A convoy of ISIS fighters rolls toward the conquest of another Iraqi city. As government security forces dissolve, the Kurdish Peshmerga may be the only military forces capable of defeating the terrorists.
Describing the current ground situation in Iraq as “grim” is tantamount to calling the Titanic disaster a minor boating mishap. Fresh from their recent victories in western Iraq–and buttressed by thousands of fighters who poured across the border from Syria–the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has conquered wide swaths of Iraqi territory in only a matter of days. Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city, fell yesterday, prompting thousands to flee, including many of the Iraqi security forces assigned to protect the area.
According to witnesses, U.S.-trained (and equipped) Iraqi soldiers and police offered no resistance in many cases; they simply dropped their weapons–or handed them to the terrorists–and ran. Never mind that they far out-numbered the terrorists and were better armed. In most cases, the conquest only required a call from gunmen to tribal leaders advising security forces to lay down their arms and surrender. In the few areas where police and troops put up a fight, there were reports of mass beheadings.
Since taking Mosul, ISIS formations have captured Tikrit (the citadel of Saddam Hussein’s regime) and portions of Baiji, a major oil refining center and home to a powerplant that supplies Baghdad. Looking at a map of the recently-taken areas, it’s abundantly clear that the terrorists next objective will be the Iraqi capital.
As the security forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continue to crumble, there is concern that no group in Iraq is capable of stopping the terrorists. And it’s hard to disagree; most of Shia-dominated police and military formations have melted away in the face of attacks by Sunni terrorists. There are some elite units in Baghdad that may put up a fight, but they may be too few in number to stop the ISIS onslaught. Indeed, press reporting from Baghdad indicates that Mr. Maliki has suggested passing out weapons to civilians–anyone–willing to take on the terrorists. Sources told The New York Times that the Iraqi Prime Minister asked for U.S. airstrikes against the advancing ISIS formations, but that request was rebuffed.
At this juncture, the only force believed capable of defeating the terrorists are the Peshmerga, which defend the semi-autonomous Kurdish homeland along Iraq’s northern border. Peshmerga units have intervened in the past to help the Iraqi government fight insurgents, but with the recent spat between Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurds may be less willing to help al-Maliki in a crisis they largely blame on the Prime Minister.
But the Kurds also recognize the danger posed by the ISIS and have been working with the few, remaining “moderate” elements in Syria’s civil war to blunt the terrorist surge. They have also stepped up security along the border of their region in northern Iraq, turning away refugees from Mosul and other locations overrun by the ISIS, fearing that militants will infiltrate their territory. Kurdish officials also claim they could have defeated the terrorists in Mosul, if the Maliki government had requested their assistance–and if the Iraqi leader had made a greater effort to resolve disputes with the Kurds.
Which brings us to the salient point: the Peshmerga fought alongside U.S. forces in Iraq, and established themselves as a very competent military force (they claim that not a single American soldier died in territory defended by the Kurds) and this time around, they may be the only thing that can save Iraq from a complete collapse and takeover by the terrorists. But given long-standing animosity between the Kurds and the Arab majority, it’s unclear if Baghdad will give the Peshmerga the authority to do the job; additionally, the Kurds would face the challenge of deploying significant number of troops to other areas (read: Baghdad) while defending their home territory. The Peshmerga would also lack the air cover and ISR support they enjoyed while U.S. troops were in Iraq.
Put more succinctly, it may be too late to stop an ISIS takeover of the capital. What after that? Iran may occupy southern Iraq, gaining territory–and the Shia population–it has long sought; the terrorists will control most of what’s left, with the exception of Kurdistan in the north. That’s why Washington needs a Kurdish policy, and quickly. Writing at Foreign Policy, John Hannah articulated the requirement very well, in an article published two years ago (emphasis ours). A brief excerpt:
Say what you will about the American project in Iraq, its application in Kurdistan was well down the path toward success. As happened in Germany, Japan and South Korea after World War II, a few decades of intense American engagement had begun working wonders for the Kurds. Excellent security — indeed, not a single U.S. combat death in areas under Kurdish control. A booming economy with growing levels of foreign investment. And an emerging democracy that, while far from perfect, has seen real opposition parties emerge, as well as a burgeoning civil society and media. Yes, corruption, lack of accountability, and uneven development remain serious problems. But certainly no worse than, say, South Korea circa the 1970s, at a similar point in that country’s experience under America’s wing.
