Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kurds

Support Syrian Kurdish Forces Now

It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

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It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

China has stolen at least 14 million present and former government officials’ personal information, including mine, according to Office of Personal Management emails I received. And the consequences for Chinese actions? None. And, for that matter, the consequences for those within the U.S. government charged with keeping our personal information secure? Again, zero.

As the world approaches the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnians might reflect at how much worse the massacre might have been had it been Obama rather than Bill Clinton at the helm. At least the U.S. under NATO auspices launched an air campaign later that summer to bring the horrific violence to an end. Obama would likely have found a reason not to enforce any humanitarian or strategic red lines whatsoever. And, as for the Ukraine? It’s easy to talk about helping a fledgling democracy counter naked aggression but when push comes to shove, Obama seems perfectly willing to sell Ukrainians down the river as well.

Of course, it gets worse. After having invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama is preparing to pull the plug on the former and has already largely done so on the latter.

It is increasingly clear that neither U.S. national security nor human rights are criteria upon which Obama bases decisions. Max Boot is absolutely right that the Obama administration is readily ceding Iraq to Iranian influence, all the more ironic since many of the Iraqi Shi‘ites hugely resent Iran’s ambitions: If a traveler ever wants to experience true anti-Iranian sentiment, forget Jerusalem or Riyadh and visit Fao, the southern-most fishing village in Iraq, or have hushed conversations in some of the hill villages of southern Lebanon. I have also had the opportunity to see Hayya Bina, the Lebanese group to which Max refers, in action during some of my trips to Beirut and southern Lebanon. The Obama administration has demanded the group stop working among Lebanese Shi‘ites to organize or support any work or opposition to Hezbollah.

Nowhere has the Obama administration been so cavalier toward freedom, liberty, and the fight against terrorism as in Syria. As secretary of State, Hillary Clinton continued to call Bashar al-Assad a “reformer” even after his murderous rampage began. And, as senator, John Kerry made his aides blanch when he repeatedly described Assad as “my good friend” after bonding during a motorcycle ride. Let’s just be glad that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t like yachting, as Kerry’s moral vacuity and poor character judgment might have led him to say something equally regrettable.

Whatever the hope for the Syrian opposition in the initial months, the group radicalized tremendously. Advocates for the opposition like Sen. John McCain have their hearts in the right place, but have allowed their tenaciousness to trump good judgment: Supporting the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition would, at this point, be akin to supporting Al Qaeda. McCain should not become Erdoğan with a better sense of humor. At the same time, though, the idea of reconciliation or even a hands-off approach to Assad is noxious. This is a man that not only uses chemical weapons against his own people, but also refused to order his air force to strike the Islamic State’s headquarters at Raqqa at any point during the pre-September 2014 period when he had uncontested dominance over Syrian airspace.

There is only one group that has had any modicum of success fighting radicals and counter Assad inside Syria, and that is the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (YPG), the People’s Protection Units or the Syrian Peshmerga. I was fortunate to meet the YPG last year during a trip to northeastern Syria. They have sacrificed tremendously: I visited both memorial shrines, spaces reserved for families of martyrs, and fresh graves, while also hanging out at YPG checkpoints and talking to YPG commanders. Aside from a few airdrops around Kobane and, in the last few days, some air support around Ayn Issa, a town north of Raqqa, they have received little from the United States. The Syrian opposition that the United States does support has little to show for its money.

The YPG – and the Syrian Kurdish administration to which they answer – has the added benefit of being largely tolerant. They host tens of thousands of Arab refugees from the Aleppo area, and churches, mosques and, for that matter, Yezidi temples. And yet, the Obama administration and Kerry specifically give the Syrian Kurds the cold shoulder. The State Department refuses Salih Muslim, the Syrian Kurdish leader, a visa and it is a rarity that U.S. diplomats will speak with him, even if in the same room. Kerry has welcomed Syrian militants with blood on their hands to join the international diplomatic process but continues to veto any real Kurdish participation, at least among the Kurds representative of the Rojava administration.

In the last few days, the YPG has captured a strategic town just 30 miles north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital. It’s an opportunity that should be supported. Clearly, the YPG fulfill Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s “will to fight” prerequisite. If Obama truly wishes to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, then working with the YPG should be the central pillar. It’s time to work in the realm of reality and seize every opportunity, rather than continue to embrace the fantasy of Assad’s responsibility or other Syrian opposition’s credibility and moderation.

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Kurdish Infighting Threatens Kirkuk, Gains Against Islamic State

Vice President Joseph Biden wasn’t exaggerating: There’s a sense within Iraq that the defeat of the Islamic State is just a matter of time. And while the Iraqi Army and Shi‘ite militias and volunteers fighting alongside them have pushed the Islamic State out of Tikrit and aim to replicate their success in Mosul this summer, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) isn’t giving up without a fight, hence, the group’s efforts to destabilize Kirkuk.

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Vice President Joseph Biden wasn’t exaggerating: There’s a sense within Iraq that the defeat of the Islamic State is just a matter of time. And while the Iraqi Army and Shi‘ite militias and volunteers fighting alongside them have pushed the Islamic State out of Tikrit and aim to replicate their success in Mosul this summer, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) isn’t giving up without a fight, hence, the group’s efforts to destabilize Kirkuk.

In the months before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, most analysts believed that Kirkuk would be a flashpoint between Kurds, whom Saddam had forced from the city and who called Kirkuk their “Jerusalem,” Arabs who claimed a majority in the city and its environs, and Turkmens, whose numbers the government of Turkey exaggerated and which Ankara sought to use as a wedge for its own interests.

The reality of post-liberation Kirkuk turned out to be more placid. There was tension, and Kurdish parties maintained their claims, but generally speaking, ethnic and sectarian violence within Kirkuk city was more the exception rather than the rule. After all, many of the Arabs who had replaced Kurds in recent years wished to return to the cities of central and southern Iraq, where they either had living family or the graves of family long since deceased. And many of the Kurds whom Baathist forces had expelled from the city of Kirkuk were not landowners in the first place, but tenants.

The real trouble was in the farmland outside the city, where Kurdish farmers expelled from their fields wished to return immediately, but Arab farmers who had invested their savings in crops were loath to depart before harvesting them. Men like then-Col. (now Lt.-Gen.) William Mayville did a brilliant job working with farmers on a case-by-case basis to resolve such problems in a fair and equitable way.

Still, Kirkuk remained a contested city until late last spring, when Kurdish peshmerga belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) consolidated control over the city. Even then, under the stewardship of PUK-affiliated governor Najmaldin Karim, the Kurds were careful to ensure that Kirkuk remained a city for all ethnicities and religions; ethnic chauvinism played no part in governance and, if taxi drivers are considered good barometers, then both Turkmen and Arabs acknowledge that they have as much if not greater access to resources and investment.

Not surprisingly, then, ISIS has worked constantly over the past several months not only to destabilize Kirkuk, but to control it altogether. After ISIS threatened Iraqi Kurdistan last August, many countries responded to calls to support Kurdistan and help the Kurds defend themselves. The United States offered airstrikes and training, but still declines to provide the Kurds directly with heavy and advanced weaponry out of deference to Baghdad and to avoid encouraging Kurdish separatism. The Europeans, however, have not hesitated to answer the Kurdish requests for weaponry.

Here’s where Kurdish disunity undercuts the fight against ISIS and risks Kurdistan’s security. Kirkuk is central to the ISIS efforts now to attack and destabilize Kurdistan. While the minister of Peshmerga Affairs is from the Gorran Movement, an opposition group which has since relegated much of its reformist calls to rhetoric only and struck a bargain with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), most weaponry delivered to the Kurdistan Regional Government is directed into the hands of the KDP peshmerga. None of it has found its way to Kirkuk, largely because the Kurdish leadership in Erbil is upset that Kirkukis repeatedly vote for an independent-minded governor and not for the KDP.

