The only effective fighting force opposing ISIS on the ground today are the Kurdish Peshmerga. These warriors—legendary since the days of the Ottoman Empire—have fought valiantly even when the larger, U.S.-trained Iraqi army abandoned the field, leaving their sophisticated U.S.-made weapons to the enemy.
The Kurds have liberated cities, defended citizens of nearly every faith and, though the war is still desperate, won their signal victories.
They ought to be celebrated, both in their native Kurdistan and around the world. They ought to be cheered on and supported in every way by the U.S. and her allies.
They are not.
Instead the U.S. has continued it’s decades-long policy of dealing with the Kurds only through the corrupt and ineffective Iraqi government in Baghdad. This has meant that the noble Peshmerga often lack the arms necessary to press through to victory. It has meant that while militias in Syria enjoy close U.S. air support, the Kurds often do not. It may mean that unless this failed policy is abandoned the war against ISIS will be lost.
All of this is fruit of the U.S.’s over-deference to the Iraqi government, particular during the recent Maliki years. Prime Minister Maliki objected to aggressive early action against ISIS, objected to strategic air assaults against ISIS and objected to direct arming of the Kurds against ISIS. In each case, the U.S. deferred until just recently. The cost has proven dear.
This deference grows, in turn, from an outmoded view of the Middle East that is still popular in Washington. It posits that Iran is the ultimate enemy and has been since 1979 when the Shah fled the country and the U.S. embassy was overrun.
To check the aspirations of Iran, the U.S. has been willing to support Iraq at nearly any moral cost—providing strategic support during the carnage-filled years of the Iran/Iraq War, turning a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s atrocities and, more recently, providing military aid to Baghdad without assuring that this aid would reach the Kurds in the north.
This has all fed a U.S. addiction to choosing the wrong friends in the Middle East. We play to the Saudis who have, perhaps until recently, funded ISIS generously. We play to Turkey, which only weeks ago bombed its own Kurds but refused to enter the fray against ISIS. Thankfully, that reluctance has finally dissipated. We play to the Iraqi government in Baghdad knowing that it is corrupt and strife-plagued, incapable even of fielding a viable fighting force with U.S. weapons and support.
Yet we have been slow to help the Kurds, a pro-democracy, pro-western, largely pro-Israel people in the heart of the Middle East who have proven themselves both loyal allies and heroic warriors. Why? Because we play the politics of petroleum and we, like abused children, seek the favor of abusing nations.
It is time to stop this folly and fully support the Kurds. They have passed every test imposed upon them. They have fought and won repeatedly against ISIS. They have, from the advent of the essential “no-fly zone” in the early 1990’s, begun to build such an admirable society that it is referred to around the world as “the Kurdish miracle.” As important, they have remained loyal allies of the U.S. despite our many betrayals of this courageous people—the most numerous in the world, by the way, without a homeland of their own.
If we are serious about defeating ISIS, we must get serious about the Kurds as allies. We must arm them, support them, and, when the time comes, take seriously their claim to a place among the free nations of the world.