Is Kurdistan All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

by Dish Staff

Kurdistan’s image in the West as a stable, successful, democratic proto-state is not entirely in line with reality, Jenna Krajeski remarks:

Kurdistan is booming on the promise of oil wealth, and their securitymaintained by the peshmergahas enticed investors to the region. But progress has come alongside reports of rampant corruption, a widening gap between the rich and poor, and increasingly authoritarian tendencies in a government still dominated by family names. Disenfranchised Kurds find little hope of influencing the authorities or benefiting from the oil wealth. Perhaps nothing in Kurdistan illustrates its internal fissures more than the peshmerga themselves. …

And while crisis has unified the peshmerga who may be divided along party lines, not every Kurd is willing to take up arms to defend Kurdistan. A generation of Kurds living for over a decade in relative stability, many benefiting from the increasing wealth and education opportunities, have little interest in becoming soldiers. “Like other youth around the world, the Kurdish youth want to go to school, enjoy life, and travel abroad,” Natali said. “[They want to] take advantage of the opportunities of living a normal life, which means not going to the mountains to fight.” If the Kurdish and American governments hope that Kurdish nationalism will provide an endless flow of fighters for the peshmerga, they may be disappointed. The Kurdistan that President Barzani so desperately wants to usher into independence is one where people want to live more than they want to fight.

Kurdish leaders are also not blind to the need to manage their image and cultivate relationships in Western capitals. Kate Brannen looks into the KRG’s K-Street operation:

To spread their message in Washington, Kurdish leaders have long maintained relationships with members of the media, the think tank and academic communities, politicians on Capitol Hill, and officials in and out of government. For the last several years, the Kurds have also retained a slew of lobbying firms, including Patton Boggs, to work on their behalf. The Kurdish Regional Government, which runs the Kurds’ proto-state in northern Iraq, spends at least $1 million a year on these efforts, according to documents filed with the Justice Department.

The lobby’s influence appeared to have paid off when the White House announced it would conduct airstrikes over Kurdish territory. The U.S. government has also begun fulfilling the Kurds’ long sought-after goal of direct U.S. military support, including the provision of much-needed weapons and ammunition. France also announced Wednesday that it, too, will begin providing arms to the Kurdish forces. But some experts warn not to misread the situation. Kurdistan’s roster of high-powered lobbyists and high-profile public advocates has helped it gain American weaponry, but the influence campaign has yet to accomplish the Kurds’ primary goal: winning U.S. support for the creation of an independent Kurdish state. For the moment, that remains a bridge too far for the Obama administration, just as it did for the Bush administration before it.

A reader, meanwhile, chimes in on Kurdistan’s oil, writing that “a lot of executives and security experts in companies that have taken exploration license from the KRG are reassessing their emergency and security plans right now”:

ExxonMobil blocks in KRG 30-11-2011If you look at the map you will see that the status of Erbil might not be what raises the most concern. The most prolific assets in Kurdistan are traversing the Green Line, and in particular to the north-west of Kirkuk. As you will see from the attached map, the two primary Exxon assets are Al Qush and Bashiqa, both of which are in the Christian areas that ISIL ran through and where the Peshmerga retreated from. This also applies to Hunt oil’s primary asset and to the very prolific Shaikan bloc.This means that for the oil interests, the big question now is: can the KRG provide the security they promised? Can they put people on the ground for the foreseeable future and not risk seeing them on a YouTube channel from some Jihadi group? Can the KRG protect their assets in the disputed areas if relations with Baghdad should come to a confrontation sometime in the future? So far companies have bought into the KRGs assurances, but the ISIL progress will have dented that belief significantly.

