In interviews with over two dozen congressional aides, human rights activists, and former and current military officials over the past three months, I repeatedly encountered strong support for Kurdish statehood.
This is for good reason; Erbil will be a valued strategic partner not for decades but centuries, if the West acts decisively and urgently. The United States has nothing to teach the Kurds; quite the contrary, they have much to teach us.
Arming peshmerga in the vicinity of Erbil may be a good place to start, but it isn’t enough. The United States should move swiftly and aggressively to match the operational tempo, agility and resourcefulness of its adversaries. Iran cannot be considered a credible partner in Iraq, or anywhere else. Tehran has already begun to arm peshmerga, and is petrified the US will do the same in exchange for preferential basing at Erbil’s airport. The West should capitilize on Tehran’s fears, and equip the vetted Kurdish opposition with so many weapons they’ll need to build shelves.
The Kurds are willing and capable, require no combat training, and only want resupply. This does not require deep and nuanced thought — they’re the best partner you could ask for, strategically, operationally, and tactically. And they’re ruthless. They are, in the words of one Army civil affairs officer, “the premiere malleable partner force,” meaning they are a tactician’s dream come true. It is merely a bonus Kurdish forces exhibit maximum political utility.
Training and equipping Kurdish groups in Syria, Iran, and Iraq would have immediate strategic significance. It is estimated that over ten million Kurds live inside Iran, Syria, and Turkey. This affords Western intelligence agencies a large talent pool from which to build a government. While it is true statecraft has no tools short of war capable of adjusting territorial borders, unconventional warfare does so remarkably well. Western powers should encourage efforts to establish Kurdish independence, at a fraction of the cost Operation IRAQI FREEDOM: Redux would be.
Functioning as a human intelligence ‘trawler’ as well as a highly effective maneuver force, the vetted Kurdish opposition can dramatically expand territory and push ISIL out, backed by NATO airpower. “These guys can win, if we put birds in the air and provide [close air support]”, a former senior defense official who requested anonymity told me. “Warheads on foreheads is exactly what’s needed there.”
Speaking on background, the official was reluctant to concede the United States and NATO would have trouble evading Syria’s air defenses — a critical component of any air campaign, and a dry run for Iran.
To sustain forces on the ground, it will be necessary to establish forward operating locations along Kurdistan’s border with Iran and Syria. These are dissimilar from forward operating bases in that they are austere, and would not have a cadre of salsa dancers, Burger Kings or personal trainers.
This is a natural mission for a Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force, which would operate along the Syrian border with vetted Kurdish opposition forces and NATO special operations forces. These soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines would work in coordination with a joint special operations task force on the Iranian border, partnered with the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.
Training and equipping this constellation of Kurdish groups would have immediate strategic significance. Kurdish participation is critical to combating extremist influence not just in Iraq but also Syria and Iran. “To ignore Northern Iraq’s geostrategic value would be a massive folly,” University of Maryland researcher Phillip Smyth told me during a series of interviews at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. Smyth was quick to point out the extent of Iranian activity throughout the region. “Amerli was just the beginning, “ Smyth said.
A third mission set could be interrogating captured members of ISIL and Iranian proxy groups, preferably in a lawful manner. “Uprooting the takfiris will almost certainly require boots on the ground and fortunately we have them in the peshmerga and nationalist Syrian rebels”, Kyle Orton told me.
Orton, who has worked on humanitarian missions in close contact with the moderate Syrian opposition, has extensive experience in the region and dismissed concerns about the efficacy of acting in Syria. “Aerial support for Kurdish and Syrian ground forces is the best way to roll back the Caliphate,” Orton said.
Operating in concentric circles moving outwards from Erbil, vetted Kurdish opposition forces could conceivably enter Syria, Turkey, and even Iran under the protection and watchful gaze of NATO airpower.
A Marine Corps officer, who requested anonymity to discuss personnel decisions, was adamant “there wasn’t any support” for the establishment of a 5-star headquarters, but the various military services would “swallow” a 3-star. “At the end of the day, the Building would kill it,” the Marine Corps officer said, referring to internal opposition of a 5-star flag or general officer billet, unseen since the days of Ike.
Together, these blended elements—conventional forces, special operations forces, national intelligence agency personnel, a reconstituted Free Syrian Army, and a syncronized, vetted Kurdish opposition—can get to work capturing and killing ISIL leadership, collecting intelligence, and harassing Iranian proxies. And, if the time comes in a future conflict with Russia or Iran, Kurdistan’s new borders afford you air bridges to Iran and Syria, as well as land bridges to Georgia, the Mediterranean, Turkey, and the Baltic States.
Political and military engagement will continue in this region long after this administration leaves office, and a nuclear Iran will set off a regional arms race throughout the region, limiting options for future presidents. It is conceivable we lose Afghanistan’s airbases and Russia will move against NATO airbases in Europe. If that happens, the West will need strategic basing independent of supposedly friendly nations—Qatar and Turkey, among others—and sea bases on the the Black, Mediterranean and Caspian Seas.
A land bridge connecting the Black and Mediterranean Seas to Georgia and an independent Kurdistan, coupled with an air bridge to Azerbaijan to the east and Cyprus to the west, affords the United States and NATO access. It cuts both Qatar and Turkey out of the equation—the Combined Air Operations Center should’ve never been in Qatar, anyway.
A free Kurdistan, not Qatar or Turkey, should host the CAOC. Kurdistan is marching steadily towards independence from Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. This should be encouraged and supported from every corner of the government, from the Department of State to the Pentagon and the Department of Commerce.
Human rights activists, in interviews, pointed out the feminism on full display in Kurdistan’s struggle. “Kurdish women are fighting on the front lines,” Garrett Khoury, the director of research with The Eastern Project told me in an interview. The Kurds “are not leaving their fates in the hands of men,” Khoury continued. “They are fighting back against a group that has killed and raped untold numbers of women.”
If fighting sexual violence isn’t a reason to intervene, what is? Who are we to stand idly by in the face of oppression? “Kurdish women are equal partners in the fight,” Khoury reminded me in an interview. “In the end, we’d be helping women save themselves.” It’s a point that resonated with me for days after. Women are fighting for their lives and their freedom in Kurdistan. Will we abandon them, to rape and certain death?
These sentiments were echoed by congressional aides, who were quick to point out the humanitarian situation on the ground. “These girls are being raped, and we’re supposed to wait for Turkey’s blessing?”, a Democratic congressional aide who requested anonymity to discuss US policy told me in a heated exchange. “We need to be doing everything we can on the ground. USAID, everything.”
To abandon the Kurds now serves no one except our adversaries, who would very much like to take Erbil.
Kurdish participation is critical to combating extremist influence across the region.
In interviews with congressional aides and former military, backing a breakaway Kurdistan was framed as “nurturing a new Israel in the Middle East”, in the words of a congressional aide who requested anonymity. This was a recurring theme throughout subsequent discussions, but the prospect of Kurdish independence drew sharp rebukes from current defense officials who didn’t want to anger Turkey or the White House.
America can stand tall with the Kurds, fight radical Islam, and combat Iran but it must act fast. Eventually, NATO inclusion should be on the table as well. In Kurdistan, we would have a stable, valued strategic partner in an unstable region. An unexpected situation, to be sure, but a welcome one.
He who supports Erbil, redraws the map. The contours of an independent Kurdistan are faint, but apparent.