The Obama administration lacks a clear strategy to contain the chaos in Syria and should build on the battlefield successes of Iraq’s Kurdish forces by accelerating shipments of heavy weapons to the front, one of Kurdistan’s top diplomats said Thursday.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, who recently became the Kurdistan Regional Government’s high representative — essentially its ambassador — to Washington, said in a briefing that the Obama administration and its international allies should step up their support of Kurdish peshmerga fighters battling the Islamic State jihadis in Syria and Iraq. She said the peshmerga fighters have proved far more effective than Iraq’s military in beating back the extremists on the ground.
“We push them out of Iraq, they have a home in Syria, so what’s the strategy for Syria?” Ms. Rahman said of the extremist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL. “That is their nerve center, that is where they get their supplies, their oil sales, their recruiting, the flow of fighters.
“If we’re really talking about the long-term defeat of ISIS, there has to be a very clear strategy for Syria,” she said. “I don’t see it.”
Reports Thursday said more U.S.-led airstrikes were pounding Islamic State targets in Syria. The extremists have garnered global headlines in recent days by kidnapping some 220 Assyrian Christians in Syria a week after circulating a video showing Islamic State militants cutting off the heads of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.
Ms. Rahman offered no explicit blueprint for U.S. support, but she dismissed the Obama administration’s plan of relying on sporadic airstrikes while pushing to train some 5,000 moderate Syrian opposition rebels a year. Such a small number of trained rebels, battling both the Islamic State and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, “means we’re going to wait a very long time before we can think about tackling Syria,” she said.
Ms. Rahman said she was not asking for a large intervention of U.S. or European ground forces, but that Kurdish officials would welcome an increase in the number of U.S. special operations forces and military advisers deployed to the region. She expressed impatience with the tenor of the U.S. debate.
“What’s frustrating,” Ms. Rahman said, is that “there is a price for intervention, but there is [also] a price to nonintervention — and that is the part of the debate that just didn’t happen over Syria, and we’re paying the price — we in Kurdistan.”
Ms. Rahman is the daughter the late Sami Abdul Rahman, who was known for his activism of Kurdish political resistance to Saddam Hussein’s iron hold over Iraq. Mr. Rahman once held the deputy prime ministership of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
She worked 17 years as a journalist for London’s Observer newspaper and later the Financial Times before joining the Kurdish Regional Government. At its Washington offices Thursday, she said Kurdistan one day will hold a referendum on independence from Iraq, although she declined to say when that would be.
Since Islamic State fighters seized Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in June, the Kurdish peshmerga has emerged as “the most effective fighting force against” the extremists, she said. “We are the boots on the ground that the United States and other countries are so reluctant to have in the theater of war.”
She stressed that the gains have depended heavily on the U.S.-led airstrikes, weaponry, and intelligence-sharing and coordination.
“On the whole, ISIS no longer really has the ability to carry out these, what I call ‘Mad Max-style’ raids, where they just come in waves and waves of Humvees and tanks and can ride through villages and terrorize everybody,” she said. “I think that capability has largely been undermined.
“However, they do still attack,” Ms. Rahman said.
Without an acceleration of heavy military equipment to the peshmerga, she said, the recent gains could be lost.
U.S. officials have been circuitously moving weaponry to the Kurds since the summer. But the exact kind, as well as how much has been delivered, is murky, and Ms. Rahman declined to comment on such specifics Thursday.
Her staff told reporters only that the Kurdish Regional Government has requested items that include armor-piercing missiles, heavy machine guns, long-range high-powered rifles, mortar launchers, tank munitions, rocket-propelled grenades, armored vehicles, aircraft and pickup trucks.
Ms. Rahman said her government’s frustration is that the Obama administration, as well as its European allies, have slowed the delivery of such weaponry by requiring that each piece be sent through Baghdad for inspection by officials in Iraq’s federal government before it is shipped to the Kurdish capital of Irbil for distribution to the peshmerga.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, raised the issue with retired Marine Gen. John Allen — President Obama’s top adviser overseeing the international coalition fighting the Islamic State — during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week.
Mr. Allen told the committee that he and other U.S. officials have “attempted to work with Baghdad to streamline to the maximum extent possible, to reduce any delays that may inhibit or impair the expeditious delivery of arms and equipment to the Kurds.”
He also asserted that “Baghdad has not disapproved any requests that the Kurds have made for weapons.”
Ms. Rahman did not dispute those claims, but she made little effort to hide her displeasure with the policy of requiring that the equipment pass through Baghdad.
“We don’t see the need for this,” she said, adding that Kurdistan is “part of Iraq, we’re at the front line, we’re at the heart of the conflict, we are the most effective force in the conflict. Why do our weapons have to go to Baghdad?”
“We all have a great deal of respect for Gen. Allen and what he’s trying to do,” Ms. Rahman said. “But the fact is that the deliveries all still go to Baghdad and there’s really no need for it.”
Right now, she said, “Kurdistan is fighting ISIS. Where is the Iraqi army? What happened to the Iraqi army, right? We’re the ones fighting.”