WASHINGTON — The balance of power is changing in the Middle East, and the change is complicated. The key development is the emergence of Turkey and its longtime adversary, the Kurds, as the major players holding back the brutal al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State (formerly The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant known as ISIL), from taking more territory in Iraq.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, America’s luke-warm NATO ally, has been moving his secular nation down an Islamic fundamentalist path and has, accordingly, been receptive to Syrian rebels of all stripes in their effort to oust Syrian President/Dictator Bashar al-Assad. Turkey funneled weapons to all of the anti-Assad groups, provided them a safe haven, and even medical care. Among those groups were al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
President Obama, on the other hand, went to the other extreme. He was unwilling to provide significant support to any of the insurgent groups in Syria on the grounds that he didn’t know enough about them, and could not judge which, if any, were truly moderate.
Obama subsequently caught flack, most recently from his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in an interview with “The Atlantic”, for staying out of the fight in Syria, and allowing terrorists to fill the vacuum.
As it turned out, both Erdogan and Obama miscalculated, and both of them are now moving to correct their mistakes. Apparently, it had not occurred to either of them that the Islamic State, comprised of Sunni Muslim jihadists, would simultaneously attack Syria and Iraq. The majority (70 percent) of Iraq’s people, like neighboring Iran’s, are Shiite Muslims, and the Sunni-Shiite antagonisms are rooted in centuries of mutual hatred, which is why the Islamic Nation not only covets territory, but demands that Shiites convert or pay exorbitant taxes or face execution.
When the Islamic Nation recently swept into Iraq utilizing surrender-or-die Genghis Khan tactics, the Iraqi Army initially melted away. Even the Kurds ’vaunted Peshmerga fighters could not hold them. Kurds have controlled a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq ever since the U.S.-led Desert Storm coalition ousted Iraq’s then dictator, Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait and Kurdistan in 1991. Meanwhile, the Kurds have continued to wage a low-level guerrilla war in Turkey. And it is now the Kurds, on unfriendly terms with the Iraqi central government, neighboring Iran, Turkey, and Syria, who are providing the balance-of-power catalyst in the region.
As defacto and loyal U.S. allies, Obama has found his moderate fighters in the Peshmerga, and he responded with airpower and supplies in an operation resembling the limited U.S. support of the Northern Alliance that ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. Even the Iraqi government applauded the Kurds’ efforts against the Islamic Nation. Then, last week, Erdogan finally reached out to the Kurds in a rapprochement that will undoubtedly result in the establishment of Kurdistan as a separate state carved out of Iraq and Turkey.
Like Obama, Erdogan has turned to the Peshmerga as the primary means of thwarting the Islamic State, and over the last week, he moved to aid them by cutting off supplies to the Islamic State, presumably in response to pressure from the U.S. and other NATO allies.
Iran, another big player in the region, has so far been playing a responsible role toward Iraq by withdrawing its support of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who ran a Shiites-only government, excluding Sunnis from meaningful positions and sowing distrust among Iraq’s minority ethnicities. He has been replaced by Haider al-Abadi, currently deputy Parliament speaker. Key to continuing U.S. aid is evidence that the Iraqi government is reaching out to include all elements in the new government, lest disenchanted Sunnis seek solace with terrorists.
In the end, the Islamic State invasion of Iraq is likely to moderate Erdogan’s view of mixing religion and politics. But the real winners are the Kurds because their Peshmerga has effectively become the coalition leader in the war, which means their long-sought prize of statehood is sure to be their reward.