For One Night Only, Kurdish Cause Takes Center Stage at UN With Screening of ‘Peshmerga’
The Kurdish cause took center stage at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Tuesday night, as diplomats, journalists and members of the general public attended a sold-out screening of the documentary Peshmerga, directed by the French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Sponsored by the French and British missions to the UN, Tuesday’s screening took place a little over one month after the Kurdish peshmerga lost much of the territory they recently liberated from ISIS in northern Iraq to a military onslaught by the pro-Tehran Iraqi central government and Iranian-backed militias. That onslaught was in turn a response to the September 25 referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, in which 93 percent of voters chose independence.
Israel was virtually alone in both supporting the independence referendum and acknowledging its result, with other western powers cautioning against the break-up of Iraq. President Donald Trump declared on October 16 that the US was not “taking sides” in the conflict, while French President Emmanuel Macron stated that the unity of Iraq was “essential” and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for “dialogue.” None of that particularly impressed the Kurds; writing in Newsweek at the end of October, Maj-Gen. Aziz Weysi Bani of the Kurdish peshmerga, who appears in Lévy’s film, noted that the “new hope” which Trump’s 2016 election brought the Kurds “began to wane with President Trump’s opposition to our independence referendum and then turned to outrage when the United States stood by as our lines collapsed under the Iraqi assault.”
Tuesday’s screening of Lévy’s Peshmerga – the word means “those who face death,” but Lévy emphasizes throughout that the Kurds love life – was probably the closest the Kurds will get to stating their case for independence at the UN for the time being. As far as the UN institutionally is concerned, Kurdistan is a component of the Republic of Iraq, and there are no dedicated UN committees and agencies, as there are for the Palestinians, advocating for their immediate independence.
As a film and a political statement, Peshmerga searingly captures why the west owes a profound moral debt to the Kurds following their three-year battle against the ISIS caliphate, which claimed the lives of over 2,000 of their fighters. The film winds its way along the dust-choked roads of Kurdistan, the camera invariably just behind or alongside the pershmerga, bedecked with Kurdish insignias as they clear mines, engage in face-to-face combat with ISIS terrorists whose black flag flutters in the distance, deal stoically with a lack of basic military and medical equipment, and provide protection for those unfortunate enough to live under the Islamist boot as members of religious minorities. Among those featured is a Christian priest from the town of Qaraqosh, who found refuge in the Kurdish capital Erbil not only for some of his congregants, but also for a stack of sacred medieval manuscripts that would have been savagely destroyed had they fallen into the hands of ISIS.
Half-way through the film, Lévy encounters a Kurdish general in the Zartik mountains around the city of Mosul, who is, he says, “the first to tell us clearly what exactly the peshmerga expect from their allies.”
With his back to a village held by ISIS, the general tells Lévy that the peshmerga won’t forget the military assistance of the western coalition bombing Da’esh positions from the air. “This military aid is precious,” the general continues, “but we also need political assistance to build a country. It is our right to have our own state at last. We are fighting for that and for all humanity.”
In a later nighttime scene, the general advises a group of peshmerga resting by a roaring fire to wait a few minutes before they take their positions in the watchtower, so that their eyes can adjust to the dark. Watching this scene in the weeks following the western abandonment of the Kurdish aspirations expressed in the independence referendum, it is tempting to regard the general’s advice as metaphorical too – although the rest of Lévy’s film demonstrates that the Kurds have been conditioned by their bitter history not to be overly blinded by the promises of their erstwhile allies. The death of the same general, in a firefight with ISIS terrorists caught by Lévy’s camera, bitterly underlines that observation.
While an uneasy calm now prevails in Kurdistan – relative, at least, to the last few weeks – its location in the heart of the corridor that Iran is pressing through the region from its own borders to that of Israel means that the Kurdish authorities’ immediate concern is not to lose any further territory. Erbil is now sounding a conciliatory tone towards the Iraqi central government, but that has not prevented the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary group from embarking on a reign of terror in the areas now under its control. Video released this week from the town of Tuz Khurmatu suggested that a localized campaign of ethnic cleansing was underway targeting local Kurds.
Has the indefatigable spirit on display in Peshmerga been dented by the latest turn of events, in which the march of Iran and its proxies has left the immediate national aspirations of the Kurds in tatters? Speaking prior to the screening, Lévy observed that the strongmen of the Middle East, who “believe that man is born to obey,” have had “the last word until now, alas.” But, he continued, the “will to freedom never dies.” Peshmerga, a paean to the Kurdish freedom struggle, provides an invaluable glimpse into why that is.