The Search for a Syria Strategy
What Biden Can Learn From Trump’s Successes and Failures
Within Iraq and Syria, the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) relies heavily on Kurdish Peshmerga as coalition boots on the ground. Since international air strikes commenced in September 2014, the Peshmerga have regained about 25–30 percent of territories lost to ISIS. Territorial gains have also limited ISIS’ access to oil and gas resources, drying up some of its revenue streams. But the Peshmerga haven’t been a total success story; Peshmerga forces are using coalition air strikes to engineer territorial and demographic changes that are antagonizing Sunni Arabs—the very communities the United States needs on its side to degrade ISIS. Coalition military support to the Kurdish Peshmerga in Syria is also irritating Turkey, a major regional ally, and further hindering a shared regional framework of action.
THE POLITICS OF OPPORTUNISM
The Kurds are a committed and pragmatic partner in the battle against ISIS. Kurdish Peshmerga have fought radical Islamist groups for years and have a history of striking politically expedient alliances to protect their interests and territory. During the Kurdish civil war in the late 1990s, Iraq Kurdish party Peshmerga battled against the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan. In post-Saddam Iraq, they fought alongside U.S. forces to expel Ansar al-Islam from their territory. During the al Qaeda insurgency, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) negotiated security and intelligence pacts with Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad, and local leaders to secure its borders, alongside the creation of commercial and political deals. Despite threats to secede from Iraq less than one year ago, the KRG is now coordinating with Iraqi security forces (ISF) to form a joint security committee with Sunni Arab forces. Together, they are planning to help liberate Mosul. In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), maintains a tacit agreement with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and de facto control of the Rumeilan oil field, which provides the group with state revenue in return for security assistance in the Kurds’ autonomous cantons in northern Syria.
The Kurds are also maneuvering through the hyperlocalized anti-ISIS campaign by establishing pacts with leaders in various territories. In northern Iraq’s Nineveh Province, Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG, and Abdullah al-Yawar, head of the Saudi Arabian–influenced Shammar tribe, have joined forces to reclaim strategic territories along the Iraqi-Syrian border. In Erbil, Barzani also protects Mosul’s “governor in exile,” Atheel al-Nujaifi, who is building a Sunni Arab national guard to fight ISIS. In Kirkuk and Diyala, Peshmerga from Jelal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are fighting alongside Iranian forces, Shiite militia, the ISF, and the PKK to counter ISIS. Kurdish Peshmerga are also coordinating with newly formed militias from the Shabak, Assyrian, and Yezidi minority groups to secure disputed territories. Similarly in Syria, the PYD has appointed the head of the Shammar tribe, Daham al-Hadi, as co-president of its Jazira canton, the largest of the three Kurdish autonomous territories. PYD military forces and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units, have also fought ISIS alongside the Free Syrian Army in Kobani and in parallel with Assad’s forces and some Sunni Arab tribes in Qamishli.
These alliances, alongside coalition air strikes, have borne fruit. Iraqi Kurds claim to have retaken about 10,500 miles of territory from ISIS while providing sanctuary for nearly two million refugees and internally displaced persons, 19 percent of whom are Sunni Arabs. Diyala is now the only province in northern Iraq with no ISIS presence. Kobani and about 100 surrounding Syrian villages are also ISIS-free. These gains coincide with coordinated Kurdish–Sunni Arab battles around Aleppo that have pushed ISIS back to strongholds in Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, Al-Hasakah city, and the surrounding countryside.
THE SPOILS OF WAR
Still, coalition strategy and Kurdish successes against ISIS are creating their own political problems—allowing Kurds to take measures against their Sunni Arab neighbors that extend beyond ISIS-related combat. KRG efforts to redraw Iraq’s internal boundaries have gained momentum as coalition air strikes unintentionally enable Peshmerga to claim former ISIS-controlled lands as part of the Kurdistan Region—at the expense of Sunni Arabs. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga are preventing Sunni Arab communities from returning to territories from which ISIS has been expelled, taking over Sunni Arab homes and confining thousands of Arabs within “security zones” inside disputed areas. Iraqi Arab parliamentarians have harshly criticized Kurdish land grabs and the consequent displacement of Arab villagers as being conducted under the “pretext of fighting ISIS.” Although some Kurdish officials state that the disputed territories—lands equally claimed by the Iraqi government and the KRG—are no longer disputed, Arab Iraqis argue otherwise.
