Uh-oh: the Kurds have got problems, too

The least troublesome side of the dubious anti-ISIS triangle is the Kurds.  Unlike the Iraqi army, they can fight, and unlike the “moderate” Syrian rebels, they want to.  Unfortunately, while the Kurds were making progress against ISIS until now, there’s been a troubling reversal of fortune over the past 24 hours: an ISIS blitz into Kurd territory, complete with tanks.  The Associated Press reports:

Islamic State fighters backed by tanks have captured 21 Kurdish villages over the past 24 hours in northern Syria near the Turkish border, prompting civilians to flee their homes amid fears of retribution by the extremists sweeping through the area, activists said.

For more than a year, the Islamic State group and Kurdish militias have been locked in a fierce fight in several pockets of northern Syria where large Kurdish populations reside. The clashes are but one aspect of Syria???s broader civil war ??? a multilayered conflict that the UN says has killed more than 190,000.

The Syrian civil war was already a mess, and now it’s going to be just one front in our new Non-War against the Non-Islamic Islamic State.  I’m still dubious we’re going to find a lot of capable takers in Syria for the Obama Administration’s pleas to forget about Bashar What’s-His-Name and engage in bloody combat against the most militarily effective element of the Syrian resistance, which also has a penchant for committing unspeakable war crimes against its opponents.  That’s going to be an even harder pitch to make if the storied Kurdish militia is having trouble.

Since Wednesday, Islamic State militants appear to have gained the upper hand in Syria???s northern Kurdish region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, overrunning 21 Kurdish villages, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said there were casualties on both sides, but that Kurdish civilians were fleeing their villages for fear that Islamic State group fighters ??????will commit massacres against civilians.??????

Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria???s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the Kurdish fighters withdrew or lost up to 20 villages in the Kobani region and evacuated civilians with them.

??????The battles that are taking place in Kobani are the most violent,?????? Khalil said, adding that Islamic State group fighters were using tanks in their offensive. Khalil called on Kurds around the world to come to Syria to defend Kobani.

The fighting forced nearly 3,000 people to try flee to Turkey and gathered near the border Turkish district of Suruc, according to the private Dogan News Agency. A video released by the agency showed Syrian refugees walking to the border with some Kurds asking to be allowed to cross to stay with relatives on the Turkish side of the frontier.

I’m afraid to ask what kind of tanks the ISIS fighters are driving.  Floods of refugees make the loss of territory even more difficult.  The Islamic State is pretty cagey about taking maximum strategic advantage of the war crimes its more civilized opponents will not commit.  While the Obama Administration argues with itself about whether it’s at war or not, the enemy cheerfully indulges in ethnic cleansing.

Like many fronts of Syria???s civil war, momentum in the fight between the extremists and the Kurds has swung back and forth. Earlier this week, for example, Kurdish fighters captured 14 villages from the Islamic State in other parts of Syria.

Still, the retreat in Kobani marked a setback for the battle-hardened Kurdish force known as the People???s Protection Units. The militia, which also goes by the initials YPK, has been perhaps the most successful fighting force battling the Islamic State group, which has routed Iraqi and Syrian government forces. Last month, the YPK crossed the border into Iraq and opened a safe passage for members of the ancient Yazidi minority who were attacked by Islamic State fighters.

The fighting around Kobani is part of the Islamic State???s wider battle in Syria as the extremists look to seize control of the few areas in the northeast still outside of their hands.

The Syrian government, meanwhile, has begun targeting the group with greater frequency since the militants overran much of northern and western Iraq. Before that, President Bashar Assad???s has largely left the group alone, instead focusing his firepower on more moderate rebel brigades.

On Thursday, government helicopter gunships attacked the northern town of al-Bab, which is controlled by the Islamic State group, killing more than two dozen people. The Local Coordination Committees activist group said 51 people were killed in the attack in which a helicopter dropped a barrel packed with explosives on a bakery.

You can see the advantages of old-fashioned Rent-A-Bastard foreign policy.  The guy who drops barrels full of explosives on bakeries might just be dirty enough to tackle the genocidal head-choppers.  Pity we can’t find a way to make them fight each other until they’re both gone.

Hopefully the Kurds will regain the upper hand – there have been seesaw swings in their battle against ISIS before, although 20 villages lost in 24 hours is a rather significant setback.  The Washington Post mentions some other problems in Kurdistan, including supply problems for the pershmerga fighting force (“We need to get away from using cellphones to communicate.  We need to get away from our guys driving their own vehicles to the front lines… and buying their weapons from the bazaar,” mused the deputy prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan), a financial crisis, and even a housing bubble.  Foreign investors are nervous that they won’t be able to hold out against ISIS, whose direct military threat to the Kurdish capital of Irbil is one of the things that brought Barack Obama off the golf course, the other being the Yazidi genocide that Kurds were instrumental in averting.

The Kurds are remarkably introspective compared to most other Middle Eastern states, admitting that their government has problems with corruption, inefficiency, a special form of patronage that has individuals with the right party loyalties collecting two or three salaries, a cash economy with transactions that involve burlap sacks stuffed full of bills, and some infrastructure that barely meets the standards of the early Twentieth Century.  But they’re determined to do better, and convinced they can improve their lot by growing less dependent on Baghdad, with a bit of Western help.  Kurdish politicians don’t talk like anyone else in the region:

Kurdish officials blame the economic crisis on the Iraqi government, which this year stopped paying the region its share of the budget after a feud over the Kurds??? right to sign independent oil deals and the distribution of the revenue.

???The cause of the financial crisis comes back to a fundamental decision made by Baghdad to cut the budget of Kurdistan,??? said Qubad Talabani, the deputy prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan. ???They???ve been threatening us since 2003. For them to actually do it has created irreparable damage to the trust between us and them.???

But Talabani acknowledged that recent years of intoxicating economic growth masked deeper problems in the government and its security forces.

???What we???ve done badly as a government is not be prepared for these crises,??? he said.

[…] ???I have 7,000 employees, but I could easily work with 1,000,??? said Darbaz Rasool, who heads the Ministry of Construction and Housing. The ministry is responsible for finding shelter for the more than 1 million refugees who have flooded into Iraqi Kurdistan from Islamic State-controlled areas. Many of those refugees are squatting in the concrete skeletons of hundreds of unfinished high-rises and shopping malls that symbolize the economic collapse.

Sheesh, I wouldn’t mind hearing more American officials talk like that.  Unfortunately, this movement away from Baghdad – which the Kurds blame, with considerable justification, for causing their financial crisis, as well as hogging all the Western attention – is going to make the anti-ISIS triangle harder to sustain over the long run.  The Kurds are on defense; we’re still looking for the offensive force that can bring the Islamic State down with American air support.  Which, by the way, is still trying to break up ISIS positions within a few miles of Baghdad… and on the wrong side of Baghdad, at that.