ISIS ushers in era of new good feelings among Kurds, Turks

Middle East alphabet soup of harmony: ISIS brings together PKK and KDP, with AKP blessing, in a fascinating turn of events for the Middle East.

The respective military wings of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) from Turkey and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) from Iraq, which essentially hate each other, are now working together in Iraq against ISIS.

The President of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, visited fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for the first time last week, after the PKK joined Kurdish Peshmerga forces to expel the Islamic State group from the town of Makhmour.

In a video published online, Barzani thanked the PKK fighters: “We are brothers. They [Islamic State fighters] are the enemy of the people of Kurdistan. We have one destiny; we will do everything, what we can,” Barzani said.

kurdistan-map-ciaThe Iraqi ex-insurgency KDP has often sparred directly with — and even allied itself militarily against — the PKK insurgency in Turkey for many years. This is partially due to infighting, as two of the three biggest Kurdish factions across the region, over who is the “leader” of the pan-Kurdish national liberation movement (if one exists) in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. But it’s also due to Turkey’s tendency to threaten the Iraqi Kurds if they are seen as helping the PKK. After a while, it just became easier to oppose the PKK out of self-preservation. Plus, since Turkey is a NATO member, all the NATO members including the United States are supposed to support Turkey’s counterinsurgency operations against the PKK separatists. Since the US is the main international supporter of the Iraqi Kurds, including the Kurdish Democratic Party, aiding and abetting the PKK was a big no-no.
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U.S. begins direct weapons shipments to Iraqi Kurds

Last week, Kurdish fighters had faulted severe ammunition shortages and lack of help from Baghdad for the loss of a number of key northern cities and the abandonment of some strategic targets and vulnerable civilian populations. I predicted that, despite years of fearful resistance by the central government politicians to the idea of the United States re-arming the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government without going through Baghdad, the United States would be forced to exactly that and fast. The New York Times reports that U.S. direct weapons supplies have begun:

The Central Intelligence Agency has begun directly supplying weapons to pesh merga fighters, administration officials said, after weeks of pleas and demands from leaders in the country’s semiautonomous Kurdish region for help in fighting ISIS. But it remains unclear just how much weaponry the United States has funneled through to the Kurds so far; Defense officials said they would probably begin sending small-arms munitions soon, too.

The move is sure to further infuriate the Sadrist Movement — Shia hardliners — and probably some of the Islamic Dawa Party members aligned with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (who appears to be strenuously resisting attempts to replace him), who have opposed anything that might decentralize power in Iraq.

An unnamed U.S. official also commented on the apparent disjunction between the hard-earned fierce and competent reputation of the Kurdish peshmerga troops and their repeated retreats in recent weeks (which continued today):

“The pesh merga are composed of capable, disciplined forces who deserve their reputation as fierce mountain-war fighters,” a United States official said. “However, it’s been almost a decade since their mostly light infantry brigades have been tested in battle, so it’s not surprising that they’ve taken some knocks from ISIL.”

That was what I was starting to hypothesize myself, in recent days: They were such effective guerrilla resistance forces that everyone eventually just left them alone, which then meant that after a while they were no longer “battle-tested.” In contrast, ISIS had battled its way across Syria and Western Iraq for more than a year, fighting against two central governments and competing insurgent forces. But with proper supplies, the Iraqi Kurds have a better shot than anyone else in the region for turning back ISIS.
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Questionable complaints from Baghdad

The current whinging by the Sadrist bloc of Shias in the Iraqi parliament is absurd. They’re mad that the U.S. won’t give the Shia-run central government more fighter planes, but they keep using their planes to drop anti-civilian barrel bombs on Sunni towns.

And they’re mad that the U.S. is only conducting airstrikes now that the Kurdistan Region is being shelled and hit with missiles, but we’ve been allied with the Kurds since the early 90s and they’ve essentially never been anything but nice to the United States.

In contrast, the Sadrists arguably take orders from Iran, and their Mahdi Army repeatedly attacked U.S. forces in Iraq from 2004 to 2008. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to cry about us not giving you weapons after you used your weapons before to attack us.

Here are some of the complaints quoted in the New York Times:

“Obama’s speech did not delight Iraqis,” said Hakim al-Zamili, a leader of a main Shiite bloc in Parliament, the Sadr faction, who were among the strongest opponents of American involvement in Iraq. “They are looking out for their own interests, not for ours.”

