Turkey finally joins fight against ISIS. Kurdish PKK attack Turkey. Iraqi Conundrum made more complicated.
What a merry go-around. The Kurdish Peshmerga have proven to be the best Iraqi fighters against ISIS. The Kurds have been asking for weapons from us directly, i.e., not handed out piecemeal from the weak Shia dominated Iraqi government. Something we should do, right? But wait. The Turks don’t want us to do that. We have been trying to get Turkey, the biggest power in the immediate region and a member of N.A.T.O., to let us use a base in Turkey for our air strikes against ISIS. We have also been after Turkey to help directly in the fight against ISIS. This past week they finally entered the fray, in a limited way, after attacks by ISIS on a Turkish city that lies on their border with Syria. They also finally agreed to allow us to use the air base, in exchange for us trying to create a safe zone in Northern Syria. So why don’t they want us to provide heavy military supplies directly to the Kurds to help them fight ISIS both in North Syria and in Iraq? Is this yet another conundrum in our seemingly impossible effort to develop an effective coalition of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds to fight ISIS on the ground–where our “advisers” have a limited mandate?
Yep! And the reasons for this are found in both the ethnic divisions within Iraq, Syria, Turkey and even Iran, as well as the fact that all of the players fighting ISIS have double agendas. Yes, they want to contain ISIS. But that’s only part of the story. Within Syria we have been trying to recruit and train Syrian groups who are “pure enough.” That is, they will agree to fight only ISIS. We don’t want Islamic Jihadists. That, from the git go leaves out the al-Nusra Front, perhaps the best fighting force among the groups who are working for a “Free Syria,” i.e., to overthrow the Assad regime, who themselves are Alewites, a sub-branch of Shia Islam. Al-Nusra are Sunni Islamic Jihadists, who impose strict religious laws in the areas of Syria that they take control of. If that wasn’t enough, they also have some Al Qaeda connections. The remaining Free Syria groups, while opposing ISIS (who, besides trying to establish a new caliphate extended to include Iraq, have been the most successful group at taking ground from Assad in the northern part of Syria), have as their primary objective freeing Syria by fighting Assad’s forces. Naturally the number of “pure” volunteers that we’ve had to train from Syria is extremely small. Some say you could count them on your fingers and toes. This includes the so-called Division 30 “force” of whom Al Nusra is claiming the capture of “some.” If so, there couldn’t be many of them captured. If your head isn’t already swimming, consider this: the Lebanese terrorist group Hamas (Shia), whose hatred of our ally Israel knows no bounds, recently crossed the border into the southern part of Syria to help Assad. Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, that places them near the Israeli northeastern border with Syria. All of these factors play into the conundrum we face in fighting ISIS. In previous posts we have stressed the strategic problem of trying to retake Sunni Ramadi by funneling weapons to Sunni militias through a weak Shia government, whose army has come of note for running away from smaller ISIS contingents and leaving U.S. supplied weapons behind for ISIS use.
Now back to the Turks and Kurds. I’ve already told you that the Kurds have proven to be the best of the Iraqi fighters against ISIS. As much of the area in Iraq (and in Syria) under ISIS control includes Kurdish populated cities, the Kurds have embraced the fight against them. However, the Kurds have long aspired to establish their own country, Kurdistan, as promised them by the League of Nations, but later treaties ignored. Kurdistan would include areas with large Kurdish populations in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Approximately 12 million Kurds live in southeastern Turkey. Naturally, Turkey doesn’t want to lose this big hunk of their territory, which you can see on the map below. Like most of the groups fighting ISIS, the Kurds have a two-fold agenda: 1) to fight and depose ISIS from Kurdish populated areas, 2) to fight to gain independence for Kurdistan. Hence Turkey’s resistance to the possibility of our providing heavy weapons directly to the Kurds. So in our desires to defeat ISIS and support our NATO ally Turkey, we have added yet another seemingly impossible thread to the Iraqi conundrum.
If that’s not complicated enough, the Kurds had long spent about as much time fighting each other as they did in fighting Saddam Hussein. When Saddam was overthrown, the Kurds became de facto occupiers of Kirkuk and the rich Kirkuk oil fields. This allowed the two main factions to come together to negotiate with the new Iraqi government a division of those spoils. But a Kurdish faction known as the PKK, the Marxist- oriented Kurdistan Workers Party, with ambitions to liberate the Kurdish portion of Turkey, had a more militant (some say terrorist) mode of operating. This week, even as Turkey was taking steps to aid us in the war against ISIS, the PKK took credit for a car bombing that killed two Turkish soldiers, and the Turkish air force bombed PKK camps in Iraq. Both sides blamed each other and the fighting ended a two-year peace between Turkey and the PKK. Previous conflicts between the two sides have killed an estimated 40,000 people.
As I’ve previously noted, anyone who says we should send in ground forces and “bomb them back to the cave man age,” which I’ve heard all too often, should be dismissed as ignorant of the complexities in the area. If they are politicians running for president, I’d suggest looking for another candidate. This includes Donald Trump, who said he’d resolve the ISIS problem by kicking their behinds. If anyone has a real solution to the Iraqi and Syria conundrums, there are a lot of decision-makers who’d like to hear from you.