By Javi Martinez and Dom Ranises
The Islamic State, otherwise known as IS (and formerly ISIS or ISIL), is at the forefront of today’s news. Its penchant for ultra-violent practices such as mass executions of religious minorities has gained international notoriety and this, coupled with both the groups’ acquisition of advanced military equipment and its promise to establish a “medieval Caliphate” within Syria and Iraq, has rightfully worried both Western and Middle-Eastern powers.
But the West, usually the guarantor of stability in the Middle-East, is finding it difficult to defeat the politically destabilizing terrorist organization.
Although Middle East nations have unanimously condemned IS for its brutality, none of them are willing to finance a large-scale multinational force to defeat IS and stabilize Syria. And the West, with electorates tired from lengthy wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, cannot afford to do so either. But world leaders recognize that IS must be crushed or greater chaos and disorder await the world’s largest oil-providing region.
Facing this, the West has resorted to using subtler means to tackling the IS threat. This potent mix has included direct airstrikes on major IS infrastructure and military formations, as well military aid and funding for concerned state actors such as the Iraqi government (which has been most hard-hit by IS offensives).
But detractors are crying foul over one of the West’s more controversial attempts to defeat IS: the arming of the Kurdish militias. The Kurds are a major ethnic group with large populations in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and have been known to conduct armed separatist movements against the governments of the aforementioned countries, especially in Turkey. Critics say that providing lethal aid to the Kurds and other anti-IS Syrian militias will create a long-term threat to regional stability. They point to the American arming of Afghani militias against the Soviet occupation during the early 80’s. The more extreme of these Afghani militias later became the core of the Taliban, which the American invasion of Afghanistan toppled, while others went to build the foundations of al-Qaeda. Thus, naysayers say arming the Kurds may result in a situation darkly similar to the one which led to two long and deadly wars in the Middle East and whose repercussions are still felt today.
However, arming the Kurds represents the best bet for Western powers to contain IS.
When the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to IS in mid-June of 2014 and as the Western-trained forces of the Iraqi government fell in sharp disarray, the Peshmerga, the primary Iraqi Kurdish militia, moved to defend the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq from IS advance. They did so with surprising success, almost completely halting further IS territorial gains. Since then, the Peshmerga have always been at the forefront of Iraqi offensives to retake IS-held areas. And, as of press time, it is mainly Syrian Kurds who are protecting the strategically-vital town of Kobani, which is only four kilometers (or a ten-minute drive) from the nearest Turkish village.
Thus, in the complexity of the Syrian civil war, the Kurds easily represent the single-most cohesive anti-IS military force friendly to Western intentions. They are secular, a characteristic sorely desired by Western military and civilian decision makers. Western planners hope to utilize Kurdish capabilities on the ground as Western aircraft simultaneously attack IS from above.
However, not everyone is happy with the world’s decision to rally around the Kurds. Turkey has been engaged in a long-standing conflict with Kurdish separatists that has killed an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 people since 1974. The conflict has only come to a recent end in early March of 2013, with both sides promising to negotiate a lasting peace after an initial ceasefire.
As such, the Turkish government views the West’s support for Kurdish militias as detrimental to both the fragile Turkish-Kurdish peace process and Turkey’s long-term stability. Turkey feels that arming the Kurds can only help to uplift Kurdish nationalism, potentially increasing the risks of another insurgency movement amongst Kurds. These concerns are manifested in Turkish inaction on providing logistical and military support to Kurdish militias, in spite of having its powerful military less than an hour’s drive from the worst of the fighting between the Kurds and IS in Syria.
Turkey’s apprehension is not unfounded. The PKK, the Kurdish militant organization with which the Turkish government has fought for the last thirty years, is designated a terrorist organization by numerous states and organizations, including the United States and the European Union. For the Turkish government, there is every possibility for the fragile ceasefire to dissolve in conflict and this was no better illustrated than when Turkish warplanes bombed PKK positions after Kurdish militants allegedly attacked a Turkish military outpost.
And so the West must tread a careful line. Turkey is one of the West’s few remaining allies of strength in the Middle East, one not to be dismissed. But in the immensely complex arenas of the Syrian Civil War, where dozens of independent militias compete for loyalties and ever-shifting spheres of influence against each other and the Syrian government, the Kurds may be one of the last few reliable vehicles through which the West may enforce its will for a secular and stable society.