Rather Than Defeat ISIS, Kurds Are Turning on Shiites

A Kurdish gunman looks at Shiite militiamen positions during clashes in Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq, on April 24. The author writes that the Kurdistan Regional Government often operates upon interests that do not coincide with those of the United States and the West as much as those lobbying for Iraqi Kurdistan or its constituent parties suggest. Goran Tomasevic/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On April 26, I published an article highlighting comments by Kurdish official Hiwa Afandi suggesting that it was not in the Kurdish interest to defeat the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) because Shiite volunteers were a greater danger.

That is a very dangerous sentiment, and it highlights the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) often operates upon interests that do not coincide with those of the United States and the West as much as those lobbying for Iraqi Kurdistan or its constituent parties suggest.

Was it fair to focus on one official? Yes.

Neither the KRG nor the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) nor, for that matter, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan embraces an internal culture of democracy. They do not tolerate dissent in their ranks.

Mr. Afandi may not have been as diplomatic as he might have been, but he was no outlier. If he was, he probably would not still be in his government post today.

Others have said the United States didn't transfer such weaponry. True. But the Bulgarians did.

In 2008, The Washington Post reported on a unilateral arms transfer from Bulgaria to Kurdistan. When that arms transfer was exposed and the Iraqi government complained, Bulgaria denied complicity, but the KRG responded by affirming its right to import such weaponry despite Baghdad's complaints.

Some have written in to say Kurds didn't have kornets. However, in 2012, the peshmerga were photographed with kornets. But was it the KDP that transferred the kornets to ISIS before the KRG realized that ISIS could just as easily turn on Kurds as Shiites?

Jane's speculated that ISIS acquired Yugoslav kornets from Syrian stockpiles, but authorities in both Baghdad and Amman in interviews contradicted that notion. So too did some Iraqis with closer links to the Baath Party and ISIS.

Could I link to such interviews? No, because I do not sit around and rely on secondary reporting. But, Baghdad's complaints with regard to kornets are credible because they occurred not only after but also before their use.

And, as for Jordan, they didn't have a bone in this fight. Indeed, if anything, they are otherwise skeptical of Baghdad on sectarian grounds.

Did I offer the KRG the opportunity to comment or criticize before I initially published my work in 2014? Yes. Did they avail themselves of the opportunity to respond? No.

It is crucial to also understand the Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish political context that predated the rise of ISIS. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's initial raid on the protest camp in Ramadi came against the backdrop of political pressure from his Shiite sectarian rivals. Some argue that that raid sparked the uprising which would become ISIS, but it is naïve to believe that Al-Qaeda or ISIS infiltrated and organized in a matter of days.

There was some justification to the paranoia about some in the Sunni community espoused by the Maliki government. Tension between Baghdad and the KRG was greater, however, given the KRG's embrace of fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.

People can argue that the judiciary's targeting of Hashimi was sectarian in nature—and perhaps there was an element of selective prosecution; after all, Muqtada al-Sadr, who also ran death squads and sponsor terrorism, roams free—but the evidence is overwhelming that Hashimi had blood on his hands, and so the KRG embrace of the man, and the radical Sunni Islamist terrorism in which he had a hand, was part of a pattern, both of supporting Sunni radicalism (and former Baathists) and also of working with anyone (however noxious) to weaken Maliki, whom KRG leaders feared would have a third term.

If I may, two editorial comments about many of the Kurdish analysts and Twitterati who have objected to my piece: One of the broader problems with many of those who write exclusively on Kurds is that they limit themselves exclusively to Kurdish sources.

It is important not to limit interviews to Erbil and Sar-e Rash, but also to talk to interested parties in Baghdad, Amman and Ankara. Should their claims be treated with skepticism? Absolutely. As should those made and sourced exclusively in Erbil or Sar-e Rash.

It may be understandable that those who work for outlets like Rudaw have to self-censor. After all, Rudaw answers to the KRG prime minister, just as Bas News answers to Masoud Barzani's eldest son, but this is the reason why ultimately the echo chamber falls short.

Likewise, it is always interesting to ponder the purpose of Twitter comments. Can there be disagreement? Absolutely. What is the goal of a response, however? Is it to cast personal aspersions? If so, various Kurdish commentators are very skilled. But people only go ad hominem in such a manner when they want to avoid the questions at hand.

It is much more productive to understand that differences can be rooted in simple, honest disagreement and craft arguments to change minds. The refusal to do so by those who seek to promote the KRG line is one of the major reasons why the KRG has been less successful than it otherwise might.

Don't assess people as either agreeing with the KRG 100 percent or being an enemy; accept those who might only agree 70 percent of the time.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.