Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that arming the Iraqi Kurds is key in the fight against the Islamic State -- but the United States isn’t doing enough in that regard.
On NBC’s Meet the Press Feb. 8, Secretary of State John Kerry defended the United States’ current policy regarding the Kurds -- an ethnic group partially located in northern Iraq, in and around cities under Islamic State control.
"We have supplied (the Kurds) with enormous amount of ammunition, weapons, other things. And others are supplying them," he said.
Cruz characterized the situation differently.
"What makes no sense whatsoever is the Obama administration is refusing to directly arm the Kurds," he said the same day on CNN's State of the Union. "We need to arm the Kurds now because they are our boots on the ground."
Later he said, "But we're not seeing leadership from the administration to get that done. Instead, they continue to send weaponry to Baghdad, who doesn't pass it onto the Peshmerga (the Kurdish military), and it doesn't get put to use effectively."
With Kerry touting how much military aid the administration is providing, we wondered how Cruz’s claim that they are "refusing to directly arm the Kurds" stacks up.
The key word in Cruz’s claim is "directly." The United States is in fact sending arms and military assistance intended for the Kurds. However, it has to go through the Iraqi government, and some see that as a road block.
Direct vs. indirect
To make sense of this debate, it’s crucial to understand that the Kurds are a semi-autonomous group. They clash with the Iraqi government in Baghdad because the Kurds -- along with Kurds in Iran, Turkey and Syria -- would like to be an independent nation. Leaders in Baghdad and the United States want Iraq to keep its current borders. However, cooperation between the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurds has appeared to improve recently due to the joint goal of defeating the Islamic State. The Iraqi government and the Kurds also recently reached a deal temporarily ending a dispute over oil in the Kurdish region.
This recent interactive map out of Britain’s Financial Times shows locations of the Islamic State, Kurds and other Iraqi factions.
A State Department official told us that the United States has so far transported more than 3 million pounds of equipment to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. These shipments have included: over 15,000 hand grenades, nearly 40 million rounds of machine gun ammunition, 18,000 assault rifles, 45,000 mortar rounds, 40,000 RPG rounds and 2,800 RPG launchers. The United States has also been training Kurdish forces and conducting air strikes on their behalf.
However, because the Kurds are not a fully independent nation, the United States must coordinate these transfers through the Iraqi government in Baghdad. It’s not that they’re refusing to directly arm the Kurds, as Cruz says, though. It’s the law, required by the Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act. Additionally, the United Nations prohibits transferring arms to Iraq other than on terms agreed to by the Iraqi government.
The State Department told us that the Iraqi government has approved all shipments and has even provided its own weapons to the Kurds.
But Cruz and others argue that this plan hasn’t achieved its intended goal because the Iraqi government withholds much of the military assistance. Quite a few Kurds have reported that they don’t have enough weapons, or they simply haven’t received the weapons the United States promised.
"We are starting to have doubts that there might be a political decision on what sort of equipment should be given to the Kurds," Masrour Barzani, chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake. "We don’t think this is just a technical issue. It’s been way too long for any technical issue."
Lake noted that the State Department disputed this characterization.
Based on recent conversations with Kurdish sources, Michael Gunter, a professor at Tennessee Tech University, said it’s true that the Iraqi government has stalled American weapons shipments intended for the Kurds. Gunter has written several books about the Kurds and visited the region in September.
He noted that there’s not much the United States could do legally to step over the Iraqi government and give weapons directly to the Kurds. That is, other than transferring the weapons covertly, which Gunter believes is already happening.
For the record, the CIA declined to comment for this story, but there are reports that the agency is providing arms.
Given their strategic location and reputation as relatively moderate Muslims, the Iraqi Kurds have significant advantages in the fight against the Islamic State. So why might the Iraqi government not want the Kurds to have these weapons?
Gunter said Iraq is mainly concerned with making sure that the Kurds don’t break away. So they give the Kurds just enough weapons to get by, but not so much that they would be able to later turn against the Iraqi government.
The United States faces a similar problem when considering how hard to pressure Iraq to ensure the weapons intended for the Kurds make it there.
"To one extent, we want to give the Kurds more weapons so they can fight ISIS, but if we give them too many weapons it, might break up Iraq or make the government even more mad at us," Gunter said. "It’s almost a catch-22 situation."
Cruz said, "the Obama administration is refusing to directly arm the Kurds."
The administration has sent a significant amount of arms and other aid to the Iraqi Kurds to assist in the fight against the Islamic State. However, Cruz is right to say that this aid is indirect -- it has to go through the Iraqi government under current law. While the administration insists that this process works, policymakers like Cruz, as well as Kurds and an expert with knowledge of the situation on the ground, have said that the Iraqi government has stopped some of these weapons from reaching their intended destinations.
Cruz might have been better off not using the word "refusing," however. There are domestic laws and United Nations regulations -- as well as diplomatic considerations -- preventing the United States from directly arming the Kurds. Cruz’s statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
We rate it Mostly True.