As Sunni militants surge across Iraq, snapping up a vast swath of territory that straddles the Syrian border, those who are seeking to stop them are running out of options. Iraq’s army has already proved itself brittle and weak. Washington is understandably reluctant to deploy troops. Even Iran – a genuine ally in this particular quest to contain the Sunni insurgency – appears flat-footed. Small clusters of Iranian fighters who have crossed the border are hopelessly outnumbered by the jihadist fighters that fill the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
At the moment, the world’s best hope appears to lie in Kurdistan and its peshmerga fighters. The peshmerga – whose name literally means “those who confront death” – are capable and disciplined. They are already engaged in limited actions against ISIL insurgents, but the Kurds are strategically and militarily capable of much more. In the past, they have acted as allies, fighting side by side with American troops in the 2003 Iraq war, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, they have proved to be a key factor in maintaining security in Iraqi Kurdistan, which remains an island of relative calm in the current wave of Iraq’s chaos.
The Kurds are able to take on ISIL, but it remains unclear whether they are willing to do so. A central obstacle is their long-simmering dispute with Baghdad over the sale of oil. The Kurdistan Regional Government has long argued it has the right to export its oil and gas directly. That position has drawn the ire of Iraq’s central government, which has frozen Kurdistan’s budget, while threatening international buyers with legal action. Baghdad’s fear has been that, if it allows Kurdistan the right to export, other provinces would follow suit, undermining the power of the central government. The United States has generally backed Baghdad’s claims. Now, with the future of Iraq hanging in the balance, the oil dispute seems nothing more than a marginal distraction. With Iraq in turmoil, Kurdistan is already planning to increase oil exports, ignoring the central government’s objections.
Nevertheless, to get Kurdish fighters fully aligned against the ISIL threat, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should back down from his position on oil sales as a gesture of good faith. The United States, for its part, should make its commitment to back the Kurds clear, and provide the peshmerga with the military and logistical support needed. At this point, there are no perfect outcomes for Iraq. A weakened central government is still a far better alternative to the rise of an ISIL-backed Islamic caliphate. The West and its allies must act quickly to prevent that nightmare scenario from becoming reality.