Where is the Left’s Anger over Isis?

Angst over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 shouldn’t prevent the left offering real solidarity to Iraqi Kurds in 2014, argues GARY KENT.

The Kurds have long been a cause celebre for the international left. Iraqi Kurds were victims of genocide and all Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria were denied basic rights. Support for Kurdish self-determination was the watchword of many leading left-wing figures in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger ratted on them in a cynical deal between the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein. In Britain, up to 300,000 Kurds, mainly from Turkey, largely remain loyal to Labour.

Kurdistan flagIraqi Kurds were unanimous, however, in welcoming as a liberation the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ousting of Saddam. The invasion allowed them to form a largely autonomous and officially recognised federal region within Iraq, but their position has not endeared them to some left wingers who believe the invasion was a self-inflicted and self-interested disaster.

There is now growing sympathy for the Kurds who are resisting the misogynist and fascist onslaught of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Kobani. However, the left and the Kurds differ on the use of western military force.

Ed Miliband made it a key theme of his leadership that he is not Tony Blair and has learned lessons from the so-called rush to war in Iraq in 2003. In this vein, Miliband dashed a bipartisan proposal from David Cameron to join US-led air strikes against President Assad for using chemical weapons in August 2013.

While much of Syria’s chemical arsenal was subsequently decommissioned, Assad has since been able to pulverise opposition to his regime with barrel bombs, resulting in upwards of 220,000 deaths, shredding the more moderate Syrian opposition, and benefitting the forces that have become Isis.

The sudden Isis offensive against Mosul in June, the swift collapse of Iraq’s army, the capture by Isis of one third of Iraq territory, and the attack in August against Iraqi Kurdistan – which came close to the capital of Erbil – prompted the United States to abandon its aloof posture and launch air strikes in Iraq, with support from Baghdad and the Kurds, and in Syria.

Labour insisted that British jets should only support air strikes in Iraq unless there was explicit UN support for strikes in Syria. But, while UN support is preferable, moral positions cannot necessarily be determined by a body in which some powers can veto action for immoral reasons.

There is a strong argument that UN permission is not needed because Isis forces are using Syria as a base to attack Iraq and Kurdistan. In any case, US and other forces are carrying out such action and UK jets would add little in military as opposed to political terms.

Peashooters versus tanks

The Kurds in Iraq and in Kobani have so far kept Isis at bay but it is an unequal battle – peashooters versus tanks. Isis is a force of anything between 30,000 and 200,000 people, equipped with masses of the most sophisticated US military equipment, which they captured from the hapless Iraqi army in June.

Kurdish demands are very clear – they need heavy weapons and air strikes. Much of the left has been slow and confused in its response. Some on the extreme left argue that the left should help repel Isis and imperialism, oddly ignoring the fact that western air strikes have been essential. Labour and the left are less than vocal in supporting Kurdish demands and do not seem sufficiently troubled by genocide, mass rape, sex slavery and barbarism.

Likewise, the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Kurdistan is not well understood by the left and the wider public. A country of five million people is looking after 1.5 million refugees and displaced people while fighting Isis with insufficient weaponry. What’s more, Kurdistan has not had budget payments from Baghdad this year, although some monies have been released thanks to an interim deal.

Nevertheless, the situation for refugees remains dire as winter approaches – their accommodation is poor and won’t protect them against cold and disease, while many have no shelter. They cannot stay in Kurdistan but they cannot return home until Isis is destroyed.

Liberal and humanitarian interventions are less popular than they were on the left as some succumb to old right wing themes of insularity – ‘what’s it got to do with us’; ‘let them fight their own battles’ – while many are unwilling to accept that western forces can play a positive role.

One budding Labour parliamentary candidate told me that she would support military action if it commanded the support of the Commons, which means she allows the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to define her position. It would not be acceptable on any other issue and should not be on this.

A gap between the Kurds and the left has opened up. To bridge the gap and answer their calls for practical acts of solidarity, Nora Mulready and myself have established Labour Solidarity with Kurds, a group whose platform has been endorsed by a good range of rank and file activists, many in parts of London where the Kurds are based.

The Labour MP and veteran foreign policy expert, Mike Gapes has tabled a Commons motion endorsing our appeal, while Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, KRG High Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said: “The Kurds and the left have long been on the same side. It is crucial that the Kurds and British forces, left, right and centre are on the same side in the global fight against Isis fascism. Such initiatives also help the Kurds at this decisive moment in our history.”

Kurds are keen that we urge the Labour movement to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. They understand the British people have given much blood in Iraq and know that calls for military assistance are best promoted by Britons themselves.

The Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad are not currently calling for western ground troops and may never do so. However, we think it should not be ruled out in principle. Yes, it is important that regional forces take the lead, that western forces are not seen as imposing themselves, and that a realistic strategy underpins any deployment. However, it is misguided to deny combat troops if they are necessary to defeat a fascistic, misogynist and expansionist force.

Where is the anger about Isis? The left should have a damn good reason for ignoring the Kurds’ plight, or failing to support those who are defending democracy, women’s rights and pluralism. Allowing angst over Iraq in 2003 to obstruct real solidarity in 2014 would be an historic abandonment of our Kurdish friends.


Gary Kent is director of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region. He writes in a personal capacity.

Click here to read an open letter to the Labour movement from Labour Solidarity with Kurds.


  1. Harry Barnes
    2 December 2014

    Gary: If you wish, please add my name to the appeal by Labour Solidarity with the Kurds. You were, of course, youself fully involved in the support I gave to British Aid For The Kurds back in 1991-92. Then, after the western invasion, we were together in the support which Labour Friends of Iraq gave to trade unions and other progressive forces throughout Iraq; whilst soon recognising that these elements had a stronger effective influence in Iraqi Kurdistan than in other regions.

    I had, of course, taken a different line to the Kurds on the western invasion of Iraq, believing that it would lead to the type of deaths, rifts and counteractions which since occured. But once the invasion had taken place, I recognised a situation had arisen in which a surge to stop extremists death squads was needed – although western actions themselves still had to be strongly criticised when they overstepped the mark.

    I am, however, worried about Charles Clark’s position when he seems to be advocating the establishment of a fully fledged Kurdistan. If this came to be a widely agreed position sometime in the future, that would be acceptable. But the military assistance given to the Kurds to tackle Isis should not then be used to establish a wider Kurdistan based on military might. Nor is ethnic conformity needed for nations to be common units, especially not, I hope, in the UK. This seems to me to be a matter which Labour Solidarity For The Kurds should keep in mind.

    The focus which Labour Friends of Iraq had upon socially progressive forces uniting across Iraq – whether they were Shia, Sunni, Kurdish or had other identities – still seems to me to be important, although I am aware that Labour Friends of Iraq is now practically defunct and has been overtaken by Kurdish interests. I am not against the latter, but nor do I wish to sideline the needs of the rest of the Iraqi people.

  2. Charles Clark
    1 December 2014

    Thanks from the USA for standing up with the Kurds in Syria. Cannot understand why the free world not be rushing to their aid against ISIS. All Kurds deserve homeland free from Iraqi & Turkish oppression. We need to see UK join US in Syria and provide more support in the fight against ISIS.

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