Arming The Kurds

by Jonah Shepp

The US has begun providing weapons directly to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, in a break with our longstanding policy of only selling arms to the government in Baghdad:

The officials wouldn’t say which U.S. agency is providing the arms or what weapons are being sent, but one official said it isn’t the Pentagon. The CIA has historically done similar quiet arming operations. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation publicly. The move to directly aid the Kurds underscores the level of U.S. concern about the Islamic State militants’ gains in the north, and reflects the persistent administration view that the Iraqis must take the necessary steps to solve their own security problems. A senior State Department official would only say that the Kurds are “getting arms from various sources. They are being rearmed.”

This move is typical of Obama’s decisions in Iraq so far: sensible, realist, but a bit late. Imagine if we had decided to arm the Kurds months ago, when ISIS was merely threatening to completely destabilize Iraq, as opposed to today when it has already done so. On the other hand, of course, these decisions are not made in a vacuum, and it may have been politically impossible to do so at the time, even if Obama had wanted to. Now, with Iraq’s government in a state of total chaos, dealing with Kurdistan as an effectively independent entity makes even more sense, and it doesn’t really matter anymore if we upset Maliki. And if this really is Kurdistan’s moment, why stand in the way of the inevitable? So three cheers to the peshmerga, and let’s hope this works. Cale Salih also thinks it’s about time we threw our full weight behind the Kurds:

Obama needs the Kurds, and he knows it. They are largely secular and pro-Western, but also maintain dynamic ties to both Iran and Turkey. They offer a potential base from which the US can stage counterterrorism operations against Isis. Iraqi Kurdish parties have links to Kurdish groups in Syria, and Kurdistan Worker’s Party-affiliated Syrian Kurds have been one of the only militias able to effectively fight Isis there. Kurdistan is a much-needed safe haven for refugees from Syria, and internally displaced people from other parts of Iraq. It offers a stable, economically prosperous buffer zone right at the intersection of several regional conflicts. A weak, unstable Kurdistan would allow Isis and other militants to more easily move between Iraq and Syria.

Spencer Ackerman saw this coming days ago, when he called the claim that the US intervention was intended to protect American personnel in Erbil “a convenient elision”, allowing us “to avoid, or at least defer, explicit preferential treatment for the Kurds”:

Conspicuously, the US has yet to attack the Isis positions threatening Iraqi Yazidis at Mount Sinjar, whose dire conditions ostensibly prompted Obama’s first step toward making the Iraq crisis an American one. On the ground by Irbil, these distinctions are less meaningful. The F/A-18s might not have explicitly provided close air support for the Peshmerga – that would require coordination between the Peshmerga and the US Navy pilots – but the strikes nevertheless provide the Peshmerga with a measure of air cover, an advantage over the better-armored Isis fighters. It rhymes with close air support, at least: the Kurds get a chance to fortify the defense of Irbil.

Judis, meanwhile, suspects that our interest in Kurdistan has a lot to do with its oil:

If the Islamic State were to take over Erbil, they would endanger Iraq’s oil production and, by extension, global access to oil. Prices would surge at a time when Europe, which buys oil from Iraq, has still not escaped the global recession. Oil prices have already risen in response to the Islamic State’s threat to Erbil, and on Thursday, American oil companies Chevron and Exxon Mobile began evacuating their personnel from Kurdistan. … The United States should worry about the global oil supply. It is important for global economic and political stability. And having a significant chunk of it fall into the hands of a group like the Islamic State should certainly be a concern. But if Obama is worried about the world’s oil supply, then he should say so forthrightly and not leave himself in a position where he will be unable to justify or explain further intervention after the airdrops to the Yazidis are completed.

Well, an intervention can be both humanitarian and strategic, and I don’t think anyone really doubts that this is both. Judis is right to warn Obama against underselling the strategic angle of what he’s doing in Iraq (others have made the same point), and it would be lovely if an American president would acknowledge the degree to which petro-politics really influences our foreign policy, but my fear is that if the anti-war left ends up spinning this intervention as another sacrifice of blood and treasure to Big Oil, that would obscure much more than it would illuminate. Judis compares the situation to Libya:

If the Obama administration wanted to prevent the world’s peoples from brutal dictators and repressive regimes or from takeovers by terrorist groups, there are other countries besides Libya and Iraq where it could intervene. What distinguishes these two countries is that they are major oil producers.

It’s not the only thing that distinguishes them, though.