President Obama and His Historic Opportunity in Iraq


2014-10-10 By Robbin Laird

Secretary of State Kerry commented during the early part of the Ukrainian crisis that Putin was living in the 19th century.  We are now dealing with forces in Iraq and Syria who are not even close to making into that century.

Indeed, rather than shaping new policies for such globalization bromides as the “global commons” we are fighting to preserve our values and our way of life in a turbulent 21st century.

President Obama was recently projected on the cover of The Economist as the new George W. Bush.  And one can correctly argue that the President and his national security team has spent more time distancing themselves from the past Administration than looking hard into the mirror of the future and shaping strategic space within which American values and interests can be met.

The President faces an historical opportunity in the surge of the ISIL in Iraq and Syria to commit America and work with its allies to stop this surging brand of irredentist Islamic fundamentalism and to lead the attack in favor of secularism and tolerance for which the supporters of ISIL have total disdain.

One of Kurdish peshmerga stands guard on the edge of the city of Kirkuk. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
One of Kurdish peshmerga stands guard on the edge of the city of Kirkuk. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The President can build on two important realities providing him opportunities in Iraq.   First, Iraq 2014 is not Iraq 2003. Not the least of the difference is the embrace of allies in the effort.  Second, there is a secular force in Iraq fighting for its very lives, which provides the force on the ground, which can anchor sanity in the region, namely the Kurds. And even more significantly, the first trend intersects with the second.

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 ISIL threat to the Kurds, the Christians and throughout the region has put an option on the table not so clear in 2003: the opportunity to 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 ISIL threat, to back the Kurds and help them to defend themselves. 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.

Of course, Turkey is an Article V member of NATO. The ISIL 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.

The Turks will be concerned that reinforcing the military capabilities of the Kurds can enhance the internal security threat within Turkey; Western aid and assistance to the Kurds in Iraq must be combined with the kind of on the ground training and limited engagement to ensure that this is not the outcome.

The Turks are not an easy ally, but working to gain their cooperation is a crucial part of any effort, which now includes not only the US, but European, Australian and Arab Allies.

This is a turning point for Turkey as well and the US should work hard to ensure an historic opportunity is not lost.

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. The French President has been a very strong and active opponent of Islamic terrorism, and the French government is providing arms and assistance as well as training to the Kurds. As early as mid-August, the French government announced a policy of working with the Kurds to defend them against the ISIL.

During my current visit to Europe, I have had a chance to talk and meet with various officials and analysts in France, Germany and Italy.  And all three countries are committing resources and attention to the Kurdish opportunity.  Put another way, for President Obama ensuring that the West works effectively with the Kurds is no longer a PowerPoint bullet, but a real requirement of shaping the strategic situation in the region.

For Chancellor Merkel, arming the Kurds and transporting those arms as well as training Kurds is a sharp break from the past and a clear step forward to meeting the broader security goals of Germany and the West.  Ukraine has been difficult because of the many interconnected and internecine issues with Russia and Ukraine and the real absence of a reliable Ukrainian government with whom one can be allied.  In Iraq, the Kurds are providing a real option to have a secular ally.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has estimated that at least 400 German citizens are fighting alongside the ISIL militants in Syria and Iraq.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has estimated that at least 400 German citizens are fighting alongside the ISIL militants in Syria and Iraq.

We have seen acts of unbelievable brutality,” said Angela Merkel, describing before the Bundestag, threats, persecutions, tortures and murders committed on Christians, Yazidis and others minorities, by the ISIS terrorists. Whatever the limits of the New Germany, the commitment against the kind of barbaric policies represented by ISIL is a clear one.

According to the German Defense Minister, the shipment will include 16,000 assault rifles (8,000 G36 and the same amount of G3 rifles), 30 Milan anti-tank missile systems equipped with 500 missiles, 8,000 pistols, hand grenades, ammunitions and five Dingo armored vehicles. Non-lethal equipment will be added (mine-clearing equipment, night-vision goggles, helmets, radio and helmets). All of these deliveries valued at 70 million euros ($92 million) and aims to equip 4,000 Kurdish soldiers.

My discussions in Germany have underscored how sharp a break with the past; the Merkel Administration sees their new policy as laying the groundwork for a broader policy of engagement against the forces threatening Western democracy.  One German defense industrialist bluntly put the case with how he saw this decision perhaps impacting on the wider German view on defense and security.

