Why won’t Barzani or Barham block the arms sale to Turkey?

By Michael Rubin:

On October 28, 2011, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency formally notified the U.S. Congress of its intention to sell Turkey three AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters. Turkish diplomats tell their American counterparts that they need the helicopters to combat Kurdish guerillas. Turkey may have other motives however. Turkish President Abdullah Gül has suggested Turkey might seek to punish Kurds collectively for the actions of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). “No one should forget that those who are inflicting this pain upon us will suffer in multitudes,” he declared. Egemen Bağış, a Turkish minister and confidant of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has also threatened Cyprus and Israel in recent months.

The Pentagon, acceding to a Turkish request, is however already quietly lobbying the Congress to clear the way for the sale of dozen Predator or Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles which Turkey also says it will use against Kurds in the rugged mountains along the Turkey-Iraq border. On November 1, Turkey’s Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz met with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon to discuss further arms sales. Some senators may fear that Turkish promises to host an early warning radar system would fall flat without the helicopters. But Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has already said Turkey might close the base after two years. Regardless, Turkey is in no position to play its hand so strongly; a number of other countries—Poland, the Czech Republic or, even Romania—might fill the gap at far less cost or aggravation.

Clearly, Turkey’s robust lobbying campaign shows Ankara wants American weaponry quickly. With regard to the helicopters, the clock is already ticking toward approval of the sale. If the U.S. Senate takes no action to block the Turkish request within 15 days—by November 12—then the sale of the helicopters will be approved automatically and the Pentagon will send the Super Cobras to Turkey, where the Turkish military will immediately deploy them not only against the PKK but, as Turkey’s troubled history of counterterrorism and collateral damage suggests, more broadly against the Kurdish population.

It is true that Turkey has faced a PKK challenge for the greater part of the last three decades, and the PKK is far from blameless. The biggest impediment to Turkey’s terrorist fight, however, is not a lack of weaponry: Turkey has more than enough in its arsenal. Rather, Turkey’s problem is that it refuses to define terrorism. While Turkey claims that the PKK is a terrorist group Erdoğan bends over backwards to exculpate Hamas and Hezbollah, groups guilty of far more deadly attacks on civilians than the PKK. European diplomats rightly question this hypocrisy; American officials do not.

Before the United States provides helicopters to Turkey which could be better used fighting the Taliban and associated groups in Afghanistan, Turkey should explain Gül’s threats of revenge, and clarify its threats to take military actions not only against the Kurds, but also against Israel and Cyprus. It should also explain why it undertakes military action against the Kurds when Erdoğan’s popularity suffers for unrelated reasons, but sits down with the PKK when Erdoğan feels himself politically secure. Counterterrorism is a serious issue; it should not be used cynically for political gain, nor should Iraqi Kurds die because Erdoğan wants to deflect Turkish attention from rising inflation and uncertain economic indicators.

The Super Cobra sale and the ticking clock also expose hypocrisy of the Kurdistan Regional Government. While Regional President Masud Barzani wraps himself in the Kurdish flag, complains about Turkish violations of Iraqi Kurdish territory, and makes nationalist rhetoric a staple of his speeches, he does nothing to stop the Super Cobra sale. Barzani is in the midst of a three-day visit to Turkey. He could speak out about the sale in Ankara or, if quiet diplomacy is more his desire, he could call Vice President Biden to request suspension of the sale. He has not done so.

Prime Minister Barham Salih is in an even better position to derail the sale. Barham cultivated close personal relations to senators during his days representing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Washington. He wields more influence in Washington than any other Kurdish leader. If Barham asked his friends Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ), both of whom serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee, to put a hold on the sale, provision of the Super Cobras to Turkey would be suspended immediately. Despite being in New York and Washington this week, however, Barham has not requested that any senators put a hold on transfer of a military platform that will be used against the territory he was selected to represent.

Nor has Qubad Talabani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative in Washington, sought to activate the Kurdish Caucus in Congress about which he frequently speaks. Members, if asked by Qubad, might contact senators from their state delegation or at least demand fuller Pentagon and White House explanation for the sale. The Kurdistan Regional Government has spent hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to fly retired American generals and officials to Kurdistan, and to wine and dine them. There is an implied quid pro quo to such hospitality, however. Should Masud, Barham, or Qubad ask these retired generals to speak against the Super Cobra sale, Congress would surely listen.

