Op-Ed | Selling Out the Kurds

The essay below was co-authored with Stephan Richter, Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist, where it originally appeared.

A U.S. Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from the Ohio Air National Guard at Incirlik, Turkey, August 2003. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Vince Parker.)

A U.S. Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from the Ohio Air National Guard at Incirlik, Turkey, August 2003. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Vince Parker.)

To recruit Turkey against ISIS, the United States lost sight of its true friends.

U.S. policy on Iraq, Syria and the surrounding countries seems to have been left solely in the hands of amateurs in the White House. That is not a partisan statement, for it applies to both the current and previous occupants. The next occupant, regardless of party, seems likely to muck it up as well.

The latest foolhardy decision seems to have been a deal long sought by the United States to move the “strategy” against ISIS forward. It is worth recalling that the terrorist organization is de facto an American creation resulting from the completely ill advised Iraq policy under George W. Bush.

In the blinding desire to destroy ISIS, Mr. Obama and his team were so keen on getting rights to use Turkish air bases that they completely forgot about the dark side of Mr. Erdogan.

Erdogan’s other agendas

No sooner had the agreement on bases been reached than Turkey’s own aircraft began pounding Kurdish militant targets in northern Syria and Iraq.

The government, which still lacks a governing mandate after no party won a majority in the recent elections, has officially put the anti-ISIS PKK fighters on the same threat level as ISIS. In reality, Kurdish fighters appear to be a much bigger target of the Turkish Air Force than the ISIS fighters.

The point of all this maneuvering is that Erdogan hopes to leverage wartime fervor into a favorable nationalist coalition or a new election with a better outcome for himself.

As if the U.S. collusion in that domestic, entirely partisan strategy would not be shameful enough, the United States is also pledging to help Erdogan on another matter. He has long sought to clear an ISIS-held area of Syria that is coveted by both Kurdish nationalists and (pro-Erdogan) Ottoman irredentists in Turkey. The latter, it seems, still have yet to accept the country’s 1920s borders.

Hard though it may be to believe, the facts on the ground are as follows: The U.S. military is now helping Turkey’s hardliners achieve their goals against the very Kurdish fighters whose close coordination with U.S. bombers have pushed ISIS back from Kobani and disrupted its supply lines. All the while, Turkey sat on its hands and refused to halt lucrative ISIS smuggling.

Marginalizing the Kurds

In effect, the Americans managed to sell out the Kurds, perhaps Syria’s only remaining true “freedom fighters,” as they proved to be in the defense of Kobani. Read more

Kurdish House Mafia

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

Another consequence of the unregulated and politically destabilizing flood of weapons to Kurdish militants is that allegedly low-grade (i.e. infrastructural) ethnic cleansing is being conducted by some Iraqi Kurdish forces in evacuated areas (areas previously Arabized by Saddam Hussein, of course, but still a war crime).

The evidence, aid workers and residents say, is in the destroyed, empty villages scattered along the front line between Erbil and Mosul and the dusty flats south of Kirkuk.

“These houses are all being destroyed after the conflict,” said another aid worker who works across Iraqi Kurdistan, speaking anonymously so as not to anger the Kurdistan Regional Government and lose access.

The destruction in some villages appears to go beyond simple collateral damage. On a trip to the front line in the area of al-Gweir, 35 miles southwest of Erbil, it looked as though an impossible wind had blown through, yanking house after house down on one side. The fields and gardens that had fed these mostly Arab villages were charred and black.

Heavy fighting has devastated much of northern Iraq, but humanitarian workers, who have seen dozens of these villages, describe consistent and curious patterns of destruction: scorched fields and empty, burnt-out houses stripped down to the wiring. No livestock, no machinery, no curtains, crockery, or any other detritus of daily life that fleeing people typically leave.

“They want to change these villages demographically,” said a Kirkuk-based aid worker. “If they burn and destroy these villages, people won’t come back. And they want the Arabs to go elsewhere.”

Read the rest of the in-depth and in-person investigation.

A map of greater Iraqi Kurdistan including Kurdish Regional Government territory, some militia-held territories captured in the war against ISIS, and territories historically Kurdish before "Arabization" policies.

