By Patrick Knapp:
How US failures in Iraq and Kurdistan undermine the Syrian revolution
As the Syrian regime turns increasingly to air strikes in order to perfect its strategy of terrifying its population into submission, time is running out for the US to devise a strategy of its own. Unfortunately, any US strategy for Syria will be the victim of blowback from its policy of keeping Iraq at arm’s length in recent years, whether regarding its failure to influence Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to see through the security mission, or to stand by the Kurds. Ironically, if the Syrian regime does eventually fall, these failures will only become more pronounced as Iran shifts focus from Damascus to Baghdad.
Up to now, political expedience has characterized the US position on the Syrian revolution, resulting in the United Nations taking the lead by inflicting “meaningful dialogue” on the Syrian regime. Last week the UN released a report announcing that the regime did indeed commit a war crime when it killed 100 civilians over two months ago. Yet war crimes have piled up since then, and will persist as the UN prepares a September report identifying the war criminals. With its observer mission ending last weekend in failure, the UN has now resorted to replacing Kofi Annan with Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as mission chief. In other words, the UN has replaced the man who threw away a fax warning of imminent genocide in Rwanda with the man who leads the push for peace talks with the Taliban (“if you grow your beard, keep your woman at home, you’ll be all right,” he has said).
The Obama administration’s warning this week that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red-line” that could trigger US intervention suggests a possible turn toward US leadership in Annan’s wake. That is a positive step, particularly considering that Annan’s former chief of staff infamously ignored Saddam’s chemical attacks in Iranian Kurdistan due to his mission’s limited “terms of reference.” Yet given that Saddam killed 5,000 people in one day in Halabja with chemical weapons, the administration’s drawing of the line at genocide leaves much strategizing to be desired.
Unfortunately, blowback from mistakes in Iraq in recent years limits the strategizing. Since 2009, the US has stood by as Prime Minister Maliki has converted his Dawa party into what some Iraq experts liken to a “Shiite Baath party.” Maliki, a “civil servant” whose net worth according to some Iraqi journalists is $36 million, has ambidextrously taken on the roles of Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, and Minister of the Interior all at once, simplifying enforcement of his policy against aiding Syrian rebels. Yet just this week, despite speculation that Maliki is assisting Iranian arms flows to the Syrian army via Iraq, the US’ top military officer kept things cordial during his meeting with Maliki: “I don’t intend to ask him specifically about whether they are taking any active role in the Syrian situation.”
Strangely, the same US officials who criticized the Bush administration for its de-Baathification policy in 2003 looked away in 2010 as Maliki’s party declared 500 candidates ineligible for election due to alleged Baathist associations. Last year Maliki fired a hundred undesirable university faculty members, and he continues to round up former low level Baathists for alleged conspiracies, all as the US remains silent. Meanwhile, oil may abound in Iraq, but those outside the favored political circles make do with the 2 hour per day electricity grid. This is the pluralistic model the US has to show to the victorious Syrian revolutionaries when the post-Assad retribution against Allawites and Christian minorities closes in.
A former CIA case officer suggested last month in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, “To Topple Assad, Unleash the CIA,” that the US mobilize the Iraqi Kurds against Assad. But just which Iraqi Kurds would we use? The Kurds of the PKK, whom we help kill through our military assistance to Turkey? Or perhaps the rank-and-file Kurds of the Peshmerga, for whom US support of Kurdistan’s corrupt political parties has paid few dividends. Indeed, the ongoing clash over oil revenues between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad holds little significance for average Iraqi Kurds, it merely being a question of money going to equally corrupt Dawa or PUK/PDK officials.
If the US replaced its deference to Baghdad with a policy that supported, say, the KRG’s Turkish pipeline ambitions on the condition of transparency reforms, perhaps the US would have greater reason to expect favors returned in Syrian Kurdistan. Yet the US remains hands-off as thugs like PUK boss Omar Fattah profit off of donations to chemical attack memorials and order opposition journalists beaten. Indeed, when Kurds hear of American officials in Kurdistan, it is usually in regards to the shady dealings of former officials lured into the cesspool: former ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, for example, holds a lobbying office in Erbil while serving on the Board of an oil firm operating in Kurdistan. And US Army Col. (ret.) Harry Schute (one of the first post-Saddam American commanders in Iraqi Kurdistan) married a 21 year-old Kurdish woman, according to Hawlati News, and now dons Kurdish dress as he advises the corrupt security apparatus that many ordinary Kurds fear.
Furthermore, the Kurds, who have reason to doubt American earnestness on preventing chemical attacks, are perhaps more interested in US red-lines regarding post-Assad rebel access to chemical weapons. Even with a Kurd presiding over the Syrian National Council, Arab-Kurd relations remain uneasy, with one meeting in Cairo last month ending in fistfights. The US troop withdrawal from Iraq last December endangered Kurds in multi-ethnic cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk (since then sectarian violence has only risen, with 200 Iraqis killed in the past three weeks). Why should Syrian Kurds trust us to see the job through in Syria? Indeed, as al Qaeda’s terror and Iranian imperialism speed up in Iraq, surge architect and Romney foreign policy advisor Fred Kagan’s prediction that, “The decision to abandon Iraq entirely will stand as one of the monumental strategic follies of the 21st century,” looks increasingly true.
US strategy in Syria will plod ahead with “nonlethal assistance,” though most rebels wonder where even that is. American aid, a Syrian activist told the Washington Post this week, “is all virtual.” Unfortunately what is not virtual is a chemical weapons stash amassed with the aid of Western firms left unsanctioned by the 1980s realist consensus. Nor, unfortunately, is the rising violence in Iraq virtual. Last year an administration official said in reference to sectarianism in Syria, “Nobody wants another Iraq.” Ironically, because US officials have not wanted to deal with Iraq, Iraq is what a post-Assad Syria may just get.
Patrick Knapp recently returned from Sulaymaniyah, where he spent the summer volunteering for a human rights NGO. He is a US Army National Guard officer and master’s student at Columbia in New York.