There are many reasons why senators could put a hold on the proposed arms sale to Turkey. It is in neither the American interest nor the Kurdish interest nor that of Iraq, Israel, or Cyprus for the United States to sell advanced helicopters let alone hellfire missile-equipped Predators to Turkey. The United States should not reward bad Turkish behavior. Realistically, most senators will not even realize this sale is controversial unless they are contacted. That the Kurdish authorities are asleep on the job would be tragic enough. That they are aware of their power to sidetrack Turkey’s acquisition of Super Cobras but do nothing, however, speaks volumes about the Kurdish political reality today.

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14 Responses to Why won’t Barzani or Barham block the arms sale to Turkey?
  1. Abduall
    November 3, 2011 | 22:55

    Much could have been done and much still can be gained before it is too late if Kurdish leaders truthfully toil for and represent the common interests of Kurdish citizens. Our politicians resemble more like thick-necked tycoons exploiting religion and nationalism as implements to betray the faith of masses and merely expand their exclusive huge corporates.

    Maintaining the status quo will absolutely serve the interest of both ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. PUK and KDP impede state establishments to merge into strong national entities serving the nation so that they maintain their clout over manipulating them.

    Kurdish citizens have come to realize that chanting slogans in support of Kurdish rights are nothing more than media and election hypes. President Barzani can no longer swindle them.
    In the wake of crackdown of some senior Baath party military officers returning from Syria, Jordan and Saudi, trying to stage a military putsch, ultimately PUK and KDP woke up from their hibernation, realizing that in order to protect Iraqi Kurdistan versus internal and external threats, the formation and merger of all Kurdish Peshmarg forces is imperative. It is still not late, and hopefully it transpires at the earliest.

    Turkey ultimate goal is not striving to zero out PKK bases in Qandil Mountains, but to dismantle KRG in any form and way since the very existence of an economically and militarily blossoming autonomous Kurdish administration poses a serious threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Turkey. Iran seems content for the time being with KRG for just persuading PJAK to cease its activities. Iran does not tend to engage KRG because of the sensitivity of time. It is premature and Tehran has superior threats to cope with at the moment. Iran does not long to fuel Kurdish nationalist sentiments. It will steer clear of offering its restive ethnic and sectarian minorities a leeway to trigger an Arab-like spring. But once the state of affairs clam down, Iran will lay ambush to curtain and mar KRG expanding clout, as well. Shahs are long gone but Mullas seem even more hypersensitive to the rebirth of a second Republic of Muhabad.
    The US is withdrawing its troops by the end of year. Obamas admin must have assured KRG of its sustained support, but Washington is not expected to trade a long-time Muslim NATO ally for the sake of Iraqi Kurds. I beg to differ with the author that KRG senior leaders can prevent the sale of US-made sophisticated weapons to Ankara.
    Seeing Americans gearing up to depart, Iraqi military has resumed barking again.

    Kurdistan is beleaguered by the very similar ferocious enemies from every corner and the only way for Kurds to survive among them is by only and only forging a joint front to counter them.
    In case of Turkish General recapping a proven-failed notion of fully, militarily launching an incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, KRG must ally with PKK. And that is when Turkey would realize that having abandoned KRG alone was much better than allowing a second stronger KRG growing in its backyard.

  2. Haval
    November 4, 2011 | 08:32

    KRG’s piority is to preserve what they have ,nothing else has interested.Barham and Barzani are palying politics and dirty one ,otherwise how could be possible to wathch you brother Kurd to be slotered in another part of Kurdistan and you praising them .It is absurd ..

  3. دڵشاد خۆشناو
    November 4, 2011 | 11:26

    What a strange demand by Mr. Rubin?

    How should “Barzani or Barham block the US from selling arms to Turkey”?

    As if the US was an infant which you needs to be prevented from doing something evil.

    Shame on the US, those self declared democrats and advocates for human rights.

    The US is going over dead bodies for their so called interests.
    Turkey is strategically important for them. So that justifies the US for decades in supporting such a bloody regime like Turkey which is commiting a 90 years genocide against kurds after they did the same to armenians.

    What is the difference between Gaddafi and the US?
    Gaddafi was regarded as ultimate evil and the US as the home of human rights and democracy?

