OPED: Kurdish fight against IS needs more support

Tribune News Service
U.S Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, center left, and his French counterpart Jean Yves Le Drian give a press conference, at the defense minister residence in Paris, Wednesday, Jan 20, 2016. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday that defense ministers from France and five other nations have agreed to intensify the campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, and that the coalition will work together to fill the military requirements as the fight unfolds over the coming months. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Any U.S. effort to uproot the Islamic State from Iraq and Syria this year will have to rely on Kurdish fighters to play a critical role. Without the Kurds, any offensive to retake Mosul — the large Iraqi city seized in June 2014 that is the Islamic State's command center — would be doomed to failure.

But last week two senior Iraqi Kurdish officials came to Washington with these disturbing messages:

  • Plunging oil prices have brought their autonomous region to the brink of an economic collapse that would undercut the war effort.
  • Mosul cannot be liberated without an Iraqi Arab partner and a comprehensive game plan, both of which seem absent so far.

"We are the main force on the ground, and we have reached the stage where we can't manage," I was told by Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG. "We are fighting (on behalf of) many other countries. If this is an international fight, we need more financial support."

Of course, as close U.S. allies, the Kurds are already receiving military aid from the administration, which is funneled via Baghdad. U.S. forces are training two new Kurdish brigades (down from a proposed three, according to Hussein) and U.S. planes provide critical air support to the Kurds.

But Hussein's point is vital. The KRG is on the front line, defending almost a thousand miles of border that abut areas seized by the Islamic State. The KRG's foreign minister, Falah Mustafa Bakir, said the war effort costs $2 billion annually.

And the KRG has taken in 1.8 million refugees and displaced persons since the 2003 Iraq war, a 30 percent increase in the population of the region. That includes hundreds of thousands of Syrians, along with hundreds of thousands more religious minorities, including Yazidis and Christians, who fled the Islamic State.

This is a rarity in a region convulsed with sectarianism, but the KRG has received little economic help from Baghdad. However, the harshest blow to the KRG's economy has to do with oil revenues, on which the Kurdish region depends to finance its budget.

Last week, violent protests broke out in one Kurdish province as the government fell further behind in paying public sector salaries. So the Kurds urgently need financial help for munitions and weapons, as well as food, clothes, boots, transportation and medicine for their fighters.

These Kurdish emissaries made another essential point in their meetings at the State Department, the White House and on Capitol Hill: If there is going to be any attempt to retake Mosul in 2016, the Kurds will need more than an increase in financial assistance. They need a comprehensive approach from Washington that, in my opinion, has been lacking so far.

"If it is about taking Mosul, we need a partner," Hussein insists. It's far from clear that Iraqi security forces are ready to play that role, despite U.S. retraining, and despite their retaking Ramadi.

The best of those forces, the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, is overstretched; if its forces leave Ramadi, the Islamic State could start moving back in. So, as the Kurds recognize, there must be a political dimension to retaking Mosul, one that involves Sunni tribes who fear persecution at the hands of a Shite-led Iraqi government — or at the hands of the Kurds.

So here is the checklist of essential Kurdish needs to which the administration should pay attention, a list that should garner bipartisan support:

  •  Emergency financial aid
  • An upping of military supplies
  • And a clear game plan for retaking Mosul, including steady pressure on Baghdad to be more politically inclusive of Sunnis.

"Is this war only a Kurdish war?" asks Hussein, "Or is it our war together?" The answer should be clear.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.