moreover, that is the reason of the Turkish behavior in the war against Al-Baghdadi: no one will prevail in the present and in the future, nor ISIL neither Kurds (PKK), that is also domestic problem. Arming peshmerga is not a solution for the final defeat of ISIL and cannot degrade the power of the Caliphate. It can only contain the advance of IS but we do not know for how long. The only solution for restoring regional stability is the intervention of regular armies (or/with contractors hired by national governments), bearing in mind that the basic conditions for this to happen are four:

  1. the future of Syria (or what will remain) will not be able to leave the presence of the Assad family out of consideration;
  2. the Kurds cannot become a source of future instability[14];
  3. the Arab armies shall not be involved in the field but only logistic[15];
  4. participation of Russia and China about the international anti-ISIL strategy.



[1] Robert Dujarric, East Asia and America’s War on the Caliphate, “The Diplomat”, September 13, 2014 – http://thediplomat.com/2014/09/americas-war-on-the-caliphate-and-east-asia/.

[2] Maybe, also in Iran, but the situation is thoroughly under control there.

[3] Social-democratic wing that separated from KDP in 1964. David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007, p. 317.

[4] When there was a formal cease-fire between AKP government and PKK. Constanze Letsch, Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan declares ceasefire with Turkey, “The Guardian”, March 21, 2013 – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/21/pkk-leader-ocalan-declares-ceasefire.

[5] Although, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, peshmerga are Kurdistan’s regional guard, a legal entity within Iraq that is responsible of the whole Country security. Article 121, Item 5 of the Iraqi federal constitution, “The regional government shall be responsible for all the administrative requirements of the region, particularly the establishment and organization of the internal security forces for the region such as police, security forces, and guards of the region”. Today you do not need to be Kurdish to become a peshmerga.

[6] This is a recent episode in Turkey. Aziz İstegün, Feud between PKK and Hüda-Par stokes fears of bloody years in ‘90s, “Today Zaman”, October 9, 2014 – http://www.todayszaman.com/_feud-between-pkk-and-huda-par-stokes-fears-of-bloody-years-in-90s_361154.html.

[7] It is sufficient to consult the Wikipedia page of Kurdish tribes to have a taste of this extent.

[8] Despite the coalition government with KDP, the rivalry between the two parties remains.

[9] Border clashes are frequent. “Kurdpress”, PKK seeks negotiation with KDP, northern Syria is hub of tensions: official tells Kurdpress, May 26, 2014 –http://www.kurdpress.com/En/NSite/FullStory/News/?Id=7440#Title=%0A%09%09%09%09%09%09%09%09PKK-seeks-negotiation-with-KDP,-northern-Syria-is-hub-of-tensions:-official-tells-Kurdpress%0A%09%09%09%09%09%09%09. Denise Natali, PKK Challenges Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Al Monitor”, May 9, 2013 – http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/originals/2013/05/pkk-barzani-challenge-kurdistan.html#.

[10] Rebwar Karim Wali, The KDP and PKK’s Breakneck Rivalry in Syria, “Rudaw”, August 25, 2013 – http://rudaw.net/english/opinion/25082013.

[11] Here other examples of Kurdish divisions in Syria: Sirwan Kajjo, Obstacles to Kurdish Autonomy, “Carnegie Endowment for International Peace”, November 7, 2013 – http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/index.cfm?fa=show&article=53535&solr_hilite=. Maybe, that is the reason of the Kurdish proverb that says: “The Kurd has no friend but the mountains”. Jacqueline Devigne, “Iraqoncilable” Differences? The Political Nature of the Peshmerga, in “NIMEP Insights”, Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University, Vol. VI, Fall 2011, pp. 49-57 –http://tiglarchives.org/sites/default/files/resources/nimep/v5/NIMEP_Insights_2011_48-64.pdf. For further information about Kurdish divisions in Syria: International Crisis Group, Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle, “Middle East Report”, 136, January 22, 2013 – http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/136-syrias-kurds-a-struggle-within-a-struggle.

[13] Metin Turcan, Don’t expect peshmerga to beat Islamic State, “Al-Monitor”, September 1, 2014 – http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/09/turkey-syria-iraq-kurdistan-isis-military-pesmerga.html.

[14] So, the partition of Iraq and an independent Kurdistan in the north will be impossible.

[15] As the Iraqi government wants. “Analisi Difesa”, Australia e Turchia nella coalizione, l’Iraq non vuole gli arabi, October 2, 2014 – http://www.analisidifesa.it/2014/10/australia-e-turchia-nella-coalizione-baghdad-non-vuole-gli-emirati/.

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