    If own interests can justify everything then Gaddafi, Assad and all the other mass murderers were fine because they were “just defending” their interests.

    Mr Rubin, you are a member and working for the same american army that Mr Panetta is heading.

    Don’t turn to Barzani with your appeal, start with yourself first and then your defence secretary and all the rest of the murderous bunch of the american administration.

    To Barzani I would say, change your policy. You are completely ill advised by whomever is advising you.

    Think big is the way and not being a servant for the Turks, Persians and Arabs.

    40 Kurds occupy the junction between Turkey, Iran and the arab countries. This is the most strategic place in the middle east.
    Kurds should be able to do much better but not with this lousy, short sighted and low esteem politics they follow.

    Dilshad Xoshnaw

  4. Michael Rubin
    November 4, 2011 | 13:40

    Kak Dilshad,

    I certainly have agitated against the arms sale. But that fact that senators believe there are no objections from Turkey’s neighbors lead them to believe that it is uncontroversial. If Kurdish leaders expressed their concern regarding the Super Cobras, at the very least the Congress might decide to put a hold on the sale and take a closer look.

    With regards,


    • دڵشاد خۆشناو
      November 4, 2011 | 20:06

      Kak Michael,

      it is indeed positive that you have touched this subject and it hasn’t been unnoticed that your recent writings are far more favorable for kurds without distorting facts.
      Thank you very much indeed for that.

      Having a bright mind on our side is certainly very welcome.

      Back to your remarks:
      It is interesting what you are saying in regards to senators.
      You are assuming that Barzani and Barham haven’t shown any objections which very would surprise me and shows their thinking and acting if that is really the case.

      But lets be realistic. Senators and congressmen don’t need the shy objections from those kurds to know how wrong and devastating their massive military, diplomatic and economic support for Turkey is and what that means to the ordinary kurds in Turkey, not only for the PKK.

      They know the whole story of Turkey’s oppression of kurds…

      On the other hand may be those ladies and gentlemen (Congress and Senate) need such actions (kurdish objections) to justify any possible changes in their decisions as they are probably not completely immune to public opinion and would have a point to make if they did so.

      So may be those leaders in the kurdish administration should really listen to yourself, at least in this case.


      • Halmet
        November 7, 2011 | 02:16

        I think the petition should have been led by KRG to tell the Kurds throughout the US to write to their elected congress to stop the arm sales to Turkey. I strongly believe that if all of Kurdish constituents have written to their congress, one of them would have said “what are you talking about?” but, as Michael stated, staying static doesn’t serve the Kurds. At the end, the Kurds always want others to have sympathy for their cause and direct them in the path of Kurdish interest. My brothers, It didn’t happen, it’s not going to happen and it will not happen. The Kurds need to take the matter in their hand and wake up for god’s sake. It’s not Michael’s job to ask his senator to stop the sales but it’s the Kurdish leaders’ job and the Kurds in diaspora. However, if Michael does write to his senator to stop the sale, the Kurds should appreciate his efforts. Michael, I think you for bringing this important issue to our attention.

        • دڵشاد خۆشناو
          November 7, 2011 | 18:47

          You are generally right but you are misunderstanding something I believe.

          A lot has been said about the quality of the work KRG representatives and their top people do.
          I don’t want to waste the space this time for that but it is also obvious that ordinary kurds, including those in the diaspora, are pretty passive and do little in campaigning and political activism and when they do so they are very ineffective and very scattered.

          You have more than 700.000 kurds in Germany and their impact is negligible because they are not united and work mere against each other than together for the common kurdish cause.
          Not to forget the fact that they have no (common) vision and no strategy to make those visions reality.

          In my view kurds tend to “just react” when they are hit and even that doesn’t last for long.
          Few weeks or months later everything is forgotten!
          You see little of long term strategies, how to respond to the plans of our enemies and how to come closer to our rights.

          Turkey, Iran and arab countries, with the support or silence of US/UK have been working hard since 2004-5 on limiting the kurds in south-kurdistan and drive them back gradually and they have been successful in that.

          Kurds haven’t done a lot about it and in most cases they have denied even that there is an external danger on kurdistan.

          I am not blaming Mr. Rubin for starting such debates. I am reminding everyone that it is not about “senators and congressmen not knowing about the situation in kurdistan” sothat reminding them would do the trick.

