I’ve long advocated for better relations between the U.S. and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the fight against ISIS. Having been in Kurdistan back in 2003 and having met with several KRG officials during my time as a U.S. Congressman, I knew we had a solid ally. However, a recent report has me quite perplexed — but then again, it’s typical of the razor-thin relations in the Middle East.
As reported by Fox News, “Ethnic Kurds are helping members of the Islamic State group in the battle for the key Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, sharing their knowledge of the local terrain and language with the extremists, according to Iraqi and Kurdish officials. It is not clear how many Kurds are aiding the estimated 3,000 Islamic State militants in the Kobani area — and fighting against their own Kurdish brethren — but activists say they are playing a major role in the 7-week-old conflict near the Turkish border. A top military commander for the extremists in the town is an Iraqi Kurd, known by the nom de guerre of Abu Khattab al-Kurdi, helping them in the battle against fellow Kurds.”
One of the lessons I learned from my time in the Middle East and Afghanistan is that tribal allegiances trump all others. We all know that ISIS is a Sunni Islamist terrorist organization. But recently ISIS committed a mass massacre of Sunnis in western Al Anbar province near the town of Hit because their tribe has assisted U.S. forces during the Sunni Awakening.
Therefore it has nothing to do with ISIS being a separate standalone terrorist entity — they are enacting a pure form of Islam which believes in punishing anyone — yes, including Muslims — who violate their strict interpretation.
Fox reports, “As Kurdish fighters were defending the nearby Syrian village of Shiran in September, two Kurdish men with different accents and wearing YPG uniforms infiltrated their ranks, Kurdish officials said. Upon questioning, however, they were captured and admitted to fighting for the Islamic State group, the officials added. Iraqi and Kurdish officials say many of the Kurdish fighters with the Islamic State group are from the northeastern Iraqi town of Halabja, which was bombed with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988, killing some 5,000 people.”“Halabja was known as a secular village and the home of Abdullah Goran, one of the best-known Kurdish poets in the 20th century and a member of the Iraqi Communist Party. But in the past three decades, Muslim preachers have become active and have turned it into one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most religiously conservative areas. Still, most of the Kurds are moderate and secular-leaning Muslims. Many Kurds in Iraq were stunned when they learned that Kiwan Mohammed, the 25-year-old goalkeeper of Halabja’s soccer team, was killed last month in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State group in Kobani.” “Shorsh Hassan, a YPG spokesman in Kobani, said although most of the Kurdish jihadi fighters come from Iraq, some are from Syrian regions such as Kobani, Afrin and Jazeera. In Baghdad, an Iraqi security official said al-Kurdi was a member of Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni militant group with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who was active in the early 2000s. Al-Kurdi later joined the Islamic State group, the official said.”
Clearly the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq allowed remnants to reconstitute and now form alliances with the ISIS group. It’s an unfortunate example of how campaign politics clashes with national security policy and strategy. After all, we maintained US forces in Germany, Japan, and Korea for how long? We still have forces in the Balkans.
The purpose is simple: to allow a peaceful transition and preclude a reconstitution of enemy remnants. The problem in this current conflagration against Islamic terrorism is that the enemy has not surrendered — yet we withdraw. It really is a matter of not understanding the basic policy in these regions where strength and might are dictates — words and rhetoric are seen as evidence of weakness.
We got on the wrong track with nation-building before ensuring we had soundly defeated the enemy by pursuing him into his sanctuaries. The “surge” did somewhat accomplish this, but if there is anywhere there should be consistency and unity of effort, it should be national security and foreign policy. Sadly, that was not the case.
President Obama believed he was elected to end wars. I believe it was Plato (or someone equally wise) who stated, “only the dead have seen the end of war.”
My greatest concern with ISIS is that their ranks are growing and our basic strategy of arming Syrian rebels isn’t just flawed — it has failed, as we reported recently of Jabhat al-Nusra attacking them, as well as Syrian Army forces of Bashar al-Assad.
According to Fox News, “Nawaf Khalil, the Europe-based spokesman for Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, said Kurdish fighters within the Islamic State group are invaluable in the Kobani battle because they know the geography, as well as the language and the mentality of fellow Kurds. “A main part of their work is tapping (electronic surveillance) and intelligence-gathering. They might be also using some from the Kobani area to benefit from the geographical knowledge of the area,” he said.”
If ISIS can attract more Kurds and create a separation within the fold — we already know there are Turkish fighters among many others — this will make it an almost untenable situation in Iraq. And it could represent another window of opportunity that could possibly close on the watch of the Obama administration — just as in Syria.