A map of greater Iraqi Kurdistan including Kurdish Regional Government territory, some militia-held territories captured in the war against ISIS (only as of August 2014), and territories historically Kurdish before “Arabization” policies.

US weapons flood risks destabilizing Iraqi Kurdistan

A new report in Foreign Affairs argues that the uncontrolled flood of weapons from U.S. government sources to Iraqi Kurdish officers in the field and official weapons grants routed through Baghdad (all for the purpose of fighting ISIS quickly, of course) is undermining years of careful work to professionalize the Kurdish peshmerga forces and bring them under civilian authority and a unified military chain of command regardless of Kurdish political parties. This U.S. policy could destabilize the region — which has previously been a fairly steady oasis in the country — and trigger the final exit of Iraqi Kurdistan from Iraq as a whole.

The military aid is uncoordinated, unbalanced, unconditional, and unmonitored. Because of the lack of oversight on weapons’ allocation, and because the weapons come with no strings attached, officials can direct them to their own affiliated peshmerga forces, empowering loyalist officers and entangling the rest of the officer corps in petty rivalries. All this distracts the peshmerga from the real task at hand: assessing, preparing for, and countering terrorist threats. To fix the problem, the U.S.-led coalition should place any assistance under a single command, under civilian control and away from political rivalries.
The West has failed to consider both the evolution of the peshmerga and Kurdish politics in general. It has conditioned weapons deliveries to the KRG on the approval of Baghdad, a policy designed to keep the Iraqi capital sovereign and to discourage total Kurdish independence. But the policy is outdated. Today, the PUK is ascendant in Baghdad, so channeling weapons to the Iraqi government has only further alienated the KDP from the central government. In turn, KDP officials have made increasingly provocative calls for independence and solicited direct arming to cut out Baghdad, which it views as being dominated by Iran. Western policymakers might shrug, believing that such divisions will at least prevent the parties from successfully joining together to press for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan; in reality, these divisions prevent Kurdish parties from effectively participating in the Iraqi state.

This doesn’t automatically mean the United States and its allies should not be supplying weapons to Iraqi Kurdistan’s peshmerga forces, but it does signal that the policy should be reorganized.


Baghdad’s stalling of oil revenue talks is pushing Kurds out

The New York Times published an article on the latest efforts by the Kurdish Regional Government to go their own way from central Iraqi control on oil production and sales, in light of continued failure to negotiate new terms for revenue sharing.

The current arrangement is an 83/17 revenue split, with the national government in Baghdad on the high side, which hardly seems reasonable. I think it’s somehow derived from 17% of the reserves being in Kurdistan, but even that doesn’t make much sense (especially when so much of the past couple years’ rise in Iraqi production and new development contracts have been on Kurdish land and via the regional government). And the article suggests that the resistance by Baghdad to changing the arrangement is fueling a rapidly accelerating cycle of mutual non-cooperation that will probably end in an independence attempt:

The more Kurdish officials developed their oil industry, the more Baghdad balked. The more the central government restricted the Kurds, the more they felt like they had no choice but to press forward.

“Their policy is actually backfiring,” said Howri Mansurbeg, a professor of petroleum geosciences at Soran University in Kurdistan, said of Iraqi officials. “They want to prevent a Kurdish state, and now the exact opposite is happening.”

Maybe there would be a case for such an unbalanced ratio if Baghdad provided tons of services and defense to the Kurdistan Region, but they’ve done jack for them … and then have demanded everything from them, after the national security forces literally threw their weapons on the ground and ran away.

At the point Maliki handed Kirkuk to the Kurdish Regional Government to take care of, and their forces held it successfully, I think they earned the right to a lot more revenue. (And — as the Times points out, matching my analysis at the time in June — at the point he handed them Kirkuk, he also handed them enough oilfields to become independent.)


