Archive for the ‘Syria and Kurds’ category

US support for Kurds in Iraq and Syria unaffected by tensions with Turkey

February 11, 2018

Source: US support for Kurds in Iraq and Syria unaffected by tensions with Turkey

{While we’re making a huge investment in the Kurds, Turkey prolongs the battle against ISIS. – LS}

The Pentagon is continuing to support Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, a government audit revealed this week, even as the fight against the Islamic State (IS) winds down and the United States faces growing pressure from allies and foes alike to back down.

The latest quarterly Lead Inspector General (IG) report for the US-led mission in Iraq and Syria confirms that the Donald Trump administration continues to supply weapons and equipment to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Defense Department considers the YPG to be the most capable in-country US partner for the mission, but NATO ally Turkey views YPG fighters as terrorists.

For the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, the Pentagon asked for $500 million to supply Syrian forces, including YPG-led units, with vehicles, mortars, anti-tank missiles and machine guns, up from $430 million requested in fiscal 2017. Deliveries began in May 2017, prompting the ire of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The IG report indicates that US support has kept up, despite pledges from US officials to draw down support amid increasing friction with both the Turks and Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A large battle outside SDF headquarters this week led to the deaths of more than 100 pro-Assad fighters who fired dozens of tank rounds at the Deir ez-Zor province compound, prompting the US-backed force to respond in self-defense, according to the Pentagon.

“SDF said that there had been no change in their relationship with the United States and that changes to weapons deliveries were a consequence of their victories against [the Islamic State],” said the report, prepared for Congress by inspectors general from the Pentagon, State Department and the US Agency for International Development. “Syrian Kurdish officials reiterated their interest in having American engagement in Syria continue, and warned that a reduction in US support could allow [IS] to regain strength.”

Yet as YPG and other fighters have strayed away from the US-backed mission against IS, the Pentagon has cautioned that it will cut off support for units that leave the front lines. More and more Kurdish fighters and their allies have been heading toward Afrin, a Kurdish-held area that has been under attack from the Turkish military since Jan. 20. Last weekend, the 2,000-member Syriac Military Council, a Christian group, opted to leave the SDF to join the fight in Afrin.

“Any forces that decide to move to Afrin will not receive continued coalition support,” a spokesman told Al-Monitor.

The mounting tensions come as the Defense Department says it has trained 12,500 vetted Syrian opposition fighters since the beginning of the anti-IS campaign in 2015, including 11,000 members of the SDF.

“Wherever possible, our advisers monitor the use of the weapons and supplies we give the Kurdish elements of the SDF, ensuring use only against [IS],” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told Al-Monitor. “Any alleged misuse or diversion of US support is taken seriously and may lead to the possible curtailment of support, if verified.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon trained nearly 2,000 more Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces over the past three months even as stipends to Kurdish Regional Guard Brigades ended after a yearlong agreement to fund the fighters expired in July. The Pentagon has requested $365 million this fiscal year to pay for the Kurdish force if a new deal can be ironed out.

In late October, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Baghdad would soon begin paying peshmerga salaries. But Abadi has still not delivered on that promise, the IG report says, as Iraqi security forces moved into disputed areas after the Kurds voted for independence in September.

Most peshmerga forces withdrew to protect their semi-autonomous territory in northeastern Iraq after Baghdad kicked them out with the help of Iranian-backed militias. Some units, however, stayed behind to fight IS, which now has fewer than 1,000 adherents fighting for small pockets of territory, including Tuz Khormato near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Toward an independent Kurdistan

October 20, 2017

Toward an independent Kurdistan, Washington Times, James A. Lyons, October 19, 2017

Illustration on the strategic importance of an independent Kurdistan by Alexander Hunter/The Washington Times

Unfortunately, with the Obama and Muslim Brotherhood holdovers still in key positions in the National Security Council, State Department and Department of Defense, the U.S. position has been to back the Iranian Baghdad puppet regime.

[W]hen you consider that one of the key U.S. objectives in the Middle East is (or ought to be) to prevent Iranian regional hegemony, a staunch ally like the Kurds, who have fought with us to defeat the Islamic State, is exactly what we need in this volatile region. In addition, as a free and independent Kurdistan is key to preventing Iran from establishing a land bridge from Tehran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea, the current U.S. position makes no sense. Further, should Iran be successful in establishing a land bridge to Lebanon, Tehran will be able far more readily to augment Hezbollah’s already formidable forces as a direct threat to Israel’s survival.