In effect, after decades of demanding that Kirkuk should be returned to Kurdistan, once it has been, the political narrow-mindedness of the Kurdish leadership in Erbil seems to prefer to risk Kirkuk’s fall to ISIS rather than see its Kurds choose a political figure from a party other than Masoud Barzani’s party. True, the KDP will use some of the weaponry to prepare for the coming fight in and around Mosul, although at present the Syrian-based Popular Protection Units (YPG) seem to be doing much of the heavy-lifting rolling back ISIS around Sinjar.

Let’s hope that rather than simply heed the Kurdish call for arms and assume such arms will go where needed, European states donating to the Kurdish cause ensure their assistance goes where it is needed and, indeed, refuse to provide arms unless they first receive a firm commitment the arms will fight ISIS rather than be stockpiled for the benefit of a single party or family.

Kurds often complain that they have been victims of history. Alas, as the military abandonment of Kirkuk on the part of the KRG suggests, too often they have been victims not only of outside powers, but also of the short-sightedness of their own political leadership.

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Whom Should the U.S. Train in Syria and Iraq?

The United States has begun vetting Syrian rebels to determine whom to train to fight Islamic State (ISIS) extremists inside Syria. It’s an effort that promises very little and comes extremely late. The goal is to train, in Turkey and with the cooperation of Turkish forces, 5,000 moderate fighters a year for perhaps three years. Actual training will begin within four to six weeks.

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The United States has begun vetting Syrian rebels to determine whom to train to fight Islamic State (ISIS) extremists inside Syria. It’s an effort that promises very little and comes extremely late. The goal is to train, in Turkey and with the cooperation of Turkish forces, 5,000 moderate fighters a year for perhaps three years. Actual training will begin within four to six weeks.

As currently conceived, the effort is doomed from the start. Including—and, indeed, relying upon—Turkey is a poison pill, given the growing extremism of the Turkish government and the sympathies of at least certain segments of the Turkish government to more extreme elements inside Syria.

At the same time, the United States has moved forward with training and assistance programs to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga.

The irony of both efforts is that the United States continues to ignore the most moderate, religiously tolerant, and most effective fighting force in the region: the Popular Protection Units (YPG) of the Syrian Kurds. Without formal training, the YPG held Kobane in the face of a tremendous onslaught. But Kobane is only the tip of the iceberg: I visited portions of Syria controlled by the YPG last year. They have made tremendous sacrifices and brought a modicum of stability and security to northeastern Syria.

But it is not only inside Syria where the YPG has seen success. Despite billions of dollars poured into the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, they at best have achieved little more than a stalemate. Prior to the Islamic State’s onslaught against the Yezidis of Mount Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani had turned down the Yezidis and local residents’ requests for reinforcements. Then, peshmerga and security forces commanded by his sons abandoned their posts, sacrificing thousands of Yezidis to the cruelty of the Islamic State. The YPG did not wait for coalition airstrikes before seeking to come to their rescue. At present, the YPG reportedly enjoys greater popularity than the Kurdistan Region Government’s peshmerga in Sinjar and those areas inside northwestern Iraq contested by the Islamic State.

The reason why Turkey objects to any training for the YPG is that they and their civilian political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) fall under the general umbrella of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which aligned with Soviet interests during the Cold War and long waged an insurgency inside Turkey. That may be a problem, but it’s time to set priorities: Defeating the Islamic State is more important than paying heed to Turkey’s obsessions. If Turkey won’t play ball if the YPG are included in training, then it’s time to stop working through Turkey. They are, after all, not the only U.S. partner to border Syria.

The Islamic State presents a grave and growing threat throughout the region. If they are to be defeated, no moderates should be excluded. If moderates can be found among Syrian Arabs, that would be great, although they are, at this point, likely a chimera. But there are worthy forces to train among the Iraqi army and even some of the Iraqi volunteers who answered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to fight the Islamic State. Last fall, I stayed at a facility in which some of these volunteers trained in southern Iraq. While Iran has certainly tried to co-opt and control some of these volunteers, many more care only about defending their communities against the Islamic State and do not care an iota for geopolitics. The United States needs to support and help rebuild the Iraqi army, and those elements which survived their trial by fire. The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga also are worthy of support. But the YPG complete the picture. If they can be as successful as they have been against the Islamic State without formal training, they might be the ace in the hole if they can hone their tactics and skills and actually receive the weaponry they need to do the job at hand.

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Is Kobani the New Khe Sanh?

The Obama administration will be tempted to take a victory lap because of recent news that Kurdish militiamen have regained control of Kobani, a Syrian town near the border with Turkey. ISIS forces that had been attacking it for months have melted away. This is, to be sure, a nice achievement, but its wider significance is limited.

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The Obama administration will be tempted to take a victory lap because of recent news that Kurdish militiamen have regained control of Kobani, a Syrian town near the border with Turkey. ISIS forces that had been attacking it for months have melted away. This is, to be sure, a nice achievement, but its wider significance is limited.

As I have previously argued, the ISIS siege of Kobani, broken with the help of copious American airpower, resembles nothing so much as the North Vietnamese siege of Khe Sanh, a town in South Vietnam near the border with Laos. Held by Marines, Khe Sanh was under assault for 77 days in 1968 before the Communist attackers melted away. So insignificant did Khe Sanh prove in the end that U.S. forces abandoned it shortly after relieving its garrison.

The larger picture in Syria is that ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, the two primary jihadist groups, continue to gain ground while the moderate opposition, once seen as the salvation of Syria, is in worse shape then ever, in no small part because it has never received the support it needs or deserves. If you don’t mind raising your blood pressure, you should read this enraging account in the Wall Street Journal today, by reporter Adam Entous, of how little the CIA has done to help the moderate Syrian opposition.

A few highlights:

  • “One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter.”
  • “ ‘We walk around Syria with a huge American flag planted on our backs, but we don’t have enough AK-47s in our hands to protect ourselves,’ a leader of the Hazzm Movement, among the most trusted of the trusted commanders, told U.S. lawmakers in a meeting.”
  • “Most CIA-backed fighters made $100 to $150 a month. Commanders made slightly more. Islamic State and Nusra often paid twice as much, making it harder for the trusted commanders to retain fighters.”
  • “ ‘We thought going with the Americans was going with the big guns,’ the Hazzm leader said, according to people at the meeting. ‘It was a losing bet.’ ”

The predictable result of this neglect–compounded by the American failure to stop Bashar Assad’s air force from bombing the few areas still held by moderate forces–is that many of the mainstream fighters have either abandoned the fight, been killed or captured by the jihadists, or joined their ranks. This, naturally, becomes a further excuse for doing nothing to aid them. But how can we possibly expect Syrians to risk anything fighting with us when we won’t risk anything to help them?

Reading this account–in which terrorist groups such as Al-Nusra and ISIS are able to outspend the world’s No. 1 economy–makes me think that if the current administration had been in charge of arming the mujahideen in the 1980s, the Russians would still be occupying Afghanistan.

The parlous state of the Free Syrian Army means that there is little prospect for making greater inroads against ISIS, much less the Nusra Front, in Syria. And that in turn means that Kobani is an isolated victory which is unlikely to have any wider strategic significance.

The Obama administration’s failure to do more to stop the bloodshed and the advance of extremists in Syria must rank as one of the worst failures of U.S. foreign policy in the past half-century. Obama can take comfort that he hasn’t repeated George W. Bush’s supposed mistake in invading Iraq; instead he’s making his own mistakes, whose costs continue to mount.

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Iraqi Kurds Should Purge Those Who Fled

The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga have now pushed back ISIS; the crisis of this past summer is over. Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga—supplemented by Syrian Kurdish (YPG) and PKK fighters, which neither the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) nor the State Department want to acknowledge—are on the verge of liberating the town of Sinjar. While the Obama administration’s commitment to defeating ISIS is ambivalent at best, the Iraqi Kurds continue to press hard for both American arms and a permanent American presence.

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The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga have now pushed back ISIS; the crisis of this past summer is over. Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga—supplemented by Syrian Kurdish (YPG) and PKK fighters, which neither the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) nor the State Department want to acknowledge—are on the verge of liberating the town of Sinjar. While the Obama administration’s commitment to defeating ISIS is ambivalent at best, the Iraqi Kurds continue to press hard for both American arms and a permanent American presence.

