What can Libyans learn from the Kurdish Peshmerga?

Since the Syrian Civil War erupted in March 2011, the Peshmerga have been catapulted to the forefront of the world stage. The Iraqi Kurdish armed forces have become celebrated internationally as one of the main forces on the ground in the fight against Daesh. Peshmerga is derived from two Kurdish words and, when translated into English, comes to mean those who face death. There are between 100,000 and 250,000 militants in Peshmerga comprising of both men and women. Between December 2013 and March 2015, it is estimated that the Peshmerga succeeded in regaining approximately 8,000 square miles from Daesh across Iraq and Syria. However, their victories have not been without sacrifice. An estimated 2,000 Peshmerga have been killed and over 8,000 injured in this fight against Daesh.

As Libya – a country which could be arguably representative of a ‘failed state’ – edges further into dissent and division, the Kurdish struggle and success of the Peshmerga forces could be seen as a source of hope and inspiration at least against Daesh. What has made the Peshmerga such a successful military force in the complex battleground of the Middle East and in the face of radical extremists? Drawing from Kurdish history, as well as their hopes for the future, we will pinpoint the strengths of the Peshmerga and advocate three suggestions that, together, can aid those involved in the Libyan struggle against extremist groups.

1. Culture of Resistance

One of the main factors driving Peshmerga’s success in their fight against Daesh is the experience and historical resistance of the Kurdish people. Seeking territorial recognition in a postcolonial environment, Kurds are generally well-accustomed to resisting against prolonged repression. One hundred years ago, when the lines of the Middle East were re-drawn by Western powers and enshrined in the Sykes-Picot Agreement and Treat of Sevrés, many Kurdish people were denied statehood amongst Arab neighbours.

In World War 1, many Kurds fought for the Ottoman Empire, later rebelling in an attempt to establish a Kurdish homeland. Their lack of independence proved fatal in the late 20th Century, as many Kurds suffered under Saddam’s regime in Iraq. They were victims of the genocidal Anfal campaign, in which chemical weapons were dropped on Iraqi Kurds in what appeared to be a clear attempt to rid Iraq of this ethnic minority. In spite of Kurdistan’s Western “allies” failing to adequately support them over the decades, Iraqi Kurds again rose to the challenge of resistance in the early 2000s, when they proved pivotal in overthrowing the Saddam’s regime. It is this history of resistance to various forms of oppression that has allowed the Peshmerga to mature and draw from experience. They can now effectively organise themselves in their fight against Daesh.

Of course, Libyans have also had a history of resistance, with the likes of Omar Moukhtar resisting against Italian colonial rule, King Idris employing a softer approach against British colonial rule, and Muammar Gaddafi subsequently overthrowing King Idris for a more hardline approach against foreign interference. However, this history of resistance had not been a collective one, with many factions, up until this day, competing against each other with their own ideas of political freedom.

2. Political Unity

In our holistic recommendation, this brings us on to political unity. Kurds have been territorial incorporated into surrounding nation-states over the years. However, despite regional variations of the Kurdish vision, there is a strong sense of a will to establish an internationally recognised united Kurdistan. This desire comes from moderates and hardliners alike, and this sense of unity allows the Peshmerga to mobilise and concentrate resources and human capital in a way that can allow the Kurds to credibly compete with Islamic extremists.

In September 2014, Daesh attacked Kobane, a canton in Rojava, also known as Western or Syrian Kurdistan. Many Peshmerga fighters travelled from Iraqi Kurdistan to Rojava to join the YPJ and YPG forces fending off this attack from Daesh. In doing so, they crossed three official state borders in a show of strength, solidarity and unity. The Peshmerga are largely responsible for the safety and security of Iraqi Kurdistan, but they went even further. The nation shows that people from various party lines and regions can unite and effectively engage in a fight against a common enemy.

Unfortunately, Libyans are fighting between themselves, with the Libyan Army controlling east of Libya and western Libya being divided between Sarraj’s transitional government and the Dawn party. On the ground, various other rebel and ethnic groups are also involved in a tug-of-war for power.

3. Celebrated Diversity

Whilst we have just emphasised the role of uniting over shared identity, it is still important to celebrate diversity under a unifying, strategic objective. The majority of Peshmerga fighters are Shia or Sunni Muslims, and significant numbers are Christian and Yazidi, yet they all embrace this in their fight against Daesh. Peshmerga forces are also often seen celebrating the fact that both men and women are fighting Daesh. What the Kurds fight for is recognition of their Kurdish identity, yet they are proud that this identity is a diverse one. There are an estimated 1,000 female fighters in the Peshmerga, whose roles and duties are often identical to those of their male counterparts. Men and women are almost free and equal in Kurdistan, as enshrined by law. Kurdish law, for example, requires that 30% of seats in the nation’s National Assembly are reserved for women. Additional seats are reserved for minority communities.

This inclusive mentality marks a stark contrast to Daesh, where a woman is often confined to the home, forced to cover head-to-toe, and falls frequently victims to gender-based violence and abuse. The celebration of diversity in Kurdistan proposes a more appealing alternative to Daesh’s world view, allowing the Peshmerga to further mobilise as many people as possible, of all walks of life, fighting a common cause.

4. Conclusion

It is of no doubt that this celebration of difference in light of a common objective is playing a major mobilising role in Peshmerga’s credible fight against Daesh – a fascist, patriarchal, repressive regime with less military experience. The Kurds have no plans to make Kurdistan ethnically or religiously homogenous, and this, along with Peshmerga’s common objective, could be a lesson to Libya, and a hope to minority groups who have suffered in Libya – both under the previous regime and in the current situation.

In Libya, the majority Sunni Maliki dominate whilst the minority Ibadi Muslims remain marginalised and live in fear. This fear has arguably increased since the arrival of Daesh. In March 2016, a Libyan Ibadi told VICE:

[I]t doesn’t matter who is in power down [here] in the valley. We are neither Arab nor Sunni, so we are pretty much by ourselves in Libya.

Of course, no two conflicts are the same. However, it is clear that lessons can be learned from Peshmerga’s effective resistance against Daesh. The Kurds are a pioneering force for change in the Middle East in their historical struggle for freedom, equality, democracy and recognition.

Authored by Eilis O’Connell and Sami Oussama Filali Naji, constructive comments welcome.

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