“I started my journey with the Kurdistan Region”: Q&A with UK DSAME Air Marshal Martin “Sammy” Sampson

UK DSAME Air Marshal Martin "Sammy" Sampson meets with Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani in Erbil, May 5, 2021. (Photo: KRG)
UK DSAME Air Marshal Martin "Sammy" Sampson meets with Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani in Erbil, May 5, 2021. (Photo: KRG)

UK Air Marshal Martin Sampson’s connection with the Kurdistan Region predates the existence of the Region itself: as a young pilot, he flew humanitarian supplies over the mountains of northern Iraq as part of the multinational Operation Provide Comfort mission to aid Kurdish refugees fleeing from the violence of Saddam Hussein’s regime. 

Thirty years later, “Sammy” Sampson returned to Erbil to meet with Kurdish leaders in his role as the United Kingdom’s new Chief of Defence Staff’s Senior Advisor to the Middle East and North Africa (or DSAME, pronounced “dee-samey”), the British military’s senior advisor for the region. Last week, Sampson sat down for an exclusive interview with Kurdistan 24 in the Kurdish capital during his visit to the autonomous region and Iraq, his first as DSAME. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us about your background and the role of UK Defence Senior Advisor to the Middle East and North Africa (DSAME)? 

I’m the UK government’s DSAME and this visit is in that capacity. It’s a regional role. I began that job in February and this is one of the early places I’ve come to visit, which is deliberate because of the importance of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to our government. It’s one of those relationships that’s so highly valued. We just had the 30th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort, and the naming of Sir John Major Street, and I have to be here early in my tenure. This is just a first visit; I’ll be doing this job for three to five years so I’ll be regularly visiting.

It’s an advisor role, so my role is to come out to the region to continue the relationships that have already been built up, and then listen to the region, hear people, feel it, touch it, go back to the UK and engage with our ministers and senior leaders and be their eyes and ears for the issues and opportunities that are around.

I’m sort of part of that relationship because I flew during Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 as a young pilot. 

I’m Royal Air Force by background; I joined the RAF in 1986, so 1991 was not long into my career, and I remember vividly flying over the whole of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I was [recently] looking in my logbooks and I’d made loads of notes – normally you just put the time and the date and what aeroplane you flew, but I actually hand-scribed loads of notes, and I’ve got photographs from that time. 

I sort of started my journey with the Kurdistan Region. I’ve been on the ground here in a couple of guises, and then in 2014, when we had the challenge of Daesh, I deployed to the Middle East and for two-and-a-bit years I was the commander for all of the RAF’s and the UK’s air operations. For the first just over two years of the fight against Daesh, I was commanding all of the airstrikes that the UK were contributing, and the reconnaissance and the surveillance, so it’s quite interesting talking to the people here.

A tent city housing Kurdish refugees spreads out over the fields outside Zakhu during Operation Provide Comfort in April 1991. (Photo: JO1 J.D. Dimattio/US Defense Visual Information Center)
A tent city housing Kurdish refugees spreads out over the fields outside Zakho during Operation Provide Comfort, 1991. (Photo: JO1 J.D. Dimattio/US Defense Visual Information Center)

We were in the same place in 1991, we were in the same place in 2014-2015, but we were separated, so it’s brilliant to come back here and strike up a different relationship, a much more personal relationship – although operations and protecting and saving life is about as intimate as you can get, from an aeroplane obviously you don’t always have the opportunity to meet face-to-face.

In some of the discussions I’ve had with some of your politicians, key officials, and military people, they have said, “I remember this event,” and I also remember it vividly. I was a key part of some of those events, and so it’s a brilliant opportunity to come back and to continue that relationship and see where I can help out and be an advocate and a friend and a representative of the UK government.

In my logbook, I wrote “I’m here to protect” – it’s one of those weird things but it’s quite impressionable when you’re young, and just starting out your career, and it’s brilliant to see the trajectory that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been on since 1991. Everybody still has their challenges, but if you look at 1991 and you look at now, there’s a huge amount of progression and success that the UK government has been really proud to be part of and supportive of over the 30 years.

