Guest post by Christopher Skutnik
Most of the public blowback within the US policy debate over Syria’s civil war revolves around who, among the confusing mishmash of anti-Assad rebels, Western governments might possibly aid in the conflict.
Even as the body count climbed and the war crimes mounted, much of the West declared a policy of non-interference. The inability to find a suitable Western-friendly champion is key among the factors that have most restrained the foreign response to Syria, even as US president Barack Obama yesterday ordered the first airstrikes against Islamic State group (الدولة الإسلامية) after six weeks of strikes meant to subdue them in northern Iraq.
In 2011, the US Congress introduced a bill placing sanctions on actors committing human rights abuses in Syria, and which simultaneously and explicitly prevented US president Barack Obama from declaring war or otherwise using force against the Syrian regime. Later in 2012, Congress introduced another bill that began exploring ways to ‘…deny or significantly degrade the ability of [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad…to use air power against civilians and opposition groups in Syria….’
Like the one before it, this bill also maintained that ‘the United States ground troops [shall] not be deployed onto Syrian territory.’
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The United States was not alone in its reticence. In August 2013, the United Kingdom’s parliament famously voted 285 to 272 against prime minister David Cameron’s push for a British role in any potential American military action against Syria.
This proved to be a ‘two-fer.’ Not only were the British now going to stay out of Syria, but without the legitimacy of multilateralism, Obama was forced to withdraw to the principles that got him elected five years earlier. Aimed at a different war in a different country, Obama famously argued that the US war and occupation in Iraq that began in 2003 was ‘ill-considered’ and ‘unnecessary,’ and was steadfastly preempting political opponents of a possible response to Syria by proclaiming a ‘no boots on the ground’ policy.
In doing so, the leader of the strongest liberal democracy in the world was leaving the victims of sarin gas attacks; the moderate, if nebulous, Free Syrian Army (FSA, الجيش السوري الحر); and the innocents on the periphery stuck between a vice grip of growing religious extremism and a government prone to attacking villages with helicopter gunships.
Fast forward to 2014.
The Syrian conflict is still a tripartite affair, with a fluid dynamism that has precipitated drastic shifts in the fortunes of its warring sides. The obstinate Assad regime remains in power, gleefully slaughtering both opponents and suspected opponents (read: civilians) with reckless abandon, even if it now takes a minimal role in the international spotlight. Some parts of the FSA have begun receiving materiel and training support from the West, but as a result of their heterogeneous and divided makeup, their role in the general conflict is minimized. In any event, the FSA leadership even recently stated that they would not join a US-led coalition to overthrow radical Islamist organizations in Syria, since their primary objective is the removal of Assad.
The most amazing transformation is the emergence of the Islamic State, the incredibly dangerous, al-Qaeda offshoot, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).
The Islamic State is comprised of Sunni Muslims who vary in their interpretation of Islam from more moderate Muslim sects, including mainstream Sunnis, and whose many initial concerns in Syria and Iraq were chiefly political in nature. For example, many Sunnis in Syria’s military opposed the disproportionate ratio of Shiite-to-Sunni officers, while many Sunni Iraqis opposed the disproportionate number of Shiites in government positions in Baghdad. Feeling disenfranchised, especially after former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki dismissed his Sunni vice president and hounded him into exile, Sunni Iraqis felt Maliki’s government was irretrievably corrupted by favoritism, nepotism, incompetence and sectarian sentiment.
What is now the Islamic State began with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999, and was known as the Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihand fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (تنظيم قاعدة الجهاد في بلاد الرافدين), or more popularly as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The organization grew in size and gathered important military experience in its war against US forces during the 2003-2011 Iraq war. Al-Zarqawi’s death was the result of a targeted-killing by the US in 2006, but his legacy endures.
The Islamic State is today led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has been declared ‘caliph’ Ibrahim. Al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State now exerts de facto control over territory stretching from parts of eastern Syria to deep inside northern and western Iraq. Much like other nationalist and irredentist quests for ‘greater’ statehood, (a lá greater Syria, greater Serbia, or greater Afghanistan, etc.), the IS now seeks to inhabit the Levant – that would include Syria and Iraq, as well as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and even Cyprus and Southern Turkey, (and, not coincidentally, all the associated oil fields that bolster the wealth of many of those countries).
Here is where the Kurdish opportunity lies.
One large chunk of the land that the Islamic State seeks to control (mostly in Turkey, but with large chunks in northern Iraq and Syria, and smaller portions sprinkled through Armenia and Iran) is land already occupied by a unique and large population of Sunni Muslims, with their own language, culture and values: Kurdistan.
