Peshmerga pull security during combined check point training on Forward Operating Base Marez, near Mosul, Iraq
The US House of Representatives and Department of Defense alike have described the Kurds as a “reliable and stable partner of the US,” such that arming the Kurds would help “avoid future fragmentation… along sectarian and ethnic lines.” Yet Kurdish actions in the conflict with ISIS suggest anything but a partnership of “reliability” and “stability” in nonmilitary affairs. Their affairs in Northern Syria — sometimes referred to as “Western Kurdistan” — and Northern Iraq have stalled ISIS’ advances at the expense of local allies and future stability in the region. ISIS may be an enemy, but to the Kurds, so too is the Iraqi government and those who stand against Kurdistan with North Syrian Kurdish regions.
To contain the Kurdish threat to Iraqi stability, the proper approach is three-fold: 1) the CIA must close its pipeline of US arms to Kurdish Peshmerga; 2) the Kurds must be required to deinstitutionalize their “Kurdization” of Northern Iraq’s disputed territories and cooperate with Baghdad in operations against ISIS in order to receive arms; and 3) all Kurdish designated arms should be run through Baghdad and the Pentagon. Though the latter has denied shipping arms directly to the Kurds given US law, the CIA has previously established such a pipeline and Kurdish officials have stated that they have received arms from the US directly.
Without conditions restraining Kurdistan’s territorial ambitions and human rights violations, cooperation between Sunni Iraqis, Syrian rebels, and Kurds in the conflict with ISIS and in a post-ISIS Iraq may violently collapse.
Along their Iraqi front, the Kurds have committed human rights violations alienating Sunni Iraqis. In the northern Iraqi city of Zumar, Peshmerga presented their own version of the story: “The Arabs are not welcome here anymore. They killed our friends, our family, and you think we will welcome them back? Impossible.” The Kurds, however, have stolen the Iraqis’ homes, labeling them “reserved” for the Peshmerga — a human rights violation by UN convention.
Kirkuk’s and Bai Hassan’s oil fields have faced a similar fate, where Arab workers have been replaced by Kurdish personnel, even though the census shows that Arabs make up 71% of Kirkuk’s population and Kurds only represent 22%. This conquest is unsustainable. Though the Kurdish-Iraqi oil deal addressed Kirkuk oil, it failed to address the expulsion of Arab workers. This will radicalize the Arab majority so long as the expulsion of these civilians goes unpunished and becomes institutionalized by Baghdad-Erbil oil deals in Kirkuk and elsewhere.
The current ISIS threat has driven some compromise with the oil agreement. Nonetheless, Sunni Arabs are unlikely to acquiesce to KRG expansionism over the long term. But the only other attempts at reconciliation have concerned cash and oil transfers — negotiations arising from the crisis of ISIS, not from a genuine desire to resolve territorial disputes, which were notably left unaddressed.
Furthermore, Syrian-Kurdish separatism and Kurdish attacks against civilians have again strained Kurdish relationships with local allies in the region. The Kurdish National Council (KNC) of Northern Syria, founded under KRG/KDP President Massoud Barzani, has opposed the Syrian National Council (SNC), a leading Syrian opposition group, by pressing for Kurdish autonomy; the SNC has promised no more than administrative decentralization.
Yet the representation of the KDP-linked KNC and PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the Kurdish Supreme Committee (DBK) governing Western Kurdistan means that the only two groups with authority in West Kurdistan are groups with strong ties to Kurdistan in northern Iraq. They have essentially united Iraqi Kurdistan and West Kurdistan de facto. Kurdish forces have already seized swathes of territory necessary to link Kurdistan — especially with the Kurdish-Iraqi disputed regions — to the KNC’s West Kurdistan. And so Northern Syria is West Kurdistan in all but name, in spite of the FSA’s demands.
These moves have also been seen as “hostile” to the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has been recognized by the West and the Arab League as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” Though the situation here may seem less serious because issues like forced displacement have received less coverage, the nationalistic nature of Syrian rebel groups will leave West Kurdistan a contentious issue for decades to come.
Indeed, the possibility of resolution without US backing is remote. The war will fundamentally change the ethnic landscape of Kurds and Arabs, and thus restrict the viability of future negotiations. Kurds will claim Northern Iraq as their rightful home now that they are there and the Iraqis will protest the Kurdish seizure of historically Iraqi territory.
If aid prescribed by the DOD budget is contingent on the preservation of human rights norms as well as Iraq and Syria’s territorial integrity, the US may gain the leeway needed to provide the incentives necessary to keep the Kurds under control. Otherwise, the arms would be far more likely to be used to “Kurdize” Syrian and Iraqi territory in preparation for the post-ISIS Mideast Kurdish “negotiations.”
A permanently more transparent and peaceful world order can be achieved only if regional nationalism and violence is weighed against our foreign policy objectives. Regional interactions between our allies must be accounted for, as armed groups initially supporting US interests may jeopardize long-term peace once relationships seen as cordial from a distance turn inimical over the years. A group’s support for the War on Terror should not be the only litmus test for the provision of US arms.
Image Attribution: “Peshmerga Pull Security on FOB Marez near Mosul, Iraq” by Pvt. 1st Class Ali Hargis, licensed under Public Domain