This is your first visit to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in your capacity as DSAME. What are your impressions?

The people of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have this real passion to be part of solutions. This is a tough neighborhood. There are some challenging issues, and you can’t change your geography, but what I’ve picked up here is that people are really positive. They’re looking for ways to improve the lives and livelihoods of people in the Kurdistan Region but also broader Iraq, and to play a very positive role as part of this region. And they have been incredibly welcoming of the international community’s assistance to help.

It’s really important that we understand what they need, and the people in the Kurdistan Region are very honest and open. There’s a trust there. What’s quite striking is that you can have really honest conversations with your close friends, and you can share a problem and share a solution, and there’s a real willingness to do that for all the right reasons. It’s really positive, notwithstanding the challenges.

On that theme of solutions, when Erbil was attacked again last month Prime Minister Barzani called for armed groups to be expelled from the area around Kurdistan’s borders. What work do you think needs to be done to secure the no-man’s land in disputed territories?

It’s horrible when people have to give their lives to protect their country, so my condolences to all those martyrs and their families and friends and the country. But there are some areas you can identify where there are real challenges, and the trick is to work together. Complex challenges require multi-faceted types of approaches, and in these areas in particular Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution is vitally important.

What I’ve picked up is that everybody recognizes that the best way to progress on that and all of the issues that surround it is through as open and fruitful dialogue as possible between Erbil and Baghdad. And of course with that the international community, and especially the UK, needs to be as supportive and encouraging and productive as possible, providing whatever kind of assistance is needed to progress that.

I’m quite heartened from what I’ve heard from the leadership here. There is a productive relationship at present, and people are talking. The UK government, as a friend, would always encourage this dialogue to continue because working together is the way to find a resolution, and reaching out to partners to support it. There’s been discussions – and I know they are ongoing – about joint security cooperation between the Kurdistan government and the Iraqi government, and that has our absolute full support.

Recently ISIS appears to be increasing their attacks, including some that have killed Peshmerga and Iraqi forces, and targeted oil installations. What impact do you see this as having and how can the UK support efforts for the Iraqi forces and Peshmerga to work together to keep ISIS from coming back?

The point our friends here have made is that ISIS – Daesh – don’t discriminate, and there are martyrs in the Iraqi security forces as well as in the Peshmerga. I saw it firsthand in 2014. It was a really desperate situation, and Daesh can be incredibly destructive, whether it’s in 2014 with the large-scale operations, but also where they are now. The impact of these attacks does not diminish. They are felt very personally, by countries, and by countrymen and women. But during that time in the fight against Daesh from 2014 onwards, we did learn an awful lot of lessons.

We have a good understanding of how destructive and aggressive Daesh can be, and perhaps the biggest lesson that we learned is that we brought together a coalition, worked together within the Kurdistan Region, worked together with Iraqi security forces, and that’s probably the most effective tactic against Daesh – to not leave any gaps between ourselves in the coalition, between Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga forces – and it’s absolutely clear that all of the partners have different strengths they can bring.

There’s the obvious when you get into contact with Daesh, and preparing people for that. We feel that training, education, interoperability is really important, and that’s a large part of the coalition mission, NATO mission, and some of the bilateral missions that are going on.

But there’s also another role that we can play, and other nations can bring their capabilities to bear, like our carrier strike group deployment from the UK.

We understand what a huge capability things like the F-35 can bring. They’re going to contribute to the coalition effort, and that sends quite a strong message. There’s the practical aspect of that, and where the coalition and UK can help is to send that message to Daesh: We’re not going to drive past the region with our aircraft carrier and our jets. We’re going to bring them to bear in the fight against Daesh.

