Helping the Kurds, a Bit

by Andrew Stuttaford

The Kurds are a natural ally for the US, but you wouldn’t know it by the way the administration has been behaving,

Cale Salih in the Guardian:

For many Kurds, hearing Obama’s words of praise was a first. Obama and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) got off to a shaky start: the KRG, which mostly benefited from the US invasion of Iraq, was wary of an American president anxious to withdraw and detach from the country. The Obama administration mostly shunned the Kurds, preferring instead to deal with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad. By early 2014, things had gotten so awkward that KRG President Masoud Barzani cancelled a trip to Washington, saying he would refuse to meet with Obama until Iraqi Kurdish parties were removed from the US terrorism list.

But the rise of ISIS has changed that:

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.

Washington cannot ignore Isis, a growing global threat that could pose greater risks to America than al-Qaida did in its heyday. But if Obama really wants to pass the fight against Isis on to local forces, he will have to bolster – not just tacitly support – the Kurdish peshmerga. The peshmerga force has its weaknesses, but is a far better bet than the Iraqi army, which is increasingly disjointed and dependent on Shiite militias….

Then there is this good news/bad news Guardian report (my emphasis added)  that only underlines the contradictions within US policy:

The Obama administration has announced it will arm the militia forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, to prevent the fall of the final bastion of pro-US territory in Iraq. The weaponry is said to be light arms and ammunition, brokered not through the department of defense – which supplies Baghdad and its security forces with heavy weaponry – but the Central Intelligence Agency, which is better positioned to supply the Kurdish peshmerga with Russian-made guns like AK-47s that the US military does not use. The news was first reported by the Associated Press.

US officials say they are not currently considering providing Kurdish forces, which are not under the control of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, with missiles, armored vehicles or helicopters. The move to arm them raises questions about how the US-provided rifles will affect the military balance against the Islamic State (Isis), which has captured US-supplied armored Humvees and other heavy weapons from the Iraqi military….

The US has about 40 special operations “advisers” in Irbil [Kurdistan] – which until last week was a rare patch of Iraqi tranquility – in a “joint operations center” established by Obama to coordinate intelligence and targeting against Isis.

The problem, I imagine, is that the White House is torn. It is willing to help Kurdistan stave off ISIS, but at the same time, is still set on the (hopeless) task of keeping Iraq together (and, presumably, sees a smoothly-functioning, but not independent, Iraqi Kurdistan as both means and end in that process). The administration thus does not want Kurdistan to be too independent, and is holding back on supplying the weapons the Kurds need. With their oil money still frozen (it’s a long story), the Kurds are in no position to fill the gap.

As for the news of coups and political chaos in Baghdad, well, that city seems to have more than a touch of Saigon about it, whether in 1963, 1973 or 1975 remains to be seen.

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