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Arms for the peshmerga

Andreas Gorzewski / dcAugust 13, 2014

Kurdish peshmerga militia are receiving modern weaponry to do battle with the extremist group "Islamic State." But the military aid is stirring fears of Kurds' aspirations for independence.

Peshmerga forces deployed against Islamic State at front in Khazer
Image: Reuters

These days, much hope rests on the shoulders of Iraq's Kurdish militia, the peshmerga. The military units of the Kurdish regional authorities are trying to stop the radical Sunni group "Islamic State" (IS, formerly ISIS) from taking over any more territory. They are also tasked with bringing Christians, Yazidis and others fleeing IS terrorists to safety. But the men and women peshmerga fighters are not well equipped for battle.

The United States and France plan to ship them modern weaponry. Meanwhile, Deputy Chancellor and head of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel has rejected any German participation in arming the Kurds for now, but has not completely ruled out future participation. The idea of supplying the peshmerga with modern weapons has raised many questions, for example, about how it could affect the sensitive military balance in the region.

The Kurdish term "peshmerga" means "those who face death." It is applied mainly to fighters in Iran and Iraq, but not members of the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey. Two organizations with armed units have emerged since 1975: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said Erfurt-based professor and Iraq expert Ferhad Seyder.

"After 1991, there were attempts to fuse the two groups, but party interests and sheer egoism have led to the continued existence of two peshmerga units today,” Seyder told DW.

He estimated that the KDP has between 30,000 and 40,000 soldiers, while the PUK has around 25,000. Other experts estimate that there are more than 100,000 militia members. Today, the peshmerga serve as the army of the Kurdish autonomous region. Regional President Massoud Barzani is their official commander, with a ministry in the regional capital of Irbil that acts as a department of defense. According to Seyder, however, actual control over the units lies with the KDP and the PUK.

Peshmerga weaponry dates to Soviet era

The "Islamic State" has access to a modern arsenal of weapons. Its fighters looted weapons from the Iraqi governing forces – including weapons supplied by the United States. The peshmerga, on the other hand, are using outdated weaponry, some of which was supplied by the former Soviet Union.

"The Kurds are not able to buy bigger weapons systems, because the suppliers have always looked for approval from Iraq," said Seyder, who heads the Center for Kurdish Studies in Erfurt. The Baghdad central government under Nouri al-Maliki has always blocked such moves.

Map northern Iraq, areas inhabited by Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrians

Although a part of the Kurdish militia was – on paper, at least – supposed to be integrated into the Iraqi army, the relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government has remained tense.

"The Iraqi government refused to arm the peshmerga and pay them a salary because they wanted to reduce the number of peshmerga," Seyder said. It seems Baghdad doesn't want any strong troops beyond its control.

Iraq's neighboring states will be closely monitoring any changes in the military balance resulting from the arms supplies. According to Bilgay Duman from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) in Ankara, the weapons shipments are not a problem for Turkey.

"Relations between Turkey and the Kurdish administration are good, neither side sees the other as a threat," Duman said. Better armed Kurds in the autonomous region would not seriously call Turkey's military superiority into question.

Concerns about independence aspirations

But not all states are equally relaxed about the situation. According to Seyder, other countries are not keen on the idea of stronger Kurdish troops, because of the perceived threat posed by the Kurds' aspirations for independence. They would rather see the Iraqi federation remain intact.

"They believe that arming the Kurds will change the status quo, and they're not wrong," Seyder said.

ORSAM researcher Duman does not think that the Kurds in Iraq will declare independence only because they have access to better weapons. Kurdish independence would only be possible within the framework of an international agreement, including that of neighboring states such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, according to Duman.

Peshmerga fighter near Mosul 12.08.2014
Many of the peshmerga's weapons date back to the Soviet eraImage: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Two arguments were used by the West to oppose weapons shipments to the opposition in neighboring Syria: That the weapons could escalate the already bloody civil war, and that they could end up in the hands of anti-Western groups. The same concerns apply to Iraq. The peshmerga from the KDP and PUK fought each other bitterly in the 1990s, and Seyder said that tensions between the two parties could surface again now. He doesn't think they will do battle with each other, however.

"The Kurds learned their lesson from the '90s," he said.

Seyder also doesn't think that modern weapons in the hands of the Kurds would one day be used against the West. Unlike other movements in the Middle East that once received US military aid, the Kurds would likely not change sides. The PUK is a social democratic party, and the KDP is a moderate conservative party.

"Kurdish nationalism is secular and pro-Western," said Seyder.