World

When Will Obama Understand that Supporting the Kurds is Smart and Necessary?

The U.S. relies on the Kurds against ISIS, but we don't give support in return.

BASHIK FRONTLINE, KURDISTAN, IRAQ - 2015 JULY 25 - Unidentified kurdish (peshmerga) fighter in back of truck at BASHIK (bashik) base 25km from ISIS controlled Mosul.
Photo Credit: Owen_Holdaway / Shutterstock.com

Kurdish armed forces liberated Sinjar in November 2014. US air power was indispensable, as Iraqi Kurdish fighters, known as “peshmerga” engaged the Islamic State (ISIS). When history is written, liberating Sinjar will be a turning point.

Peshmerga now control Route 47, the highway connecting Mosul to Raqqa, the ISIS headquarters in Syria. Mosul is effectively cut-off. ISIS fighters are deprived of new weapons. Even food is in short supply.

The battle for Sinjar is just one example of security cooperation between the US and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

A joint operations and training center in Erbil is staffed by nearly 3,000 US military personnel.

Eyes on the ground are indispensable. Peshmerga serve as spotters, helping with target selection. Iraqi Kurds regularly provide valuable battlefield intelligence on ISIS operations.

US Special Forces and peshmerga worked together to prevent the beheading of 69 hostages from Hawija in October.

Iraqi Kurds have paid a steep price. So far, more than 1,500 Peshmerga have died and about 7,500 have been wounded fighting terrorism.

Peshmarga are bracing for an ISIS counter-offensive to retake Sinjar. They are presently involved in fierce fighting east of Mosul and on the outskirts of Kirkuk.

Peshmerga are highly motivated to defend their homeland. However, they are chronically short of weapons and ammunition. They cannot battle ISIS with one hand tied behind their back.

When KRG President Masoud Barzani met Obama in May, he requested more sophisticated weapons. So far, none have been delivered.

He also asked that the US deliver weapons directly to the KRG, rather than clearing customs in Baghdad. Washington’s flawed one-Iraq policy requires that all weapons are delivered by, with, and through the Government of Iraq (GOI). The US Senate is considering legislation to directly arm the Kurds. But all it takes is a presidential waiver, authorizing the direct delivery of weapons.

It is more efficient and less expensive to deliver weapons directly to Erbil. In several instances, supplies intended for Iraqi Kurdistan are delayed, stripped, or seized by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Baghdad.

The Obama administration stands by Iraq’s Prime Minister Heidar al-Abadi, despite his fealty to Iran and betrayal of US interests. Baghdad allows the overflight of weapons from Russia to Syria. It also participates in a formal intelligence sharing agreement with Russia, Iran and Syria.

The KRG has also been betrayed by Baghdad. The GOI is obligated to provide 17 percent of its oil income to Iraqi Kurdistan. However, it suspended delivery in February 2014. Peshmerga and KRG civil servants have not been paid in months.

The cost of fighting ISIS and providing for 1.7 million displaced persons in Iraqi Kurdistan has taken a terrible toll. Far more displaced persons are sheltered in Kurdistan than fled to Europe last year. On top of the cost for humanitarian assistance, Kurdistan’s economy was already devastated by Baghdad’s refusal to share oil revenue, the reduced price of oil, and shaky investor confidence resulting from ISIS actions.

Winter has brought serious challenges. Peshmerga only have food stocks for one month. They desperately need emergency rations. Kurdish businessmen donated food for front-line fighters in Sinjar because the KRG could not afford to feed them.

Peshmerga must winterize their bases and barracks on the front lines. They desperately need winter gear, as well as plastic sheeting to shield them from the elements.

They also need better health services. Rudimentary field hospitals have limited capacity to treat peshmerga wounded in battle.

Peshmerga have no Kevlar jackets and only vintage helmets. The number of wounded warriors would be reduced by better body armor.

The KRG has asked the Obama administration for help. It wants to deepen its cooperation with the United States. But US officials are reluctant. They worry that arming Iraqi Kurdistan will embolden its bid for independence. .

President Masoud announced plans to hold a referendum on independence in July 2014. He recently reiterated plans for the referendum. Meanwhile, the KRG is focused on security and state-building.

Barzani has shown that he will not act impulsively or provoke violent conflict with Baghdad. The KRG plans to negotiate the terms of a friendly divorce. The KRG will also work with front-line states so that independence can be a win-win for countries in the region.

Since 1992, when the Iraqi Kurdistan achieved a modicum of self-rule, Kurds have learned that democratization is a process not an event. However, the KRG must not wait too long to announce a timeline and path to independence. Defeating ISIS will take time.

If Washington relies on Iraqi Kurdistan in its fight against terrorism, the Kurds should be able to rely on the United States. The US should support its friends, and stop trying to placate its adversaries. There is a Kurdish adage: “Kurds have no friend but the mountains.” In Iraq today, the United States has no better friend than the Kurds.

David Phillips is director of the program on peace-building and rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser to the State Department during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

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