The first rule to building a wartime alliance is not to lose the allies you already have. Sadly, that rule seems unknown or is being willfully ignored by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
On July 21, the two Obama Administration officials hosted in Washington, DC, the first meeting of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. They did not invite their Kurdish counterparts.
Consequently, the conference convened without the benefit of ministerial-level participation from either of the two allies contributing the majority of the trusted and effective boots on the ground – the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from Iraq and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from Syria.
Kerry and Carter did, however, invite the foreign and defense ministers from our sixty-six other partners in the war against ISIL. Ministers from forty-two of them attended. Also in attendance, but only after a last-minute invitation, was the KRG Representative in DC, a non-ministerial post. Their agenda included review of the current situation on the battlefield and coordination of priorities and support for the continuing war. Work groups were also planned for focused discussion of the foreign fighter threat, political-military coordination, financing, messaging and the need to secure areas recently cleared of ISIL.
The coalition partners have each contributed important capabilities or much-appreciated resources to the fight. Few, if any, however, have contributed as much as have the Kurds.
In Syria, the armed branch of the PYD, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has cleared ISIL from a contiguous 400 mile-wide belt along the Syrian border with Turkey and holds another 90 miles to the west of Aleppo. It broke the months-long siege of Kurdish-populated Kobane and now provides the bulk of the combat power to the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF also includes armed Christians and moderate Arabs and has recently seized key portions of the strategically important Manbij Gap. Closing the Gap will strangle ISIL elements operating in Syria, as it is their last remaining major resupply route into Turkey.
In Iraq, nearly 150,000 Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga, are on the ground involved in active combat. Their initial frontage against the enemy extended over 600 miles, but they have subsequently cleared and held vast areas beyond that. Nearly 2000 peshmerga have given their lives in these operations. Meanwhile, the KRG houses and cares for throngs of ethnic and religious minorities and other refugees who fled to the Kurds for safeguard.
“Kurds are very angry about the ministers being excluded,” said a KRG source in Erbil.
They should be, and it has less to do with the snub than it does with the illogic.
As stated by Falah Mustafa, Head of the Department of Foreign Relations for the KRG, in a tweet on July 19, “No logic in excluding KRG from Global Coalition meetings in US while it is in the frontline against ISIS and hosts 1.8 million internally displaced persons and refugees.”
This is not hyperbole. Any upcoming Coalition offensive to take back Mosul has no option but to rely heavily on the Kurds. Their peshmerga currently occupy important blocking positions and attack positions on three sides of Mosul, and they will certainly contribute major combat power to the assault. When that commences, the KRG is also expected to absorb the additional multitudes of refugees who will flee toward the Kurdish Region for safeguard. The Kurds’ ability to well-manage this influx will not happen by wishful thinking alone.
None of this can be unknown to the hosts of the conference. They must be keenly aware of the standard requirement for direct coordination on any military operation, let alone operations of the magnitude and complexity of those presumably planned for Manbij and Mosul.
Nor is this lost on Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, who on July 25 issued a statement that contained a measure of disappointment with the conference hosts, Kerry and Carter.
“The people of the Kurdistan Region have paid a heavy price in our ongoing war against the terrorists of the Islamic State,” he said. “The Peshmerga forces with their bravery and sacrifices have drastically weakened the terrorists and have proven once again that they are an essential anti-terror force in the region. In spite of this very obvious fact, the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs recently created obstacles for a Kurdish representative to be present in the last anti-Islamic State summit in Washington. Unfortunately the hosts of that summit went along with the Iraqi Foreign Minister.”
Unfortunate, to say the least. Especially for those in DC who might take a wartime ally for granted.
Ernie Audino, Brigadier General, US Army (Ret) is a Senior Military Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. He is also the only US Army general to have served a year as a combat advisor embedded in a Kurdish peshmerga brigade.