Iran has moved tanks and artillery up to the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, close enough to the boundary that they are visible from the other side. The move is the latest in a string of increasingly threatening responses to the semi-autonomous region’s decision to vote in favor of independence, which has drawn widespread condemnation from national governments in the region and failed to win unequivocal support from many of the Kurd’s powerful western allies, including the United States.
On Oct. 2, 2017, the Iranian forces appeared along the Iran-Iraq border, reportedly as part of a previously announced combined drill with Iraqi national forces and militia in retaliation for the independence vote. Authorities in Tehran had already kicked off military exercises near the boundary on Sept. 24, 2017 a day ahead of the poll in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, ostensibly as part of the annual Sacred Defense Week to commemorate the Iran-Iraq War. More than 3.3 million people there, more than 70 percent of registered voters, turned out on Sept. 25, 2017 to cast their ballots, with more than 90 percent voting in favor an independent Kurdistan.
Iranian and Iraqi officials had “agreed on measures to establish border security and receive Iraqi forces that are to be stationed at border posts,” Iranian state media said, according to Reuters. Iran’s top military leadership had met to discuss the situation and “[the] necessary decisions were taken to provide security at the borders and welcome Iraq's central government forces to take position at border crossings,” Masoud Jazayeri, a spokesman for the Iranian army, had told the press on Sept. 30, 2017.
This latest response to the referendum is worrisome, but not surprising. Iran’s central government, including President Hassan Houhani, had publicly criticized the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, for even planning to hold the vote, even before the results were in. Before polling began, Iranian authorities blocked all air travel between their country and the Kurdish region after consulting with their counterparts in Iraq.
Iranian authorities fear that independence for Iraqi Kurdistan could prompt a similar push on the part of its own Kurdish region. The KRG has denied the referendum is intended as any sort of signal to other Kurdish majority areas in Iran, Turkey, or Syria, or as a desire for a greater Kurdistan.
However, after the vote, when it became apparent that the majority were in favor in independence, Iranian Kurds took to the streets to celebrate the news. The Iranian military responded by flying military jets over the country's Kurdish region and the central government otherwise moved to assert its authority.
“[KRG President Masoud] Barzani is a middleman for Zionists [whose goal is] to disintegrate Islamic countries,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior foreign policy advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, said on Sept. 27, 2017, undoubtedly in reference to the rhetorical support Israel had offered the Kurds leading up to vote. He went on to compare an independent Kurdistan as a “second Israel” that Islamic countries like Iran would and could not allow. It is worth noting that Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims, whereas Iraqi Arabs and Iranians are primarily adherents of Shia Islam.
The reported military buildup and show of force follows earlier reports that Iraqi security forces had been looking to seize control of border crossings into the KRG by way of both Iranian and Turkish territory. Kurdish authorities had rejected a previous demand from the government in Baghdad to hand over control of all international entry points, including airports in the regional capital Erbil and the major city of Sulaimaniya.
Though Iraqi officials say their Kurdish counterparts had a choice to comply or face the now expanding blockade, turning over control of the border points and airports would also allow the government in Baghdad to gain a stranglehold over the semi-autonomous region until it backs down from its calls for independence. Ahead of the referendum, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s office had already called on all foreign powers to halt independent oil deals with the KRG.
And while Turkish officials denied they had closed their border with Iraqi Kurdistan, they had imposed unspecified restrictions on movement in and out of the region into Turkey. On top of that, they had facilitated the movement of Iraqi forces onto their side of the border in apparent preparations to help Baghdad assert its authority along the boundary.
At the same time, there had been a similar show of force on the part of Turkey’s military, with tanks and other armored vehicles conducting drills nearby. On Sept. 25, 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had implied that, if necessary, those troops could surge across the border to help subdue the KRG.
Separately, Turkey and Iran have agreed to increase cooperation on border security and counter-terrorism issues. The Turkish government has been fight a decades-long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known as the PKK, an internationally recognized terrorist group that it says has direct links to Kurdish factions in both Iraq and Syria. Not surprisingly, the PKK has voiced support for the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum.
So far, there have been no similar moves on the part of the Syrian government, which has also rejected the results of the referendum. Shia-majority Syria shares a small border with Iraqi Kurdistan, but has exerted limited authority over its eastern regions since ISIS terrorists seized dramatically expanded their control over a swath of territory along the Syria-Iraq border in 2014.
Since then, a U.S.-backed coalition has beaten back the terrorists and American-supported local forces have been conducting extensive operations in northern and eastern Syria. With support from their Russian allies, though, forces aligned with Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad began making significant progress in the eastern Deir ez-Zor governorate in September 2017.
Still, as we at The War Zone have noted before, taken together, the political unity of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey in opposition is both impressive and concerning, easily suggesting that any fighting between Baghdad and the KRG could quickly spiral into a regional conflict. Without support from major foreign power, such as the United States, it’s hard to imagine Iraqi Kurdish would be able to withstand the pressure of this bloc.
It’s unclear where the KRG could turn for support at present, either. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China have all, in various languages, indicated displeasure with the unilateral referendum and criticized its timing. The U.S. government in particular, which has been a major benefactor of the Kurdish regional authority, seeing it as an essential part of the anti-ISIS coalition since the darkest days of the terrorist offensive into Iraq, has been disinclined to support the results of the poll.
“The United States' historic relationship with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will not change in light of today's non-binding referendum,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement on Sept. 25, 2017. “But we believe this step will increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people.”
American officials have continued to downplay the impact of this policy position, but it has tacitly endorsed the response by the Iraqi government if nothing else. It has obvious had no impact on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey’s responses to the referendum.
Thankfully, so far, both sides appear to be focusing on economic and political leverage, but there are indications that they may be preparing for violence. On Oct. 2, 2017 KRG President Barzani met with commanders of the region’s own security forces, known as the Peshmerga, in Kirkuk.
This city has already been a flash point between Kurdish forces and Turkmen and Arab militias. During the referendum voting, the mayor publicly told his fellow Kurds to save their bullets in preparation for possibly having to defend them city from outside actors.
And though the U.S. government had implored all parties to keep focused on battling ISIS, the threat is waning, with the terrorists on the defensive and increasing in retreat in both Iraq and Syria. Most recently, coalition-backed Iraqi forces have steadily moved to eject the group’s fighters from the city of Hawija. As such, Iraqi forces and militias aligned with the government in Baghdad could easily decide they can divert at least some of their attention to subduing Kurdish independence aspirations.
If a conflict does erupt in Iraqi Kurdistan, the United States, as well as the KRG’s other western partners, will be compelled to take a stronger stance or risk losing influence in the region, particularly to Iran. In addition, the U.S. government could easily see pressuring the Kurds to back down as the only realistic option to deescalate the situation, but it would be a move that could irrevocably damage ties with Kurdish authorities. The Kurds already have many reasons to be skeptical of American intentions and commitments.
With the various military forces increasingly surrounding the semi-autonomous region, the United States and its coalition partners may not be able to avoid becoming more seriously embroiled in the situation for much longer.
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