It is not clear at the time of writing if Turkey will or will not allow the United States to use the NATO air base at Incirlik for airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq. On October 13, national security adviser Susan Rice announced that Turkey had finally agreed to the use of the base, only to be contradicted the very next day by Turkey’s foreign minister. A subsequent press report claimed that the Turks were allowing their American allies to fly reconnaissance drones from Incirlik but no manned aircraft.
The brouhaha exemplifies a troubling downward trend in America’s ability to project power in the Middle East, a trend that goes beyond Turkey and its peculiar, complicated, sometimes hostile relationship with America. The ISIS crisis and the feebleness of the current air campaign don’t just provide evidence that only a foolish leader would preclude putting at least some “boots on the ground” in a military campaign. They also show that the countries that have long given us basing rights in the region may not be as cooperative or as trustworthy as our planners assume them to be, and that this is likely to get worse.
Given this unfortunate development, it is time for America’s planners to consider breaking with tradition and setting up new bases in countries that are likely to remain reliable allies—even if they are not yet recognized as independent states.
Iraqi Kurdistan is just such a place (another is the Somaliland Republic, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen). It is not technically an independent state, as it has not seceded from the battered, unraveling republic of Iraq. But at this point that doesn’t really matter. Baghdad is hardly in a position to object to any deal between the United States and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Indeed, any hope that Iraq has of remaining a single state, federal or confederal, once ISIS has been defeated would depend on Baghdad and whoever controls it (likely a Shiite-dominated government), giving the KRG something very close to de facto independence.
Similarly, the only way Iraqi Kurdistan will feel really safe from invasion by Baghdad-controlled forces, an ISIS-Sunni alliance, a Turkey that has returned to its old anti-KRG ways, or Iran (Syria is unlikely to be a threat for a long time to come) is if there is a U.S. military presence in the country.
For both the Iraqi Kurds and the United States, then, a U.S. base in Kurd-istan—which already has airfields with long military-spec runways—would offer the United States tremendous strategic advantages.
These are all the more important in a region where U.S. influence has diminished, and in which the United States may well lose access to some of its biggest air, land, and naval bases in the medium or long term.
In the short term it obviously makes sense. There has been much talk about the need for the United States and its allies to stand up effective local forces in the war against ISIS. But the 5,000-strong Syrian rebel force that U.S. military leaders think they can stand up within a year or two is nowhere near adequate.
A proper alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan, one that includes the training and equipping of more effective Kurdish armed forces, offers perhaps the only hope of defeating ISIS without having to cooperate militarily with Iran (which would demand nuclear concessions and continue to undermine U.S. interests in Iraq) or Syria’s Assad regime (which has much American as well as Syrian and Iraqi blood on its hands).
Despite the Obama administration’s reflexive hostility to Kurdish aspirations and the official U.S. government preference for dealing only with Baghdad, the airports of Iraqi Kurdistan have reportedly become U.S. military installations as a matter of simple necessity. Some of the big air bases in Iraq proper like Balad and Taji are either too vulnerable to ISIS attack to be used by coalition aircraft or have already been captured. As for bases further south like the Rasheed base in Baghdad, the Iranian military is already using them to launch surveillance drones, and U.S. military officials are rightly nervous about the security implications of sharing an air base with, and being studied by, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.