Properly nourished, Iraqi Kurdistan has all the makings of a U.S. strategic asset. Iraq’s Arabs may have been profoundly ambivalent about a continued role for American troops. But not the Kurds, whose leaders loudly proclaimed their desire for a permanent U.S. presence, and whose population of some 5 million is overwhelmingly pro-American. Sharing borders with Iran and Syria, Kurdistan could play a vital role in U.S. strategy to combat the serious threats now emanating from those anti-American regimes. Kurdish security and intelligence forces are competent and battle-hardened, and after years of cooperation have built up excellent working relations with their U.S. counterparts, including in fighting Al Qaeda. And sitting atop 40-50 billion barrels of oil, Kurdistan is poised to become one of the world’s largest petroleum producers, a major contributor to global energy security.
Confident in its U.S. backing, Kurdistan could serve as both engine and anchor for the rest of Iraq’s democratic development. But America’s precipitous retreat has left behind a dangerous vacuum, a potential breeding ground for destructive acts of self-help that could easily spiral out of control That vacuum urgently needs to be filled by a concerted American strategy to define a new, “special” relationship with Iraq’s Kurds.
At this juncture, it’s not hard to imagine Kurdistan as one of our few, reliable allies in a very dangerous part of the world. But Washington has always been reluctant to create such a relationship, for fear of complicating relations with Turkey (our erstwhile NATO ally); Iraq’s Arab majority, or even countries like Iran and Syria.
And the Kurds are not without their faults; in a 2008 article, Michael Rubin did an excellent job detailing problems with Kurdish leadership, to include corruption, cronyism, and even past cooperation with tyrants like Saddam Hussein. But in a more recent Wall Street Journal article (published four months ago), Mr. Rubin identified the Kurds as “best bet,” both in Iraq and Syria.
Or perhaps we should say, our only bet. The American experiment is apparently finished, thanks to the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to maintain a U.S. military presence, and the corruption and incompetence of Mr. al-Maliki and his security forces. But a secure and prosperous Kurdistan is worthy of our support and protection. It is the one, shining success story of our long involvement in Iraq. But, as the ISIS advances on Baghdad, the Kurds must rightly worry: what will Washington do when the terrorists (inevitably) come after them?
ADDENDUM: Similar thoughts from former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, writing in Politico magazine; he observes that one long-standing barrier to a Kurdish state in northern Iraq has seemingly been removed:
Ten years ago, the United States and Turkey opposed Kurdistan exercising even a fraction of the autonomy it has today. Bush administration plans for postwar Iraq (to the extent that there was any planning at all) envisioned Iraq as a centralized federal state of 18 governorates—where there would be Kurdish majority provinces but no Kurdistan government. Turkey had long opposed Kurdistan’s autonomy for fear of the example it might set for Turkey’s 15 million Kurds.
Today, Kurdistan and Turkey are the closest of allies. Turkey is Kurdistan’s most important trading partner and Turkish companies are the largest investors in Kurdistan. Turkish intelligence and military officials consult regularly with their Kurdish counterparts. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a close personal relationship with KRG President Massoud Barzani and a poisonous one with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In advance of Turkish elections, Erdogan and Barzani jointly addressed a large public rally in Diyabakir, the largest city in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast and Kurdistan is playing a constructive role in support of Erdogan’s effort to make peace with Turkish Kurdish rebels.
Earlier this week, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling party said Ankara would support the Kurds bid for self-rule, preferring an independent, secular, secure (and oil-rich) Kurdistan to the chaos that is The Rest of Iraq. It should be noted that Mr. Galbraith is a long-time adviser to the Kurdish Regional Government and financial interests in the region. But he’s absolutely spot-on in regard to Kurdistan, and the role in must play in future U.S. relations in the Middle East.