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The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) now occupies a territory the size of Jordan, stretching from the edge of Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad. From there, it poses a grave threat to regional and U.S. security interests. Yet those who seek to stop it have few options. ISIS easily trounced the Iraqi security forces, which outnumbered the jihadist group 100-1. And it could likely do the same to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that have trickled over the border to bolster the Iraqi forces; Iran’s elite fighters are simply spread too thin across Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, the United States seems unwilling to send U.S. troops back into the fray at all.
Enter the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its skilled (and intact) peshmerga forces. The Kurds field the only proper army left in Iraq, and, for that reason, the United States and Iran will each attempt to draw the Kurds into the conflict. Yesterday, during a meeting in Tehran between Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Iranian officials reportedly asked the Kurds to join the fight against ISIS. U.S. officials apparently hope that the Kurds will step in as well. Indeed, if Washington wants to quell ISIS, the peshmerga are its best bet.
But will the United States and Iran get what they want? Some think so. Among oil executives and seasoned Iraq analysts, for example, some believe that the Kurds can be moved by the prospect of oil revenues and budgetary guarantees alone. The KRG has piped nearly three million barrels of oil to Ceyhan, Turkey, but it has struggled to sell its product on the world market -- not least due to Baghdad’s interference. Should the Kurds cease to meet resistance on oil sales, the thinking goes, they will be more inclined to support the United States and Iran against ISIS.
And there are good reasons for the KRG to work for ISIS’ demise. In the past, Sunni jihadists have targeted the KRG, and one week before ISIS took control of Mosul, it attacked a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) office in Diyala, killing 18 people. ISIS is unpredictable and it could, in the near future, pose legitimate security risks to the Kurdish region. For a Kurdish government that has cultivated a reputation for providing security, ISIS attacks would be a massive blow. Moreover, although ISIS has trained its attention on Baghdad for the time being, military conflict with the Kurds could flare up in several places. ISIS is fighting sporadically with the peshmerga in northern Diyala, which the Kurds want to control because of its proximity to the Kurdish-majority city of Khanaqin. In Kirkuk, too, the line between the peshmerga and ISIS is dangerously taught. The Kurds control most of the province. Sunni insurgents, however, control the southern parts, including Hawija -- the site of deadly violence between Sunni protestors and the Iraqi government last year. According to a Kurdish source, the region now shares a 1000-kilometer (620-mile) border with insurgents.
But those expecting Kurdish enthusiasm for a fight are likely to be disappointed. They underestimate the current strength of the Kurdish position and the continued sting of decades past, when the Kurds gave their support to the West and got nothing in return. In fact, the Kurds have drawn their battle lines north of Mosul, across the south of Kirkuk province, and through northern Diyala province. So long as ISIS respects that line, Kurdistan -- which banks on its reputation as a stable, private-sector friendly outpost in a region fraught by sectarian turmoil -- would have very little reason to invite war. After all, the Kurds have spent a decade cultivating this reputation. The KRG has fashioned a strong military with broad public support, and the government has deftly managed relations with Turkey and Iran. While Iraqis in the rest of the country live in perpetual conflict, Kurds in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, live with perpetual construction. Sustaining this success, which is largely built on oil wealth, depends on maintaining security.
History is an issue too. Simply mention the year 1975 to any Kurd, and, within moments, one will hear of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “betrayal” -- the Algiers Agreement, which temporarily ended the conflict between Iraq and Iran. The agreement left the Iraqi Kurds, who had supported the Iranian Shah, to suffer at the hands of the Baathists. The treachery is seared into Kurdistan’s collective memory as a reminder of the dangers of leaving oneself to the mercy of the established powers.
For the Kurds, 1975 is not the only problem. In the early days of the Iraq War, U.S. special forces and Kurdish peshmerga fought together against the Ansar al-Islam insurgency. The Kurds believed they had proved themselves stalwart U.S. allies, but then Paul Bremer, leader of the coalition provisional government in Iraq, sought to disarm them. After sweeping through Kirkuk in 2003, heavy U.S. pressure forced the Kurds to pull back -- a moment the KRG leadership rued for years before reclaiming the revered city late last week. In addition, the Obama administration’s general disengagement from Iraq has baffled Kurdish leaders and left them with scant reason to fight on the United States’ behalf
The United States isn’t the only player the Kurds mistrust. They are no fans of the Iraqi army -- with which they may have to coordinate -- either. In the city of Jalawla, Iraqi artillery recently fired on Kurdish forces instead of ISIS insurgents. Six peshmerga died, embittering Kurdish citizens and fueling resentment of the Iraqi army.
Yet, Kurdish troops remain the best hope for those who want to stop ISIS in Iraq, and the Obama administration will likely attempt to persuade them to join the offensive -- or at least to provide substantial logistical and intelligence support to the Iraqi army. There are several things the administration must do if it desires Kurdish participation. First, it must end any talk of bolstering Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki is a divisive brute whom Iran supports to the hilt. U.S. intimations of continued support for him will only rally the Sunni opposition, which would be radioactive for the KRG. Instead, Washington (and Tehran) should insist that Maliki put a stop to inflammatory rhetoric among members of his party and state media. Such rhetoric -- allusions to an ISIS-Kurdish conspiracy, in particular -- is rapidly alienating the Kurdish public.
Second, the United States must offer something concrete to the Kurds now. One option is to ease the way for the sale of Kurdish oil. The KRG has repeatedly sent tankers filled with oil into international waters seeking buyers and come back empty-handed. The United States must quietly drop its objections to Kurdish independent oil sales and facilitate the finding of willing buyers. It should then continue to support the development of an independent revenue stream to the KRG.
Third, the United States must arm the peshmerga. Mere months ago, U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to provide Maliki with yet another shipment of advanced U.S. weapons, and ISIS fighters now brandish many American-made arms. Such is the cost of Washington’s unflinching support for the Iraqi security forces. If the West seeks Kurdish help in rooting out ISIS, it must show similar commitment by arming the Kurdish military and providing support through air strikes as necessary.
Finally, the United States must commit to the KRG that it will support Kurdish claims to the disputed territories it recovered last week. For the United States to promise Kirkuk to the KRG would be foolish -- a promise that the Kurds know the United States can’t fulfill. But a promise to tacitly accept Kurdish claims is another matter. This reassurance, too, must be delivered silently, as the final status of Kirkuk is an Arab-Kurdish-Turkmen issue to solve. No one would question the KRG’s skepticism at such a promise, although bold U.S. support in other ways might just convince the KRG of U.S. fidelity.
It is precisely the Kurdish belief -- a fair one -- that the United States has been an unreliable partner that makes the cost of Kurdish participation so high today. The Kurds maintain the dominant position in Iraq: unified, militarily superior, and little affected by internecine Arab strife. That could all change against an unpredictable foe like ISIS. But seeking out the fight is another matter entirely. To prevail upon the KRG to undertake the task, the United States must effectively bind itself to the Kurdish cause. Even then, the KRG may sit out this fight until its immediate interests are at stake, and no one could fault it. As is so often the case, it is history that presents the greatest obstacle to the fight against ISIS.