Arming The Kurds, Ctd

by Dish Staff

The EU could not agree yesterday on whether to arm Kurdish fighters in Iraq, but gave member states permission to do so on their own. This morning, France announced that it would send an immediate shipment of weapons:

The sudden announcement that arms would begin to flow within hours underlined France’s alarm at the urgency of the situation in Iraq, where the Islamic State fighters are threatening the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. … French authorities have pushed other European Union members to do more to aid Christians and other minorities being targeted by the Islamic State group extremists. E.U. foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting Friday to coordinate their approach to the crisis and to endorse the European arms shipments already announced, according to an E.U. diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity pending the official announcement later Wednesday.

Rick Noack notes that Germany is also considering sending weapons to Iraq, which might also entail arming the peshmerga directly. That would mark a major change in policy for the world’s third largest arms exporter:

“If Germany decides to arm the Kurds, this would be a watershed moment. Germany has so far refrained from delivering such aid to militants,” said journalist Thomas Wiegold, a leading authority on Germany’s defense industry.

In the past, Germany had always refused to deliver arms to rebel groups such as those fighting in Libya or Syria, although it did earlier approve the delivery of arms to Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan, however, is a semi-autonomous region within Iraq, which makes it difficult for foreign governments to directly negotiate arms deliveries. Direct support would also contradict E.U. guidelines that rule out deliveries to warring parties that belong neither to the European Union nor NATO.

Meanwhile, the Kurds have sent the Pentagon their wish list of advanced weaponry, which, according to Eli Lake, includes armored personnel carriers, night vision equipment, and surveillance drones:

The Pentagon has yet to respond to the Kurdish request. But the list is an indication of the rapid expansion of the multi-pronged American campaign in Iraq. On Tuesday, the U.S. military announced it would be sending 130 more U.S. military advisers to northern Iraq, bringing the total number of troops to over a thousand in country. American boots on the ground will only be a small piece of the larger effort against ISIS, however.

The U.S. is scheduling up to 100 attack, surveillance, and humanitarian airdrop missions a day over Iraq.  Those flights are being carried out by drones and manned fighters, U.S. Navy and Air Force aircraft alike. But American forces are not the ones calling in those strikes, as has become commonplace in warzones throughout the world. Instead, Kurdish fighters are identifying targets for the American bombing runs, breaking with years of U.S. military practice meant to ensure that the right targets are hit—and civilians are not.

Kurdistan’s Sticky Situation

by Jonah Shepp


Oil may not be the be-all, end-all of the Iraq conflict, but it does play its part. Brad Plumer examines the oil politics of Iraqi Kurdistan and what’s at stake in the fight against ISIS:

By June of this year, Iraqi Kurdistan was producing 360,000 barrels per day — about 10 percent of Iraq’s production (and about 0.5 percent of the world’s supply). And much more was expected. In a 2009 State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks, one foreign firm said Kurdistan “has the potential to be a world-class hydrocarbon region.” Yet ISIS posed a (partial) threat to that boom when they showed up on the outskirts of Erbil, a city of 1.5 million that is hosting many of the oil and gas firms in the Kurdish region. On August 8, Reuters reported that some 5,000 barrels per day had gone offline in Kurdistan as a result of the fighting. Various oil firms, including Chevron, said they would withdraw some non-essential personnel from the region.

So far, the disruptions have been relatively minor, particularly since the US has launched airstrikes against ISIS that allowed the Kurdish military to retake a number of towns. The Kurdish regional government now insists that “oil production in the region remains unaffected.” ISIS, for its part, clearly has an interest in seizing oil fields. The group reportedly controls seven oil fields and two refineries in northern Iraq, as well as a portion of a pipeline running from Kirkuk to the port city of Ceyhan in Turkey. Reports have suggested that ISIS is now selling some 10,000 barrels of oil per day to fund its activities.

So it would make sense that, in an effort to help the Kurds defend themselves, the US might have some concern for an industry that serves as a major driver of development in Kurdistan. But Steve LeVine pushes back against those who believe the American intervention is primarily about protecting that industry. He sees two problems with their argument:

The first is that the Obama administration has steadfastly discouraged ExxonMobil, Chevron and the other companies from working in Kurdistan.

