Iraq 2014 is Not Iraq 2003: The Allied Dimension


2014-08-13 By Robbin Laird

The George W. Bush Administration did not have a rush of allies wishing to join in the invasion of Iraq.

And today, there are few who would like to join in the effort to manage all of Iraq and work with the “new” government in Baghdad.

But what is different is that the emergence of Kurdistan and the ISIS threat to the Kurds, the Christians and throughout the region has put an option on the table not so clear in 2003: shape an independent Kurdistan as a focal point for the region.

Here there are allies who see the need, in large part because of the ISIS threat, to back the Kurds and help them to defend themselves.

The Turks and the Kurds

First, there is the dramatic difference between 2003 and 2014 with regard to the Turks and the Kurds.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal assessment:

Turkey’s relations with Kurds were once one of the region’s most toxic relationships, as Ankara fought a three-decade war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that left more than 40,000 people dead.

But since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, Turkey has built close ties to the Kurdish government in its regional capital of Erbil, expanding bilateral trade and coordinating on vital policy issues, including the Syrian conflict.

Security analysts said Iraqi Kurdistan is not only an ally, but is also forming an important security buffer for Turkey that is helping to shield its borders from an influx of refugees and insulating it against the Islamic State militants in Iraq.

Turkish companies have invested heavily in Erbil’s booming oil-rich economy, and Turkish brands dominate the Kurdish region’s consumer market.

Turkish exports to the Kurdish government, or KRG, make up the bulk of its total trade with Iraq, which surged to a record $12 billion last year, ranking second only to Germany.

A symbol of the change is that a Kurd is even running a very visible campaign to become the President of Turkey.

Unthinkable just a few years ago, Selahattin Demirtas’ bid for Turkey’s highest office underscores how Kurdish politics has entered the mainstream even as Kurds in neighboring Syria and Iraq push for more autonomy.

Peace talks between Turkey and Kurdish rebels, overseen by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to try to end a three-decade war, have brought two years of calm and paved the way for Demirtas to run as Turkey’s first openly Kurdish presidential candidate.

“My candidacy is merely the most visible aspect of how much Turkey has changed as racism and extreme nationalist sentiment weaken,” Demirtas, 41, said in an interview.

Though other Kurds have figured prominently in Turkish political history, some supporters liken his candidacy to Barack Obama’s run to become the first African-American U.S. president.

A big difference is that Demirtas is unlikely to win…..

Witty and with a toothy grin, Demirtas’ handsome image appears widely with his schoolteacher wife and two daughters, adjusting the image of Kurdish politicians among Turks with long memories of PKK violence.

The United States, Turkey and the EU list the PKK as a terror group, and most precursors to Demirtas’ People’s Democracy Party (HDP) have been outlawed for PKK links.

“That we have an outwardly Kurdish candidate from a Kurdish nationalist party is an incredible change,” said Aliza Marcus, author of “Blood and Belief,” a book about the PKK.

And often forgotten in the Washington debate about the next moves in Iraq is that Turkey is an Article V member of NATO.

The ISIS threat is not just about “global terrorism” in the abstract; we now face a pinching action from Russia on Ukraine and ISIS on Turkey, Syria and beyond and both are very close to impacting on Article V obligations. 

From Freedom Fries to French Fries

And remember “Freedom Fries?”

Well things have changed.

The French have expressed concern about the deteriorating situation facing the Christians in Iraq and that of the Kurds in various ways.

In early August, French Bishops visited Iraqi Christians to demonstrate their support.

According to the Vatican in a piece released on August 5, 2014:

Last week, Cardinal Barbarin and two other French bishops visited Christian communities affected by the ongoing conflict and unrest in Iraq, reported Vatican Radio.

During their four-day trip which included stops in Karakosh, Alqosh, Kirkuk and Erbil, they met numerous Christians who fled Mosul last month because of the threats from Islamic extremists to either convert to Islam, pay a tax or be killed.

Upon his return to France on Friday, Cardinal Barbarin told Vatican Radio that he was moved by the joyful welcome of these communities, despite the difficulties they have lived and everything they have lost.

Despite Iraqi Christians being persecuted for centuries, their witness to faith is noteworthy, he said.