The ISIS threat and anti-ISIS campaigns are also creating a backlash against Arabs inside the Kurdistan Region, where ISIS atrocities, heightened security measures, refugee overflow, and a strained economy are breeding an environment of fear and distrust. Despite Arab-Kurd political pacts formed against ISIS, traveling to and within the Kurdistan Region as an Arab is fraught with difficulties and discrimination, reinforcing intracommunal and ethnic divisions. While Kurds can travel throughout Iraq, Arab Iraqis need sponsors to live and work in the Kurdistan Region, and even then they are not permitted to own land or enjoy equal benefits like Kurdish citizens. An Arab male cannot travel to the Kurdistan Region without having secured a visa, and even then he will be interrogated for hours at checkpoints or, more likely, be refused entry altogether.Once inside the Kurdistan Region, Arabs cannot move about freely within and across provinces without suspicion from Kurdish security officials for no other reason than being Arab.
Should Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi succeed in reconciling Sunni and Shiite Arab groups, Sunni Arabs develop their own region within Iraq, or Arabs or Kurds unilaterally assume ownership of the disputed areas, tensions could deepen in Kirkuk and parts of Mosul. Despite sectarian tensions, Iraqi Arabs remain committed to Iraq’s territorial integrity and are unsupportive of the KRG’s territorial, resource and revenue claims. In particular, Sunni Arabs, who populate the disputed territories alongside Kurds and minority groups, regard Mosul as the heartland of Sunni Arab nationalism and Kirkuk as the “milk of the mother of Iraq.” Similarly, the Kurds regard these territories, especially Kirkuk, as the “bleeding heart of Kurdistan.” After taking control of Kirkuk last year, some KRG officials affirmed that they would never allow Arabs to control the territory again. The KRG has also signed contracts with major U.S. international oil companies in Nineveh Province in Mosul—areas also claimed by Sunni Arabs—and is unlikely to willingly cede control of these resources.
Ethnic fault lines are also emerging in Syria, helping the Assad government and ISIS to remain relevant and enhancing their influence throughout the country. The PYD has used coalition air strikes and its military successes to attempt to extend the borders of its autonomous cantons. It has also been accused of violently displacing Sunni Arabs from their homes, which in turn has become a recruiting tool for ISIS. The political pact between the PYD and Shammar tribe not only has failed to develop into a larger Sunni Arab–Kurdish alliance, but has reinforced support for ISIS within competing Sunni Arab tribes.
REGIONAL THREATS, KURDISH AMBITIONS
The nature of the anti-ISIS campaign is also hindering a shared regional framework of action for Iraq and Syria. By using Kurds as local partners to protect Kurdish territories, at least initially, the coalition has unintentionally encouraged transborder Kurdish nationalism, legitimized the PYD and PKK, and heightened differences in Turkey’s security priorities. As the PYD gains semi-recognition and a sense of empowerment, and as PKK-controlled parallel structures take root in southeastern Turkey, Ankara sees its worst nightmare coming true: another autonomous Kurdish region emerging on its southern border that could undermine Turkey’s territorial integrity. These trends, as well as Assad’s survivability and Turkey’s forthcoming June elections, are likely to further stall the Kurdish peace process and encourage tensions between the PKK-influenced Kurds and Ankara. They are also likely to reinforce for Ankara the importance of targeting the PKK and removing Assad before defeating ISIS. Although the Turkish parliament authorized its military to make incursions in Iraq and Syria in October 2014, it also affirmed that “the terrorist elements of the outlawed PKK still exist in northern Iraq.” Ankara remains particularly concerned about anti-ISIS weapons falling into the hands of the PKK at a time when it is attempting to disarm the group.
