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President Obama’s Historic Middle East Opportunity

Posted by Robbin Laird on


Obama delivers ISIL speech

President Obama was recently depicted on the cover of The Economist as the new George W. Bush, forced to head back to Iraq. One can correctly argue that the President and his national security team have spent more time distancing themselves from Bush’s administration than looking hard into the future and shaping the strategic space within which American values and interests can be met.

Although provocative, the cover misses a fundamental point. President Obama faces an historical opportunity with the surge of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria to commit America and to work with its allies to stop this surging brand of irredentist Islamic fundamentalism and to lead the attack in favor of secularism and tolerance for which the supporters of ISIL have total disdain.

The President can build on two important realities providing him opportunities in Iraq. First, Iraq in 2014 is not the Iraq of 2003. Not the least of the differences is the embrace of allies in the effort. Second, secular forces in Iraq are fighting for their very lives, one which provides the force on the ground and which can anchor sanity in the region, namely the Kurds. Even more significantly, the first trend intersects with the second.

The George W. Bush Administration did not have a rush of allies joining it in the invasion of Iraq. And even today, there aren’t many allies who want to work with the “new” government in Baghdad.

What is really different this time is that the emergence of Kurdistan and the concomitant ISIL threat to them and to anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim who professes to adhere to ISIL’s distortion of the tenets of Islam. An independent Kurdistan could well become a focal point for the region.

Focusing upon what is needed to pulverize ISIL to move rapidly and lethally, can buy some strategic maneuver space for the US and allies to sort out what kind of aid the Kurds might really need to protect their augmented territory within a fragmenting Iraq.

As Amatzia Baram, the leading Israeli expert on Iraq, told me during a recent meeting in Europe, “the Kurds are the most secular force in the region. They are fighters and will fight for their freedom. They are the boots on the ground, and they have female battalion commanders — something even Israel does not do. They need Western aid and support and represent the best hope to provide a force to counter Islamic extremism.”And working with the Kurds has another core advantage: by supporting Kurdish autonomy we can buy time in the region to sort out the longer-term relationships with Syria and Iraq.  We can buy time to shape a realistic policy in the region.

And the region’s response to ISIL presents the Kurds with unique opportunities. There is the dramatic difference between 2003 and 2014 with regard to the relationship between Turks and the Kurds.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal assessment:

Turkey’s relations with Kurds were once one of the region’s most toxic relationships, as Ankara fought a three-decade war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that left more than 40,000 people dead.

But since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, Turkey has built close ties to the Kurdish government in its regional capital of Erbil, expanding bilateral trade and coordinating on vital policy issues, including the Syrian conflict.

Security analysts said Iraqi Kurdistan is not only an ally, but is also forming an important security buffer for Turkey that is helping to shield its borders from an influx of refugees and insulating it against the Islamic State militants in Iraq.

Turkish companies have invested heavily in Erbil’s booming oil-rich economy, and Turkish brands dominate the Kurdish region’s consumer market.

Turkish exports to the Kurdish government, or KRG, make up the bulk of its total trade with Iraq, which surged to a record $12 billion last year, ranking second only to Germany.

Of course, Turkey is an Article V member of NATO so an attack by ISIL on Turkey could spark a NATO counterattack against the terrorists. But the ISIL threat is not just about “global terrorism;” we now face a pinching action from Russia on Ukraine and ISIL on Turkey, Syria and beyond and both are very close to affecting the NATO allies’ Article V obligations.

The Turks will be concerned that reinforcing the military capabilities of the Kurds can enhance the internal security threat within Turkey; Western aid and assistance to the Kurds in Iraq must be combined with the kind of on-the-ground training and limited engagement to ensure that this does not happen.

The Turks are not an easy ally, but working to gain their cooperation is a crucial part of any effort, which now includes not only the US, but European, Australian and Arab Allies.  This is a turning point for Turkey as well and the US should work hard to ensure an historic opportunity is not lost.

In one of the most striking differences from 2003, five Arab allies — Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE  — have joined with the US to launch air strikes against ISIL. And Saudi Arabia agreed to trtain the now-famous “moderate Syrian opposition” to provide the other boots on the ground to retake and hold territory from ISIL.

We all, of course, remember “Freedom Fries,” don’t we? Well, US relations with France have changed dramatically.

