A Better Solution to the Kurdish Arms Issue -Atlantic Council

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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:

http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/a-better-solution-to-the-kurdish-arms-issue

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.

Fate of Kurdish presidency divides Iraqi Kurds -al Monitor

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Although democratic institutions have been able to establish themselves in the Kurdish autonomous area better than most places in the Middle East, the KRG is still in a process of transition. In addition to its democratic side, the political system is still dependent on patronage organized around the two main factions, the PUK and the KDP, and corruption and nepotism are serious problems. Not surprisingly, there is a tension between the two parts of the system. Democracy depends on the possibility of a regular changes in government and leadership, patronage depends on their continuity. As the current term of President Massoud Barzani comes to an end, this tension is being highlighted. There are questions about whether it is time for Barzani to step aside and whether it is time to change the political system to break up the power of the two factions. Of course, all of this is happening with the war going on in the background. This is not a crisis in the sense that it will cause the collapse of the Kurdish political system, or lead to open factional conflict. However, it is a serious political dilemma with long term consequences in terms of trust and democratic culture.

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/05/iraq-kurdistan-president-barzani-term-parliamentary-system.html

The Fall of Ramadi: Daesh’s Next Move -RUSI

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“The Islamic State, or Daesh, once again showed its ability to surprise observers by its swift capturing of the Iraqi provincial capital of Anbar, Ramadi. But should it have been a surprise? Arguably, no. Should we be surprised by further moves by Daesh to continue to extend the reach of their self-proclaimed Caliphate? The answer, again, has to be no.

Why is this the case? Firstly, as has been well-documented, the very DNA of  Daesh is built upon consolidating its hold on territory already under its dominion, and to expand the Caliphate in an ever-growing initiative that would, at its end, be global in scope. The leader of  Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is clearly some way off achieving this final aim but, for now, he has plenty of opportunities to continue his strategy of expansionism in the chaotic world that is the present-day Middle East.”

https://www.rusi.org/analysis/commentary/ref:C555B4CB37F241/#.VVuKtJOrHSj

Kurdish-Shi’a Tensions in Iraq Amid the Struggle Against the Islamic State -Jamestown TM

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“Although the conflict in Iraq is often portrayed as a conflict between Shi’as, Kurds and Sunnis, the above developments and dynamics show that there are many other internal political and tribal divisions and tensions, including among the Kurds themselves. However, despite some recent tensions and speculation over the potential for conflict between the Kurds and Shi’a militias, there has been a considerable amount of military cooperation against the Islamic State. Moreover, Kurdish and Shi’a forces cannot afford to fight each other as long as the fight against the Islamic State continues. Thus, without a major crisis—for instance, caused by Kurdish President Barzani attempting to unilaterally annex the disputed territories without approval from Baghdad (as he threatened to do in July)—it seems unlikely that Kurdish control over these areas will actively be challenged by Shi’a militias, and, therefore, the status quo will continue. However, tensions could still erupt if there are fresh disputes between Baghdad and Erbil…”

http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=43918&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=26&cHash=f85ca462d87af1cd7d628a81613caac9#.VVl8Q9qqqkp

Will Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson enter politics? -Al Monitor

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http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/05/hassan-khomeini-assembly-of-experts-elections-politics.html

The endless maneuvering between Iran’s various factions is always fascinating. This article is doubly interesting though, because it highlights the complexities of institutionalizing charismatic leadership. Not to over simplify the creation of the Islamic Republic, but one of the main reasons it was able to survive and beat back its opponents was the political aura that surrounded its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. One of the main challenges the regime has faced has been to transition from political authority based on this charisma to authority based on the institutions of the state and the current elite. Although there has been a lot of progress, the regime still relies on the connection to Khomeini and the revolution for much of its legitimacy. Iranian political conservatives in particular try to associate themselves with the late Imam, and the current leader, Ali Khamenie is often pictured next to his predecessor. Therefore, not only is it ironic that Khomeini’s grandson seems to represent a more “moderate” trend in Iranian politics, it represents a clash between the old charisma and the new institutionalized authority of the state.

Is Syria’s war edging towards an outcome? -BBC

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“…the outlook for the embattled Syrian leader undoubtedly looks grimmer now than at any time over the past two years.

Some of his adversaries and critics believe he is already gasping on the ropes and that there could be a sudden dramatic collapse at almost any moment.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32703945

Before we write the Assad regime off a few things to keep in mind:
1. The Syrian civil war has gone back and forth since it began. At the end of 2012 it looked like only a matter of time before the Assad regime was toppled. By the end of 2013, the Syrian opposition was divided and bolstered by the Shi’a militias organized by Iran, the Assad regime was on the offensive. Now, a little over a year later, the non-ISIS Syrian opposition seems to have regrouped and the Assad regime is looking shaky again. This is not the first time someone said it was the beginning of the end only to find out it was just another turn in the road.
2. The opposition is fairly cohesive now, because they are united by the pressure that was being put on them by ISIS, the Assad regime and its supporting Shi’a militias. It’s one thing to cooperate when your back is up against the wall, it is another once you start to win and control territory. We will see if the various opposition groups start to squabble again once they have something to fight over and their is less pressure on them.
3. The opposition has also been more cohesive because their supporters -Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar- are also cooperating. We will see how long that lasts. It will be particularly interesting to see how the Saudis react if groups they do not like start to dominate in Syria. And, it will be interesting to see how much control the three states have over their proxies on the ground if local disputes emerge between them.
4. It is far from clear that the non-ISIS opposition can actually “win”. It is one thing to carve out a chunk of territory and deny control to the Assad regime, it is another to depose the regime and/or take control of the country.