Today, Kurdistan is a nation, but it is not (yet) a state. In the famous words of Benedict Anderson, a nation is an ‘imagined community’ – imagined because it is not (and, practically, cannot be) based upon direct, face-to-face instances of interaction among everyone within it. Nonetheless, it is comprised of large numbers of people who believe that they share a common background, including culture, descent, and most importantly language and history with one another.
This perfectly encapsulates the duality of being Kurdish. There is no central Kurdish government, no Kurdish state with internationally recognized borders, no Kurdish foreign ministry or currency or citizenship. Nevertheless, the Kurds have three important characteristics that differentiate them from other factions or ‘tribes’ in the conflict region:
First, the Kurds actually have a level of semi-autonomy, most notably in Iraq. The Kurdish began forming the pieces of their quasi-government in 1970, with the doomed Autonomy Accord Agreement. More recent events, however, have pushed the Iraqi government towards devolving greater power in the Kurdish region, as noted in Foreign Affairs: ‘Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed de facto self-government since 1991, when the United States imposed a no-fly zone in northern Iraq following the first Gulf War.’
This autonomy was bolstered by the onset the 2003 US’s invasion, which (among other things) resulted in the 2005 constitution that re-affirmed Kurdistan’s autonomy through Baghdad’s official recognition of the then 35-year-old Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Corollaries of this recognition meant that the KRG could exercise self-rule specifically over the provinces of Douk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Secondly, because of this semi-autonomy, the Kurds have an economy supported by the numerous oil fields in their provinces and a wide array of mineral wealth, which may only increase if Kurdish forces maintain control over the territory surrounding Kirkuk. In Iraq, there are some disagreements regarding which oil fields belong to whom, but this has not prevented dozens of international oil companies from flying their executives to Erbil and negotiating drilling rights directly with the KRG. (In fact, international developers are now much more willing to work in Kurdistan than Iraq proper.)
Thirdly and most pertinent to the Syrian conflict, the Iraqi Kurds have been able to equip their 200,000 strong Peshmerga (پێشمەرگە, Kurdish for ‘those who confront death’) military forces with arms, vehicles, and training. The Peshmerga originally existed as a militia to safeguard the Kurdish independence movement in the 1920s, but exists today as a disciplined, organized, and notably, effective military force.
So despite the detrimental impact of the current conflict on Iraqi Kurdish finances, their slowly modernizing oil industry (including a new pipeline to Turkey) is bolstering their economy. Iraqi Kurdistan has a regional government, and as recent victories suggest, a comparatively effective military. That still doesn’t explain why the United Kingdom, the United States and even foreign-conflict averse Germany are all suddenly channeling rifles, machine guns, grenades, anti-tank systems and armored vehicles to the various Peshmerga forces.
The question has two primary answers — one philosophical, the other practical.
The first reason is related to the aforementioned precedents of Kurdish history and identity. While they share the Sunni branch of Islam with Islamic State (whose version has been described as a twisted perversion), the Kurdish simply don’t identify with the extremists. As Johnathan Foreman wrote in The Wall Street Journal, Kurdistan ‘…has proved to be a haven of stability, relative security and pro-American, pro-Western sentiment ever since it broke free from Saddam’s misrule.’
The Kurdish regional government has economic relations with multiple American and European companies, it has participated in joint military activities with US forces, translated Arabic for Western intelligence forces, and even assisted in the hunt for Saddam Hussein. The Islamic State threat would undo all of the economic, administrative, and foreign-relations successes that the Kurds have achieved since 1991.
The second reason is a bit more realpolitik. US and European goodwill does not matter unless the Kurdish have the ability to back their sovereignty with force, and they arguably have that as well. Despite the Iraqi national army’s substantial size, some 800 IS/ISIS/ISIL forces routed nearly two divisions (around 30,000) of Iraqi soldiers from various locales, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, back in June. The resulting loss of credibility and tactical primacy means that the Peshmerga are the only military in the conflicted Iraqi territory with the equipment and access to training, foreign logistics, air-support, and Western respect. In fact, if they prove willing, the Peshmerga could actually negate President Obama’s ‘no boots on the ground’ requirement. Numerous examples cite Kurdish ground forces to be as effective as American ones in combating extremist forces. If adequately provided with the necessary arms and air support, such as assistance from the recently announced US-led coalition, the Peshmerga could be decisive in ending the Islamic State threat in the region.
No matter how the Western powers decide to combat the threat that Islamic State presents, the Kurdish Peshmerga are an unavoidable — and vital — factor. As a proven, Western-friendly force with a clear, anti-extremist agenda, the Kurdish forces will play a clear role in the Obama administration’s goals of ‘degrading and destroying’ Islamic State, thereby increasing security in the region.
Christopher Skutnik is an Academic Staff Member at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his MA in International Relations from Northeastern University.