Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers. AFP photo
The US has finally started directly arming the most competent on-the-ground force against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and that is the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG). US military transport planes airdropped to them arms and ammunition last week in Hassakeh so they could continue fighting a mutual enemy, ISIS.
So on the one hand we have the US directly arming an allied force whose alliance is predicated solely on the necessity of the fight against ISIS while continuing to indirectly arm its long-time Kurdish allies in Northern Iraq through the central government in Baghdad in the name of upholding the 'One Iraq' policy.
Obviously in Syria the United States does not recognize the authority of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and in Iraq it sees the government as legitimate. But at the same time in regards to the Kurdish territories in Syria the US State Department stresses that it doesn't recognize their autonomy and is committed to maintaining Syria as a unified nation state. Indeed Washington has said it is against Syrian Kurds connecting their separate territories across Northern Syria to form a contiguous polity and has reassured the Turks that it is opposed to the YPG advancing west of the Euphrates to link-up with their westernmost canton of Afrin.
Tough times call for tough measures and a lot of outside the box thinking. Sadly the One Iraq policy has its many faults and shortcomings. As it persists we're seeing to a situation unfolding whereby the YPG have arms dropped directly to them while the KRG has to sit tight and wait for the often cumbersome bureaucracy that comes with the One Iraq policy to deliver the arms the US has allotted to them.
The KRG is currently defending a very large front against ISIS and its Peshmerga have had successes against ISIS and have also made great sacrifices (an estimated 1,300 killed-in-action is no small number considering Iraqi Kurdistan's relatively small population) in this fight. Doubtlessly if the day comes when a joint task force is allotted the unenviable task of forcing ISIS from Mosul the Peshmerga will be expected to do their part and sacrifice yet more men.
Concerns about where exactly the arms are allotted in the KRG and the advocation of more practical measures on the part of Washington so it can be reassured that arms allotted to the KRG arrive exactly where they need to be (or where they deem them to be needed) strike me as trite when you consider the conspicuously large number of former American-made hardware and arms in the hands of Shia militias the U.S. is opposed to. And the salient fact that in the vacuum left by the failure of the Iraqi Army to reverse most of ISIS's gains since the summer of 2014 Baghdad has relied upon, and tolerated, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to confront the group. Surely with a situation like that in the rest of Iraq Washington can deliver the KRG the arms it needs directly to Erbil while simultaneously keeping Baghdad in the loop by showing them that the arms are for the broader fight against ISIS and are only being shipped directly to the KRG due to the challenging circumstances faced by the KRG. That way Washington would still be adhering to, and upholding, the principle of One Iraq while also ensuring that the KRG gets the vehicles and weapons they need to keep defending themselves and confronting the ISIS threat in their midst.
And if lack of training really is the reason Washington is reluctant to give the Kurds more than a paltry few weapons and vehicles then they should in send advisors in to train their allies (they have advisors assisting the offensive in Anbar after all). Not simply neglect them when their backs are to the wall against such an unrelenting foe.
Reports about how few armored vehicles the KRG has received to defend their lengthy and porous front against ISIS are truly depressing. A reported 30, out of a required 400, mine-resistant armored vehicles for defending the front have only been delivered to the Peshmerga. And it has even been said that the Americans stripped a lot of the toughest armor from them in fear the vehicles might be either captured by an enemy of the US or passed on and consequently compromised, which in turn implies that high-value targets to the enemy are in fact much weaker than they look.
30 vehicles to guard such a lengthy front against a group who captured, by the Iraqi governments own estimates, approximately 2,300 Humvees, many of which are armored and which ISIS have used as lethal suicide vehicles against their adversaries.
Critics of the KRG argue that the US should be reluctant about non-specific transfer of weapons if it enables both parties in Kurdistan to enlarge their own arsenals in lieu of taking the fight directly to ISIS. But surely parties beefing up the security in their own areas is a justified use of these arms. The rest of Iraq have been using the armaments it has gotten from the US to consolidate control over their own communities and to guard their major cities. The government has essentially maintained a front-line defense against ISIS's presence in Anbar and their ongoing offensive there is limping forward ever so slowly. Similarly the KRG has mounted offensives where they can in order to further secure their territories and should, accordingly, be earnestly supported in these endeavours by Washington.