With the recent victories of the Islamic State in Sinjar and other northern Iraqi towns, and the Islamist radicals’ efforts to cleanse their region of any non-Muslims, there is renewed debate about what to do.
Many suggest arming the Kurds. While there are merits and drawbacks to that proposal, the problem is that the image of the Kurdish peshmerga does not necessarily correlate to the reality of their capabilities. The peshmerga of a generation ago were adept at mountain fighting and gave Saddam a run for his money. Two decades of corrosive politics, however, have undercut the peshmerga as political loyalty trumped competence. Masud Barzani appointed his second son a general, even though he had little if any military experience to back that rank. Hagiography toward the peshmerga also distorts reality: it is hard for the peshmerga to correct its mistakes if any criticism is met with umbrage and a slight to honor.
The simple fact is that as ISIS advanced on Sinjar and other towns in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)’s peshmerga failed. Indeed, the peshmerga’s poor performance has shaken Erbil, which counts on the peshmerga’s image of strength to keep any Kurdish frustration at Barzani in check. It’s not clear that the peshmerga even need weaponry, nor is it certain that the KDP peshmerga have the skill to fight ISIS effectively. This is why I argue that it would be more effective for the United States to tackle the job themselves via forces hosted in Iraqi Kurdistan, perhaps in conjunction with a contingent based in southern Iraq. Kirkuk and Al-Tallil Airbases already have infrastructure to support U.S. forces, aircraft, and drones as need be. Bases need not be a dirty word, and returning jointly to both Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq will bypass the sovereignty issue that Iraqis rightly brought up when I suggested a base in Kurdistan.
ISIS, however, is not just an Iraqi problem and the Iraqi Kurds are not the only community to have a peshmerga. Indeed, if the KDP peshmerga have disappointed, the opposite is true for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) formed in Rojava, as Syrian Kurds call the region they have carved out in northeastern Syria. The YPG has been the only group in Syria which has been consistently victorious against ISIS and the Nusra Front inside Syria. It has not fought over just a town or so, but has waged pitched battles against incredible odds and won. Their victory has come at a high cost—when I was in Syrian Kurdistan earlier this year, YPG graves were both fresh and numerous, and family members regularly visited shrines set up in towns like Qamishli to commemorate loved ones killed in battle.
If the Iraqi Kurdish government was so short on resources, the son of Masoud Barzani would not have purchased a $10 million residence in northern Virginia. There is both more need and fewer resources available in Syrian Kurdistan. Perhaps a better strategy would be not only to take advantage of Masud Barzani’s longstanding offer of a base in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to utilize weaponry Kurdish peshmerga are untrained to use and untrusted to possess, but also to provide more basic weaponry and ammunition to the YPG, effectively rewarding that group’s success.
Indeed, the YPG break the conundrum American policymakers currently face in Syria: the opposition with which we deal diplomatically has little sway on the ground, while the opposition on the ground are far from moderate. The YPG is not only moderate, but controls significant territory. The YPG’s relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey should be immaterial. After all, the PKK poses no threat to the United States, is secular, and has reached a truce with the Turkish government. Regardless, American interests should trump Turkey’s obsession. It’s time to start arming the Syrian peshmerga. If the YPG—properly armed—can cut ISIS supply routes into Iraq, then they should be rewarded with recognition of Syrian Kurdistan’s federal status, recognition which is already long overdue.