ISIS hits Iraq’s KRG from the south at Karatepe township

After U.S. airstrikes in August thwarted ISIS incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan from the northwest and broke the ISIS siege of the Amirli, a Shia Iraqi Turkmen town, a division of ISIS in the Diyala Governorate appears to have found a weak point in the armor on the southern side of the zone protected by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

As a result of the June pullbacks by Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi Army, the KRG sphere of responsibility for security now extends south into Diyala, but their peshmerga troops are stretched thin against ISIS and are concentrated on retaking territory in northern Iraq.

ISIS forces staged coordinated attacks against Kurdish peshmerga paramilitary forces all around the Kurdish zone’s perimeter on Monday, October 20, according to a report by Rudaw, the Iraqi Kurdish news agency. Most of these were much further north in the country, however, than Diyala Governorate.

Karatepe under fire

But an encircled group of ISIS fighters in Diyala took advantage of the large stretches of uninhabited and indefensible desert that make up the southern edge of Kurdish control to lead the day’s coordinated offensives by ferociously assaulting the predominantly Iraqi Turkmen community of Karetepe township, which they had apparently identified as vulnerable in a skirmish several days earlier and suicide-bombed the town the weekend before. (Karetepe is the local Turkmen spelling. It is generally spelled Qarah Tapah in Kurdish media and on Google Maps or Qara Tapa in English-language Iranian media.)


The lightly defended town came under heavy ISIS shelling and light arms fire, according to the Karetepe district leader, as reported in Rudaw:

The ISIS attacks began at the outskirts of Qarah Tapah, a town along Kurdistan’s south-western front also targeted by ISIS last week. Three Peshmerga were reported killed and others injured in an intense firefight, according to Mahmoud Sangawi, who is in charge of the district. “We repeatedly have been targeted with ISIS shells,” he said.

“They mean to take on the areas that are populated by Shia in order to carry out another onslaught on them,” Sangawi told Rudaw, referring to Shiite minorities who are living in villages around Qara Tapah.

“Islamic State suddenly began the attack in the early morning while most of people were asleep. They started bombarding the town but Peshmerga responded to their assault immediately,” a Qarah Tapah witness told Rudaw.

Peshmerga forces use intelligence resources to put their fighters on stand-by before an ISIS attack, but “the information this time seemed to be incomplete to guide us how to prepare for their attacks. They changed course and they attacked from different directions,” Sangawi told Rudaw after arriving at the frontline. “We will ultimately destroy them,” he said.


Cnes/Spot Image satellite photo of Karatepe (Qarah Tapah) township in Diyala Governorate.

Cnes/Spot Image satellite photo of Karatepe (Qarah Tapah) township in Diyala Governorate. Diyala is an agricultural province with large farms and orchards surrounded by larger deserts.

On October 21, the pressure mounted, according to a report by Kerkuk.net, the official online publication of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, the party which represents the ethnic minority in Iraq’s politics.

Yesterday morning ISIS launched an attack from three directions on Karatepe township of Diyala with mortar and other heavy weaponry. The local people were forced to leave their homes due to the fierce conflict between security forces and ISIS militants. The number of dead and injured have not been determined so far. ISIS militants have seized the western entrance of the town.

Operations Command indicated that until now Karatepe town had been under the control of the Peshmerga and police forces. Operations Command also indicated that fighter aircraft had started targeting the ISIS militants.

Head of Iraqi Turkmen Front and Kirkuk Member of Parliament Erset Salihi called on all Iraqi Turkmen Front offices and organizations in Hanekin and Kifri in the periphery of Karatepe and instructed them to open their doors to refugees and give them necessary assistance.

According to Iranian state media, which favors the Shia-led Iraqi central government, “targeting” of ISIS attackers by “fighter aircraft” refers to assistance by the Iraqi Air Force. I don’t have details on that, but it would likely consist of barrel-bombing from the unsophisticated and generally inept Iraqi Air Force. No coalition airstrikes around the town have yet been reported.

On October 22, Iraqi Turkmen political leaders called a press conference to assert their view that this is a targeted offensive intended to destroy an Iraqi Turkmen population center and is part of a wider systematic purge:

The Head of Iraqi Turkmen Front and Kirkuk MP Erset Salihi spoke at the press conference and demanded the liberation of Karatepe township.

