Surprise: CIA begins quietly funneling weapons to Kurds to repel ISIS

Just a “trickle” so far, per WaPo, because for the moment we’re still observing the polite fiction that there’s a functioning central government in Baghdad. If Maliki digs in and the new prime minister isn’t allowed to take power, I assume that fiction will finally be dropped.


The weapons are being supplied by the CIA, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Obama administration has not publicly acknowledged the spy agency’s involvement.

“They need everything, especially heavy weapons,” said the former U.S. official, who is working closely with Kurdish leaders. While arms have started flowing to Kurdish forces near the city of Irbil, the official said Kurds in the vicinity of the key city of Sulaymaniyah have yet to receive any U.S. support…

A U.S. military official said the Pentagon and State Department were discussing other possible ways to deliver weapons to the Kurds via open channels, but that they would need special legal authorization. Normally U.S. arms sales are restricted to sovereign or central governments.

Legal authorization shouldn’t be hard. There are no heavyweight factions in either party who are anti-Kurd or (giggle) pro-Maliki at this point, are there?

Speaking of quietly arming jihadi nemeses, here’s a tasty leftover from the weekend. I know Noah touched on it earlier but I want to highlight this bit:

JG: Do you think we’d be where we are with ISIS right now if the U.S. had done more three years ago to build up a moderate Syrian opposition?

[Hillary Clinton]: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.

They were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.


I don’t know how seriously to take that. Maybe it’s simple political math. She needs to distance herself from Obama’s foreign policy + she wants to polish her brand as a hawk = in hindsight, we should have done more to arm the “moderates” in the Free Syrian Army, who might have quashed the nascent threat from ISIS on the battlefield in Syria before it could spread to Iraq. Assuming she means it, though, I don’t know why she thinks an FSA backed by American arms would have been appreciably better at filling the vacuum in Syria than ISIS was. It’s easy to say in hindsight “we should have hit ISIS harder before they had time to establish themselves”; in reality, had Obama made that case at the time, he would have been scoffed at by war-weary lefties and righties. And with good reason: There’s simply never been compelling evidence, the way there is with an America-friendly battle-tested force like the peshmerga in Kurdistan, that an FSA armed by Uncle Sam would have been equal to the task of stopping the jihadis, let alone Assad. Michael Dougherty:

The U.S. was arming Syrian rebels. This was reported throughout 2012 and 2013. Sometimes the reports even made the effort to describe those America was arming as “moderate,” to try to distinguish them from the black-flag flying beheaders. But the distinctions can be blurry. Some of the “moderate” Free Syrian Army members have been defecting to Islamist groups like al Nusra, and presumably ISIS — at least those members who haven’t given up and retired to Turkey.

Relatively early in the Syrian conflict, back when the U.S. was still waiting for the discouraging messages from the British parliament and a discouraging op-ed from Vladimir Putin, ISIS and other Islamist groups were growing at the expense of our beloved “moderate” gun-wielders. This dynamic wasn’t hard to predict, as the opposition to Assad was concentrated in Sunni Muslim groups who detested the Alawite dictator. Money and materiel flows up from Gulf states to radical Sunnis.

Committing to the “moderate” Free Syrian Army exclusively would have meant creating a civil war within a civil war, getting into a proxy war with Saudi Arabia, and risking humiliation — all while getting a lot of innocents killed. If the stated objective was that once the U.S. went in big with anti-Assad forces, then Assad’s fall had to be assured, the result would have been similar to Egypt, where once the U.S. let Mubarak’s regime fall, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized option on the ground.


We armed the Iraqi army to the teeth, notes Dougherty, and those arms are now being used against the Kurds by ISIS forces who confiscated them from Iraqi troops. What reason is there to think the same wouldn’t have happened in Syria? If anything, arming the FSA might have accelerated ISIS’s takeover in Iraq by opening a new stream of weapons to the group. But I think we’re overthinking this. As I say, Hillary’s hawkishness here is foremost a political gesture, aimed partly at voters who think a woman wouldn’t be “tough” enough as commander-in-chief, partly at voters who worry that electing Obama’s top diplomat as president means four years of Hopenchange foreign policy, and partly at ardent Republican hawks who will be looking to bail on the party if Rand Paul ends up being the GOP’s choice. But I also think she would be more hawkish as president than O is, which means more early-stage interventions in places like Syria (and Ukraine?). Depending upon who we nominate, we could end up with a Republican who feels similarly, who’s considerably more dovish (Paul), or who’s probably even a bit more hawkish (Rubio). Foreign policy typically doesn’t influence presidential votes heavily, but this time it should.

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