THE BLOG

Arm the Kurds

03/09/2014 11:39 BST | Updated 02/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The Commons returned this week to a major statement from Prime Minister David Cameron on several international crises including Iraq. Denouncing Isil barbarism, he defined his position as providing equipment to the Kurdish forces and supporting US military air strikes. Opposition Leader Ed Miliband backed both. That defines the current cross-party consensus given many British people oppose British airstrikes, let alone the use of British soldiers.

Arming the Kurds plus British airstrikes was proposed by several friends of Kurdistan. The Peshmerga are the main boots on the ground and should be equipped against a well-armed enemy. American airstrikes have been militarily and psychologically vital but MPs recognise limited tolerance by Americans to unilateral action but that British support can help bolster it.

The disproportionate American defence burden has long dominated Nato debates. It was said that the Americans did the cooking while the Europeans did the washing up and that was when defence costs were evenly shared. The lion's share now falls on America, which increases insular impulses.

Popular opposition to liberal intervention boxes Cameron who is also hemmed in by expectations that Parliament rather than the Executive should decide such matters. Its disastrous refusal a year ago to back military strikes against Assad hangs uneasily over current debates.

Advocacy by MPs on all sides, however, can expand public support for necessary military actions. Cameron was clearly taking great care in assessing the parliamentary mood and increasing his room to manoeuvre. When former Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain supported equipping the Kurds but opposed "British troops on the ground," Cameron agreed that "there should be no question of British combat troops on the ground" - a subtle qualification that allows advisers to be sent.

Various MPs sought to open up space for firmer and wider action. Jason McCartney, an RAF officer in the No Fly Zone, suggested that British air strikes would be militarily expedient and symbolise support for the Kurdish people. The PM agreed that "we should listen very carefully to our Kurdish friends and allies, because they are in the front line against this ISIL monster."

Another veteran Kurdophile, Mike Gapes cited Conservative Prime Minister John Major's decision a generation ago to use British air power to save the Kurds and asked: "Why should we just leave it to the United States, particularly when the Kurdistan regional government have called for the whole of NATO to express solidarity and provide weaponry to them and air power to fight this genocidal caliphate?"

Another strong supporter of the Kurds, John Woodcock, persevered: given the PM seems open to direct participation in the current air strikes to protect the Kurds, "would he not just say so clearly now?" The PM emphasised that "we should ask ourselves how we best help those people on the ground who are doing vital work in countering ISIL."

Former Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt, asked if the PM had received a specific request for arms from the KRG. Cameron cited successful requests from the Kurds to facilitate the transfer of arms from Jordan and Albania. He was not aware of a specific request for direct arms and military support, but "would look very favourably on such a request" because the Kurds "are our allies and friends" who should be "properly armed and equipped to deal with the threat that they face."

He told Nadhim Zahawi that "I am grateful for the travel he undertook to [Kurdistan], and for the work he is doing to build our relationship with President Barzani. It is hugely helpful." Ann Clwyd highlighted the sale of Yazidi women as sex slaves and suggested offering asylum to some, as France has done. They will never enjoy normal lives if they return home.

Another supporter of the Kurds, Dave Anderson also tabled a Commons motion supporting the appeal by the UK Kurdish Genocide Task Force of ‎legal and academic experts and British Parliamentarians for signatories to the 1948 Genocide Convention and Member States of the United Nations to act to end, prosecute and punish acts of genocide and crimes against humanity against Yezidi Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Shabaks and Kakayis committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It urges a fact-finding commission to collect eye-witness evidence and prepare a timely record to establish whether the prima facie evidence justifies international recognition of these acts as genocide and/or crimes against humanity and prosecution.

Such interventions can convince western opinion that arming the Kurds together with continued airstrikes can reverse and reduce the jihadist threat to Kurdistan and at home. But this debate faces public scepticism about military action by a government that also contains differing views between and within its coalition components and faces a difficult election in a few months. The friends of Kurdistan have their work cut out, as do the Kurdish people.