Until recently, it sought to sabotage the region’s efforts to export its oil. The White House’s rationale has been that, to the degree Kurdistan gains de facto financial independence from Baghdad, the less likely that Iraq will hold together as a country. On Twitter, Middle East energy expert Robin Mills has been among those pushing against the it’s-about-oil theory. A second problem is Obama himself—he is fixated on renewable energy and opposed to oil. When he has embraced oil, such as shale, Obama has done so reluctantly and often in order to placate the fossil fuels industry and its advocates. There may be rational speculation surrounding the role of oil in former George W. Bush’s original assault on Iraq, but there is little likelihood that it featured on Obama’s list of reasons to bomb ISIL.

Yishai Schwartz agrees that the all-about-oil argument, though “seductive”, is also reductive:

It seems likely that the decades of U.S. involvement and the vast web of American relationships in the regionboth of which have a great deal to do with oilplay a role in making Americans more viscerally concerned with the region and its people. In that sense, our humanitarian impulse in this conflict is quite likely connected to oil, albeit in a distant and complex way. But that is a long chain and a nuanced argument, to which the “Obama is worried about the world’s oil supply” thesis bears very little resemblance. So where does this conviction come from? Perhaps it’s cynicism borne of past experience: Oil has played a major role in Western interventions in the Middle East, often with disastrous results. But we shouldn’t assume that every statesman is Henry Kissinger or every action is a new Suez operation. The colonialist paradigm is a useful lens for historians, but when it becomes an ideological commitment for the political commenter, it’s simply another set of blinders.

Schwartz gets it exactly right here. Nobody doubts that petroleum, its ubiquity in the modern economy, and our dependence on it factor heavily into American foreign policy; it is, after all, the only reason we’ve been allied for 70 years with the Saudis, a regime whose values, interests, and activities contradict our own at every turn. It’s right and necessary to acknowledge how damaging petro-politics can be and to worry about our government being beholden to the whims of despotic rentier states. I’m not a huge Thomas Friedman fan, but he’s right to harp on this point as he has done periodically for years.

But the presence of oil interests in Iraq does not ipso facto preclude the possibility that American policy there might also be guided by something else. I used to buy into the theory that the 2003 Iraq invasion was about oil, and as LeVine mentions, it was likely part of the equation, but then so were the domestic politics of the War on Terror and a settling of scores between the Bush family and Saddam Hussein. A conspiracy-minded focus on any of these drivers obscures the key fact that the war was driven by an ideology – the neoconservative theory that democracy can be exported by force – that is dangerous in and of itself and whose promulgators have yet to exit the public sphere despite having been pretty conclusively proven wrong. So by all means, let’s talk about the oil, but let’s not mislead ourselves that it’s all about oil.

Water, on the other hand, might really be what it’s all about:

Mosul is not the only dam for which IS has fought. After taking large parts of Iraq in a campaign that started in Mosul, the country’s second largest city, in June, on August 1st IS battled to take control of Haditha dam on the Euphrates in the eastern province of al-Anbar. The fighters were repelled by Iraqi troops and Sunni tribes, but reports suggest the offensive continues.

IS may want to control these resources in order to bolster its claim to run a state. But it may have additional motives. Baghdad and southern Iraq rely on water being released from these dams. So IS could cut off the water, limiting flows to Baghdad and the south or, conversely, release large amounts that could cause floods (although this would also flood areas controlled by IS, including Mosul city, south of the dam). Any change in water flows would also affect the availability of food, because Iraq is heavily dependent on irrigation to grow wheat, barley, rice, corn and fruit and vegetables.

I’m at a loss for why people aren’t freaking out about this a whole lot more.

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.

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.

Why Did The Kurds Retreat?

David Stout scrutinizes the retreat of the peshmerga from their positions near Sinjar and the Mosul Dam, which led to the ISIS gains that tipped the scales in favor of US intervention:

Analysts say the retreat of Peshmerga troops in the face of the ISIS onslaught reveals more about the political failings of the Kurdish leadership than it does about the capabilities of what had long been considered one of the most formidable fighting forces in the region. “This advance in Sinjar and in other areas has shown the structural weakness of the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government,” Kawa Hassan, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center, told TIME.