The French have expressed concern about the deteriorating situation facing the Christians in Iraq and that of the Kurds in various ways. In early August, French Bishops visited Iraqi Christians to demonstrate their support. The French President has been a very strong and active opponent of Islamic terrorism, and the French government is providing arms and assistance as well as training to the Kurds. As early as mid-August, the French government announced a policy of working with the Kurds to defend them against the ISIL.

I talked and met with various officials and analysts in France, Germany and Italy over the last month.  All three countries are committing resources and attention to the Kurdish opportunity.

For German Chancellor Merkel, arming the Kurds and transporting those arms, as well as training Kurds, is a sharp break from the past and a clear step forward to meeting the broader security goals of Germany and the West. On the other front, Ukraine has been difficult for Merkel because of the many interconnected and internecine issues with Russia and Ukraine and the real absence of a reliable Ukrainian government with whom one can be allied.  In Iraq, the Kurds are providing a real option to have a secular ally.

“We have seen acts of unbelievable brutality,” Angela Merkel told her colleagues in the Bundestag, citing threats, persecutions, tortures and murders committed on Christians, Yazidis and others minorities by the ISIL terrorists. Whatever the limits of the New Germany, its commitment against the kind of barbaric policies represented by ISIL is a clear one.

According to the German Defense Minister, the arms shipment includes 16,000 assault rifles (8,000 G36s and the same amount of G3 rifles), 30 Milan anti-tank missile systems equipped with 500 missiles, 8,000 pistols, hand grenades, ammunitions and five Dingo armored vehicles. Non-lethal equipment will be added (mine-clearing equipment, night-vision goggles, helmets, radio and helmets). All of this is valued at 70 million Euros ($92 million) and would equip 4,000 Kurdish soldiers.

My discussions in Germany have underscored how sharp a break with the past this is. The Merkel government believes its new policy lays the groundwork for a broader policy of engagement against forces threatening Western democracy. One German defense industrialist bluntly put the case with how he saw this decision perhaps impacting on the wider German view on defense and security.

The decision to arm and train the Kurds is a sea change. Too many Germans believe we should be like Switzerland, Sweden or Costa Rica. This will only change when Putin enters Poland or the Baltic states. But we are already supplying body protection to the forces in the Ukraine. We should do more.

Germany’s decision to work with the Kurds also has served to underscores the limits of what Germany can currently do. The government is highlighting the need to get on with the modernization of their air cargo transit means, and to get on with the acquisition of the new A400M airlifted after a German military transport broke down en route to the Middle East. Germany had to borrow a plane from the Dutch.

My discussions in Rome underscored that even in the context of a government largely focused on economic recovery, there was a growing realization of the need to deal with the ISIL threat. The Italian government is providing arms from Italian equipment stores as well as equipment seized in the Serbian war.  And the Italian Air Force is flying tankers to support air strikes in Iraq and Syria as well.

The situation in the Middle East is stark. On the one side you have an ethnic group which is prepared to fight and die for their freedom and to provide sanctuary to others, including Christians. On the other side, you have a force of hatred and intolerance, one willing to rape, torture and kill anyone who does not profess its twisted version of Islam. The fact that the leader of ISIL dresses in black and the “brand” uses a black flag is not lost on the Islamic world.

President Obama has an historic opportunity.  Rather than worrying about the cover of The Economist, the Administration needs to work with the Kurds and our European and Arab allies to carve out a zone of secular security and to defend our core values.

My colleague Ed Timperlake has argued that perhaps the Four Freedoms Franklin Roosevelt pledged to support during World War II can be recalled as a foundation for the assault on the ideological threat that ISIL poses to Western civilization.

On January 6 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt gave his State-of-the-Union Speech and he brilliantly articulated “The Four Freedom Speech: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship. Freedom from Want and the Freedom from Fear.

America was not yet at war, but Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Imperial Japan were all showing their abject hatred personified by the word Freedom. The genius of President Roosevelt’s speech is that it was not a battle cry for war it was a statement of principle for all humanity to rally around.

It is a perfect list to capture the goals of why a Nation and people can and should fight to defend four elegant and essential freedoms that can make the world a better place.

Working with the Kurds, rolling back the ISIL brand and destroying its leaders and forces is a moral obligation for those of us who support democracy and its core values of liberty, tolerance and decency. Shaping a Kurdish ally can help provide a lever for the emergence of civilized forces of the 21st century.

What do you think?