While there, the bishops met with 50 people in a school, about 200 people in a chapel and more than 1,000 people in a cathedral.

They also met with other Iraqi Christians, several times per day, in various centers in each of these cities.Saying he was strengthened by their witness as he listened to their stories, he noted the Iraqi Christians were likewise encouraged by the visit of the French bishops.

Adding to this positive sentiment, he added that the war-torn nations’ Christians said the demonstrations organized in France showing support for Iraqi Christians comforted them.

Prior to this, he said, they felt they had been forgotten.

An example of support from French Catholics was their organizing a special collection for refugees who fled from Mosul.

Now adding to the support, the French government is seeking to help the Kurds answer the ISIS militant’s plea: Don’t just send Drones to kill us!

According to a New York Times story published on August 13, 2014:

Breaking ranks with other European countries, France announced on Wednesday that it would send arms to the embattled Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq threatened by Sunni militants who have also encircled refugees on a remote mountaintop.

“In order to respond to the urgent needs expressed by the Kurdistan regional authorities, the president has decided, in agreement with Baghdad, to deliver arms in the coming hours,” said a statement from the office of President François Hollande.

The presidential statement said that the population of Iraqi Kurdistan was facing a “catastrophic situation” and that arms deliveries would be coordinated with government officials in Baghdad.

Mr. Hollande noted his support for Iraq’s designated new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and called for the quick establishment of a unity government capable of repelling advances by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

The announcement came a day after the European Union failed to establish a common policy among its 28 members but agreed that individual states could, in agreement with Baghdad, send weapons to the Kurdish peshmerga forces.

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s new prime minister-designate, received an endorsement from Iran as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s support crumbled. (Hadi Mizban/AP)Sending significant financial and military support to the Baghdad government is premature at best, and may actually undercut the Kurdish option.
Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s new prime minister-designate, received an endorsement from Iran as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s support crumbled. (Hadi Mizban/AP). Sending significant financial and military support to the Baghdad government is premature at best, and may actually undercut the Kurdish option. 

Finally, in a story published by Andrew Rettman in the European Observer:

Ambassadors at a meeting of the bloc’s Political and Security Committee in Brussels on Tuesday (12 August) agreed that individual member states are free to send weapons, but stopped short of launching an EU-level effort to support the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga.

The envoys’ joint statement “noted the urgent request by the Kurdish regional authorities to certain member states for military support and underlined the need to consider this request in close co-ordination with the Iraqi authorities”.

In contrast to the deep EU divisions which marked the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, they “welcomed the efforts by the US … to stop the IS advance”.

The US began air strikes against the Islamist fighters last week, with the State Department on Tuesday saying US ground forces might also be used to help break an IS siege on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, where tens of thousands of refugees from the Yazidi minority are facing extermination.

The EU also activated its Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre – a mechanism for pooling humanitarian aid from the 28 member states.

Meanwhile, the European Commission the same day earmarked another €5 million for humanitarian assistance after an IS surge displaced more than 200,000 people in the Sinjar region in recent weeks.

France has led the call for EU arms to Iraqi Kurds after its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, visited the Kurdish capital, Erbil, on Sunday.

He told French radio on Tuesday that: “There is an evident imbalance between this horrible group [IS] which has sophisticated weapons and the Kurdish peshmergas, who are courageous but don’t have these weapons”.

The German foreign ministry has also said it is considering shipments of armoured vehicles, mine-detection equipment, helmets, body armor and medical supplies.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Prematurely Funding and Arming the Baghdad Government

To be clear: this change is not about Iraq: it is about the Kurdish role within Iraq and under direct threat from ISIS becoming a regional force.

Embracing a regime in Baghdad which has demonstrated NO capacity to lead the country can quickly throw this opportunity away.

We argued earlier:

Buying strategic maneuver space for the immediate period ahead, and pulverizing ISISs military capabilities – trucks, cars, artillery pieces, etc. — are the crucial objectives and is an airpower strike mission.

And by so doing sorting out the evolving relationship with the Kurds and thereby influencing the evolution of the rest of Iraq is good enough for now.

We do not have to own Iraq and build it in our image; we simply have to protect our interests and to have ways to shape the way ahead.

Unlike 2003, we actually have allies who would support such an approach.