Arming The Kurds, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Spencer Ackerman examines the logic behind the Obama administration’s decision to arm Iraq’s Kurds:

The idea of arming the Kurds has been the subject of weeks of internal deliberation and official silence by president Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisers. It is a fateful step in Iraq’s current crisis, one that risks facilitating the long-term disintegration of Iraq. Several administrations over decades have refrained from arming the peshmerga due to concerns about reprisals from Saddam Hussein and his successors. US officials have demurred for days when asked about the deliberations. It provides an opportunity for Obama to use a proxy for confronting Isis on the ground – a step Obama has said he is unwilling to take with US forces – which defense analysts consider the only way to dislodge Isis from territory in north and central Iraq the group has seized since June. …

The danger is that arming the peshmerga will facilitate a permanent fragmentation of Iraq, something the Kurds consider a national aspiration.

Several disputed and multi-ethnic cities in northern Iraq complicate any peaceful cleavage, as do major oil holdings in both Kurdish and contested territory. The Peshmerga used the June disintegration of Iraqi army forces running from Isis as an opportunity to seize disputed areas like oil-rich Kirkuk.

While ISIS’s offensive across northern Iraq has shattered the conventional wisdom of the peshmerga as an unbeatable fighting force, the Kurdish fighters’ recent losses are not quite their fault, either:

Michael Knights, the Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on the military and security affairs of Iraq, dismissed the new conventional wisdom that the Peshmerga have caved. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” he said. “The premise is slightly off. It’s a very easy sell to report it that way. Nothing really crumbled quickly. There’s been nonstop fighting … for a number of weeks. They have been in combat with [the Islamic State] for two to three weeks. This has been a breakpoint.” For instance, from Aug. 1 to 3, the Islamic State launched an offensive in Iraq’s western Nineveh province that forced the Peshmerga to retreat. At the same time, the Peshmerga was fighting the militants for the cities of Jalula and Saadiya in Diyala province — areas that are “very difficult to defend,” according to Knights, stretching forces thin.

In fact, Mohammed Salih suggests, the Kurds are itching to make a comeback with American help:

Abdullah and other Kurdish commanders say that despite recent defeats, they can stop the Islamic State. The successful campaign to take back Makhmour and Gwer may signal that Kurds are able to push the militants back. The Peshmerga are especially counting on U.S. assistance these days. Their morale got a boost after U.S. F/A-18 aircraft bombed Islamic State positions on Friday, Aug. 8. Repeated U.S. airstrikes since have targeted Islamic State positions and convoys around Erbil and in western Nineveh. In parallel, Kurds have been strengthening their positions, and Kurdish reinforcements are coming in from across the region to help.

Peshmerga commanders say they have been outgunned in recent weeks. The Peshmerga have not been in a true battle since helping fight Saddam Hussein’s army during the U.S. invasion in 2003. Even then, most of the fight was carried out from the air by U.S. warplanes and missiles. The Islamic State’s crack fighting force, on the other hand, has been honing its skills over the past two years in Syria and Iraq. Around 150 Peshmerga troops have been killed and 500 others wounded in the latest fighting, according to Kurdish government statistics.

A bit awkward for the US, though, is that some of those “reinforcements … from across the region” are from Turkey’s outlawed PKK:

This initiative doesn’t just involve the pesh merga affiliated with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, but a whole constellation of Kurdish units drawn from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. One of the main organizations in the counteroffensive against the Islamic State is the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its acronym, PKK. Because of its history of militancy and violence in Turkey, it is still recognized by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.

That reality echoes awkwardly with the present. Last week, as my colleague Loveday Morris reported, the PKK called for collaboration between an alphabet soup of oft-fractious Kurdish factions. One of the main outfits safeguarding Yazidi escape routes into Syria and retrieving the refugees at the border is the YPG, the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish PYD party, which is itself an offshoot of the PKK. The YPG has fought both Islamist rebels in Syria, as well as the forces of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Portraits of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed founder of the PKK and a hero to many Kurdish nationalists, are ubiquitous in YPG camps, reports Al-Monitor.