This might be a wise investment to help Iraqi Kurds consolidate their gains and prevent an ISIS counteroffensive. That said, the United States invested billions of dollars in building the Iraqi military only to see it disintegrate, leaving arms and hi-tech equipment for the ISIS to salvage. Might the same thing happen with the Kurds?

The Kurdistan Regional Government reacts with umbrage at any such suggestion, but Kurds continue to discuss the events of last August: With ISIS around Gwer, just fifteen miles from Erbil, not only Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga commanders, but also senior Kurdish officials and their families fled Erbil. Certainly, many Kurdish officials stayed put to fight but, according to Kurdish officials, perhaps 35 percent of the city fled along with many top military and political officials who were willing to leave ordinary Kurds to their fate.

With the crisis over, many of these officials returned with little comment and having faced no accountability for their actions. Ordinary Kurds in Erbil who once embraced President Masoud Barzani and his top lieutenants blindly now express their disgust openly at the behavior of the Kurdish leadership.

If the United States is going to make a sizeable military investment in Kurdistan, it behooves the White House and Pentagon to demand that Barzani prioritize competence and professionalism above family and business ties in the organization of Kurdish military, intelligence, and security forces. He might start by demanding Erbil airport manifests for all flights leaving Iraqi Kurdistan for Europe or the Persian Gulf for the week of August 7-13. Certainly, taking a flight out of Kurdistan is not a crime, but government officials or peshmerga commanders doing so at the height of a crisis should have some explaining to do, and should lose their jobs.

American investment in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan might be strategically important, but American aid and assistance is never an entitlement. Tribal ties and nepotism should not trump accountability and professionalism if the goal of greater American ties with Iraqi Kurdistan is to protect Kurds from the ISIS terrorists on their periphery. Masoud Barzani has some hard choices ahead. Examining flight manifests should not be one of them. The delay for such accountability should end now.

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Russia Seeks Advantage from America’s Syria Paralysis

Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat briefly with Salih Muslim, the head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) at a conference in Brussels, Belgium. Muslim is probably the most influential figure in Rojava, as Syrian Kurdistan is called. While some American senators still talk about the Free Syrian Army as an alternative to the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Bashar al-Assad regime, the simple fact is that Muslim controls the only stable, secular, and tolerant region within Syria today. His power is not theoretical—hatched in a diplomatic conference—but rather hard won, the result of pushing back or quarantining Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-backed army and checking or defeating the Islamic State. In areas Muslim’s party controls, Christians, Yezidis, and Muslims worship freely, girls go to school—the same schools and the same classes as boys—and municipalities provide services ranging from trash pick-up to arbitration and peaceful dispute resolution.

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Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat briefly with Salih Muslim, the head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) at a conference in Brussels, Belgium. Muslim is probably the most influential figure in Rojava, as Syrian Kurdistan is called. While some American senators still talk about the Free Syrian Army as an alternative to the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Bashar al-Assad regime, the simple fact is that Muslim controls the only stable, secular, and tolerant region within Syria today. His power is not theoretical—hatched in a diplomatic conference—but rather hard won, the result of pushing back or quarantining Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-backed army and checking or defeating the Islamic State. In areas Muslim’s party controls, Christians, Yezidis, and Muslims worship freely, girls go to school—the same schools and the same classes as boys—and municipalities provide services ranging from trash pick-up to arbitration and peaceful dispute resolution.

So what does Secretary of State John Kerry do? He bans Salih Muslim from coming to the United States, refusing him visas on several occasions over the past year. Not only that, but Kerry has refused to extend Muslim invitations to attend Syrian opposition conferences. His reasoning is illogical: he has accused Muslim of cooperating too much with Assad, a charge Muslim denies. Regardless, Kerry—who repeatedly referred to Assad as “my good friend” while a senator accepting Assad’s hospitality—has allowed Assad proxies a seat at the table, so his refusal to deal with Muslim appears even more bizarre.

Part of the problem may be that the PYD is seen as too close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the United States designates a terrorist group. If this is the case, however, Kerry should call his office because, after air dropping supplies to Syrian Kurds loyal to the PYD fighting in Kobane, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denied the PYD was a terrorist group under U.S. law. Regardless, even if that wasn’t the State Department’s position, it wouldn’t necessary be the end-all and be-all because the U.S. government had managed until just a few months ago to categorize both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party—both U.S. allies—as terrorist groups.

So what is Salih Muslim to do? He’s made in recent months two or perhaps even three visits to Moscow to meet with Russian officials, most recently over Christmas. One really cannot blame Muslim. He is not anti-American; quite the contrary, he seeks greater American ties and influence. But only Russia is answering his calls. The Kremlin, however, seldom provides assistance altruistically; it will expect a quid pro quo, and that won’t be to America’s favor.

Perhaps Obama and Kerry could begin by dealing with the reality of Syria rather than an imaginary moderate opposition that either does not exist or does not recognize the multi-ethnic, federal reality of Syria’s future. It costs nothing to issue a visa to Muslim. And it might enable a diplomatic breakthrough that would disadvantage both the Syrian regime and the Islamic State, while at the same time capitalizing on a model that has already proven successful on the dusty and war-weary plains of Syria.

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PKK Must Reform if it Wants Support

I’ve written several times recently to argue that the United States should review the terrorism designation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and consider removing the group from American terrorist lists. After all, the PKK—or its various proxy groups and affiliates—have never targeted Americans. Indeed, while the United States labeled them a terrorist group largely out of deference to Turkey at a time when Turkey was still an ally in both name and deed, the listing may have been unfair: the PKK arguably engaged more in insurgency than terrorism over the past quarter century. Regardless, the situation has changed significantly in recent years, both in terms of Turkish actions and PKK deeds. Turkey is now much more of a terror sponsor than the PKK ever was, turning a blind eye to if not directly supporting the Islamic State (ISIS) by enabling transit, providing medical care, and apparently offering resupply. Turkey also supports Hamas; Hamas operatives inside Turkey have planned several recent attempted Hamas terrorist strikes in Israel. The Turkish ambassador to Chad even went so far as to endorse on twitter Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the wake of that group’s rampage in northern Mali.

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I’ve written several times recently to argue that the United States should review the terrorism designation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and consider removing the group from American terrorist lists. After all, the PKK—or its various proxy groups and affiliates—have never targeted Americans. Indeed, while the United States labeled them a terrorist group largely out of deference to Turkey at a time when Turkey was still an ally in both name and deed, the listing may have been unfair: the PKK arguably engaged more in insurgency than terrorism over the past quarter century. Regardless, the situation has changed significantly in recent years, both in terms of Turkish actions and PKK deeds. Turkey is now much more of a terror sponsor than the PKK ever was, turning a blind eye to if not directly supporting the Islamic State (ISIS) by enabling transit, providing medical care, and apparently offering resupply. Turkey also supports Hamas; Hamas operatives inside Turkey have planned several recent attempted Hamas terrorist strikes in Israel. The Turkish ambassador to Chad even went so far as to endorse on twitter Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the wake of that group’s rampage in northern Mali.

The PKK, meanwhile, has promoted and accepted a ceasefire with Turkey and is actively engaged in peace talks. Indeed, in these talks, it has been Turkey and not the PKK that has failed to deliver on its promise. The PKK did the lion’s share to liberate Sinjar from the Islamic State (ISIS) and it also has the best track record on the ground both against the Syrian regime and against ISIS. PKK affiliates control more ground inside Syria than the Free Syrian Army, and are far more moderate: When I visited “Rojava,” as the Kurdish-controlled zone in Syria is called, municipal services functioned, girls walked to school alone, and Christians, Muslims, and Yezidis; Kurds and Arabs lived and worshipped side by side with equal rights under the law.

