On the day the Prime Minister asked MPs to consider air strikes in Syria, elsewhere in Parliament heard how an economic crisis in Iraq has overtaken ISIS as the top security concern.
Sparked by a dispute between the national government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq over the latter’s foreign oil sales, the situation has seen the KRG unprepared to cope with 1.8 million people internally displaced by the conflict with ISIS, also known as Daesh, with substantial proportions of the population going unpaid for months.
Karwan Jamal Tahir, the region’s High Representative to the UK, said: “We don’t think the major threat is Daesh, the major threat is an economic threat, and also a political threat.”
The KRG was at risk of collapse if the issue wasn’t resolved soon with Baghdad, he said, adding that any suggestion of an independent Kurdistan in a post-ISIS, potentially redrawn Iraq, was not being considered by the regional government, which was focused on defeating the terrorist group. Mr Tahir said that the decision on air strikes in Syria was a matter for Britain, but that he thought they would prove successful.
He was speaking at an event held in the Houses of Parliament on 26 November to debate the KRG’s fight aganst ISIS and its wider global implications.
Michael Stephens, Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said that only four per cent of Russian air strikes were targeting ISIS, with the rest aimed at forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He said that a problem with the international response to Syria was that key regional players Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Hezbollah had different priorities for intervening.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar had armed other Islamist militias in Syria, with some weapons ultimately finding their way into ISIS hands, Mr Stephens said, while Qatar halting such supplies when the international community highlighted this had unfortunately resulted in gains being made by al-Assad’s forces and ISIS.
Another issue is how various countries enacted different rules of engagement, with Britain refusing to bomb ISIS convoys with civilians present, while the United States had suggested a more flexible approach, at the cost of ‘collateral damage’.
He said that half of the arms being used by ISIS had been stolen from the Iraqi army, including 1,000 all-terrain, four-wheel-drive vehicles, with others taken from al-Assad’s forces originally supplied by Russia, such as T55 tanks.
Mr Stephens also questioned an assertion by the Prime Minister that there are 70,000 moderate rebels fighting in Syria, unallied to either ISIS or al-Assad, and that he had asked for clarification on the source of this figure.
Disrupting ISIS’s oil trade may have reduced its daily earnings to $600,000, Mr Stephens said, but that breaking local smuggling lines had cost young Syrians their only jobs amid the conflict, resulting in their options being to head for Europe, or take the $65 dollars a day and more offered by ISIS to new recruits.
He added that RAF strikes in Syria would help contain ISIS’s military threat in the region, but were not a permanent solution to the threat of ISIS-inspired terrorism in Europe.
Bill Park, Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College, London, said: “The Peshmerga [KRG military] have won the battle against ISIS, they’ve got most of the territory back that was lost. But ISIS doesn’t really know what defeat is, they have snipers everywhere, and they never quite go away, they just go down the road.”
He warned of ISIS sleeper agents within the KRG, and that from now on the situation will likely go downhill, with international sympathy for the Kurds in their struggle potentially turning out to be transient and limited. Mr Park said that despite the United States professing that the Peshmerga was a key ally in the ground war against ISIS, American policy remained unchanged in that it continued to arm the KRG only through Iraq’s national government in Baghdad, which was refusing to provide heavy weapons to the Peshmerga, in what he described as ‘a big mistake’.
Mr Park said that in the past after such conflicts international diplomats would meet and redraw state boundaries, in part to prevent their recurrence. This had happened to Iraq and Syria in the aftermath of the First World War, but that the United Nations had since vowed to respect existing sovereign territories. However, he said that William Hague, former Foreign Secretary, wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 24 November that these borders ‘should not be considered immutable’, and that ‘Kurds have shown their ability to run their own affairs.’
Gary Kent, administrator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, chaired the proceedings, saying that he had returned some weeks ago from four days in Kurdistan with seven MPs, who had been to the front line only a couple of miles away from Daesh.
He said that Daesh had captured three four-wheel-drive military vehicles and packed them with explosives at a bridge, but that the Peshmerga had stopped Daesh from detonating them, while armed only with AK-47 assault rifles. He said that there was a need among the Peshmerga for further heavy weaponry that could stop such attacks from a greater distance, and with consequently less risk to its soldiers, though adding that the UK government had supplied some heavy machine guns.
Natalie McGarry, Scottish National Party MP for Glasgow East, was also billed to speak at the event, but did not attend.
The debate was organised by the Centre for Kurdish Progress, an independent policy forum that focuses on Kurdish issues in the UK and worldwide. http://www.kurdishprogress.org