To many, the catchall solution to the Middle East’s ISIS problem is simple: arm the Kurds.
“We need to arm directly the Kurds… The Kurds are the greatest fighting force and our strongest allies,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R) said in December during a Republican presidential debate.
“We need to be arming the Kurds,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said at the same debate. “We need to be fighting and killing ISIS where they are.”
A report released January 20 by Amnesty International, however, shows another side of this proposal. “This reports focusses [sic] on areas of northern Iraq where Peshmerga forces of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are preventing residents of Arab villages and Arab residents of mixed Arab-Kurdish towns from returning to their homes, and in some cases have destroyed or permitted the destruction of their homes and property — seemingly as a way to prevent their return in the future.”
To understand the intricacies of the dialectic over arming the Kurds, it is important to understand, first of all, that the Kurds are an ethnic group (distinct from Arabs) whose population is spread between a number of Middle Eastern countries. Kurds are primarily located in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and in each country their relations with the central government varies.
The major Kurdish political party in Turkey is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and considered a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. Department of State. In Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) represents Syria’s Kurdish region and enjoys close relations with the PKK but also has been described by the Wall Street Journal as “Washington’s most effective battlefield partners against Islamic State (ISIS).”
One of Washington’s closest allies in the fight against ISIS, though, is the Iraqi Kurdish fighting force called the Peshmerga. In addition to Bush and Cruz, Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul have all said they would arm the Kurds (usually without providing a distinction, though Carson named Sinjar in Iraq where the Peshmerga fought ISIS).
On the Democrat side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a speech on fighting ISIS last November: “One thing that I believe we haven’t done yet is make it clear to Baghdad that we are going to be arming Sunni tribes and Kurds if they don’t, because at some point, they have to be in the fight.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was asked if the United States should arm the Peshmerga specifically and responded, “ Yes. I think we should arm them.”
While Amnesty’s latest report doesn’t necessarily rule out the Peshmerga as reliable allies, it might cast a gray cloud over American’s political pandering. Viewing the Kurds as purveyors of “American values” or enforcers of American foreign policy is to view the region in simple terms. Instead, a multi-faceted approach to countering ISIS in the region would see the United States engaging with the Kurds on a political level as well as militarily, experts say.
“The problem with bolstering the Kurds’ military strength without a parallel political initiative is that America hasn’t set clear restraints on what the Kurds can do with their newfound strength or offered them guarantees of what they can expect in the future,” Cale Salih, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Maria Fantappie, a senior analyst on Iraq for the International Crisis Group, wrote in the New York Times in October. “This has reduced America’s ability to influence its Kurdish allies, even as they stretch beyond their traditional frontiers.”