The states of Syria and Iraq are crumbling as the forces of the Islamic State hammer constantly at the very idea of the modern nation state. The most typical Arabic word describing the situation in these countries is fawdah, or “chaos,” as they succumb to civil wars. Against this backdrop, the Kurds rise high. The Kurdish capital Irbil is a flourishing urban center and it carries the promising air of success. The region in northern Iraq is a place of law and order in a disintegrating Iraq.
The Kurds hold out militarily, as their Pesh Merga fighters, including women, pushed ISIL back from the Syrian border town of Kobani and continue to battle the Islamic State all over the Iraqi rift-line. But according to Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region, in order to maintain the defensive efforts vis-à-vis ISIL, there is an urgent need for more modern weapons. The so-far light arsenal provided by the US does not meet the Kurds’ needs.
The US may be acting on a misperception that the Iraqi state still functions and could still somehow inflict a serious blow on ISIL. Last month, the US Senate failed to pass legislation enabling military assistance and training directly to the Kurds, bypassing the weak government in Baghdad. The insistence of the White House that all arms transfers must be coordinated with the sovereign government may reflect an embedded misperception of both current and previous administrations regarding Iraq.
Moreover, some groups that may avail themselves of the arms bonanza are also anti-American. Those advanced weapons provided via the central government may later be obtained by ISIL fighters due to humiliating Iraqi defeats. The US also provides arms and training to various groups which, while fighting ISIL, are essentially against the current Baghdad government — which the US is supposedly so keen to protect and preserve.
In this vast Iraqi chaos, the Kurds loom tall and solid. Barzani’s desperate calls for military assistance are an ominous reminder from recent history. The current American misperception brings back to mind the struggle of his late father, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, against the repressive regime of Baghdad in the 1970s. At the time the US was involved in a covert operation to provide the Kurdish forces, the Pesh Merga, with military and strategic equipment. The US partner in this overreaching move was no other than the pillar ally of the US at that time, namely the Shah of Iran, and with another US ally, Israel. However, in 1975, the Shah abruptly shut down the Kurdish lifeline in return for Saddam Hussein’s significant territorial concessions in the strategically crucial Persian Gulf straits. The betrayed Kurdish population was abandoned to their fate; they suffered a brutal revenge by the Ba’thi regime and had to endure a long and terrible humanitarian crisis.
Following the Kurdish defeat in 1975, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, unseated, weak and terminally ill, was treated for cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. His presence and treatment were kept low profile in order to avoid embarrassment from the administration regarding a failed covert operation which had some uncomfortable moral implications as well. He died in March 1979 in McLean, VA. Ironically, his death took place just as his former ally turned betrayer, and a long-time asset of US policy, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, was deposed by the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini.
In the 1970s, both Syria and Iraq were under the rule of two rival branches of the nationalist Ba’th party. Today, both countries are molested by savage flanks of Islamic extremism bound to completely destroy the established political frameworks. ISIL declares its devoted mission to resurrect the Baghdad-based all-Islamic Caliphate. Indeed, Baghdad has a special symbolic value for ISIL’s founder and leader. He assumed the name of Abu Baker al-Baghdadi to symbolize both the immediate proximity to the prophet Muhammad (Abu Baker was the first Caliph after the death of the Prophet), and to the glorious five century long golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad.
Fast forward forty years and six US presidents, the Kurds under the Mulla’s son are facing anew a threat of assault. ISIL is everybody’s enemy: It is the enemy of Baghdad’s government, of the Shi’ites, of the Druze, of the U.S. and the West, and of just about every ordinary Syrian and Iraqi — but only the Kurdish Pesh Merga seem to be able to give ISIL a fight. The Kurdish autonomy seems to be the best functioning region in a Fertile Crescent that is virtually torn apart. But the Pesh Merga may be armed primarily with its fighting spirit while their enemies loot modern weapons to their hearts’ content.
Remembering his brave father, and the American misperception of those days, Massoud Barzani must have a lot to think about, unless the US Administration reconsiders its policy towards the Kurds.