Cale Salih writes: The divergent US policy toward Kurds in Iraq and Syria is reflective of Washington’s general mistaken tendency to presume distinctions between the two countries that do not actually exist. According to US officials quoted this week in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, US airstrikes in Iraq are designed to help Iraqi forces beat back Isis, whereas in Syria, “We’re not trying to take ground away from them. We’re trying to take capability away from them.” A policy that decisively targets Isis in Iraq but half-heartedly in Syria is doomed to fail. It will, at best, only briefly postpone the immediate threat Isis poses to American interests in the region. And the new air strikes aren’t even really working.
A key difference between the new US war strategy in Kurdish-majority parts of the region was Washington’s decision to bolster its Kurdish partners on the ground in Iraq but not in Syria. In Iraq, the US not only carried out air strikes but also armed the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and sent military “advisors”. As a result, the peshmerga were able to provide ground intelligence to guide US air strikes, and, in conjunction with Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Syria, they followed up on the ground to retake important territories lost to Isis.
In Syria, the US has been more hesitant to develop such a bold Kurdish partnership. At first glance, the Kurdish fighting force in Syria – the People’s Defence Units (YPG), linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which the US designates as a terrorist group due to its decades-long war with Turkey – is a less natural partner than the widely recognized Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Yet it was YPG and PKK forces that provided the decisive support on the ground to the Iraqi Kurds, allowing KRG peshmerga to regain territory lost to Isis in Iraq. The US in great part owes the limited success of its airstrikes in north Iraq to the PKK and YPG.
The lesson the US should learn from its experience in north Iraq is that you can’t win a war in the air alone. Iraq showed that air strikes against Isis can work – but only when combined with efforts to arm and advise a reliable local force capable of following up to actually retake and hold territory on the ground. The YPG is that force in Syria, and any air strikes without the kind of support sent to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga will be futile. [Continue reading…]