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Kurdish fighter's bravery against Isil should be rewarded

Turkey and Iraq may be opposed, but the case for an independent Kurdistan is growing stronger.

Published: 01st September 2016 08:08 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st September 2016 09:25 AM   |  A+A-

In the long and bitter campaign to defeat the fanatics of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the Kurds have proved themselves to be highly effective and reliable allies.

In Iraq, Kurdish peshmerga ("those who stand in the face of death") fighters led last year's operation to recapture Mount Sinjar, and are now expected to play a vital role in the long-awaited campaign to liberate Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, from Isil control.

In neighbouring Syria, meanwhile, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), working in conjunction with rebel Syrian forces, were responsible for liberating the key border town of Kobane from Isil, causing severe disruption to Isil's supply lines.

More recently, Kurds have supported efforts by Syrian rebels to retake the cities of Manbij and Jarablus, prompting the menfolk to celebrate by shaving off the beards Isil had forced them to grow.

The Kurds' contribution in the war against Isil is highly valued by their Western allies, with American defence secretary Ash Carter recently praising the peshmerga as "a capable and motivated force" that has helped the US-led coalition to achieve many of its key objectives.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Washington this week reacted angrily to reports that Turkish forces, which are supposed to be supporting coalition efforts to destroy Isil in Syria, have been targeting Kurdish positions instead. No sooner had the Kurds helped with liberating Manbij, a key Isil logistics base 20 miles south of the Turkish-Syrian border, than they found themselves under fire from Turkish artillery.

The battle against Isil in Iraq and Syria has always been a complex affair, with many factions pursuing widely differing war aims. But the fact that forces that are supposed to fighting a common foe suddenly start knocking lumps out of each other could easily undermine the whole anti-Isil campaign.

Turkey's preference for targeting Kurdish forces instead of Isil also raises fresh questions about Ankara's value as a coalition ally.

The Turks have already tested the patience of their Nato partners with their ambivalent attitude towards the Syrian conflict. For a long time Ankara, which remains committed to the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was accused of turning a blind eye to Isil's arms-smuggling operations across the Syrian border. More recently, concerns have been raised over the rapprochement between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Now the Turks risk incurring coalition ire by targeting the one group of local fighters who have consistently demonstrated that they are capable of inflicting serious defeats again Isil.

The reason the Turks appear willing to provoke yet another row with the coalition is their concern that the Kurds, left to their own devices, are quietly carving out the boundaries of a future independent Kurdish state from the chaos and lawlessness that defines modern-day Syria and Iraq.

Kurdish dreams of establishing an independent homeland have thrived since the Ottoman Empire, and have continued despite the betrayal of the Kurdish cause at the end of the First World War, when the victorious powers decided to partition Kurdish territories between the newly created states of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. (Kurds also live in the area of northern Iran known as Iranian Kurdistan.)

Until Isil came on the scene, Kurdish attempts to gain statehood were thwarted by successive governments in Ankara, Damascus and Baghdad, which bitterly opposed any loss of their territory to an independent Kurdistan.

But the endemic lawlessness created in the wake of Isil's rampage through northern Syria and Iraq has provided the Kurds with a new opportunity to create a state of their own. Indeed, given the invaluable assistance - and the many sacrifices - Kurdish fighters have provided in support of the coalition's war against Isil, there is mounting sympathy in some Western policymaking circles for the Kurdish nationalist cause.

An independent Kurdish state would certainly provide the West with a useful bulwark amid the rapidly disintegrating edifice of the modern Middle East. Rather than having to deal with pro-Iranian regimes in Damascus and Baghdad that viscerally oppose any Western involvement in their affairs, an independent Kurdistan would offer a friendly, pro-Western alternative.

But if the Kurds are to stand any realistic chance of establishing their own state, they must first reassure countries like Turkey, which hosts a significant Kurdish population in its eastern and south-eastern provinces, that such a state would not pose a threat to the territorial integrity of its neighbours.

Otherwise, rather than fulfilling the Kurds' cherished dream of independence, their new state will only succeed in precipitating yet another conflict in a region that is already awash with blood.

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