Both PKK activists and many more Kurds at large believe that there should be no question about the United States coming around and embracing the PKK. But, re-evaluation should not be a one-way street. The PKK began as a Marxist organization, motivated as much by the fight against capitalism as it was by Kurdish nationalism. When, a year ago, I attended as an observer a PKK rally in Paris at the invitation of some Kurdish leaders, many marched under Kurdish flags, but other embraced the hammer and sickle, or visages of Che Guevara. Those embracing Guevara flags might think of him as a force of resistance against oppressive powers, but much of the world knows Guevara as a psychopathic mass murder. To embrace Che Guevara, or march under symbols of a movement responsible for the slaughter of tens of millions of people in the twentieth century, is not the way to win hearts and minds of mainstream American or European society. To their credit, Kurdish leaders listened to my concerns and responded—rightly—that such flags were in the minority and that they can hardly control who brings what banners and placards to a rally. But, still, if the fight is about Kurdish rights and cultural freedoms, then its association with radical leftism is only going to detract from an otherwise worthy agenda.

Many Kurds also look at imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan as a new Nelson Mandela. There are parallels: Both engaged in armed struggle and terrorism only to preach peace in their later career. Kurds expect that Öcalan will eventually be released from prison and can take up a mantle of leadership much like Mandela did. But where the two diverge is with regard to the cult of personality that surrounds them. South Africans embraced Mandela, but Mandela placed democracy and rule-of-law above his person. Indeed, his wife Winnie Mandela discovered that being the family of the president did not mean being above the law. It is unfair to judge Öcalan before his release from prison, but he appears to continue to encourage a personality cult which suggests disinterest in making good on rhetoric of democracy and individual freedom. Iraqi Kurds did not win freedom after Saddam’s fall; they simply replaced the Iraqi dictator’s portrait with one of their own. The Turkish and Syrian Kurds need not repeat that experience, and should realize that dictators’ portraits can be removed rather than replaced.

The PKK is still in crisis mode, and rightly so. It or its affiliates are under siege in Syria, Turkey, and Iran, and its leader in prison. But, not since the immediate aftermath of World War I have the stars aligned for a favorable resolution to the Kurdish cause as they do now. It is always easy to use crises as excuses not to reform, but if the PKK is serious about democracy, it must demand freedom and liberty not only for Kurds broadly, but it must also preach and practice democracy for Kurds within its hierarchy.

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Is the United States Complicit with ISIS?

Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

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Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

That said, through negligence or disinterest, the United States has done much to create a situation which disadvantages ISIS’s foes. Last year, I visited Rojava, the confederation of cantons (of which Kobane is part) which Syrian Kurds have created in northeastern Syria. What the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has accomplished is admirable: Rojava has absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, Kurdish and Arab, Christian and Muslim. Freedom of religion and gender equality are respected. Beyond Kobane, within Rojava is security: men and women work, and go to the market; and children go to school and play in the streets unmolested.

But not all is well: Earlier today in Brussels, I had the opportunity to hear PYD co-president Salih Muslim speak and chat with him briefly. One point he raised is that Rojava still suffers under a complete embargo: Turkey, Iraq, and Syria all blockade it, and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq often tries to strong-arm Rojava, making access to Rojava difficult across Iraqi Kurdistan. International aid organizations and the United Nations won’t help because they only work through organizations recognized by states. Hence, the UN channels aid through Turkey and Syria, neither of whom allow their respective Red Crescents or other NGOs to work with Rojava and its NGOs.

The United States need not be constrained by such policies. It has provided some aid to Kurdish fighters battling ISIS, but it could just as easily provide much needed support and relief to Rojava, the only stable and generally functioning region inside Syria. Talk about an easy step to win hearts and minds and promote moderation at the same time. The Rojava social compact—its proto-constitution—also provides a great model for more federated, local government inside the rest of Syria.

It’s hard to reconcile a desire to bring peace, democracy, and stability to Syria with a refusal to recognize and support the progress being made in the only secular, tolerant, and stable portion of the country. Often, American policy seems on autopilot, wedded to policies of the past that were crafted under radically different circumstances. Perhaps it’s time for a fundamental re-think and an embrace of a model that neither privileges the regime nor the Islamic State, but which provides an alternative to both. While the White House and State Department reconsider, however, it is crucial to do what the United Nations will not, and provide food and supplies directly to those who need it most, rather than relying on the good graces of the Turkish government or Syrian regime to take care of Syria’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

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How Iran Prevents a Real Solution to ISIS

There was a rare piece of good news from Iraq yesterday: the Kurds and the central government have agreed on an arrangement to split oil revenues. In brief, the Kurds will get to continue selling oil that is produced in the Kurdish Regional Government and the nearby Kirkuk province, which the Kurds occupied earlier this year, with the revenues split between Erbil and Baghdad. In return the Kurds will get 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues (approximately equal to their share of national population) and an extra $1 billion a year to fund the pesh merga militia. This is a fair deal all around and the fact that it was reached was a tribute to Prime Minister Abadi who has proven more flexible and reasonable than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

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There was a rare piece of good news from Iraq yesterday: the Kurds and the central government have agreed on an arrangement to split oil revenues. In brief, the Kurds will get to continue selling oil that is produced in the Kurdish Regional Government and the nearby Kirkuk province, which the Kurds occupied earlier this year, with the revenues split between Erbil and Baghdad. In return the Kurds will get 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenues (approximately equal to their share of national population) and an extra $1 billion a year to fund the pesh merga militia. This is a fair deal all around and the fact that it was reached was a tribute to Prime Minister Abadi who has proven more flexible and reasonable than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.

But it would be an exaggeration to claim, as does some of the news coverage, that this deal is a big step forward in the battle against ISIS. The reality is that the Kurds and the Iraqi central government would fight ISIS whether they had reached a deal on oil revenues or not because it is in their self-interest to do so.

The real question is, Will Sunnis fight ISIS? To mobilize Sunni opposition against these Sunni jihadists, the central government will have to strike a deal with Sunni tribal leaders that will guarantee they will not be persecuted and abused as they were under Maliki’s sectarian rule. That is a much more important and also a much harder objective to achieve than a Baghdad-Erbil oil deal.

All the more so because of Iran’s growing prominence on the pro-government side. The latest evidence of that is news that Iranian F-4 jets attacked ISIS targets inside Iraq’s Diyala province, which Tehran claims as part of a 25-mile “buffer zone” which extends into Iraq. The strikes were apparently directed by Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s terrorist-sponsoring Quds Force, who has become increasingly visible in Iraq in recent months.

It is unclear if the Iranian strikes were done with the agreement of the Iraqi government. If not, they were an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty; if they were done with the Abadi government’s permission, that is one more sign of the sway that Tehran continues to hold in Baghdad. Either way this is bad news. Because the more visible that Iran appears in the anti-ISIS coalition, the less likelihood there is that Sunnis will rally to the anti-ISIS cause because many of them are more afraid of Iranian domination than of ISIS domination.

Sadly, the White House is probably happy about the growing Iranian involvement in the anti-ISIS fight. It shouldn’t be. A basic fact that President Obama can’t seem to grasp as he continues his ill-advised outreach to Tehran is that the more that the U.S. draws closer to Iran, the less chance we have of winning the confidence of Sunni tribes that are the real key to defeating ISIS. Instead of quietly acquiescing in Iran’s growing role, the U.S. should be preparing a plan to checkmate and rollback Iran’s growing influence.

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Is Another “Awakening” Needed in Iraq?

If you want to feel optimistic about the state of the fight against ISIS, you can read this dispatch from Ben Hubbard of the New York Times in Baghdad. He claims that “the group’s momentum appears to be stalling.” The “nut graf” (as newspaper types call the core of the story):

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If you want to feel optimistic about the state of the fight against ISIS, you can read this dispatch from Ben Hubbard of the New York Times in Baghdad. He claims that “the group’s momentum appears to be stalling.” The “nut graf” (as newspaper types call the core of the story):

The international airstrike campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has clearly played a role in slowing the Sunni Muslim group’s advance. But analysts say other factors are having a major effect, including unfavorable sectarian and political demographics, pushback from overrun communities, damage to the group’s financial base in Syria and slight improvements by ground forces in Iraq.