In his statement Salihi said that it was clear that today Turkmen areas were being targeted. After Telefer, Besir Tazehurmatu regions came Amirli. ISIS has started to target all Turkmen regions such as Tuz, Kirkuk, Tavuk. This time the target was Karatepe township in Diyala which is a major Turkmen settlement area. Kurds, Turkmen and Arab inhabit the region in harmony.

“As Turkmen MPs, we demand that air and land interventions are [begun] as soon as possible to ensure the security of those people and that they are armed so that they can protect themselves, their families as well as the land they inhabit.”

AFP reporting, quoting a source inside the town, implied that the population of the town and surrounding villages was at least 18,000 prior to the start of ISIS bombardment and civilians evacuations. An estimated 9,000 people left in the first day of fighting.

Late in the day on Wednesday, the Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Air Force appeared to declare a preliminary victory in the battle, but it remains to be seen whether this is a temporary win or a decisive repulsing of the ISIS offensive.

Why here, why now?

Although the ISIS forces in Diyala Governorate are relatively cut off from the rest of ISIS, they draw on a deep well of local support. During the second crest of the Iraq War, after the U.S. surge began, many disaffected Sunnis, Sunni separatists, and Sunni insurgents made the province a major staging ground for attacks on eastern Baghdad, U.S. forces, and Shia Arab paramilitaries. By the time of the U.S. departure, the province had become a hotbed of Sunni resentment toward then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose autocratic Shia-led government is widely blamed for triggering the rise of ISIS within Iraq over the past twelve or so months.

Overall, the province is home to a more diverse population than those Sunni Arab extremists would like, which may explain the choice of target at Karetepe, as the political leaders suggested in their press conference. Besides its isolation in the desert making it an easier target, the town is home to a contingent of the minority Iraqi Turkmen ethnic group (learn more — jump to bottom), which ISIS has previously attempted to conduct ethnic cleansing on, all over the Iraqi Turkmen homelands. In the north, the minority has been driven out by the tens of thousands along with Yazidis and other minorities. Most prominently, however, Iraqi Turkmen were nearly starved out during the siege at Amirli, near the provincial border of Diyala, until coalition airstrikes and aid drops began. Having failed to take Amirli, 61 kilometers northeast by highway, Karetepe may be a next-best target for sectarian purgers in the Diyala ISIS faction. Indeed, it is actually even more diverse than Amirli, with Arab and Kurdish residents in addition to the Iraqi Turkmen residents.


If ISIS were to dislodge Kurdish forces and fend off Iraqi government forces and Shia Arab paramilitaries, they would be able to initiate an ethnic cleansing campaign in Diyala province that would make it much more strongly Sunni Arab in its demographics. This would likely boost the separatist aims of the Diyala autonomy movement that attempted in late 2011 to declare the province a “semiautonomous region” on par with the Kurdistan Region. (While that effort was joined by the province’s Kurds, the current war has unofficially absorbed most if not all of the Kurdish areas into the neighboring Kurdish provinces, so they would probably no longer be involved in the movement.) The autonomy backers were met with hostility locally from other minorities in Diyala. The Shia Iraqi Turkmen population at Karatepe and elsewhere in the area is generally somewhat more favorable toward Baghdad and Shia Arab governance than the Sunni Arabs or Kurds.

Another strong possibility is that the ISIS forces in Diyala will put enough pressure on Karatepe to force a significant diversion of troops and resources by the KRG, Baghdad, or Shia Arab paramilitaries that other ISIS positions will be strengthened and could regain ground. At the moment they have been pushed back out of the town and its immediate environs, but that may shift again.

Learn More: Who are the Iraqi Turkmen?

Read more

ISIS and the irreversible rise of Kurdish female fighters

Global coverage of the Kurdish struggles with ISIS in northern Syria and northern Iraq has included a pretty strong focus on the role of women in the Kurdish paramilitaries. Several weeks ago, Marie Claire of all places published a lengthy freelance piece featuring photos and interviews with Kurdish women fighting ISIS.

