As Congress returned this week from its summer recess, foremost on legislators’ minds, and President Barack Obama’s, is developing a strategy to combat the threat of the Islamic State (IS) jihadi terrorist organization, which has thrown Iraq into turmoil.
While coalition allies – aided by United States military airstrikes – fight to stall IS’s advance, the Kurds, the region’s historically maligned, stateless minority, have borne a large share of the responsibility for fighting IS as it threatens the Kurdish semiautonomous region and the ethnic minorities living therein.
Despite the trust United States and its allies in Europe appear to have placed in the Kurds, experts remain suspicious of whether Kurdish aspirations for independent statehood are legitimate and viable, or whether such rhetoric is merely a political power play to gain influence in Baghdad.
Kurdish independence remains a popular grassroots issue, although it remains a sticking point between the two major parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK) – whose political alliances with major regional players such as Iran, Turkey and the United States, have largely dictated their positions.
The United States, interested in maintaining the geographic integrity of Iraq and preventing new and bloody sectarian battles over territory, has allied its Kurdish independence policy with Iran, which seeks to keep the Kurds united under the Iraqi Shiite majority.
Nevertheless, Massoud Barzani, president of the KRG since 2005, and his KDP party, have often talked about independence and in June took advantage of the disorder in the rest of Iraq to move the Kurdish regional security forces, the Peshmerga, into areas that were disputed between the KRG and Iraq. The areas included the city of Kirkuk, which claims a long Kurdish patrimony.
Having taken over the disputed territories, Barzani announced a referendum to be held on Kurdish independence within months. So far, no date had been set and, in the face of opposition from Turkey, Iran and the United States, it is uncertain whether the referendum will be held.
Adding to Barzani’s problems, his earlier independence statements were largely contingent on IS continuing to fight against Iraqi Shiites and the Iraqi Security Forces, not threatening the Kurdish semiautonomous region.
But, sooner than expected, IS moved against cities in northern Iraq, slaughtering Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims, Kurds and other minorities there.
IS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city after Baghdad, on June 9, after a brief confrontation with four divisions of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), most of which abandoned their posts and fled, leaving weapons and armored vehicles provided to ISF by the United States in IS hands.
Better equipped, IS pushed on to Kirkuk and the border of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, eventually setting its sights on the Kurdish capital of Erbil. IS overwhelmed the Peshmerga forces there, causing them to retreat, thus calling into question the credibility of Barzani’s drive toward independence.
“It showed the limitation of what the Kurds can do without American support and without the consent and support of the two big neighbors, Iran and Turkey; so it just put things back in perspective as far as they’re concerned,” said Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. “This is not to say that the dream [of independence] is gone or anything of that nature, but [shows a schism between] what is possible and what’s doable, especially now under the circumstances.”
When IS attacked the Kurds, “our Peshmerga forces were fighting with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and light equipment. On the other hand, the enemy had much more powerful equipment,” said Karwan Zebari, director of congressional and academic affairs at the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] representation office in the United States, which acts as a de facto Kurdish embassy. “[IS] had armored Humvees, MRAP, tanks, artillery – our intelligences sources in the battlefield were telling us when the fighting was actually happening that it was ‘like taking a small rock and throwing it at a wall.’
“That’s how these bullets were just flying, or bouncing off of these armored Humvees.”
The collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces disappointed many in the United States, including the U.S. military personnel who trained and equipped them. IS’s advance also alarmed the State Department, which began calling for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down.
According to Zebari, intelligence reports about six months before the IS push toward Mosul caused U.S. officials to alert Iraqi authorities in Baghdad, asking them to send ISF reinforcements to secure the area. Despite promising the United States that he would take care of it, al-Maliki stalled on sending ISF troops and was only persuaded when the Washington threatened to use Peshmerga to defend Mosul. By that time, it was too late.
The State Department blamed al-Maliki and his administration for the defeat. Part of what made it easy for IS to beat the ISF and capture majority Sunni areas was the marginalization non-Shiite Iraqis faced under his de-Ba’athification policies. Meanwhile, the Peshmerga was struggling to stall IS, which was pushing toward Iraqi Kurdistan’s political seat of Erbil, where American military advisers were also stationed. The State Department publicly placed enormous confidence in the Peshmerga’s combat abilities.
“The Peshmerga have traditionally been a very courageous and strong fighting force. We think with some time to regroup, they will be up to the task of defending Erbil as well,” said State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf during a press briefing on Aug. 8 – the day after the first U.S. airstrikes were conducted.