There is something to this analysis, but not too much. Mainly what Hubbard is reporting on is the obvious fact that ISIS, as a Sunni jihadist group, can only take root in Sunni-majority areas. It is running out of new Sunni areas to conquer in Iraq largely because it has already taken control of most of the Sunni Triangle stretching from Fallujah to Mosul. That’s hardly great news, insofar as ISIS’s control over an area the size of the United Kingdom appears as strong as ever.

True, there are some signs of tribal revolts against ISIS, for example among the Jubouri tribe in Iraq, but ISIS is able to crush them with its typical ferocity. Meanwhile even the addition of Kurdish pesh merga fighters has not ended the ISIS offensive on Kobani, and while there are some slight improvements visible among anti-ISIS forces in Iraq, there is general acknowledgement that it will be a long time before Mosul or Fallujah can be liberated. To make matters worse, a lot of whatever success there has been in stalling ISIS’s momentum in Iraq comes from the actions of bloodthirsty, Iranian-backed militias under the direction of the Quds Force. Their growing power ensures that more Sunnis will continue to rally to ISIS for protection.

In many ways the situation feels, as the perspicacious Iraq analyst Joel Rayburn, a U.S. army colonel, has pointed out, like the dark days of 2005-2006 when there were scattered tribal revolts against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the ISIS predecessor, that AQI was able to “defeat brutally in detail.” The only way to defeat ISIS is by catalyzing a larger Awakening-style tribal uprising among the Sunnis. But that will require more direct American military intervention in Iraq and Syria than President Obama has been willing to countenance.

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The Anti-ISIS Campaign’s Long Road Ahead

In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

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In recent days there has been some incremental progress against ISIS. Turkey has finally given agreement to allow some Iraqi Kurdish fighters to cross its territory to help the embattled town of Kobani, while the U.S. has airdropped some weapons and supplies to Kobani’s defenders. ISIS is making a major push toward Kobani but it is no longer in imminent danger of falling, which it appeared to be only a few days ago.

But not all the news is good. Indeed ISIS continues to push forward in Anbar Province as well as in northern Iraq. It is on the outskirts of Baghdad and it is renewing its offensive against the Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, while also setting off numerous car bombs and suicide bombs targeting Shiites.

And the U.S. response? It continues to be anemic as this article in Military Times points out. While the Department of Defense is authorized to put 1,600 troops into Iraq–itself an inadequate figure–only 1,400 have been deployed. Only 12 Special Forces teams have been deployed and then only at the brigade level. That means that “less than half of the 26 Iraqi brigades that Pentagon officials in September said were initially identified as ‘reliable partners’ among the Iraqi army’s roughly 50 total brigades” currently have advisers. And none of those advisers are allowed to go into combat with Iraqi units. Moreover, no Iraqi units below the brigade level have advisers and “there are no U.S. advisers with any Iraqi units in Anbar province,” where ISIS is busy consolidating its power.

The picture is no better when it comes to air strikes, which continue to occur at a low level, far below those of previous air campaigns. As two security analysts recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has been flying an average of seven strikes a day compared to 138 a day against Serbia in 1999 and 86 a day against the Taliban in 2001.

So it’s good to see a little progress in Kobani but don’t be fooled–the anti-ISIS campaign as a whole is a long, long way from achieving President Obama’s objectives to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this terrorist state. Unless the U.S. picks up its efforts, it is doubtful that goal will ever be achieved.

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To Fix Iraq: Administrative Federalism, not Tripartite Division

Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

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Max Boot picks up on former Council on Foreign Relations boss Les Gelb’s revival of Gelb’s previous proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. Let there be no confusion: Gelb’s idea is as bad an idea now as it was then. The problem isn’t Gelb’s embrace of federalism; rather, the problem is the idea that such federalism needs to be based on ethnicity or religion.

True, there are three main communities in Iraq: Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, and Kurdish Sunnis. However, there are many smaller communities as well: The Faylis (Kurdish Shiites); both Sunni and Shiite Turkmen, Christians of different denominations; Shaykhis; and Yezidis. The geographical dividing lines between the communities can be blurrier than an Obama red line: Sunnis live in Basra; Baghdad, despite the civil war, remains a mixed city. Kirkuk is a mélange of almost every community that lives in Iraq.

Nor are those areas which are more homogeneous in ethnic or sectarian terms prone to agree with each other politically. The Kurds, after all, fought a civil war between 1994 and 1997, and despite efforts to bury the hatchet in public, events are still too fresh for three major political parties to come clean with regard to the disappeared. Shiite parties are often at odds with each other; Basra, for example, has long been the focal point of a struggle between Da’wa on one hand and a coalition of Sadrists and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq on the other. Nor would a Sunni canton address the fundamental problem of ISIS. The primary problem Sunni Arabs face is not poor governance in Baghdad; it is the lack of Sunni Arab leadership within their own community.

I’m fortunate enough to visit three or four times a year, heading to different regions on each trip. In January, for example, I visited Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul, and Kurdistan. In March, I visited Baghdad. And my next trip will take me to southern Iraq. And, in July, I was able to sit down with former officials from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Jordan. None of my trips are sponsored by or coordinated with the embassy or U.S. military, and therefore I’m not subject to the security bubble or limited in my meetings only to U.S. military and embassy interlocutors. What is most interesting when talking to Iraqis is not simply the complaints of various groups or communities toward each other or the central government, but rather the subject on which many Iraqis agree: Decentralization.

Concentrating power locally is not the same as communal federalism. Iraq has 18 governorates. Rather than treat some governorates as Shiite, others as Sunni, and the remainder as Kurdish, any federalism should be based on administrative boundaries: Rather than have Baghdad (try to) control the country, the Iraqi central government should focus on defense and foreign affairs and divide Iraq’s substantial oil revenue according to estimated proportion of the population in each governorate. Administrative federalism would be healthier for Iraq than playing into the ethnic and sectarian morass.

Les Gelb cites his 2003 New York Times op-ed; let me dredge up my 2002 New York Times piece that I wrote after having spent nine months in Iraqi Kurdistan, and which discussed the nuance of federalism. Much of the piece holds true today. True, Kurdish leaders oppose administrative federalism out of fear that direct infusions of cash to Kurdish governorates might undercut their own rule, but there is nothing that prevents governorates to act in concert with each other of they so choose, as Iraqi Kurds likely would.

Nor must administrative federalism be based simply on provinces, as I had related twelve years ago. Sunni leaders suggest devolving political power even further, to districts or sub-districts bringing government closer to the people.

The reason for Iraq’s postwar over-centralization has less to do with democracy or Iraq’s long-term stability and more to do with American shortsightedness. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was putting together Iraq’s Fiscal Year 2004 budget, there was a brief debate about getting provinces to build a proposed budget to pass to Baghdad which would then mediate and determine a national budget. Patrick Kennedy, then Bremer’s chief of staff, vetoed the idea: The CPA leadership was fixated on donor conferences and so needed a budget done more quickly; that required concentrating the process in Baghdad. It was the triumph of narrow, bureaucratic considerations over the big picture, and one for which Iraqis continue to pay a price. Perhaps, a decade later, it is time to reconsider, and encourage Iraq to prioritize local governance over Baghdad’s dysfunctional bureaucracy.

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Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?

Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The problem is this: While to most American audiences the Kurds might simply be the Kurds, they are divided politically, linguistically, and culturally. In short, the United States now works closely with Iraqi Kurds, but labels the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group. Herein lies the problem: Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, may depict himself and may be considered by some American officials to be a Kurdish nationalist leader, but his popularity is largely limited to two Iraqi provinces: Duhok and Erbil. And even in Erbil, his popularity is tenuous.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan remains the most popular figure among Turkey’s Kurds, enjoying the support of perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds, whereas Barzani barely musters 10 percent popularity there. Whereas Turkey long sought to declare Öcalan irrelevant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed Öcalan as the paramount Kurdish leader in Turkey when he had his administration negotiate a ceasefire with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. This may not have been Erdoğan’s intention, but it was the result. The irony here for Turkish nationalists is that Erdoğan was likely never sincere about achieving peace with the Kurds, or at least with those Kurds who continued to embrace ethnicity rather than Sunni Islam as their predominant identity. After all, every Erdoğan outreach to the Kurds occurred in the months before elections, and was abandoned in the weeks following them, when Erdoğan no longer needed Kurdish electoral support.