“They should have provided Iraq with weapons,” Mr. Zamili added, possibly alluding to the United States’ suspension of deliveries of F-16 fighter jets and combat aircraft to Iraq.

Another Shiite leader, Sami al-Askari, who is close to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said Mr. Obama’s call for airstrikes had come “too late.”

“They should have made this decision when hundreds of Shiites and Sunnis were being killed every day,” Mr. Askari said.

Mr. Askari accused the Obama administration of being interested only in “protecting the Kurdish regional government and Christians, not the rest of Iraq.”

Can’t you just feel the sincere concern from the politicians whose forces conducted ethnic cleansing?

Kurds say US airstrikes have begun in Iraq tonight

In an effort likely aimed at rescuing 50,000 starving Yazidi Kurd civilians trapped by ISIS on Mount Sinjar, Kurdish commanders say the U.S. has started airstrikes tonight on ISIS positions, in coordination with Kurdish peshmerga troops. The mountain, which is a Yazidi holy site near the Syrian border, is outside the normal zone of control of the Kurdish Regional Government and is virtually surrounded by the forces of Islamic State (of Syria & Iraq), following the recent Kurdish retreats.

From the New York Times:

An announcement on Kurdish television of what was described as an American intervention prompted street celebrations and horn-honking by residents of towns under siege by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Anwar Haji Osman, deputy minister of the pesh merga, the Kurdish military force, said in the televised statement that his forces had been in contact with the Americans and that the bombings had been carried out by fighter jets.

Kurdish officials said the bombings had initially targeted ISIS fighters who had seized two towns, Gwer and Mahmour, near the main Kurdish city of Erbil. A top Iraqi official in Baghdad close to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said that the Americans had consulted with the Iraqi government Thursday night about starting the campaign, the government had agreed and the bombing had begun.


Location of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. (Credit: Urutseg on Wikimedia)

Location of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. (Credit: Urutseg on Wikimedia)

The Pentagon is denying the reports of U.S. airstrikes there — though the Obama Administration has confirmed plans to drop food and supplies for the refugees — and tried to shift credit on to the Turkish military or Iraqi Air Force. While Turkey’s foreign minister did announce a food drop via helicopter, the government has denied conducting any airstrikes.

And although Iraq’s airforce has indeed been conducting airstrikes, they have already proven themselves far too incompetent to be responsible for the precision strikes near Sinjar. Iraqi airstrikes didn’t even make it past day 1 without indiscriminately obliterating big clusters of people who weren’t the intended target because the air force lacks the training — and desire — to be more careful or conscientious about their target selection. Killing 50 prisoners from your own side, while trying to liberate them by way of airstrikes, is not a smooth move.

The likeliest scenario is that this is a United States humanitarian intervention air campaign to try to rescue the Yazidis, a shrinking minority sect who have faced full-blown extermination campaigns by various factions more than 70 times in history. (Update, 8/8/14: The United States confirmed Friday morning that they had initiated airstrikes against ISIS missile launchers that were threatening Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. President Obama vowed to defend Erbil, a longtime U.S. ally city in northeastern Iraq, from any efforts by ISIS to move on it.)

In other news, the town of Qaraqosh also has fallen to ISIS and Christians are having to flee as the Kurdish Peshmerga troops fell back again. The town was one of the big centers of Iraq’s Christian populations. Earlier today, the UN claimed that the 50,000 trapped Yazidis were successfully and safely broken out, but US and most UK media outlets (following the lead of the US government) say they are still there. On another front, newly ISIS-aligned rebel forces in Syria struck at Lebanese military posts on the border, in retaliation for their failure to stop Hezbollah’s cross-border activities in support of the Syrian regime.

ISIS rolls back Kurdish forces in Iraq. What’s next?

ISIS — now known as “Islamic State” following its recent declaration of establishment — just won a significant operation against what is arguably Iraq’s most effective fighting force, the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitaries. So, everything is probably really about to go sideways now.

The immediate loss of two more towns is another destabilizing and demoralizing blow:

The Islamic State captured the northern towns of Sinjar and Zumar on Saturday, prompting an estimated 40,000 from the minority Yazidi sect to flee, said Jawhar Ali Begg, a spokesman for the community.
“Their towns are now controlled by [Islamic State] and their shrine has been blown up,” Begg told The Associated Press. The group gave the Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with links to Zoroastrianism, an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death, Begg added.