With the help of airstrikes from the United States, Iraqi Air Force and remaining Iraqi Security Forces, IS’s advance was thwarted.
Zebari, although not an unbiased source on the subject, believes the Peshmerga are superior to the Iraqi Security Forces divisions that failed in Mosul, despite remaining underequipped.
“[The ISF] said, ‘Who am I going to fight for? These are Sunnis coming at me, I’m not going to fight for a government led by al-Maliki who has actually starved me, marginalized me, and hasn’t protected me. I’m not going to fight ISIS,’ ” said Zebari. “On the other hand, you have the Kurdish forces: loyal, professional, organized, saying, ‘This is my homeland, this is my people to protect, this is my land to make sure I protect and to take back. I am going to fight till the last bullet.’ But what was happening was they were outgunned and that’s where in some of the areas they had to retreat.”
Together with commencing targeted airstrikes against IS in early August, the United States stepped up its arming of the Peshmerga, but because the United States follows a policy of not arming nonstate actors, military aid has been funneled through Baghdad where, according to experts, it is often held up and used as a bargaining chip in oil sale and territorial disputes with the KRG.
“Certainly, we, the United States, have conditioned our support to the Kurds to continue to be tethered to Baghdad,” said Badran. “…[T]he Americans have been telling them from day one that ‘you have to go back to Baghdad. That’s your only choice.’ Meaning you have to work it out with the Iranians and the Shiites. That’s what it is.”
Though successfully working to push IS back, Peshmerga, Zebari says, is defending its own territory and fighting for Kurdish security – and is not interested in annexing anything beyond the disputed territories.
“IS is nobody’s friend. We will fight IS and go after them everywhere that they have captured that was previously under Kurdish territory, or if there’s a Kurdish resident. So everywhere there’s a Kurd we will protect,” said Zebari. “As far as Peshmerga forces going into Fallujah and Ramadi and fighting there, I don’t see that happening.
After pressure from within his own government and the United States, al-Maliki was forced to resign, and a new government was slated to be formed yesterday under a new president and prime minister. A fresh effort to unify Iraq will be led by President Faud Masum, a Kurd and member of the Iranian-supported PUK party, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is a Shiite and member of al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party.
“We are going to give time and space for this new prime minister designate to form a new government,” said Zebari. “However, al-Abadi still comes from the same party as al-Maliki, from the same bloc – the Shiite bloc – and if al-Maliki hadn’t liked him, he wouldn’t have stepped aside.”
Meanwhile, regional players are hoping to quickly eradicate the IS threat, while closely watching the negotiations between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, particularly with regard to whether the Kurds would be permitted to sell their own oil without going through Baghdad and to retain their newly acquired territory.
Despite the United States’ stated opposition to Kurdish independence, the issue remains on hold in order to determine if the new Iraqi government will unite the country.
Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a former Pentagon official, said that even though the United States is not openly endorsing Kurdish independence, “they can count on the United States falling in in support” if they chose to act unilaterally. The United States has generally supported independence movements throughout the world, including, for example, the former Soviet republics and Kosovo. Because the Kurds have not taken such unilateral action already, Rubin questions the Kurdish government’s true intentions.
“If they have all the trappings of independence but they don’t need to worry about the responsibility of independence, they don’t need to worry about their neighbors, they may figure they have it as good as it could get,” said Rubin. “Ultimately, I think they should declare independence, and the fact that they’re not suggests to me that they’re treating nationalism as a rhetorical tool rather than an honest goal.”
Zebari did not sound hopeful about the prospect of a unified Iraq, and neither did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who earlier last month called for the creation of an independent Kurdish state.
“With respect to the Kurds, they are a warrior nation that is politically moderate, has proven they can be politically committed, and is worthy of statehood,” Netanyahu said.
Zebari was thankful for Netanyahu’s support, adding that Kurdistan historically has had good relations with the Jewish state.
“The Israeli government as a whole and certainly the prime minister realize that Iraq is not governable. It’s inevitable that it will fall apart; there are too many factions,” said Zebari. “It’s like putting a lot of chemicals in a bottle and adding some water to it and putting a cap on it. There will be all sorts of chemical reactions. Essentially that’s what Iraq is today.
“Israel, the people of Israel and the government of Israel has always been a friend and ally of the Kurdish people. We welcome that and appreciate that support and we’ll continue to depend and cooperate with the Israeli people and the Israeli government.”
JNS.org contributed to this story.