The decision to arm and train the Kurds is a sea change. Too many Germans believe we should be like Switzerland, Sweden or Costa Rica. This will only change when Putin enters Poland or the Baltic states. But we are already supplying body protection to the forces in the Ukraine. We should do more.

And the decision to work with the Kurds underscores the limits of what German can currently do.

For example, airlift is obvious to support the arms transfers and training of the Kurds and to ensure responsibility in the use of arms.  The government is highlighting the need to get on with the modernization of their air cargo transit means, and to get on with the acquisition of the new A400M airlifter.

The first Airbus A400M new generation airlifter for the German Air Force has now been painted in its new colours at the Airbus Defence and Space facility in Seville, Spain. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space, 10/10/14
The first Airbus A400M new generation airlifter for the German Air Force has now been painted in its new colours at the Airbus Defence and Space facility in Seville, Spain. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space, 10/10/14

An article published in The Financial Times on October 5, 2014 highlighted the problem:

Two weeks ago, Germany’s first shipment of arms to Iraq’s Kurds, to help in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), was delayed when the designated transport plane broke down. The defective aircraft was Dutch but was leased because of the lack of a suitable German aircraft.

My discussions in Rome also underscored that even in the context of a government largely focused on economic recovery, there was a growing realization of the need to deal with the ISIL threat.  The government is providing arms from Italian equipment stores as well as equipment seized in the Serbian war.  And the Italian Air Force is flying tankers in support of air strikes in Iraq and Syria as well.

Arab allies have joined the fight as well, but their engagement comes with crosscutting benefits.  But clearly one key player, the UAE has demonstrated as well reasonable tolerance with regard to working with non-Muslims which can allow the President to shape a “secular” coalition to support the Kurds in the war against the ISIL.

And to be clear, on the one side you have an ethnic group which is prepared to fight and die for their freedom and to provide sanctuary to others, including Christians, and on the other side, you have a force of complete intolerance towards anyone who is not of their version of Islam. And the fact that the leader of ISIL dresses in black and the “brand” uses a black flag is not to be lost on the Islamic world.

Focusing upon what is needed to pulverize military capabilities of ISIS to move rapidly and lethally, can buy some strategic maneuver space for the US and allies to sort out what kind of aid the Kurds might really need to protect their augmented territory within a fragmenting Iraq.

As Dr. Amatzia Baram, the leading Israeli expert on Iraq recently told me during a meeting in Europe, “the Kurds are the most secular force in the region.  They are fighters and will fight for their freedom.  They are the boots on the ground, and have female battalion commanders, something even Israel does not do.  They need Western aid and support and represent the best hope to provide a force to counter Islamic extremism.”

And working with the Kurds has another core advantage: by supporting Kurdish autonomy we can buy time in the region to sort out the longer-term relationships with Syria and Iraq.

We can buy time to shape a realistic policy in the region.

But there can be no waffling in this policy nor can there be delay. 

History is being compressed into a very short period of time.

The President has an historic opportunity to leave an historic achievement behind for his Presidency.  Rather than worrying about the cover of The Economist, the Administration needs to work with the European and Arab allies to carve out a zone of secular security and to defend our core values.

My colleague Ed Timperlake has argued that perhaps the four freedoms of Franklin Roosevelt can be recalled as a foundation for the assault on the ideological threat, which ISIL poses to Western civilization.

On January 6 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt gave his State-of-the-Union Speech and he brilliantly articulated “The Four Freedom Speech: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship. Freedom from Want and the Freedom from Fear.

America was not yet at war, but Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Imperial Japan were all showing their abject hatred personified by the word Freedom. The genius of President Roosevelt’s speech is that it was not a battle cry for war it was a statement of principle for all humanity to rally around.

It is a perfect list to capture the goals of why a Nation and people can and should fight to defend four elegant and essential freedoms that can make the world a better place.

Working with the Kurds, rolling back the ISIL brand and destroying its leaders is a moral obligation for those of us who support democracy and its core values.

Shaping a Kurdish ally can provide as well a lever for the emergence of the 21st century, and its “civilized forces,” when those arrive.

For an earlier version of this article see the following:

Editor’s Note: For earlier articles on the evolving situation with regard to ISIL see the following:

And an earlier piece from 2012: