President Barack Obama is clearly not happy about ordering U.S. military intervention in Iraq again.
But with Islamic State militants (ISIS) terrifyingly close to the Kurdish capital, Irbil, and 40,000 members of a religious minority facing death on a mountaintop, Obama decided to deploy a limited amount of U.S. airpower in a country where U.S. combat operations supposedly ended four years ago.
Iraq has now become Obama’s war, too, if to a lesser extent than his three predecessors.
George H.W. Bush intervened in 1991 to expel Iraq from Kuwait and established no-fly zones to protect the Kurds and later southern Shiites from Saddam Hussein; Bill Clinton maintained the zones and bombed Baghdad to eliminate Saddam’s presumed weapons of mass destruction; George W. Bush went all the way and eliminated Saddam – and the institutions of the Iraqi state. Bush, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki all share some responsibility for creating the conditions that gave birth to and nurtured the Islamic State militants.
So far, U.S. airdrops of humanitarian supplies, airstrikes against ISIS positions and arms supplies to the Kurds have stopped the jihadis’ advance on Irbil and saved thousands of members of the Yazidi community from extermination or enslavement at the hands of Islamic State militants or death from hunger and thirst on Mount Sinjar.
U.S. prodding also helped produce a new Iraqi prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, a British-educated engineer and long-time member of the Dawa political party. He has 30 days to try to form a more inclusive cabinet than Maliki and reach out to Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis as well as the Kurds. Maliki is trying to hang on but hopefully can be persuaded to step down in return for promises of immunity from prosecution and a permanent security detail.
Even if much of Iraq remains divided and dysfunctional, however, Obama was right to intervene to save the Kurds. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq is a rare success for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Over the course of four U.S. administrations and three decades, the Kurds have created a relatively democratic and tolerant entity that has important strategic value for Washington and the region as a whole.
The United States has not always treated the Kurds well. In 1975, the U.S. unceremoniously halted covert support for then Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani – father of current KRG president Masoud Barzani – after Saddam and the then Shah of Iran reached a deal resolving territorial disputes. Suddenly deprived of Iranian and American help, the Kurds saw more than 1,000 villages destroyed by Iraqi forces and a quarter of a million Iraqi Kurds fled to Iran.
Thousands more perished during Saddam’s genocidal campaign at the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war – a war in which the Reagan administration backed Saddam despite his use of chemical weapons against both Kurds and Iranians.
Since the 1991 Gulf War, however, successive U.S. administrations have sought to rectify these injustices by establishing and protecting an autonomous zone for Iraqi Kurds. This has given them time and space to develop economically, politically and socially far in advance of their neighbors.
The KRG is now a crucial friend of the United States in an unstable region with few other attractive partners. As Cale Salih, daughter of former KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih, wrote recently, “Obama needs the Kurds, and he knows it. They are largely secular and pro-Western, but also maintain dynamic ties to both Iran and Turkey. They offer a potential base from which the U.S. can stage counterterrorism operations against ISIS.”
Located, as Salih points out, “at the intersection of several regional conflicts,” the KRG has links to Kurdish groups in Syria that have also fought ISIS successfully. Iraqi Kurdistan is sheltering hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other parts of Iraq who have nowhere else to go. Hundreds of Americans are also in the KRG to support U.S. operations there and work with U.S. and Kurdish businesses.
Given the disarray Iraqi government forces initially exhibited against ISIS, the burden has fallen on the Kurdish Peshmerga – literally, those who face death – to blunt the ISIS advance. On Sunday, they retook several towns close to Irbil as the U.S. bombed ISIS artillery pieces, combatants and armored vehicles.
Some may ask why the U.S. is intervening now to help the Kurds while providing only limited assistance to anti-ISIS rebels in Syria. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who reportedly argued in favor of more support for the Syrian opposition when she was in office – has even suggested that more U.S. help to Syrian moderates three years ago could have prevented or slowed the rise of ISIS.
Whatever the merits of her argument, there are many reasons why helping the Kurds makes more sense that intervening in Syria did then or does now. For starters, the international community is united against ISIS in Iraq but not in Syria, where the main alternative to the jihadis is Assad’s brutal regime. The decades-old Peshmerga is also a far more cohesive and capable fighting force than the Free Syria Army was or is ever likely to be. Finally, U.S. intervention in northern Iraq has the blessing of the Iraqi government in Baghdad as well as considerable domestic U.S. support.
Obama’s limited intervention in Iraq has been criticized by gung-ho interventionists such as Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) as too little, too late. But Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed that urgent U.S. action was necessary against “a clear humanitarian crisis, with ISIS committing mass murder against Christians, Kurds, and other religious minorities.” So did Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill), a frequent critic of the White House on policy toward the Middle East. On Monday, Kirk tweeted “Commend POTUS [President of the United States] for overdue support to our Kurdish allies in Iraq; best option on ground to hold off ISIS & stopping persecution & genocide.”
For many Americans, there is an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu as U.S. planes based in the Persian Gulf bomb Iraqi targets once again. Mission creep remains a possibility and there is the risk of more U.S. casualties in a far-off place that has seen too much U.S. blood spilled and money wasted. But the alternative – allowing a barbaric medieval movement to sweep aside a reliable ally and expand a haven in the heart of the Middle East – would be even worse. The Kurds deserve more U.S. help and they should get it as soon as possible.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.