Apache helicopters and new assault rifles are on their list of things to get.
The Kurds are making a serious pitch to get the high-powered weapons technologies from the west that they say will help defeat the Islamic State. While Canada wrings its hands, senators in the United States are pushing to give the fighters what they're asking for.
The issue was at the forefront of the Halifax Security Forum, an international hobnobbing conference featuring big players from over a dozen governments from around the world. The Nova Scotia-based forum also plays host to a number of ad hoc bilateral meetings between the top brass from world governments.
Falah Mustafa Bakir, who is tasked with foreign affairs for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, was holding those meetings over the weekend, with the purpose of asking for new weaponry from anybody who will give it to him. Among the list of new toys he thinks the Kurds need: tanks, armed personnel carriers, rockets, and attack helicopters.
The Peshmerga—the military force of the Kurdistan region—have been given shipments of ammunition and weaponry mostly donated from old Soviet-era stockpiles held in the Czech Republic and Albania. But the Kurdish fighters on the ground say it's simply not enough.
Given the high-power, top-of-the-line and often formerly American-supplied weaponry that ISIS has managed to steal from the Iraqi military, Bakir is making a direct appeal to world leaders to equip the fighters on the front-lines to push back the Islamic State. Some have heard the call, but most western nations remain hesitant to arm the Kurds while Turkey (the historical enemy of the Kurdish state movement) looks on.
Motherboard asked Senator John McCain, the Republican's point-man on foreign affairs, and Senator Tim Kaine, the Democrat who heads the Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Relations, what western nations need to do to help the Kurds.
"We need to send those weapons, particularly the heavy weapons… directly to the Peshmerga," McCain said in Halifax. "They're being outgunned by ISIS."
Kaine nodded the whole time and confirmed that he and McCain were of one in the same mind on the matter—send the weapons.
Last week, a House Republicaon moved to introduce legislation that wouldpermit President Obama to send the anti-armour and anti-tank weaponry that the fighters have requested.
We need to send those weapons
When asked by Motherboard whether Canada would be kicking in that heavy weaponry, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson wouldn't confirm whether or not he had met with the Kurdish representatives at the Security Forum, but did say that they would consider the request.
"I can't say we have a direct request. We look forward to any suggestions. That's part of what the discussions are when we get together like this," Nicholson said.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, who was also attending the Forum, also wouldn't commit one way or the other, but was generally supportive of the idea.
"It depends on what it is but, in principle: yes," Dewar said. "This is about an army that's defending its terrain, so we think that it's in keep with and ally and supporting them."
We sat down with Bakir and asked him exactly what kinds of military trinkets the Kurds are looking for to start outgunning ISIS militants.
Motherboard: Talk to us a little bit about the aid and training that your allies have been providing to Kurdistan.
Falah Mustafa Bakir: We have to be realistic about addressing this issue. There is a real threat on the ground, and the only group on the ground fighting ISIS is the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Peshmerga forces. This is one. Second: we have to prove that we have the ability to fight ISIS. Now the situation is such that we need heavier weapons in order to defeat them and to push them out of our areas. There is a lot of talk about the airstrikes—they are important, they are effective, they are helpful—but to win this battle, which is a different problem, you need to address it in a proper way.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces do not have the same weapons that ISIS has, because ISIS was able to capture weapons from the Iraqi army. They got support from Syria and the other Syrian groups. Heavy weapons are a serious need, but the Apache helicopters would also play an important role in making sure that the fight ends to the benefit of those who fight for a civilized world.
The Canadian Government has sent Czech and Albanian arms to you. They're Soviet-era. Is the weaponry you're getting good enough?
The fact of the matter is that we had old weapons, so in order to provide ammunition for them, it has to be from the same brand, the same make. So we needed these Soviet-era weapons in order to provide for the Peshmerga. The fact of the matter now, it has changed and we need other weapons. We need tanks, we need armoured personnel carriers, we need Humvees, we need anti-tank missiles in order to win the battle. Our enemy has it. We don't have it.
So we have the will to fight and the determination, but we need the weapons in order to win the battle. So far we have received weapons, we received ammunition but it has been small, light arms and ammunition, with the exception of the MILAN rockets that were provided by Germany, and some other equipment provided by France and Italy. But we have not yet received what we have requested. We hope that the international coalition of the willing led by the United States—which has been very helpful and we help them for their solidarity and their support—look into this situation to see what the Peshmerga need, because they are reliable. They are the boots on the ground who are only asking for the weapons to fight.
Did you convey that to the Canadian Government? Has the Canadian Government expressed the will to provide anything else?
We have expressed our thanks and our appreciation for their involvement for the military support and the humanitarian assistance because the situation is such that we are in are on a frontline that is 1035 kilometers long, where we are fighting ISIS. On the other hand we have 1.6 million internally displaced Iraqi and Syrian refugees inside the Kurdistan region. Since the beginning of this year we have not received our budget from Baghdad but last week there was a breakthrough when the Iraqi oil minister came to the region but this is the beginning.
On the other end of this crisis, what are the Kurds looking for? There's still a push to form an independent Kurdistan. Is that what's going to rise when all of this is said and done?
We have to be realistic. Now we are dealing with an immediate threat. The threat of fighting ISIS. But when we talk of the right to determination, we have the right to self-determination, but they will decide it then and there what kind of circumstances. We are realistic. We realize we live in a difficult neighbourhood.
We want to have more economic power, more sovereignty, and still to be a part of a federal system. Now we are focused on fighting ISIS militarily and, politically, making sure that the federal system that we wanted to bring about in Iraq succeeds.
There have been reports that the PKK—a pro-independence Kurdish rebel group that the West considers a terrorist organization—has been fighting alongside the Peshmerga.
We in the Kurdistan region have put aside our differences, our political differences, to focus on one enemy, and that enemy is ISIS.