A 617 Squadron F-35B Lightning prepares to land aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth on May 2, 2021 (Photo: MoD)
A Royal Air Force F-35B Lightning prepares to land on board the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on May 2, 2021. (Photo: UK Ministry of Defence)

We have committed our people to the coalition effort in the fight against Daesh. The deputy commander of the coalition effort is a Brit, always has been, and that sends a message. That’s the importance of the role we want to play.

And of course all of that is in support of Iraq. It’s a demand signal and a desire from Iraq that allows us to contribute in all these ways. I think everybody who has been part of this international coalition should be really proud of the efforts and the continued efforts. People are still trying to be creative [in how they contribute]. As the nature of the challenge changes, the nature of the contribution needs to change, and it needs to change at the request of Iraq. 

Our dialogue as an international community with Iraq and the Kurdistan Region is important so that we’re hitting the right spot, not just with Daesh but with the type of support that we’re providing for our friends in the country.

The UK has been at the forefront of training, especially the Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga, not only with practical training and professionalization but the reform initiative. How do you see the UK continuing that role?

I struggle with the term “professionalization” of the Peshmerga because they are incredibly professional already. But we’re military people and the professionalizing activity is something that never begins and never ends. It’s a continuum. As long as there’s an appetite for that, militaries will be able to tackle the challenges, and the Peshmerga have an appetite for that. That demand signal has been passed very clearly.

The Peshmerga reform activity is something that we’ve been asked to support and of course we fully support that. We’ve got a full colonel embedded with the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs and they have been there for five years to help on that journey, which is probably an indication that reform and professionalization is a continuous activity. We do it in the UK: we constantly reform our military organizations because there are constantly better ways to modernize and adapt to the needs of your country, the needs of the mission, and the needs to counter the enemy. 

And obviously the UK have helped in the professional military education sphere, both in-country with curricula and training establishments as well as opportunities to bring Peshmerga back to the UK to our training establishments. The two need to sit hand-in-hand. It’s fantastic to be able to see the Peshmerga being so successful when they come across to the UK in our academies and also for that to be celebrated in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. 

The reaction to Officer Cadet Midya Masti as the first woman graduating from our Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is fantastic to see. It’s amazing. And when the first Peshmerga officer to commission from Sandhurst is welcomed by the Kurdistan parliament, that sends a really powerful message to the youth, but also a powerful message to friends and internally to say, “this professional military education and continual development is really important.”

Midya Mesti (left) stands at the parade square of Sandhurst along with two other first-ever female cadets graduating from the elite military academy, March 20, 2021. (Photo: British Army)
Midya Masti (left) stands at the parade square of Sandhurst along with two other first-ever female cadets graduating from the elite military academy, March 20, 2021. (Photo: British Army)

We will match the demand signal of the Peshmerga on this one. I know there’s another female Peshmerga student who has just started the commissioning course, and I’m sure she’ll smash it. It’s important for me to engage with our friends in the Kurdistan Region not just here but also back home so I will be there at the graduation ceremony to congratulate her.

And there will be future places. Clearly, the best and the brightest get the opportunities and we’d like to see lots of competition within the Peshmerga to go, but then to come back and reinvest it. That provides a couple of layers of real strength.

Beyond that, in our staff college, which is for the half colonel level – it takes you into the operational level of staff and professional training – we’ve got the first Peshmerga student now.

So the future is bright. Our military colleges are a richer place when we have the experience, the insights and the contribution from our friends in the region and around the world. We benefit hugely from it as well.

Is there anything else you want to share from your visit to Kurdistan?

The welcome has been fantastic. I’m a kindred spirit, as many of the people in the UK are kindred spirits. It’s important that we use that to our advantage. Past experiences are wonderful memories, but we’ve got to reinvest that and create memories for the youth and the future as well. There’s a real appetite here and it’s really promising.

We are close, we’ve always been close, and we’ll stay close, and it’s clear that there’s optimism on that basis here. It’s a real lasting impression that there is optimism, and we need to capitalize on that.