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 But the policy is outdated.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.


Iraq’s army is still comically terrible

(Comic in the cosmic sense. Not for the people affected in Iraq.)

ABC News reports that hundreds of ISIS fighters walked into a city that days earlier had had thousands of Iraqi troops: “Ramadi Fell to ISIS Fighters Even Though They Were ‘Vastly Outnumbered’ by Iraqi Troops”

The pullout of the Iraqi counterterrorism unit from Ramadi first appeared in the Kurdish news agency Rudaw. The departure of that elite unit led other Iraqi military commanders in the city to order the departure of their troops even though they held a significant numerical superiority, the U.S. official said.


According to the anonymous Kurdish commander interviewed by Rudaw (linked above), the well-armed, American-created Special Ops unit began disappearing from Ramadi in the lead-up to the ISIS takeover. The Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq had not ordered the withdrawal and was not informed of it until the other units began calling it in and asking what was going on.

And in an eerie echo of the fall of Mosul 11 months before:

They pulled out so fast that in most cases they left their vehicles intact with their weapons and ammunition inside. […] By the evening of that day, most of the soldiers of the Special Operations had fled. Even the personal guards of the commander took with them their six Humvees and left the commander alone.

All the other units that remained were vastly less well-equipped to withstand an ISIS assault and felt they had little choice but to retreat hastily.

We torched what we couldn’t carry to prevent it from falling to ISIS. […] At 6pm, I was still inside the city stadium. When I realized it was all lost we pulled out, too. Along the way out of Ramadi I caught up with the force that had withdrawn earlier. There were 600-700 vehicles filled with soldiers, police officers and their families.


Ancient Syrian city safe from ISIS for now

Two days later, on May 20, 2015, the Army made a hasty retreat and the city fell to ISIS.

State and opposition media both confirm that the Syrian Army has pushed back and blocked an approaching ISIS offensive on the ancient city of Palmyra (pictured below).

The international community was very concerned that the city’s antiquities would be dynamited as ISIS has done in many other areas. The counter-offensive was likely undertaken more over strategic concerns about Palmyra’s position relative to other key regime-held cities than over concern for the heritage sites, however.

The regime and FSA, in western Syria, have both systematically shelled and destroyed at least five of six UNESCO world heritage sites in Syria when they became battlefields. Palmyra is one of the six sites and has been subject to looting and some moderate battle damage.

Palmyra, 2009 pre-war view from Qalaat Ibn Maan, Temple of Bel and colonnaded axis. (Photo Credit: Arian Zwegers via Wikimedia)

Palmyra, 2009 pre-war view from Qalaat Ibn Maan, Temple of Bel and colonnaded axis. (Photo Credit: Arian Zwegers via Wikimedia)

ISIS obliterates ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud dig sites

Priceless undiscovered antiquities in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, 20 miles south of Mosul (and ancient Nineveh), were lost forever in recent days as ISIS continued its purge of pre-Islamic history in Mesopotamia by packing dig sites with explosives and blasting them into oblivion.

Flashpoint Intelligence, a global security firm and NBC News consultant, could not confirm that the site being destroyed in the video is in fact Nimrud, but it said “online chatter does seem to corroborate the claims, and the rest of the video does follow the group’s pattern of destroying ‘idols,’ as they call it.”



The city was built more than 3,000 years ago in the Middle Assyrian Empire and eventually became the capital of the later Neo-Assyrian Empire, under King Ashurnasirpal II, a brutal conqueror who shocked much of the surrounding region but also loved art promoting his success.

Last month, the terrorist organization destroyed exposed/above-ground excavation sites (some opened in the mid-19th century) with bulldozers and released footage showing fighters smashing ancient statues — including the world-famous lamassu winged bull-men — and wall reliefs from the city that is mentioned in the Book of Genesis.

Even some early Islamic sites have been devastated or erased by ISIS attacks including the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul last July.

The war in Yemen has begun in earnest now

After years of slowly building chaos, The Houthi force is moving against Aden, the government-in-the-south has fled the country, and — as of tonight — the Royal Saudi Air Force has launched an operation into Yemen under the GCC (or possibly the Arab League) at the request of the fallen government.

Flag of Yemen

Flag of Yemen

10 countries are participating in the operation already: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan are all said to be participating, with logistical and intelligence support from the United States.

The involvements of Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, and Sudan are very unexpected and indicate a much wider operation than anticipated. It also strongly suggests that Saudi Arabia was leaning heavily on every government in the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, and South Asia to whom it has given a lot of money previously. Saudi Arabia is cashing in every favor for a blistering war against the quasi-Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, unlike with the rather lackadaisical coalition to support the United States against ISIS in Syria. Qatar, which sent no jets at all in the Syria campaign, sent 10 tonight.

Bahrain, which only participated minimally on the first day of the Syria raids, also sent 15 jets. Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy also “owes” Saudi Arabia for brutally suppressing their own Shia uprising in 2011 (during the Arab Spring) with GCC shock troops.

The UAE and Jordan also sent plenty of bombers over Yemen in the initial hours, in a marked contrast from their wavering in the Syria campaign.

This massive undertaking should, in my opinion, also be taken as a clear signal that Saudi Arabia firmly prioritizes the “threat” from Iran and Iranian proxies (which include the Houthis in Yemen but also 100,000 anti-ISIS fighters across Iraq and Hezbollah anti-ISIS units in western Syria) well above the threat from ISIS, despite tough talk on the latter some months ago.

