Will arming peshmerga tip balance of power in Iraq?

Article Summary
Peshmerga forces have been battling the Islamic State (IS) with old, outdated weapons that are no match for the powerful arsenal that IS captured in Mosul and elsewhere.

The Kurds have received unprecedented amounts of foreign arms since Islamic State (IS) fighters entered Kurdish areas adjacent to the borders of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Violent confrontations have shown the peshmerga’s impotence in dealing with such large-scale security challenges.

IS was able to obtain advanced and modern military munitions by capturing American weapons from Iraqi government forces in the cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi. Peshmerga forces, on the other hand, carry old weapons, some of which date back to the time of the Soviet Union. In a statement to Al-Hayat, a high-ranking general in the peshmerga forces said, “We cannot depend upon the weapons we have. For that reason. confronting IS means sending Kurdish troops to their deaths because of the ineffectiveness of their weapons. … The ammunition Kurdish soldiers carry is very old, and some of it no longer works.”

While it makes sense to increase the military strength of the Kurds, the mechanism for foreign armament and training threatens the already delicate political balance between the main powers in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Dozens of Kurdish soldiers have traveled to the German capital, Berlin, to receive special training in the use of advanced weapons. These soldiers are to return to their bases in Kurdistan to train their comrades in the peshmerga.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has received 300 tons of weapons from Germany alone, and this amount will reach 700 tons by the end of October.

Special relations with Germany

The KRG has good relations with Germany, which has important commercial interests in the region. Thousands of Kurds are also German residents, and live in Berlin and other cities.

But Germany is one of only seven states that has joined the United States in an effort to arm Kurdish forces. These other states include Albania, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Italy, France and Britain.

In its current form, the plan to arm the Kurds is reckless. It is an international endeavor that has been launched in response to threats from the extremist fighters whose strength has increased in the last few months. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German parliament last month, “Arming the peshmerga is a long-term risk, but it is necessary.”

Recently the Kurds have felt that they achieved large military gains, this being the first time they have received advanced weapons since 1991. But these gains have come at the expense of the deterioration of the security situation in their territory. For almost two decades, the Kurds have not received any large or advanced weapons systems — large arms manufacturers require the consent of the Iraqi government to make sales to Iraqi Kurds, but the central government in Baghdad, under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki, had always opposed such sales.

Efforts to integrate peshmerga forces into the Iraqi defense establishment over the past 10 years have also ended in failure. This has caused differences between Baghdad and Erbil in the system for national armament.

Currently, arming the Kurds is the core problem when fighting IS. The fight has favored the KRG in the areas of Rabi’a, parts of Zammar and Kuwair, and at the Mosul Dam. Yet other areas remain under the control of IS fighters, as in Sinjar and the town of Zammar, on the border of the Kurdish region.

The Kurds are chomping at the bit to get training and arms to make further advances in areas of Iraq with a Kurdish demographic majority.

But the Kurdish goal of overcoming the great fears evoked by IS is complicated by local fears related to the balance of power between parties and political actors in Kurdistan.

In reality, the stability in the region is based on a delicate balance between the interests of the major powers: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), under the leadership of Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), under the leadership of Massoud Barzani, president of the KRG. A third power has also entered the stage to harass the older parties: Taghyir (“Change”), which is led by Nushirawn Mustafa.

Arming the Barzani faction?

Kurdish politicians have noted that Barzani’s party has monopolized the arming process because it controls the mechanisms of arms distribution and determines how arms are divided up. This is a major complaint made by the city of Sulaimaniyah, whose leaders say that they have been left out of the armament program.

There is dispute over what proportion of arms have been received by peshmerga soldiers loyal to the PUK. Some leaders, such as Adel Murad, president of the central committee of the PUK, have claimed that “Sulaimaniyah has not received a single bullet from the West.”

Al-Hayat has learned from private sources that at Sulaimaniyah airport, aid transport was stopped by the Kurdish Ministry of the Peshmerga.

Nonetheless, the same sources confirm that the city and its Kurdish forces have received Western weapons, though much less than the Erbil peshmerga.

There is no doubt that cooperation between parties obscures the extent of the divide within the region. Different administrations and different peshmerga forces act according to the policies of their parties, rather than the regional government in Erbil.

In that regard, the KDP has shown that it holds a great deal of power and monopolizes the region’s resources.

Najat Sourji, leader of the Kurdistan Conservatives Party, said, “We have to know that whoever has money and weapons governs Kurdistan. From this we can surmise the importance of the issue of armament.”

In fact, the PUK, which has its forces concentrated in the cities of Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk, has begun to develop relations with Iran and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to compensate for its failure to receive arms.

Secretly, the Americans provide advanced weapons.

The airstrikes undertaken by the international coalition have focused on the Kurdish regions under the influence of Barzani. Yet the regions of Jaloula and Sa’diya, to the south of Sulaimaniyah, have not seen any air support from Western planes.

In a statement to Al-Hayat, Adel Murad said, “We do not need anyone’s support. We just need to do what is needed in our areas.” But as Najat Surji asked, “How are they not in need? They are not receiving Western support, and they must rely on Iraqi planes, which are less powerful.”

According to Murad, a leader in Talabani’s party, “The PUK is never ashamed of its allies, and this applies to the PKK.”

A Danger to Kurdistan

As Surji said, “Arming the peshmerga is a threat to the future of Kurdistan. There is a big gap in armaments between Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. I am not the one saying this — the leadership of the PUK is. Erbil gets weapons that are not being received by Sulaimaniyah. This creates an imbalance between the two Kurdish parties that will threaten the future of the region.”

According to Kurdish politicians, only one faction is winning militarily. But Erbil, which is enjoying unprecedented Western attention, has a wide-ranging, petroleum-based alliance with the Ankara government.

Yet this alliance suffers from a political and security contradiction. The economic relations between the two sides is strengthening, but Kurdish politicians have noted that Turkey “is ignoring the actions of IS, which has extended its reach into Kurdish regions.”

The Turkish parliament has recently given the army the authority to undertake military actions outside Turkey’s borders. Yet as IS advances toward Kurdish Kobani, the Kurds do not expect the Turkish army to intervene in their favor against IS.

Many in the region believe that the president of the KRG, Barzani, has realized the reality that the Turks have abandoned him to IS, but he is not able to take refuge with his Turkish “ally.”

Found in: syria, peshmerga, kurdistan, islamic state, iraq

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