One thing about film festivals is that you tend to have close encounters of the tired kind. Mediapersons and film industry folk who attend screenings that begin at 9 am and end past midnight for several days, walk around in a daze despite the dazzling events around them. At the Toronto International Film Festival though, I met a young woman who was keenly alert to what was happening, not just in Toronto but the wider world beyond. That was Helan Abdulla, who I learnt is a Kurdish superstar, present to promote the movie, Mardan, which symbolically represented Kurdistan. Better known as Helly Luv, she’s also a pop diva. The risque video for her single, Risk It All, has over three million views on YouTube, and has also attracted death threats from Iraqi Islamists.
In recent decades, the Kurds have been described as variously as Lady Gaga has adopted avatars: From victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical warfare, to rebels, freedom fighters, and terrorists (the Kurds in Turkey are so designated by the US). Now, with geopolitical swings, the shifting sands of West Asia have turned them into the frontline forces against the Islamic State (ISIS).
That’s courtesy American President Barack Obama’s weigh-and-watch policy that has led to ISIS holding sway over territory that covers more area than the state of Gujarat. Obama’s strategy was grounded in American public opinion. The abdominal obesity of Americans may have increased by 8% in the first decade of the 21st century, but their stomach for more West Asian warfare has shrunk. So, the chant: “No ground troops.”
According to a recent White House statement, the American president during his bilateral with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington in late September will “also focus on regional issues, including current developments in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, where India and the United States can work together with partners towards a positive outcome.”
A post-summit communiqué won’t reflect the reality, but India has plenty to be sniffy with the Americans about. India opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Eleven years later, it can crow, “told you”. Instead of being led by a secular strongman, swathes of the country comprise jihadi territory, ground zero for sex slavery, forced conversion, rape, child abuse and beheadings. On Syria, India sought a compromise between the West and Bashar al-Assad. Despite Obama’s red lines, anyone reading between the lines will figure out that America and the Syrian regime are now fighting the same foe, that theirs is a coalition under cover. That’s pretty much the story across the region, in Libya and Egypt, as the western morality play has caused a dramatic escalation in extremism.
As reports of Indian youth travelling to join the jihad in Iraq and Syria proliferate, that mess is clearly born of the Obama doctrine of meddle or muddle.
The Iraq-Syria region is now a land with as many boundaries as a classic Geoff Boycott inning. Despite its ancient ties to the civilisations that flourished in the basins of the Tigris and the Euphrates, for seven years, India didn’t have an ambassador in Baghdad. Once that diplomatic post was restored in 2011, among his first ventures beyond Baghdad’s borders was into Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. Three years later, as a separate Kurdish nation becomes even more likely, India needs to make its presence felt there, while the Chinese have already established economic ties.
When I met Helly Luv, she was decked in a Peshmerga uniform, the outfit of the Kurdish troops. She’s pretty combative herself, the child of two Peshmergas, and her video shows her nuzzling a lion. That beast may have been tamed, but there are brute forces still stalking the Kurds and those they have sheltered. Until recently, Obama said he had “no strategy yet” to deal with ISIS. Weeks later, it’s evident, America is still trying to wing it, offering air support and military advisers and grand oratory.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs.
The views expressed by the author are personal.