I don’t actually agree with suggestions made in this article, as I will explain at the end. However it does provide a glimpse into the complexities of the US position in regards to arming the Kurds:
1. The strategic calculation is complex: “To date, the Obama administration has resisted calls to circumvent the Iraqi government, for understandable reasons. Authorizing the export of weapons to the Peshmerga would publicly challenge the authority and sovereignty of the central Iraqi government, an embarrassment that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi does not need now. Providing weapons and ammunition to Kurdish units, according to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, “could put some of our personnel at risk” and could potentially encourage the Kurdistan Regional Government to work for independence far sooner than they originally planned. Bypassing the central government in Baghdad would also run contradictory to what US policy in Iraq has been since 2003: to support and work for a unified, federal Iraq for all Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity or sectarian identity.”
2. The debate has got sucked into partisan politics in Washington: “The White House, Pentagon, and State Department remain opposed (a position supported by Prime Minister Abadi’s administration), but a growing constituency in the US Congress have recently pushed to make direct arms shipments to the Peshmerga as the law of the land. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce has reintroduced a bill (with forty-four cosponsors) first crafted last year that would authorize defense exports to the Kurds for an emergency period of three-years for the sole purpose of defending the people of the Kurdistan region and facilitating military operations against ISIS. Senators Joni Ernst and Barbara Boxer introduced a companion bill in the Senate for the same purpose. The House Armed Services Committee, in the meantime, went a step further—designating the Peshmerga and “Sunni tribal security forces” as countries in order to accelerate US weapons shipments under the Arms Control Export Act.”
3. US leverage with Baghdad is limited: “…Obama giving a tough, credible ultimatum to the Iraqi government. If the Iraqi Ministry of Defense does not deliver to the Kurds the needed defense materiel previously agreed upon by Washington, Baghdad, and Erbil, the United States will reevaluate its policy of routing all weapons shipments through the Iraqi government and extend its support to members of Congress who are working to change the law.”
The problem with this suggestion is that using threats and brinksmanship, even within an alliance, is a very dangerous game. The bigger the credibility gap the more likely it is to blow-up in your face and it would be very difficult for the US president to make this threat credibly. If Obama was forced to follow through, he would alienate Baghdad and open the door even further to Iranian influence. Even worse, damaging relations with Baghdad would mean weakening the anti-ISIS coalition at a critical time. Given these contingencies, even if Obama really was willing to pay the price, there is a very good chance that the Abadi government will think he is bluffing. If the threat failed, not only would Obama have to deal with the problems above, his long term credibility, and the credibility of the US government would be further diminished. After his failure to follow through after the Assad government was accused of using chemical weapons, that is the last thing Obama needs. The bottom line is that the US still needs the Abadi government and Abadi is not going to get turfed out like Maliki, at least not in the near future. So tempting as it may be to start making threats and declaring ultimatums, it is not likely to work.