Besides providing verbal support for Kurdistan’s independence, we should take immediate action to establish a forward operating base in Irbil with its 13,000-foot runway, one of the longest in the world. We should plan to rotate a detachment of F-16s and A-10s in and out of the base. Additionally, such a move would complicate any plans by Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara for further aggressive action against Kurdistan. Such a move will not only enhance Israeli security but place added pressure on Iran, along with President Trump’s recent decision on refusing to recertify the unsigned nuclear weapons deal with Iran.

We need to face facts: The only true ally we have in the region today is Israel. A free and independent Kurdistan would clearly enhance the chances of achieving two of our joint, vital objectives in the Middle East — bolster Israel and add to our partners and allies in the region.

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq held a referendum on independence on Sept. 25. It was overwhelmingly approved. This referendum, not surprisingly however, has precipitously raised tensions not only with Iraq but also with Turkey, Syria and Iran, all of which have large — and restive — Kurdish minorities.

Baghdad already has made moves to isolate the Kurdish region by banning all international flights from landing there and demanding a halt to all crude oil sales. And although Ankara has quarreled repeatedly with the Iranian puppet regime in Baghdad in recent years, the Turkish government late on Oct. 16 decided to close not only Turkish airspace to flights to and from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, but also to close the Irbil-Ceyan oil pipeline, which is the Kurds’ only source of revenue. Additionally, Turkish and Iraqi troops had held joint military exercises shortly after the Sept. 25 referendum vote.

In what may presage a new and violent phase in the break-up of Sykes-Picot Iraq, Baghdad moved aggressively on Oct. 16, sending Iraqi Army troops into the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Further, units of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Shiite paramilitary groups that receive equipment and training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), were deployed alongside the Iraqi Army units south and west of Kirkuk. It is a city of a million people that lies just outside the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government territory. When the Iraqi Army deserted Kirkuk in 2014 in the face of the Islamic State onslaught, however, it was the Kurdish Peshmerga forces deployed there that kept the Kirkuk oil fields from falling into the Islamic State’s hands. They have declared that they are now not about to give up that territory. Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who is the commander of the IRGC Qods Force in charge of Iran’s foreign operations, arrived in Kurdistan on Oct. 15 for discussions — but only with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), not the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). He apparently presented Baghdad’s demands that the Kurdish Regional Government cancel the referendum results as a precondition for talks to resolve the current dispute. KRG officials led by President Masoud Barzani not only previously had rejected any such demands, but pledged to defend Kurdish-held territory in case of attack.

With Iranian-dominated Iraqi and Shiite militia forces now in control of Kirkuk, though, at least in part due to apparent PUK treachery, the region and its deeply divided factions may be poised on the brink of yet another explosion. According to reports, the KDP Peshmerga forces fought hard to avoid being pushed out of Kirkuk, but ultimately had to retreat when their ammunition ran out. Thousands of civilians and Peshmerga fighters fled toward Irbil and Sulaymaniyah.

Unfortunately, with the Obama and Muslim Brotherhood holdovers still in key positions in the National Security Council, State Department and Department of Defense, the U.S. position has been to back the Iranian Baghdad puppet regime.

The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 is dead. The U.S. must recognize the realities on the ground. The former Iraq, like the former Syria, has always been an artificial construct, cobbled together by European powers in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Absent the brute force of a dictator, these entities simply cannot hold together against the clashing centrifugal forces of their feuding ethnic, sectarian and tribal components.

Further, when you consider that one of the key U.S. objectives in the Middle East is (or ought to be) to prevent Iranian regional hegemony, a staunch ally like the Kurds, who have fought with us to defeat the Islamic State, is exactly what we need in this volatile region. In addition, as a free and independent Kurdistan is key to preventing Iran from establishing a land bridge from Tehran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea, the current U.S. position makes no sense. Further, should Iran be successful in establishing a land bridge to Lebanon, Tehran will be able far more readily to augment Hezbollah’s already formidable forces as a direct threat to Israel’s survival.

Besides providing verbal support for Kurdistan’s independence, we should take immediate action to establish a forward operating base in Irbil with its 13,000-foot runway, one of the longest in the world. We should plan to rotate a detachment of F-16s and A-10s in and out of the base. Additionally, such a move would complicate any plans by Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara for further aggressive action against Kurdistan. Such a move will not only enhance Israeli security but place added pressure on Iran, along with President Trump’s recent decision on refusing to recertify the unsigned nuclear weapons deal with Iran.

We need to face facts: The only true ally we have in the region today is Israel. A free and independent Kurdistan would clearly enhance the chances of achieving two of our joint, vital objectives in the Middle East — bolster Israel and add to our partners and allies in the region.

• James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.