A tricky proposal, and not just because we’re currently destroying the heavy weapons we gave to the Iraqi Army and were later seized by ISIS, either. The Kurds tell CBS that they are grateful for the assistance that the US has provided in protecting its autonomous zone, especially its capital of Irbil, but they can do much more — if only Barack Obama would send them the weaponry. The Kurds want to attack ISIS and push them out of their strongholds, not just fight on defense and occasional tactical strikes:
Masrour Barzani is the head of Kurdish intelligence service, which is helping pick the targets for U.S. pilots in support of Kurdish forces on the ground.
The U.S airstrikes against ISIS are “very useful,” he told CBS News. Kurdish fighters are thankful for U.S. support, but he adds: “but I don’t think it’s enough to defeat ISIS.”
“ISIS is still very intact in Syria. ISIS still feels secure in areas like Mosul and Tal Afer,” Barzani said. “We believe the strikes should target the nerve system and the leadership of ISIS wherever they may be.”
And by that, he said, he also means Syria, where he would like to see U.S. airstrikes against ISIS. …
Barzani told CBS News the Kurds are talking to the White House about major support for the Kurdish Military, known as the Peshmerga.
“We are asking the United States for they should help the Peshmergas with heavy armament,” Barzani said. “Tanks, helicopters, heavy armaments, MRAPs especially, you know, because they are very important.”
MRAPs are armored troops carriers. The Peshmerga CBS News met looked like they could use them. There was evidence of a battle, won. But all the weapons they reloaded were light — no artillery, no effective armor.
The Kurds are likely to get their wish regarding air strikes in Syria after tonight’s speech. The White House has been leaking that ahead of the speech tonight, and both the New York Times and Washington Post have duly noted what should have been obvious. One cannot address ISIS with no boots on the ground and no air strikes on its command structures, so Obama will have to target the entire organization if he wants to be effective at all.
As for boots on the ground, the Peshmerga have plenty, but need better weaponry. The problem for the US is that the Kurds are not a sovereign entity. Obama still wants a united Iraq, and John Kerry arrived in Baghdad today to push the new government to make a commitment to both the fight and to real power-sharing with the Kurds and Sunnis, which the previous government under Nouri al-Maliki prevented. Kerry pronounced himself “impressed” with Haider al-Abadi’s efforts at reform, but it’s going to take a long time to rebuild trust in Baghdad for Kurds and especially Sunni tribal leaders. In the meantime, sending heavy weapons to the Kurds without going through Baghdad would undermine the long-term project of restoring unity in Iraq, and would create a powerful northern army that could allow the Kurds to unilaterally declare independence and make it stick. For that reason, Baghdad’s not likely to agree to that kind of armament transfer, although they need a powerful northern army more than ever to take the pressure off of Baghdad.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Kerry is there to negotiate some kind of deal, though, because Obama does not want to have to order American boots on the ground to deal with ISIS. He will have to find them somewhere else, and at least the Peshmerga are an effective fighting force with high morale and plenty of motivation. The other option, an Arab League alliance to go after ISIS, is almost a pure fantasy:
Secretary of State John Kerry left Tuesday for visits to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where he’s expected to seek the Arab political cover necessary should the United States broaden its Iraq-focused campaign to Islamic State positions in neighboring Syria. The Arab monarchs on Kerry’s schedule are sure to bring up yet another uncomfortable truth: Virtually any action against the Islamic State inside of Syria will help the forces of President Bashar Assad, whose ouster the United States has demanded for years.
The Sunni powers are nervous about the Islamic State but skeptical of throwing in with the United States unless there’s a real commitment to securing more Sunni political representation in Iraq and more support for moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria. The Americans counter that the Sunni leaders also have room for improvement, starting with the need to crack down on the networks that send money and fighters from the Persian Gulf states to the Islamic State, which now controls roughly half of Iraq and a third of Syria.
“Without us having some skin in the game, it’s not clear that all the parties would play their assigned roles,” said Gregory Gause, a Persian Gulf specialist who heads the international affairs department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “The Iranians would be fighting these guys anyway, but the Turks might say, ‘We have to do a deal with them if they control all this territory.’ And the Saudis might say, ‘These guys are bad, but they’re fighting Assad and Iran.’”
The most powerful army in the region for the Arab League is Saudi, but why would the Saudis commit to fighting ISIS? As ABC notes, the Sauds and the Qataris have been funding Sunni extremists groups like ISIS for years:
Painting Arab allies with such a broad brush ignores the divisions among them, said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Saudi and Qatari individuals have allegedly helped fund Sunni extremist groups like ISIS, something the U.S. State Department has raised concerns over, though U.S. officials have also said they’ve seen no evidence that those countries’ governments are actively funneling money.
Katulis said some Arab countries might balk at working with others, recalling a conversation he had with a senior Gulf diplomat recently.
“I was asking, given that Qatar has played such an active role in supporting some radical Islamist groups, if Qatar is brought into this fold will you work with them?” Katulis said, recalling that the diplomat responded, “That remains an open question.”
No kidding. Obama will again propose arming the so-called moderate rebels in Syria, possibly as a sweetener to the Arab League to get them to act on their own against ISIS, but don’t expect them to do much other than pay lip service. If Obama wants to push ISIS out of their strongholds, he’ll need the Kurds to do it — or look for Western partners for another invasion.