Gordon Campbell on the reluctance to support the Kurds against Islamic State

The boundary line between our troops having (a) an ‘advise and assist’ role in Iraq and (b) an actual combat role – which Prime Minister John Key insists they will not have – would seem sheer wishful thinking. The Canadian special forces in Iraq operate with a similar theoretical distinction. Yet in mid-January, the Canadians clashed with Islamic State forces in what Lebanon’s Daily Star reported as being ‘the first confirmed ground battle’ between Western coalition troops and IS:

“My troops had completed a planning session with senior Iraqi leaders several kilometers behind the front lines,” Canadian special forces commander Brigadier General Michael Rouleau said.

“When they moved forward to confirm the planning at the front lines in order to visualize what they had discussed over a map, they came under immediate and effective mortar and machine gunfire.” The general said the Canadians used sniper fire to “neutralize both threats”…He said the clash had taken place in the previous seven days and was “the first time we’ve taken fire and returned fire” in Iraq.
As of late last week, two more such incidents involving Canadian special forces have been reported.

Among international forces training the Iraqi military, Canadian special forces have twice exchanged gunfire with Isis fighters since the first confirmed ground battle in Iraq between Western troops and the jihadists earlier this month, a senior officer in Ottawa said.

Captain Paul Forget said: ‘Two similar events have occurred over the last week and, in both cases, Canadian special operations forces, again acting in self-defence, effectively returned fire, neutralising the threat.’

Clearly, getting drawn into combat – even if it begins as self defence – now comes with the territory. Will a contingent of our SAS special forces be part of our contribution in Iraq, once Key finally gets around to announcing it? That would also seem highly likely – if only because the Canadian special forces are already there, and because the Australians have reportedly had a special forces contingent in Baghdad since early November, and have been negotiating with the Iraqis recently over their more effective and timely use.

So what is holding up the Key announcement of what is a virtual fait accompli? There are several reasons. Even with IS on their doorstep, the Iraqi government has been notoriously slow at formally authorising such deployments. Until the Australians have clarified their situation with Baghdad, our outlook and role will remain unclear. Secondly, the whole configuration of the Western coalition response to Islamic State is being delayed by Turkey’s demands.

Turkey has been a key avenue for funnelling IS foreign recruits to the battlefield, and it has priorities that differ from those of the West. Turkey regards regime change in Syria – and not the defeat of IS – as its top priority. By contrast, the West remains fearful that the sudden collapse of the Assad regime would create a vacuum that Islamic State forces would rush to fill. In particular, Turkey is hostile to any Western assistance to the Kurds, whose YPG military wing has long been opposed by the government of Turkey even though – or because – it has been the YPG that has halted the IS advance in the town of Kobane, on Turkey’s border.

Inside northern Iraq as well, it has been the Kurdish militia that have been beaten back IS advances including recapturing the strategic town of Sinjar, the former home to the persecuted Yazidi minority. For months, negotiations between Turkey and the Western coalition have bogged down over the extent of a ‘buffer zone” inside Iraq that Turkey has proposed. This buffer zone would not only limit Kurdish ambitions for an independent region in northern Syria but – interestingly – it is being described as a potential platform for launching special forces attacks against IS.

Obviously, what happens in Syria will be crucial to what happens in Iraq – if only because Islamic State blithely operates across the borders between the two countries. So far however, all the debate about the New Zealand deployment has focussed entirely on Iraq – and even then it has been framed entirely in terms of lending assistance to the Iraqi Army. This is bizarre, if the purpose of the deployment really is to degrade and defeat the forces of Islamic State. So far, the regional military response against Islamic State has been waged, in order of effectiveness, by these combatants:

1. The Kurdish peshmerga
2. The Syrian Army of Bashir Assad
3. Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda faction in Syria.
4. Hizbollah
5. The Shi’ite militia mobilised with the blessing of Ayatollah al-Sistani
6. The Iraqi Army

Why then is New Zealand putting its efforts behind the Iraqi Army – arguably, the least effective combatant on the battlefield – if defeating Islamic State truly is the main reason for putting New Zealand troops in harm’s way? Britain, after all, is putting some of its “training “ efforts into supporting the Kurds, who are famously short of effective weapons to fight Islamic State forces that are now bristling with stolen US weaponry. At last week’s post Cabinet press conference, I asked Key – at circa 23 minutes in the link – if New Zealand had ever considered putting its training effort behind the Kurds, rather than the Iraqi Army. Key replied:

There’s been loose discussion about that, give the situation they’re in. Certainly, the Brits for instance are training people – I think it’s the Kurds, mostly. They have reasons for that. Yes, of course that’s a possibility but you know… at the margins. I’m reasonably comfortable with what we are proposing or at least considering as a good option.

So much for Key’s rant last week that the centre left doesn’t care about human rights if it opposes his policy in Iraq…The real concern is that Key hasn’t offered a convincing argument as to why New Zealand is choosing to oppose Islamic State in ways that are almost certain to fail. Blustering on about the crimes of Islamic State – heinous though they are – doesn’t validate the response he has in mind.

The Keggs, in the garage

Forced to pick the supremo garage band classic of the 1960s, most of us would probably go for “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, “96 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterians, or maybe “Psychotic Reaction” by Count Five….but the sole single by the Westland, Michigan band called the Keggs is a more obscure, valid contender. So the legend goes, the lead singer – or guitarist – was later decapitated in a car crash. Here from 1967, are both sides of the band’s only shot at fame, starting with the A-side “To Find Out”…

and here’s the B-side, “Girl” ..as in “Girl, I want to know/ where our love stands…”

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