This past June President Obama admitted, after nearly a year of conducting airstrikes against ISIS, that “we don’t have, yet, a complete strategy” when it comes to fighting ISIS. Considering ISIS has proven to be more than just a “JV team” and more like the dream team of terror that commits unfathomable atrocities, destabilizes the region, and poses a threat to the West, exemplified by the horrific attack in Paris, it’s time we marshaled a comprehensive strategy. Our airstrikes, deployment of special forces, and very limited support of rebels in Syria has been largely ineffectual. A stronger ground force is needed if we want to see real results.
To complete our strategy, we should empower the Kurds of Iraq and Syria through arms, funds, training, and the promise of eventual statehood. The majority of Kurds, who range between 30-40 million, live stateless in mostly Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Since the fall of the Ottoman empire they’ve experienced at best marginalization and disenfranchisement, and at worst genocide. Not long after Saddam Hussein committed Kurdish Genocide, the Kurds of Iraq managed to consolidate control of the northern part of the country with the help of a US enforced no fly zone. Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was born. Out of gratitude and alignment of interests, the Kurds have a very favorable view of America.
Fast forward to today, with the Middle East in shambles as sectarian conflict spreads like wildfire. The Kurds have been the tip of the spear in the fight against ISIS. The Peshmerga, the KRG’s muscle, have been fighting ISIS in Iraq with success, often proving more effective than the Iraqi forces. They’ve captured over 20 towns, and recently led a massive operation involving 7,500 Peshmerga fighters to capture the city of Sinjar from ISIS sinister grip. This operation cut ISIS’s access to highway 47, which connects ISIS’s unofficial capital of Raqqa in Syria, to the major city of Mosul in Iraq. In Syria the Kurdish group YPG, an affiliate of the Turkish PKK, has made impressive gains.
They’ve captured 8,000 square miles of territory from ISIS, the combined size of both Qatar and Kuwait.
Peshmerga translates to “ those ready to die.” The Peshmerga and their Syrian counterparts are limited only by lack of sufficient arms, not by their willingness or inability to fight ISIS. As of now, the Kurds are woefully out-armed by ISIS, and yet have still managed to take the fight to ISIS. ISIS has tanks, artillery, MANPAD shoulder fired missile launchers, and even anti-air weaponry and chemical weapons. The Kurds lack equivalent modern weaponry. The U.S. wants to strengthen the Kurds but not to the extent that would encourage them to push for independence, which the US believes would be destabilizing. Thus, the U.S. hasn’t armed them with that they badly need. This is a mistake. The Kurds have been effective against ISIS but lack the capability to defeat ISIS. That would surely change if we armed them properly, given their past success with much less.
Iraqi Kurdistan has grown by 40 per cent and has announced numerous times that it plans to hold a referendum for independence. By 2017 Iraqi Kurdistan will produce one million barrels of oil per day. In 2005, 99 per cent of Iraqi Kurds said they wanted independence from Iraq. Syrian Kurds share that sentiment, and as mentioned earlier, control a lot of territory. The Obama administration might not be totally wrong. But limiting the Kurds’ ability to fight ISIS, in an attempt to stop a ship that has already begun to take sail, is a mistake. The Kurds are moderate and pro-American, and don’t contribute to the sectarian conflict that plagues the region. We should arm them fully in Iraq and Syria, contingent upon their consent to wait until ISIS is largely defeated, and the region is more stable, to declare statehood. We can use the leverage from all the military aid we provide Iraq to get Iraq to acquiesce. If necessary the KRG can give back to Iraq some of the territory it gained from fighting ISIS as part of a deal. A more potent, sufficiently armed Kurdish force could be the end of ISIS. Iraq would have to choose between ISIS’s prolonged existence, or the eventual creation of a Kurdish state. I think the choice is obvious, given the KRG is already autonomous.
As for Syrian Kurds, we can arm them with the same promise given they wait until the right time. As part of this agreement, we could institute a no fly zone over Syrian Kurdistan. This would take some diplomatic negotiations with Turkey and Russia, but it is doable. The amount of territory the Syrian Kurds control gives them leverage in potential negotiations for statehood in a peace deal over the Syrian conflict with all relevant actors once ISIS is defeated. Self-Determination is a right especially granted to people who have suffered immense oppression in the lands they live. Pax-Americana, or what’s left of it, can’t afford to be the world’s omnipresent moral police. But when national, security, and humanitarian interests align, we’d be crazy not to act.