          The US and the establishment know better than you and me what’s the situation in kurdistan.
          It’s obvious that they do that because the weight of Turkey, Iran and arab states is 100 folds greater than what kurds can put on the balance.

          They will always do what they have done in the last decades to us.
          If US kurds would write those senators nothing would change because kurds are just irrelevant.
          They don’t have the numbers to count in terms of election votes AND they don’t have any economical and organizational strength and weight like Armenians, Jews or others.

          The only thing that would help those ladies and gentlemen change their minds is if kurds manage to create more weight back home in Kurdistan.
          Nobody would have talked about kurds in Tukrey and their rights if PKK wasn’t there and wouldn’t have the military and public strength that causes Turkey a lot of headache.

          So the only solution for kurds is:

          “Get united.. work hard, be smart and hit your enemies as hard as you can” and don’t play the nice guy because at the end you are “screwed” in this real world.

          And don’t expect much from KRG because in addition to all illnesses they simply have no clue what’s is going and how this all works!

          Slaw u rez,

  5. dario
    November 4, 2011 | 15:05

    barzani and barham more concerned about their business interests in Turkey (which made from corruption money) rather than the plight of innocent Kurds killed by these weapons.

  6. Susan
    November 4, 2011 | 18:49

    Every one knows everything occurring in Kurdistan, but no one seems to be doing it about it????

    • 1 True Kaka
      November 8, 2011 | 23:37

      And to Michael: Indeed, why would not they? Do you think they are capable of doing so and they failed to step up to the task? Do you think they have it in them to stay in the way of Ankara? Massoud Barzani, or Talabani? Nechirvan or Barham? Or Kosrat Rasul or Mala Bakhtiayr?
      I think you do realize we are in a bit of a mess!

  7. Kurd_Man
    November 4, 2011 | 19:52

    Mr. Ruben

    I’ve read most of your pieces, though you haven’t been always positive towards the KRG, but this time you’re asking a legitimate question that I, as a Kurd living in US, have asked myself.

    You’re well aware of our peoples struggle having faced genocide and all sorts of human rights issues, i wonder why the Obama administration is oblivious to dangerous Turkish behaviors.

    European countries are not as staunch Turkish supports as Americans are. Europe is far more aware of the Kurdish question but U.S. government have failed time after time to address the Kurdish question.

    Palestinian and Israel get a lot of attention, but the Kurdish struggle has been going on for centuries. Far more lives have been perished in this conflict than the Palestinian/Israeili conflict.

    If you don’t want to help us, fine, but have the decency and humanship to be aware of our history. We’ve faced cultural genocide by four countries. Our very existence today is simply by margin of population.

    There’s currently no accurate figure what is the exact population of the Kurdish people in the world and in Kurdistan. All four countries (Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran) all have policies in place that prevent accurate head count.

    We’re not talking about 4 or 5 million Palestinians but 35-40 million people.

    I personally could deal with the Helicopter sales. But Predator Drones that are armed to the teeth with advanced technology in Turkish and possibly later Iranian hands is a very serious issue. There is no doubt their target will be a lot more than PKK members in the mountains.

    This is something that Barzani needs to directly talk to Obama….all senior American commanders and diplomats….i would leave all doors open as far as U.N. and the World Court.

    A technology that advanced would be a huge blow and a staggering threat to our people, heritage.

    Mr. Ruben, i know you’re not a fan or KRG but lately you’ve been generally positive about the Kurdish issue, writing about it and getting it attention. Thank you. I wish there were more Americans like you existed who are well aware of whats going on around the world.

  8. Baqi Barzani
    November 4, 2011 | 21:00

    If I were the president, I would employ individuals such as Michael Rubin to work for KRG. Just like many other US veteran military officers and ex-diplomats currently aiding our people. We must be willing to listen to both opponent and proponent voices in order to improve.

    • 1 True Kaka
      November 8, 2011 | 23:29

      Why do yo think Mr Rubin or people like him would want to work for such corrupt individuals?

  9. Wladimir
    December 2, 2011 | 03:25

    From an advocate of the Turkish military to an opponent of U.S. arms sales to Turkey. How ironic, or could I say logical. Since everything you say is related to your pro-Israeli view points, no matter how many notorious regimes they have contacts with in order to safeguard their existence (which I can understand from a realist point of view, nor that I criticize Israel for that).

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