Last night’s CNN Republican debate focused more heavily on combatting the Islamist threat here at home than destroying the Islamic State abroad – understandable, given how recently Islamists managed to commit a massacre on Californian soil. To the extent the fight abroad surfaced as a topic, however, a common refrain reared its head, leaving many questions unanswered: “we should arm the Kurds.”
“We need to arm directly the Kurds… The Kurds are the greatest fighting force and our strongest allies,” former Florida governor Jeb Bush said, answering a question regarding GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s proposal to halt Muslim immigration to the United States. “We need to be arming the Kurds. We need to be fighting and killing ISIS where they are,” Senator Ted Cruz responded, to a question on the campaign in Syria and Iraq.
“We seem to be afraid to give the Kurds weaponry,” Ben Carson, noting that Kurdish forces had been successful in eradicating the Islamic State from northern Sinjar, Iraq: “Do the same kind of thing that we did with Sinjar a few weeks ago, working with our embedded special forces with the Kurds, shut off the supply route, soften them up, then we go in with specials ops followed by our air force to take them over.”
Similar comments surfaced in prior debates, though the Kurdish question arose more prominently given the national security nature of this debate. In November, Carly Fiorina vowed to arm “the Kurds” and support them along with “the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Bahrain’s, the Emirati…” She made the same promise in September, as did Senator Rand Paul: “The Kurds deserve to be armed and I’ll arm them.”
Through months of Republican debates now, no moderator has dared ask of any of these candidates: “Which Kurds?” Perhaps they, too, view the Kurdish people as a monolithic entity, rather than Kurdish as an ethnic identity, whose people have organized and trained multiple militias, not all of whom work together on the battlefield. Some Kurdish groups are Marxist, some are capitalist. Some do consider the Kurdish people to be monolithic, while others have established an enclave for themselves and see geography as a hurdle to a unified Kurdistan.
The land comprising “Kurdistan” contains parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. Different militias control different territories.
When a candidate for the presidency promises to “arm the Kurds,” they could mean any one of the following:
- Arm the PYD: The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the Syrian Kurdish government. Its militias are the People’s Protection Units (YPG and its woman-only wing, the YPJ). They have been indispensable in keeping the Islamic State from conquering sufficient territory near Turkey to break down the Syrian-Turkish border completely, allowing foreign fighters free entry into the Syrian war zone. Their greatest victory so far has been the recapture of the border city Kobani, whose capture would have allowed uncheck passage to ISIS terrorists into Syria. The YPG accepts volunteers, and many Westerners – some American – have joined their ranks, so arming the YPG would result in some American soldiers receiving weapons to fight ISIS. The YPG is a left-leaning organization and cooperates with the PKK; as a result, it counts among its ranks some Marxists and communists.
- Arm the PKK: The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a Kurdish militia operating in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. It is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization of Marxist leanings. It considers all Kurdish people to be one and fights for the unification of Kurdistan as a recognized state. It maintains cooperative relations with the PYD – so much so that Turkey considers the PYD a terrorist group for its relationship to the PKK – but not the Iraqi Kurdish factions. While arming the PKK would require a Republican candidate to own giving weapons to the people who use this logo, supporters of the PKK note they have been extremely effective fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, particularly when the Iraqi peshmerga fled. Arming the PKK would infuriate America’s allies in Ankara, but, supporters ask, is this any worse than arming Arab Syrian rebels who will hand their weapons over to Al Qaeda?
- Arm the Peshmerga: The Peshmerga are the military of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, headquartered in northern Erbil. The KRG is pro-American and not Marxist, and has spent much of the past few months trying to get the PKK out of Iraq, complaining that PKK fighters are badly trained and get in the way of military strategy against ISIS on the ground. Unlike the PKK and YPG, the Peshmerga do not take volunteers: “The Peshmerga is a professional fighting force.” The Peshmerga have been behind major advances in Iraq, particularly the liberation of Sinjar and the ongoing campaign in Ramadi. They are allies of the Turkish government, making it more diplomatically viable for the United States to arm them. Arming the Peshmerga would almost certainly diminish the influence of the PKK in the area.
- Arm them all. There is an argument to be made that, rather than spend the money on “vetting” questionable Arab militias, many with ties to Al Qaeda, or give the money to Iraqi Shiite militias that have vowed to attack any American that enters the country, aid should be evenly distributed among all three groups. No GOP candidate has specified that their call to “arm the Kurds” means arming all of the Kurds so far.
Some may argue such a question is to demand candidates get too “in the weeds” about what their foreign policy will look like, and underestimate the average American voters’ desire to know more about what the Syrian-Iraqi battle theater really looks like. At least one candidate, for the first time last night, appeared to disagree, simply by taking the time to specify. “We need to take back the land in Iraq and we need to use Sunni, not Shiites, not Iranian troops, not Shiite Iraqis, but Sunni Muslims in Iraq and the Kurds, the Peshmerga, and take back Iraqi land,” former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum told the crowd at CNN’s “undercard” debate last night. “I believe if we did that, you would see ISIS begin to collapse.”
Just because President Barack Obama has not bothered to specify who he means to arm when he says “Syrian rebels” does not mean Americans deserve not to know, nor do America’s Kurdish on the ground deserve to be kept in the dark about whether they are included in a specific candidate’s definition of “the Kurds.” Credit to Santorum where it is due for upstaging the frontrunners on his knowledge of Kurdish divisions, and may it spark a new conversation on who, specifically, Republican candidates want to give American weapons to.