Even as Erdoğan now acquiesces to some support for the besieged Kurds of Kobane, he seeks to limit the provision of that support to his allies among Barzani’s peshmerga, never mind that KDP peshmerga would be out of place in Syria and do not have the skill or dedication that the PKK’s Syrian peshmerga, the YPG, have exhibited. If Erdoğan thinks Barzani’s peshmerga can save him, he is kidding himself: As soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled.

Erdoğan continues to insist that there is no difference in his mind between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK: To the Turkish President, they’re all terrorists. Evidently, however, the American position is shifting. Obama has insisted that he approve every military operation in Syria. This is why the recent airdrop of supplies to Kobane is so important: That airdrop directly assists the PYD, YPG, and the PKK. In effect, Obama is now aiding a group that his State Department still designates a terrorist group.

In reality, that designation is probably long overdue for a review if not elimination. The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up. And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK. The group may not be perfect—it retains too much of a personality cult around Öcalan and internally could become more transparent and democratic—but in this, it is no different than Barzani’s KDP. Indeed, the only difference between the two is that the PKK has not indulged in the same sort of corruption that has transformed Barzani and his sons into billionaires.

The most interesting aspect of the U.S. airdrop to the Kurds of Kobane is how muted the reaction has been. Turkey might like to think the nearly 150 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus would hold water for Ankara and object to the provision of arms and aid to a group Turkey’s president considers to be a terrorist entity, but its members recognize that most American officials now consider the Hamas-loving Erdoğan to be more of a threat to peace than the PKK. Indeed, perhaps with this airdrop, the change so long denied by diplomats is now apparent: The Emperor Erdoğan has no clothes. It is too early to suggest that Öcalan trumps Erdoğan in the American mind but thanks to more than a decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when deciding between Turkey and the PKK, American officials no longer will automatically side with Turkey.

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First Rule of the Anti-ISIS Club Is: You Do Not Talk About the Anti-ISIS Club

President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

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President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

It was not too surprising that Obama’s highly-touted “broad coalition” was in fact far less than meets the eye. After all, among Obama’s many weaknesses in foreign affairs, international diplomacy is arguably at the top of the list. And that’s how Obama has not only put together a coalition that has thus far struggled against ISIS but also bungled the coalition’s cohesion. In wanting to prove he wrangled a broad coalition of allies his administration has forgotten the first rule of the Anti-ISIS Club: Don’t talk about the Anti-ISIS Club.

As Foreign Policy reports:

The latest row concerns the key question of whether Turkey, which hosts a sprawling American air base, will let U.S. warcraft fly from it into Iraq and Syria to batter the militant group. U.S. officials said Sunday that Ankara had given the green light. Less than a day later, Turkish officials categorically denied that they’d agreed to allow their bases to be used against the terror group.

The conflicting versions of events from the two allies have one of two causes. One is political: The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.

Turkey’s behavior has been the subject of much debate. If they are an ally, they have an awfully funny way of showing it. As Jonathan Schanzer wrote in Politico Magazine last week, it may be time to kick Turkey out of NATO. Aside from Ankara’s unhelpful attitude toward the anti-ISIS effort, Schanzer notes that Turkey supports the Hamas terrorists of Gaza and even allows leaders of the group to operate out of Turkey; it has refused to take antiterrorism seriously, undermining NATO’s global efforts as well as regional stability; and it has helped Iran evade sanctions intended to curb its illicit nuclear program.

In addition, after waffling on the anti-ISIS coalition Turkey turned around and resumed bombing Kurdish militant positions, the first such strikes since the two-year-old peace process began in earnest. This comes after Kurds in Turkey protested Ankara’s refusal to help aid the anti-ISIS effort (thus further endangering their Syrian Kurdish brethren), resulting in riots and the deaths of more than thirty people.

As with the possible fall of Kobani to ISIS, which Max Boot wrote about yesterday, Turkey’s behavior is reprehensible but no excuse for American incompetence. Turkey may have had a more extreme reaction, but it is not the first country to be “outed” as part of Obama’s broad coalition that didn’t want to be identified as such. As the Foreign Policy report pointed out:

In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer.

“I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia,” Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said.

Last month, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said his government opposed terrorism, but expressed annoyance that his country was included in the U.S. government’s official list of anti-ISIS partners without being informed.

“I am bothered by the fact that we have been placed on the list without the government’s knowledge,” he said. “We will have to voice some sort of protest; it is not appropriate to consent to our country being placed anywhere without our knowledge and consensus.”

Placing European countries on an anti-ISIS list and hoping they wouldn’t notice is truly amateurish behavior. But it also demonstrates a recurring problem for this administration, which I’ve written about before: President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the rest of those responsible for the conduct of American foreign policy simply don’t listen.

And they are far more interested in the sloganeering of bumper-sticker diplomacy and vapid politics than in actually accomplishing what they’re supposed to, causing an already shaky coalition to crumble further.

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Is Kobane 2014 Warsaw 1944?

This summer, after a lecture at Poland’s National Defense University, I was treated to a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The museum, which commemorated not the Jewish ghetto uprising but rather the uprising of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation two years later, should be a mandatory stop on any visit to Warsaw. The story is well-known but, for those who have forgotten, my colleague Marc Thiessen wrote about it here.

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This summer, after a lecture at Poland’s National Defense University, I was treated to a tour of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The museum, which commemorated not the Jewish ghetto uprising but rather the uprising of the Polish resistance against the Nazi occupation two years later, should be a mandatory stop on any visit to Warsaw. The story is well-known but, for those who have forgotten, my colleague Marc Thiessen wrote about it here.

When the Polish partisans rose up, they expected the Red Army to sweep into the city and liberate it from the Nazis. Instead, the Red Army stayed put while the Nazis gained the upper hand, slaughtered the Polish nationalists, and then razed the city. While the United States embraced Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as an ally in the realpolitik world of World War II, too often whitewashing his racist and murderous proclivities, Stalin himself had a plan for post-World War II Europe, and strong Polish nationalism had no place in it. What I had not known until I had visited the museum was the multiple requests to the United States and its allies to provide air support or airdrop supplies to the partisans who were slowly being starved between Nazis and the Red Army. No air support was forthcoming; the allies did not want to irk Stalin. When it came to other supplies, what came was too little, and much too late.

Fast forward 70 years. The Islamic State (ISIS) is surrounding the majority Kurdish town of Kobane, an enclave which has also taken in thousands of displaced Christians and Arabs. The United States has for months ignored the advance, and only in recent days provided some aerial assistance. Those fighting in Kobane are wedged between ISIS and, just a kilometer away, the Turkish Army. The Turks refuse to provide assistance to the Kurdish defenders, even as they watch hundreds of thousands flee, and thousands killed or wounded.

Many Turkish citizens—both ethnic Turks and Kurds—recognize the cynicism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for whom outreach toward Kurds is consistently just a pre-election ploy. This is why, as the fall of Kobane to ISIS has neared, Kurds have taken to the streets inside Turkey to protest. In the last couple days, this has led to more than a dozen deaths inside Turkey and the Turkish government imposing curfew on six cities. The analysis and observations of “the radical democrat” are well worth reading.

The Kurdish resistance first toward sl-Qaeda and then toward ISIS started out strong. But, as ISIS has enriched itself through the seizure of equipment and a flow of foreign militants and, perhaps, some support for Turkey as well, it has grown strong. At the same time, Turkey, the Syrian regime, and ISIS have blockaded the Syrian Kurds. The State Department demand that the Syrian Kurds forfeit their claim to federalism and subordinate themselves both to the Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups of the official opposition who live in Istanbul and control nothing on the ground and to Iraqi Kurdish leaders who, because of corruption and the antics of their sons, are hugely unpopular is short-sighted and ridiculous. That Secretary of State John Kerry is prepared to watch thousands slaughtered, raped, or enslaved in order to drive this point home is a poor reflection on what America stands for.

