Send In The Kurds?

That’s what Michael Knights proposes to fend off the ISIS menace:

The geometry of the battlefield makes the Kurds particularly vital: ISIS pursued Iraq’s retreating forces south of Mosul for over 200 miles, with most units ordered to rally on Taji in Baghdad’s northern suburbs. This has given ISIS significant depth on the north-south axis, meaning that the government may need to painstakingly retake a sequence of key insurgent-held cities in turn. But due to the Kurds’ advanced positions all along ISIS’ eastern flank, the jihadist movement has very little west-east strategic depth if key centres like Mosul were counterattacked from the Kurdish-held areas. Kurdistan has offered the use of its airbases to U.S. forces many times, and they would be an ideal place from which to conduct limited U.S. airstrikes. This was precisely the formula – U.S. special forces advisers and pesh mergas – that crumbled Saddam’s hold on Mosul and northern Iraq in a matter of days in 2003.

The Iraqi Kurds are generous and brave: they hate the extremism of radical jihadist groups and will not tolerate a major jihadist center in Mosul, located just an hour’s drive east of the shining new skyscrapers of Erbil, the Kurdish capital. Indeed social media reporting of Kurdish martyrs in the fight against ISIS are proliferating. The Kurdish pesh merga are already fighting ISIS at half a dozen points from the Syrian border to Iran, with Baghdad’s air forces in support in some areas.

Jay Newton-Small takes a closer look at what the Kurds stand to gain from this conflict:

The fact that an estimated 5,000 ISIS fighters now stand between Erbil and Baghdad only serves as a physical barricade of a partition that has been in effect for at least six months, if not years. As Iraq falls apart, the Kurds are discretely moving towards their long-sought-after goal of an independent state. “We’ve said all along that we won’t break away from Iraq but Iraq may break away from us, and it seems that it is,” Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, tells TIME. “There’s been many times that we felt it could happen, that it was only a matter of time that it would happen, and it has.”

Talabani also argues that his government would be a better ally for the US than Maliki’s. In an interview with Eli Lake, he claims that the Kurds aren’t gunning for a land grab:

Talabani told The Daily Beast that the Peshmerga deployment to Kirkuk was actually approved by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “No one has asked us to abandon those posts in Kirkuk,” Talabani said. “On the contrary, the Iraqi prime minister’s office gave us the green light to do what we can to protect as much territory as we can in the north.” The fact that Peshmerga secured positions in Kirkuk with the blessing of Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government is in itself a sign of how desperate things have become. …

Talabani said the presence of Peshmerga troops at Kirkuk—which has significant oil resources itself—does not change its status. “It doesn’t change anything on the ground, ultimately we have said Kirkuk belongs to the Kirkukis,” he said. “It’s something we always felt rests with the people of Kirkuk. The fact that there are no longer Iraqi units outside the city, it does not change Kirkuk’s status in the country.”

Keating, however, doubts the Kurds will hand their gains back to Baghdad without extracting some major concessions:

If ISIS is eventually beaten back, it’s likely going to require the help of what seems to be the country’s most organized fighting force, and the conflict will likely end with Kirkuk and several other cities under the control of Kurdish forces. The Kurds may cede these gains back to Baghdad, but I’d expect their price to be high.

Finally, in an interview we highlighted earlier today, Kirk Sowell pushes back on the notion that the Kurds have been operating some kind of autonomous paradise, noting that after an oil dispute the Maliki government had stopped making the monthly payments on which the Kurds were deeply dependent:

[C]oming in to this crisis, the Kurds were on the verge of insolvency. Like, complete insolvency. The only thing that kept them alive was that the Barzanis and the Talabanis [leading Kurdish families] have massive amounts of money stored back that they’d been stealing all of these years. They used it to keep the Kurdish region afloat, or at least pay the peshmerga [independent Kurdish militias].

He calls the new conflict with ISIS a “lifeline” for the Kurds:

Maybe they can get Baghdad to restore their payments, maybe they can’t. If Baghdad doesn’t restore their payments, they might as well declare independence right now. Now that they control Kirkuk, they can export the oil they control to Turkey. They don’t yet have the infrastructure to replace what they were getting from Baghdad, so it would be rough for a year or two. But eventually they’d do OK. So they’re really the big winners here.