Meanwhile, Iran has countless military advisers and trainers on the ground assisting the huge Iraqi campaign to re-take Tikrit from ISIS, has been providing close-air support and bombers against ISIS all over the Iraqi skies, and reportedly may even have 30,000 regular troops fighting in Iraq directly.

If I’m looking at the facts and figures, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League in general — the purported American allies — are doing far less to combat ISIS than Iran, even if you buy the theory that Iran’s support for Assad accidentally helped create ISIS in the first place.

This war in Yemen against the Houthis, which Saudi Arabia has been stirring up violently for years, seems essentially to be more of an indirect war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

And this doesn’t even begin to touch the actual al Qaeda presence in Yemen.

Tomb of Suleyman Shah, future casus belli, revisited

Editor’s note, February 22nd, 2015 at 3:25 PM US ET: In a surprise move, Turkey staged a dramatic military operation overnight with 600 troops and 100 tanks/vehicles to evacuate and demolish the tomb site and re-locate the crypt itself to a new site closer to the Turkish border but still apparently inside Syria.

Original Post:
In late September, early in the siege of Kobani, I discussed what might provoke Turkey to participate in the war against ISIS in Syria. One scenario I mentioned — because the Turks have tried to hype it up a lot — was a potential attack on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, an unusual Turkish territory inside Syria.

[…] if ISIS forces directly attack Turkish troops — a scenario raised again this week by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc in relation to the Turkish Special Forces stationed at the Tomb of Suleiman Shah in an enclave near Aleppo. The tomb, guarded by Turkey’s military since 1938 under the terms of a 1921 treaty with France, has been repeatedly and publicly identified by ISIS as a target all year. ISIS may have hesitated to attack the Turkish enclave, given that a direct assault might trigger an automatic invasion of Syria by all of NATO, under Article V. Turkey beefed up security at the tomb significantly earlier in the year (rather than withdrawing), but the troops there are reportedly tenuously supplied due to deteriorating local conditions as the Aleppo region becomes the center of fighting between Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebels, the Syrian government, and ISIS.

You can also hear an audio discussion of the situation from the October 8th, 2014 episode of our radio show.
Turkey’s role in Syria:
Part 3 – Turkey/Syria – AFD 102

Recent Syrian Army efforts to encircle Aleppo completely may also strain the Turkish supply capabilities at the tomb further, but this remains a manufactured problem. Turkey has continued to escalate the tomb situation, either for reasons of national pride or for creating a casus belli (cause for war) that might lead to the de facto partition of Syria with northern Syria under semi-official control of Turkey.

Turkey contested control of that territory, partially successfully, with the French between the world wars, and the tomb was a consolation prize for not getting more. Hardline Turkish irredentists likely still believe that northern Syria rightfully belongs with Turkey.

However, a new Al Jazeera America op-ed argues that it is extremely unlikely that NATO would agree with the Turkish government’s viewpoint on the significance of an attack on the tomb:

[…] Erdogan should not get his hopes up. Invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is not automatic. Any country which feels it has been the victim of an attack and wants NATO’s assistance must first secure a unanimous vote from all 28 members of the alliance.

Ultimately, invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is a political decision taken by the elected leaders of each member state.

Turkey is viewed by many in NATO as more of a hindrance than a partner under Erdogan’s leadership. Many in NATO are puzzled as to why Turkey has not played a bigger role in taking on ISIL.

They have also been put off by Erdogan’s crackdown on political dissent, limitations on press freedom, and his drive to bring a more conservative brand of Islam into what is still a largely secular society.

Consequently, in the current political climate it would be inconceivable to believe that all 28 NATO members would vote to invoke Article 5 to defend what many outside Turkey might consider to be a post-imperial anomaly.


Will the U.S. become the Syrian rebels’ air force?

United Press International, on the United States’ latest terrible idea for the Syrian war:

The U.S. will provide Toyota Hi-Lux pickup trucks to some Syrian rebels that will be equipped with machine guns, GPS devices and radios. The rebels can use the radios to call in airstrikes carried out by American B-1B bombers, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Mortars and more sophisticated anti-tank weapons may be provided as well.

Oh boy, this should work out great, based on our track record of arming the CIA’s private rebel army in Syria, Harakat Hazm, whose easy battlefield defeat resulted in Nusra Front (Syrian al Qaeda) getting anti-tank weapons.

Except this time it’s an even greater move, because now some of these incompetent rebels will be able to call in American airstrikes on god-knows-what, probably triggering an accidental war with Bashar al-Assad or some dramatic escalation.

I’m glad that coordinated air support helped save Kobani, but that’s just not the same situation as this proposal at all. Most worryingly, the people cheering the loudest for this idea are explicitly, openly hoping this will cause the United States to hit Syrian Armed Forces targets. These neo-cons want the United States to go to war in Syria. To quote The Wall Street Journal’s reporting, directly, on this:

Kimberly Kagan, founder of the Institute for the Study of War, said providing air support for the rebels is critical. But, she said, if the Obama administration doesn’t target the regime’s forces as well, it will inadvertently empower other extremists in Syria.

To re-state: Those favoring coordinated air support want the U.S. to attack the Syrian government directly.

As the article notes, even if this somehow didn’t lead to U.S. entanglement in Syria itself, it would certainly derail all the progress with Iran — both in Iraq’s war with ISIS (and problems with factionalism) and directly on nuclear negotiations.

Aircraft participating in U.S.-led coalition airstrike missions in Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS. (Credit: Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)

Aircraft participating in U.S.-led coalition airstrike missions in Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS. (Credit: Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)