How sad it is that history is repeating, with the Syrian Kurds playing the part of the Warsaw partisans and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan playing the part of Stalin. The Americans, alas, are once again recognizing pending tragedy but refusing out of cynicism, misplaced diplomacy, or simple incompetence to do anything about it. The freedom-seeking world should be better than it was in 1944, as the freedom fighters of Warsaw perished. Unfortunately, events are showing it is not.

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ISIS Withstanding U.S. Counteroffensive

The limited bombing that President Obama has unleashed against ISIS is, predictably, having little impact. As one would expect, ISIS has adjusted its tactics to make itself a hard target to hit from the air–there will be fewer columns of vehicles flying the black flag and fewer chances to see ISIS leaders in the open. The Wall Street Journal notes, “Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began.”

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The limited bombing that President Obama has unleashed against ISIS is, predictably, having little impact. As one would expect, ISIS has adjusted its tactics to make itself a hard target to hit from the air–there will be fewer columns of vehicles flying the black flag and fewer chances to see ISIS leaders in the open. The Wall Street Journal notes, “Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began.”

Actually it’s worse than that–far from giving up ground, ISIS continues to take fresh territory. There are recent reports that “the black flag of ISIS was raised on the outskirts of the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani on Monday afternoon”; that ISIS fighters “have become a major presence in Abu Ghraib,” a town only 15 miles from Baghdad International Airport; and that ISIS fighters have also “seized weapons and besieged hundreds of Iraqi soldiers after overrunning … the Albu Aytha military camp, 50 miles outside of Baghdad.”

And the situation could get more dire still: “With U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq failing to halt the advance of the Islamic State, opposition forces in neighboring Syria warn that the Obama administration risks losing the Iraqi capital of Baghdad unless Washington helps the rebels open up new fronts against the militants in both countries.” Actually it’s unlikely that Baghdad will fall anytime soon to ISIS simply because there are so many Shiite residents of the capital, but it is quite plausible to expect a battle in the streets that will increase the already high death toll.

What is to be done about all this? Robert Ford, who resigned in disgust as Obama’s ambassador to Syria, offers useful suggestions. These include: “The United States and its partners must supply more ammunition and equipment to moderate groups in northern and southern Syria…. We must support a unified Syrian command structure by channeling our assistance through it, and we need to insist that our Arab allies do the same… We should be doing more to coordinate our attacks with opposition commanders.”

All good ideas. Beyond that, Obama needs to relax his prohibition on “boots on the ground.” While there are undoubtedly some Special Operations and CIA forces already running around Iraq and possibly Syria, a much larger commitment of Special Operators and advisers is needed to work as combat advisers alongside Kurdish pesh merga, Sunni tribes, and select units of the Iraqi army and Free Syrian Army. This will make it possible to push back ISIS from the town of Kobani, whereas if the U.S. doesn’t have eyes on the ground it will be hard to bomb accurately.

The U.S. must also recommit to toppling Assad–a move that could finally entice President Erdogan of Turkey to commit Turkish troops to carve out safe zones in northern Syria where the more moderate Syrian opposition can begin to govern and thus offer an alternative to the terror of both Assad and ISIS.

In short, Obama needs to overcome his illusions and understand the limits of air power. Bombing is a good first step, but by itself it is not going to roll back the fanatical empire that ISIS is constructing.

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Beheading Shows Just How Bad U.S. Intelligence Has Become

The beheading of British aid worker David Haines is tragic and demonstrates once again just how evil ISIS and its fellow travelers are. No moral or cultural equivalence diminishes that evil. Part of the goal of any military action should be to kill—not capture and try—any Islamist participating in such acts.

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The beheading of British aid worker David Haines is tragic and demonstrates once again just how evil ISIS and its fellow travelers are. No moral or cultural equivalence diminishes that evil. Part of the goal of any military action should be to kill—not capture and try—any Islamist participating in such acts.

Still, as the United States prepares military action, if President Obama is to be believed, the beheading of Haines reinforces just how bad American intelligence has become in Iraq and Syria after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

The terrorist murdering Haines refers to British pledges to support the Kurdish peshmerga against ISIS as well as bombing of the Haditha dam a week ago. This suggests that Haines was not killed at the time of previous ISIS videos, but rather in the last couple days.

This suggests that neither the United States nor United Kingdom has much of an idea about where its citizens are being held hostage. Given the importance to ISIS of its propaganda campaign, this means in turn that the United States and United Kingdom likely have little to no idea about where high-value ISIS targets are. (Turkey may have some idea. When I was in Syria earlier this year, almost everyone—opposition and regime—used Turkish cell phone signals which mysteriously penetrated deep into Syria. That those are not monitored beggars belief; that Turkey would not share its intelligence with Western democracies does not.)

In effect, while air power can strike at some ISIS hardware or permanent encampments, the United States is fighting blind.

Time may resolve this. Intelligence insight increases with greater and contiguous presence. The longer the United States remains committed, the better our intelligence penetration should be.

Let us hope that future presidents learn a lesson: The United States based its withdrawal from Iraq and its coming retreat from Afghanistan on two pillars: That armies we trained could control ground and that the United States could provide “over-the-horizon” security from naval aircraft or from bases outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Both assumptions were false: The training of the Iraq army, Afghan army, and Kurdish peshmerga were a multi-billion dollar fiasco, and the United States has been able to do very little from over-the-horizon, largely because we blinded ourselves with our withdrawal.

By withdrawing completely, however, and severing so much of the military-to-military and intelligence relationships, the United States blinded ourselves to events just as surely as we had shoved a hot poker into our eyes. Our human intelligence slowed to a drip, and then dried up completely. Once hard-won capabilities are forfeited, they cannot be restored with a wave of a magic wand or presidential rhetoric.

Perhaps had we not packed up and gone home but left the residual force which the Iraqis expected, we would not have been so blind as to ISIS’s rise and the whereabouts of its assets and our captured citizens.

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Not All Peshmerga Are the Same

Many discussing a military strategy to defeat ISIS and its terrorist forces increasingly cite the peshmerga as a potential ally, and argue that the peshmerga should be a major part of any strategy to defeat ISIS. Who and what exactly are the peshmerga, though?

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Many discussing a military strategy to defeat ISIS and its terrorist forces increasingly cite the peshmerga as a potential ally, and argue that the peshmerga should be a major part of any strategy to defeat ISIS. Who and what exactly are the peshmerga, though?

The peshmerga—literally “those who face death”—have a vaunted reputation as agile guerrilla fighters who harassed Saddam Hussein’s forces and survived months if not years up in the mountains. One of my best memories of Kurdistan was in March 2001, accompanying a peshmerga veteran from the fight against Saddam in the 1980s to the mountain marking the southern boundary of Duhok city: He showed me Assyrian carvings that expats who have transited Duhok for years don’t know exist; afterwards, we gathered some of the greens and roots that peshmerga lived on when they could not make it down to a village to have for our dinner.

But in the years after the 1991 establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, the peshmerga came down from the mountains; many demanded government positions to which they felt they were entitled, but scarcely qualified.

Kurdistan’s political factionalism made matters worse. The peshmerga were and, alas, still are organized more as party militias than as a professional military. Between 1994 and 1997, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) peshmerga (supported by Iran) and Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) peshmerga (supported, at times, by Saddam Hussein) fought it out because of revenue sharing disputes between the two main Kurdish parties. Kurds say that 3,000 prisoners remain missing from that time, presumably executed by the rival peshmerga forces.

While the Iraqi Kurds have, since around 2001, made efforts to “unify” the peshmerga, the peshmerga forces—like the corollary party intelligence services—are unified more on paper than in reality. Take, for example, recent fighting: It was the PUK peshmerga that seized Kirkuk, tying that city closer to Sulaymani, where the PUK and its offshoot Gorran predominate. The KDP peshmerga were those fighting to retake the Mosul dam after ISIS forces briefly took it.

