By Paul Davis
During my recent interview on Kurdish television station NTR. One of the recurring questions was “Why will the US government not supply the Kurdish Peshmerga with weapons?” The short answer of course is that we have supplied small and medium size arms to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) while they were in direct contact with ISIS and receiving no help from Baghdad. The hard answer is that US policy limits what it can provide to a regional security force without the consent of the central government. Limited to the point of supplying nothing of consequence, noting that would matter.
However, should this policy exist in the world today? Reportedly, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) is circulating a letter to Members of Congress urging a bi-partisan bill authorizing the President to provide the KRG with the arms it needs and bypassing Baghdad.
The impact of arming the KRG with heavy weapons, in the short term, will bring them on par with the enemy in front of them, who has superior weapons they have captured from the Iraqi army, US weapons, including advanced M1 tanks. We have seen the Peshmerga fight and defeat ISIS with the help of US airstrikes and the assistance of other Kurdish fighters such as the YPG and PKK. These victories however have been limited in scope but not in impact. Saving the Yazidi minority and pushing ISIS off the Mosul dam are significant achievements, but ISIS still controls a swath of Iraq and portions of Syria as well as now influencing Islamic extremist throughout the region.
The introduction of heavy weapons to the Peshmerga would not allow them to defeat ISIS by themselves but would allow them to secure the Kurdish region and return to building the only success story in Iraq. So why not do it.
We must address the political ramifications first. Baghdad does not want the Kurds stronger than they are currently. Turkey to the north fears any Kurd, having been at war with the Kurdish PKK organization for years. Turkey views weapons to the KRG as weapons to the PKK. The PKK began as an organization dedicated to an independent Kurdish state in what is now SW Turkey. These are our friends.
Failure to provide weapons to the Kurds leaves only the central governments in the region to fend off the terrorist threat. Currently the Iraqi forces have failed in all attempts to dislodge ISIS and most recently have turned to Iran for assistance. Over 3000 Iraqi forces backed up by 20000 Iranian lead Shia militia have so far failed to dislodge ISIS from the town of Tikrit. While fighting ISIS in the Syrian town of Kobane, on the Syrian Turkish border, Syrian Kurdish fighters supported by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and US airstrikes did ultimately drive ISIS from the region. This even through Turkey initially denied the Peshmerga safe passage but allowed free crossing for ISIS. These are our friends.
How to support Mr. Royce’s attempt to authorize the transfer of arms over the objection of Baghdad is no small undertaking. There are three options left; first, we don’t and hope that Iraq and the Peshmerga can establish a secure Iraq, second we ignore Baghdad’s protests and just arm the Peshmerga or lastly we accept the inevitable, that Iraq is a failed state and understand we are arming the future army of an independent Kurdistan. This last is the easiest and the hardest.
The US has a lot of capital invested in Iraq, both financial and political. It would be difficult to walk away, but it would be the easiest path. Should we accept the failed state model, then what becomes of Iraq? It splits into three distinct parts. The first is a Shia part that falls under the control of Iran, Then a Sunni part that depends on the assistance of the Sunni world and Kurdistan, which has never had an Iraqi identity and surrounded on all sides by enemies. Non-Arab nation in the Middle East surrounded by enemies is not something we have not seen before.
Congress should authorize the transfer of arms to Kurdistan, or for the President to direct the transfer. The State department should direct its efforts on working with Turkey to step up and become the local peacekeeper. The above snarky comments aside, Turkey is at least, for the time being, a democratic secular nation which does not want to see Iran controlling the region and can use Kurdistan to buffer itself from the worst of sectarian violence in the Arab world. The weapons will come with a price, that is the KRG will need to do a little cleaning up. More open elections and less corruption.
Kurdistan, like Israel, is an oasis in the middle of turmoil and pains in the backside of the US. Both need protection, nurturing and support until their neighbors can join them in peace.
This is not the answer given my interviewer; all I could say was that since they were not a nation we had to work with Baghdad.
Paul Davis is a retired Military Intelligence Senior Intelligence analyst and subject matter expert on Kurdish affairs, consultant to the Intelligence community and board member of the Kurdish Policy Foundation in Washington DC.