But perhaps worse, through this operation, ISIS captured another northern oil field (number 5 in Iraq, not to mention their Syrian oil and gas fields), as well as the largest dam in all of Iraq, the massive hydroelectric Mosul Dam on the Tigris River. With every flare-up in violence or war since the 1986, there have been persistent fears that someone will intentionally blow it up to cause torrential and lethal downstream flooding in many major Iraqi cities.

The Kurdish troops, who retreated in the face of the ISIS advance after some fighting, assert that they were hung out to dry — not even getting sufficient ammunition assistance — by the central government of Iraq, which has been simultaneously blasting their separatist tendencies and explicitly relying upon them to “hold the line” against ISIS while they figure out what the do. The Kurds have been responsible for protecting thousands of refugees fleeing the city of Mosul, the center of ISIS operations in Iraq.
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Iraqi Kurdish PM calls for Sunni autonomy; Will Kurds leave Iraq?

Map: Ethnically Kurdish zones of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

Map (CIA): Ethnically Kurdish zones of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

What a turn of events. Once carved out with Western support, contrary to Turkey’s wishes, against genocidal oppression by the Sunni-led minority regime in Iraq, the autonomous Kurdistan Region now sits as the Turkish-backed power player in the future of Iraq during the current crisis. And for the moment it appears to be more sympathetic to the Sunnis than anyone else (while earning global brownie points for graciously sheltering a massive influx of Sunni Arab refugees).

In an interview with the BBC (video), the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, said that it will be “almost impossible” for Iraq to go back to the way things were before the fall of Mosul to ISIS. The KRG is now describing everything as pre-Mosul or post-Mosul, like the clock of history got reset last week.

As his economic and political solution to the Sunni disaffection facilitating the ISIS invasion, Barzani called for essentially a soft partition that gives the Sunni areas in the northwest their own regional autonomy like the Kurds already have. (This is, of course, the same idea Joe Biden advocated in 2007 during his presidential bid, to much criticism.)

Barzani also very pointedly said that he will not order the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary — some of the best troops in the country — to help retake Mosul or any other city on behalf of the Shia-led central government. He did not however comment one way or the other on the possibility of taking the cities permanently and unilaterally for Kurdistan. I’d been speculating that perhaps the Peshmerga would “liberate” Mosul and Kirkuk, both historically Kurdish cities with large oil fields, from ISIS (and the Arabs more broadly), to reclaim them for the region, which would facilitate full independence. Kirkuk, the political and religious ex-capital, apparently fell into Peshmerga hands last Friday. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) asserts that the central government’s prime minister authorized them to take control of the local Iraqi Army headquarters in Kirkuk and provide security to the city as the Iraqi Army was disintegrating in the north.

In another extremely curious turn of events, Turkey, a country long fanatically opposed to an independent Kurdish state even in Iraq due to its own Kurdish separatist movement, seems to have warmed to the possibility of full independence next door in recent years. The party spokesman for the ruling AKP in Turkey, allegedly (according to CNN Turkey, based off incomplete quotes) recently made remarks to an Iraqi Kurdish media outlet indicating that Turkey would now be willing to back the creation of a hypothetical independent Kurdistan in Iraq.
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Iraqi Kurds protest Iranian bombardment

The Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) issued a press release on Friday protesting Iran’s bombardment of the border regions in their fight against Iranian Kurdish rebels in PJAK. According to the October 2nd press release, two sub-districts in the Kurdish Region of Iraq were subjected to heavy bombardment from Iran, most likely by shelling and Katyusha rockets, based on past strikes.

The KRG maintains some distance from groups like the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party, in Turkey) and PJAK because they are concerned about these such military actions, which they consider a violation of sovereignty. But the regional government also hasn’t taken particularly strong action against the rebels using their territory as a base of operations.

However, the statement doesn’t quite read as an accurate representation of the situation:

The Islamic Republic of Iran has severely bombarded the border areas of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq without any justification in clear violation of the sovereignty of Iraq and of the territory of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

If an armed terrorist organizations is attempting to bring down your government, you probably do feel like you have justification, whether or not it’s a violation of sovereignty.

The KRG still does have a legitimate complaint, and they’re in an awkward position of not wanting to antagonize either the neighboring countries or the other ethnic Kurdish groups, with whom they feel some solidarity, by rooting them out. But it’s probably unlikely that their request will be met:

Continued bombardment of such border areas is not in the interest of good neighbourly relations. Therefore, we urge the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately cease the unjustified bombardment of the border area and respect the sovereignty of Iraq, international law, and the peaceful will of the people of the Kurdistan Region.

This post was originally published on Starboard Broadside.