While many Kurds sing the peshmerga’s praises, there is tension beneath the surface. ISIS may have caught the West by surprise, by the Yezidis living in and around Sinjar had been asking the KDP peshmerga for weaponry and reinforcements for weeks before ISIS took Sinjar and slaughtered hundreds of men and enslaved hundreds of women and girls. The KDP refused to send reinforcements, and most Yezidis—and many other Kurds—are bitter. The reasons given for why the KDP peshmerga refused reinforcements range from incompetent leadership to corruption (the resources had been embezzled or spent elsewhere) to more cynical desire to trade on the Yezidi suffering for weaponry. Regardless, Reuters last week published an account of a 14-year-old who escaped ISIS captivity; she had been given as a gift to fighters on the frontline. Her tale is tragic, but her redemption is important:

“When [the militants] left us I panicked, I didn’t know what to do. I saw a bag full of cell phones and I called my brother,” Shaker told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from a camp for internally displaced people in Iraq. On the phone, her brother Samir told her to go to a nearby house and ask for help and directions to reach the border where fighters from the Kurdistan State Workers Party (PKK) were battling Islamic State militants. He said the PKK would help her reach safety… The two girls set off toward the front lines. “I couldn’t walk straight, my legs were shaking and my heart was beating so fast. We ran and walked and we never looked back,” Shaker said. After two hours on the road they heard gunfire. As they got closer, they saw a group of PKK fighters and started running towards them. “I was crying and laughing at the same time,” she said. “We were free.”

Too often when Americans talk about the peshmerga, they forget the Popular Protection Units (YPG) which have fought—and defeated both ISIS and the Syrian regime—long before the KDP and PUK peshmerga joined the fight. I had visited Syrian Kurdistan at the beginning of the year, and wrote about my observations here. More recently, Aliza Marcus and Andrew Apostolou have written along similar lines in the New York Times.

It remains incredible to me that the United States continues to blockade and boycott the only section of Syria that is controlled by a secular group committed to both the destruction of ISIS and one which has given refuge to tens of thousands of Syrians (and now Iraqis) without reference to their religion or ethnicity. We do so because Turkey historically has demanded the United States consider the PKK to be a terrorist group, even as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has launched peace talks with the group. The United States should not be more Turkish than the Turks, nor deny the space to an effective secular group that otherwise would be controlled by ISIS.

Certainly, despite its democratic rhetoric, the PKK remains a bit too much of a personality cult, organized around its imprisoned founder, Abdullah Öcalan. Then again, despite its democratic rhetoric, the KDP remains also a bit too much of a personality cult, organized around Masud Barzani, the son of its founder Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Just as the KDP once fought the PUK over resources, much of the antagonism fed to the West about the YPG today traces back to either Turkey or the KDP. In the latter case, it’s again about resources.

When the United States first became involved in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, various Iraqi political actors took advantage of the U.S. military’s lack of understanding of the political terrain in order to get the United States to target rivals and internal adversaries. When it comes to the ISIS threat today, the same pattern is repeating as Kurdish peshmerga seek U.S. help to empower them against not only ISIS but also their rivals. The United States should not get sucked into such a game: If the Pentagon plans to support the peshmerga, it should support all of them with an emphasis on providing the most support to those actually doing the bulk of the fighting. In such a case, it’s time to support the YPG without any further delay. It should also insist that the Kurds professionalize the peshmerga, unify the Iraqi peshmerga, and take them out of family hands. There is no reason to insist on a different standard of professionalism in Iraqi Kurdistan than in the rest of Iraq.

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Any ISIS Strategy Has to Starve its Finances

Much has been made over the past couple months about ISIS’s finances. They are alleged to have stolen more than $400 million from Mosul banks, and already make a significant amount from ransoming hostages. ISIS has also set up stores in Turkey which sell ISIS merchandise and promise to use the proceeds to support the group. But, as George Mason University’s Brian Garrett-Glaser points out, citing a CNN piece written by John Defterios, ISIS increasingly seeks to fund itself with the proceeds of oil wells it now controls:

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Much has been made over the past couple months about ISIS’s finances. They are alleged to have stolen more than $400 million from Mosul banks, and already make a significant amount from ransoming hostages. ISIS has also set up stores in Turkey which sell ISIS merchandise and promise to use the proceeds to support the group. But, as George Mason University’s Brian Garrett-Glaser points out, citing a CNN piece written by John Defterios, ISIS increasingly seeks to fund itself with the proceeds of oil wells it now controls:

Nevertheless, the Iraq Energy Institute estimates ISIS currently produces about 30,000 barrels per day in Iraq and 50,000 in Syria. At the black market price of $40 a barrel, this equates to $3.2 million a day, or $100 million each month. ISIS militants, however, are hardly specialists in oil production. Even if ISIS managed to take over the Baiji refinery, they would need to hire technical staff or coerce its existing workers. The ISIS oil distribution network is primitive: a coordinated system of 210 trucks carrying oil along ISIS-controlled smuggling routes. Transporting oil via trucks may be far less efficient than using pipelines, but it’s also much harder to track and it still turns a profit.

ISIS cannot export its oil without the cooperation of Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, or perhaps Jordan. Jordan, of course, was the biggest buster of Saddam-era sanctions, largely because it wanted Iraqi oil regardless of the price. Queen Rania has a reputation as a profligate spender whose needs sometimes trump responsible governance and, in this case, diplomacy. When it comes to ISIS, however, Iraqi Kurds are potential middlemen. Kurds have seldom hesitated to do business with anyone, even their sworn enemies. When I sat down with former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani more than a decade ago for a Middle East Quarterly interview, he admitted readily the Kurds’ economic relations with Saddam Hussein, who just 13 years previous had used chemical weapons against a village loyal to Talabani. When U.S. forces ousted Saddam, they found numerous photos and videos of current Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani meeting and discussing business with Saddam Hussein or his young sons. Turkey, of course, can’t even bring itself to call ISIS a terrorist group.

ISIS is a problem that has steadily metastasized. And while President Obama will on Wednesday outline a military strategy to address the ISIS problem, it’s important to recognize that the military component should only be one part of a broader strategy. No end to pressure should be brought to bear on Turkey, which has allowed ISIS free movement across its borders. Turkey’s double game on ISIS and terrorism in general has quickly transformed the putative U.S. ally into “Pakistan on the Med.” And naming and shaming any country buying or selling ISIS oil should also be a no-brainer. There should be no end of efforts to starve ISIS of all oxygen which it requires to exist.

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Kurds Unwilling to Risk Pro-American Alignment

There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

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There’s a false narrative out there that Iraqi Shi‘ites are pro-Iranian while Iraqi Kurds are pro-American. The truth for both is actually far more nuanced. Sometimes, it seems, the false narrative is simply the result of who speaks English better and so can interact more easily with American journalists, diplomats, and visiting politicians. English-bias in coverage is well-documented, most brutally from Southeast Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Culturally, Iraqi Kurds—especially in the Sulaymaniyah region—are close to Iran. That doesn’t mean they are anti-Western. Iranian culture is rich. Many Kurds would like to take their place among the peoples of the West, just as many Iranians would, if the West would stop throwing life rafts to Iran’s repressive regime.

That said, Kurds are realists: They see America waffling on major issues relating to global leadership and they are careful not to put all their eggs in one basket. Some see close ties between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, cemented over oil trading, as a sign that Kurds are pro-Western but the Kurds have quietly and consistently also pursued their trade through Iran, even at the cost of busting sanctions.

The Pentagon is now giving the Iraqi Kurds weapons. That may be wise in the short-term to blunt ISIS’s advance, but the Iraqi Kurds should still answer some tough questions about why they chose not to purchase weapons before hand. After all, they have made billions of dollars, built palatial mansions (or bought them in Washington D.C.) and have had money to spend on exorbitant salaries—President Masud Barzani, for example, makes more per month than the president of the United States makes in a year. But the Pentagon should not assume that the Kurds’ willingness to receive weapons from the United States cements ties or reflects a stable partnership. Iraqi Kurdish President Masud Barzani, for example, acknowledged also receiving weaponry from the Iranian government.

Ordinary Kurds might want to be pro-American. But if the United States absents itself from leadership on the global stage, Kurdish leaders will make their accommodation with Iran. The simple fact is that Iranian consistency coupled with American unreliability now leads natural allies to place their bets on an Iranian future rather than risk substantive alignment with the United States.

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