(Slightly outside the topic of Kurdish fighters, we also saw the viral rise of a photo by Zmnako Ismael of Runak Bapir Gherib, a 14-year-old Yazidi girl determinedly packing a Kalashnikov gun half her height to protect her fleeing family from ISIS, despite a look of pure exhaustion. It’s one of the most powerful photos of survival that I’ve ever seen)

Some of the coverage of the Kurdish women in combat has perhaps been a bit skewed toward the overly dramatized wondrous-curiosity angle of “Hey look at this unusual thing and how unusual it is” or toward the morbid.

Granted, ISIS hasn’t exactly been doing itself favors with either the ladies or media coverage, by issuing proclamations like this:

“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” read an article in Dabiq magazine, attributed to ISIL spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani and addressing those who do not subscribe to the group’s interpretation of Islam.

“The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers,” another Dabiq article read. “The Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shariah [Islamic law] amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations.”


This past week, however, the Wall Street Journal tried to put the stories more in context with a long profile of who some of the women are, why they volunteered, what they’ve experienced, what role this fits into in existing Kurdish society, and what impact it will have on future Kurdish society. The current conflict is one of the most high-intensity wars to involve the Kurds since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire began about a hundred years ago, and it will likely be a defining moment for generations to come. One way it could define the culture might be in gender roles.

Here are just a few of the highlights from the piece:

“When I walk with my gun, the men who haven’t volunteered keep their eyes down around me,” said Dilar, who didn’t want to give her family name. “My bravery shames them.”
Women in battle shock many in traditional corners of the Middle East, but among Kurds the female warriors have drawn acclaim in poems and on Facebook.

Kurdish society is hardly a bastion of feminism, but across the wider region, Kurds—who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Arabs or Turks—are relatively progressive. That is partly a reflection of the leftist and Marxist political ideology that has influenced the Kurds’ decades long struggle for independence in Turkey and Iraq.

Many Kurdish women’s rights activists have criticized Mr. Ocalan and other Kurdish leaders as only paying lip service to their cause, pointing to the male-dominated military and political hierarchies of Kurdish society that in practice keep women shut out from leadership positions. Now, the prowess of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish women fighters is straining, if not breaking, that glass ceiling.
If she survives the battle for Kobani, Ms. [Afsin] Kobane [a 28-year-old commander and former kindergarten teacher] said she knows her battlefield experience will alter her life forever. “After this, I can’t imagine leading a life of a traditional Kurdish woman, caring for a husband and children at home,” she said. “I used to want that before this war.”


US planes hit ISIS siege forces outside Amirli, Iraq

A week ago I asked why there seemed to be a double standard regarding US response toward the Shiite Iraqi Turkmen community at Amirli, which was facing a severe humanitarian crisis after two months of ISIS encirclement, not unlike the situation at Mount Sinjar that had prompted the US to intervene militarily to break the siege around the Yazidi Kurds. The UN and other groups had begun calling for a relief mission to send more food and medicine to Amirli and were puzzled as to why a strong response had not already occurred.

It took longer than it ought to have but tonight we have a resolution to the double standard as U.S. airstrikes began on ISIS positions around the town of Amirli and coalition humanitarian aircraft arrived with help:

American warplanes launched airstrikes on Sunni militants who have been besieging the town of Amerli in northern Iraq on Saturday, in a broadening of the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The Pentagon announced the expanded strikes Saturday night. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said that American planes also airdropped food, water and humanitarian aid to the town of Amerli, home to members of Iraq’s Turkmen minority. The town of 12,000 has been under siege by the militants for more than two months.

Aircraft from Australia, France and the United Kingdom joined the United States in dropping the supplies, Admiral Kirby said in a statement.


Update, August 31, 2014: Iraqi ground troops and Shiite paramilitary forces arrived into the town today after several days of slowly fighting ISIS through the surrounding area. The airstrikes cleared the final path.

Click on the map to navigate in Google Maps.

Click on the map to navigate in Google Maps.

The town, located several dozen miles east of Tikrit or south of Kirkuk, is at the nexus of the Sunni Arab heartland and greater Iraqi Kurdistan. Relations between Kurdish political leadership — who are closely aligned with the United States — and the Iraqi Turkmen people have sometimes not been good, as I explored in the post last weekend.