The effort to counter ISIS has also reinforced the Kurds’ security dependency on Iran, which is fostering political and intracommunal tension. In contrast to Ankara, which resisted providing military support to Erbil and Kobani during the ISIS onslaught, Tehran immediately deployed its Iranian Quds Force (a division of the Revolutionary Guards) to the disputed territories, as well as to other parts of Iraq, to fight ISIS. Most Iraqi Kurds acknowledge Iran’s key role in securing Iraq’s eastern border and expelling ISIS from some of its safe havens. The problem, however, is the growing presence of Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq’s disputed northern territories, particularly Kirkuk, which is aggravating relations with some Kurdish communities. Whereas the Kurdish Peshmerga insist solely on controlling Kirkuk and other territories that they consider to be part of the Kurdistan Region, Shiite militias insist they are part of the Iraqi state.
Additionally, the push against ISIS has further divided Peshmerga leadership, undermining its efficacy. Despite their commitment to fighting ISIS, Kurdish fighters are not unified under a single command. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and PUK Peshmerga operate in distinct regions, with backing from different regional patrons seeking to take advantage of Iraq’s security vacuum. Whereas Barzani and KDP forces are tied to Turkey and Turkish-backed Sunni Arab leaders, the PUK and Gorran closely coordinate with Iran and some Shiite militias. Kurdish groups are also using military aid to advance their own party agendas. Rivalries between the PUK and KDP, as well as between the PKK and KDP, have intensified in the competition for local constituencies, revenues, power, and leadership. As the war against ISIS rages on, the Kurdistan Region remains highly fragmented, with those demanding an end to Barzani’s term as president and others seeking to continue it.
WINNING A POST-ISIS PEACE
The Peshmerga’s territorial victories have broad implications for regional stability. If policymakers and military planners in the United States want to rely on Kurdish partners to degrade and destroy ISIS, they must understand the complicated local dynamics of their alliances and the consequences they will have on long-term strategic objectives. By providing weapons to the KRG unconditionally, and without offering corresponding support to Sunni Arab groups that oppose ISIS, the coalition has unintentionally fueled Kurdish nationalist ambitions, shifted the balance of power in northern Iraq, and reinvigorated deep-rooted conflicts over disputed territories and resources. The coalition should place checks on Kurdish partners to assure that external military aid is not being used, even indirectly, against Sunni Arab or other civilian communities who are not part of ISIS. To this end, the coalition should continue to provide weapons to the Kurds through Baghdad, more closely monitor the distribution of weapons to and within the Kurdistan Region, and monitor abuses or pressures being made against Sunni Arab civilians. The United States should also continue working with Baghdad to encourage the development and arming of a Sunni national guard willing to fight ISIS as part of the ISF.
Given the intracommunal tensions over which the ISIS threat has been superimposed, U.S. and coalition forces should act as a neutral arbiter, not as a permanent security force or political cushion for any specific group. Instead, they should encourage Kurdish allies to cease unilateral land grabs and support cooperative arrangements among the KRG, Baghdad, Shiite communities, Sunni Arab groups, and minorities who have competing claims to the territories and the resources within them. The coalition should also more carefully consider how its strategy is affecting neighboring countries. The rising influence of the PYD and PKK will continue to shape Turkey’s security priorities, which are not focused on defeating ISIS first. To ease Turkey’s fears, the coalition should continue to train and arm moderate Syrian Arab opposition groups, reaffirm the coalition’s commitment to uphold Iraq’s territorial integrity, and coordinate with Ankara as it seeks to secure its borders against ISIS and PKK groups.
Left unchecked, the campaign against ISIS will continue to antagonize sensitive territorial and political issues, further plummeting the region into chaos. Avoiding that outcome should be an essential part of U.S. strategy to counter ISIS. The coalition should not only seek to ultimately defeat ISIS, but attempt to assure long-term regional stability after the anti-ISIS campaign ends.