On coalitions, ISIS, and the Kurds

Monday, Sept. 15, 2014

Like a lot of people, I've been appalled by what's been going on in Iraq. I wonder, however, if Obama and others are over-reacting to horrific videos that have been released in recent weeks. My sense is that ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State/Sonic Death Monkey, or whatever they're calling themselves this week, will burn themselves out before too long. It's hard to believe that a regime so brutal could survive, particularly when they can't even decide on a name. 

In response to recent events, US Secretary of State John Kerry has come up with not one, but two coalitions to fight the Islamic State.  One of these would be made up (mainly) of NATO countries (and...Australia!), and the other consists of a collection of Muslim majority allies and friends.

Turkey, meanwhile, has refused to sign the communique of Muslim-majority states pledging to fight the Islamic State, but is part of both groups, sort of. As others have pointed out, however, the Turkish government has its reasons--49 Turkish hostages currently being held by ISIS--for not wanting to get on board publicly. Who can blame them? 

This is just one reason why I'm not really sold on why it's such a great idea to create these coalitions. Yes, I know multilateralism is important, but what does forming either of these groupings actually achieve? 

First, I don't see the point of getting NATO involved with this. Doesn't NATO's leadership have other concerns right now?  After more than two decades of NATO's supposed growing irrelevance, the re-emergence of Russia as an adversary adversary of the United States and its allies in the region provides a real challenge to the organization. I think NATO has got enough on its plate right now without worrying about Iraq. They would be well advised to focus on their core mission.

Hey NATO! You've got other things to worry about...

As for the Coalition of the Willing Muslims, or whatever it is that Kerry thinks he's leading in the Middle East, I'm also pretty skeptical. I don't think it's a good idea to try to pressure the leaders of countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia into signing something with Americans in a public way. If the leaders of these countries want to help, they will--not every strategic partnership needs to be paraded in front of the cameras. Moreover, do we really need to have the Jordanians or Lebanese conducting airstrikes alongside American bombers? What does that prove--is it some way of showing Americans that the Obama administration is "getting tough" with Muslims, holding them to account, as it were, for the transgressions committed in their name? Or are we doing this so that the administration can argue that "moderate Muslim leaders" are on our side, even as their own populations may wonder why their government is helping the United States bomb other Muslims? 

Instead of helping behind the scenes, the leaders of these states are putting themselves at some political risk by publicly signing something with the United States. But is it their fault that the Islamic state exists? They aren't the ones that created this mess.

An excited Kerry talks coalition-building
I do think that American airstrikes are a good idea. My assumption is, however, that given the relations between successive American governments and the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq, it's only a matter of time before the war on ISIS is placed largely in the hands of the Kurds. If this happens, it seems like it would be difficult to stop the creation of an independent, and probably expanded, Kurdish state. 

While traditionally the Turkish government has opposed the creation of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq (or anywhere else), I think there are grounds to believe that the present Turkish government is different in this respect. Indeed, the governments of Turkey and northern Iraq have in many ways become partners, especially when it comes to conspiring to allow Iraqi Kurdistan to export more oil than they are, according to Baghdad, legally allowed.

Compared to most of the allies that Kerry has thus far rounded up in the fight against ISIS, the Kurds would be a lot more motivated to fight the Islamic State fighters--especially if they believed that independence would be the outcome of a successful war. Maybe I'm crazy, but it just seems a lot more logical to work with them, as opposed to, say, the Danes or Poles (no offense). 

Another problem with making everybody show up and sign their names to a paper is the noise that's been going on about excluding Iran. If Iran wants to help out, let them. Indeed it's a little late to start worrying about Iran gaining influence in Iraq--that started happening the moment the US invaded back in 2003. In any case, getting more involved with Iraq would, perhaps, keep Iran occupied, and who knows?--maybe even would blow up in Iran's face as it did that of the US.

As for Syria: I find it hard to believe that the United States can't find someone in the Syrian military who would be willing to take out Assad and call for a national unity government. Maybe an intra-Baath Party coup?  It would be a risky measure. Taking out Assad could very well precipitate the total collapse of that regime. Then again, that's how Assad's father, Hafez, took power--by overthrowing another Baath party leader. I wonder if a second "corrective movement" could be in the offing. 

 A number of politicians in the United States are trying to use the Islamic State as an excuse to get American soldiers back on the ground in Iraq. This would be, I think, an incredible error--it's no coincidence that the people calling for this are often the same folks who have been repeatedly misguided on Iraq on previous occasions. Air strikes can work, and as long as the US works with motivated and well-armed partners (the Kurds and Shiite Muslims), I think it would be possible to take out most of the Islamic State's infrastructure. I mean, if the US Air Force could do it against Yugoslavia in 1999 (which actually had an air force, if a very depleted one), I think they can probably manage ISIS without re-occupying Iraq. 

What we really need to start thinking about now, however, is how to respond to what would be the likely outcomes of a successful war against ISIS: an independent (at least de facto) Kurdistan, and increased Iranian influence in the rest of Iraq.   

Also see: 

The Iraq Crisis: What it could mean for US, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.  

Misreading Iraq, Reading the World

10 Questions Regarding Syria

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