A report presented by the parliamentary commission on the Peshmerga last week explicitly stated that, while Kurdish forces had high morale, they were still under-equipped and not being paid in a timely fashion, Hassan said. The rout of Kurdish fighters in Sinjar is also particular damming for the administration of the Kurdish Regional Government’s President Masoud Barzan. Sinjar is considered a stronghold of the president’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and his inability to protect the region will not likely fade from memory soon.

Michael Goldfarb relays a theory that the Kurds withdrew in order to precipitate a crisis and force Obama’s hand:

The idea is to create images in the west of a desperate population and an outgunned and outmanned force in need of American military aid. Indeed, news reports from the region in the last 24 hours have had pictures of Kurdish men volunteering to join existing Peshmerga forces and being handed dilapidated Kalashnikovs. That theory/rumour is as good as any.

It is hard to understand why this is happening now. IS didn’t seem to have the manpower or the inclination to push eastwards toward Erbil when it made its first breathtaking sweep into Iraq.  There was no strategic reason to do so.

Frankly, the Peshmerga are too strong and numerous a force particularly the closer any invading group gets to Erbil. The IS “army” is still reported to have not more than 15,000 men. And even with all manner of looted Syrian and Iraqi army equipment it couldn’t possibly take a city like Erbil, population 1.5m, whose people wanted to stand and fight.

But as Brett Logiurato and Michael Kelley point out, ISIS is now much better armed than the peshmerga:

ISIS is using modern U.S. weapons its fighters have seized from Iraqi forces, while the Kurds fight with Soviet arms. “They are literally outgunned by an ISIS that is fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi Army who abandoned it,” Ali Khedery, a former American official who has served as an adviser to five U.S. ambassadors and several American generals in Iraq, told The New York Times.

McClatchy reports that the Kurdish peshmerga, meanwhile, possess “a handful of 12.7mm Soviet-era heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades,” along with a few Soviet-era T-55 tanks, to take on battle-hardened militants riding in U.S. Humvees.

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Kurdistan’s Petro-Politics

The US has been pressuring governments and private companies not to buy Kurdish oil, out of fear that oil sales will make it easier for the Kurdistan Regional Government to declare independence from Iraq. But this strategy, Dov Friedman posits, is actually having the opposite of its intended effect:

The U.S.’s logic is clear. KRG oil sales provide the Kurds a financial base with which to stabilize a potential fledging independent state. If the Kurds are unable to sell oil, they will have to parlay with Baghdad to solve the budgetary dispute. However, the U.S. misjudges the Kurdsboth their likely steps after independent oil sales and their response to interference with oil revenues. Distinct Kurdish oil sales have always been more likely to bring the KRG to the Iraqi bargaining table. They seek concessions from the central government, and the threat posed by independent revenue streams may be more valuable than the ability to declare national independence.

First, Kurdistan benefits greatly from its access to the greater Iraqi market.

Kurdish businesses of all sizes are bolstered by a market size of 30 million people, and these businesses would suffer from an independence bid thatat least in the near termslashed the market size by five-sixths. A fledgling independent Kurdistan with a hobbled private sector would rely even more heavily on oil revenuesintensifying the oil-fueled Dutch disease and jeopardizing the nascent country’s economic health.

Second, the Kurds have historicallyand to this daylooked for opportunities to strike bargains with their Arab co-nationalists to the south. … Once in control of Kirkuk’s oil establishments, the KRG initially demanded an increase in its share of the national budget from 17 to 25 percent, to account for increases in the population servedand energy resources controlledby the KRG. Having just taken control of one of the largest, highest quality oil fields in the world, the Kurds spoke not of an independence bid but of renegotiating terms with Baghdad.

Previous Dish on the prospects for Kurdish independence here.