Turkey must protect the Iraqi Kurds
WLADIMIR VAN WILGENBURGIn a one-week blitzkrieg, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who now refer to themselves as the Islamic State (IS), have purged religious and ethnic minorities from the countryside of Mosul and have managed to capture new oil fields, weapons, and most important of all, the Mosul Dam. ISIL is becoming a bigger threat to Turkey every day, but Turkey’s hands are tied with 49 staff of Turkey’s Mosul consulate still in ISIL-hands.
The Kurdish Peshmerga forces suffered a major blow to their image after they were kicked out of significant territory by the Islamist militants. Initially, the Kurds were overjoyed when ISIL kicked out the Iraqi troops, and the Kurds managed to secure many territories previously controlled by the Iraqi army. The Kurds hoped ISIL would focus on Baghdad, while the Kurds could work on a Kurdish state. But since the Kurds are Muslims and ISIL sees the Kurdish regions as part of a future caliphate, it’s impossible for the Kurds to stay out of this fight.
Turkey has a significant interest in protecting Iraqi Kurds, as it aims to protect the future of Turkey’s energy security and business ties between the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq (KRG) and Turkey. Moreover, if ISIL manages to beat the Kurds, Turkey could have a dangerous and unpredictable caliphate at its border. This would also cut off Turkey’s access to Iraqi oil and gas and ISIL could then threaten the 2,000 Turkish troops that are still deployed in small bases in northern Iraq under the 1997 agreement in the Duhok province.
Mostly likely ISIL would target Turkey in the future since it sees Turkey as part of its global Islamic Ummah. And Turkey could make the same mistakes as Iraqi Kurds in treating ISIL along the same line according to the famous proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” ISIL has already branded the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) head Abdullah Öcalan as “infidels” in its latest English glossy Dabiq.
Kurdish commanders and security officers told me the biggest problem the Kurds now have is the lack of ammunition and weapons. While the ISIL militants captured U.S. heavy weaponry, the Kurds are left with old Kalashnikovs. The Americans did not allow the Iraqi Kurds to buy their own weapons without coordination with Baghdad, which refused to pay the Kurdish armed forces.
Unlike in Turkey, the Kurdish armed forces are divided along political lines and are just a light infantry force with very old tanks dating from the Soviet times, old weapons and no air support or advanced anti-tank weapons, nor good artillery or intelligence information on pinpointing the exact location of ISIL militants.
The Kurdish army needs more ammunition, night vision goggles, modern tanks, armored personnel carriers (APC), air support and intelligence. They could also use the support of small special forces teams that helped them root out the extremist Ansar al-Islam group in 2003.
The Kurds could also use more training after not having fought any major battles after the fall of Saddam in 2003. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces turned from an insurgent force into a regularly paid army without receiving a significant amount of training, nor experience in the battlefield. This is one of the reasons why Kurdish President Massoud Barzani has called on the old battle-hardened Peshmerga fighters to return to the battlefront.
Another crisis the Kurds face is the huge numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, which are at least over 1 million.
As daily Hürriyet reported, Turkish defense officials denied any involvement in the bombing campaigns against ISIL in Mosul, in order not to endanger the lives of the Turkish diplomats held hostage by ISIL in Mosul.
With already having Turkish bases in the country, Turkey could easily support the Kurds from Duhok with its special forces, support units, tank battalion and air support with helicopters and fighter jets from Incirlik. But this could seriously threaten the Turkish diplomats held hostage in Mosul, unless Turkey supplies the Kurds with covert military supplies, intelligence and surveillance. Turkey could also support Sunni Arab militia groups to fight against ISIL in the future. There are already indications that Turkey has backed militant groups in Syria to fight ISIL.
If military options are too risky, the Turkish government could also choose to provide humanitarian aid, financial support and food supplies, and help the Kurds with setting up refugee camps close to the Turkish border. The Kurdish government is now faced with a huge humanitarian crisis with many NGO workers leaving. But Turkey should not make the same mistake as the Iraqi Kurds since ISIL’s goals are global.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is an analyst of Kurdish politics for the Jamestown Foundation.