Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed militias aligned with the government in Baghdad have begun a massive military operation to wrest control of Kirkuk governorate from the country’s Kurdish Regional Government following a controversial referendum on a future independent Kurdistan. The move has left the United States and its anti-ISIS coalition desperately scrambling to de-escalate the situation, calling it just a "misunderstanding," while at the same time still trying to avoid publicly taking a side in a conflict that could turn into an all out civil war or even a regional crisis.
Iraqi troops began the offensive overnight on Oct. 15, 2017, and claimed to have ejected the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) own security forces, known as the Peshmerga, from major oil fields to the south of Kirkuk city, as well as the province’s main military base. Active fighting between the two parities, to include an exchange of artillery fire, reportedly resulted in dozens of casualties and the destruction of numerous military vehicles. The government in Baghdad also formally named Arab politician Rakan Saeed Al Jobouri to take over as governor of the province, the Iraqi parliament already having voted to remove the previous Kurdish official, Najmaldin Karim, ahead of the independence referendum in September 2017.
In spite of this, the U.S.-led coalition said “these movements of military vehicles, so far, have been coordinated movements, not attacks,” in an official statement on Oct. 16, 2017. “We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.”
"We call on all parties to immediately cease military action and restore calm while we continue to work with officials from the central and regional governments to reduce tensions and avoid further clashes," the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said in a statement. "We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi Constitution, in all disputed areas."
In taking these positions, it appears that the United States is hoping to give both parties an opportunity to claim the fighting has been the result of confusion, not policy, and stop the shooting without losing face. This in turn would open the path up to renewed negotiations on how to settle the fate of Iraqi Kurdistan following an overwhelmingly positive response to a referendum calling for independence from the rest of Iraq in September 2017.
There are unconfirmed reports that the U.S.-led coalition has instituted a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan. Officially, the United States has no involved itself directly in the dispute, though, and any prohibition on Iraqi Air Force activities had not impeded forces on the ground from pursuing their objectives. However, both sides have already received significant training and military equipment from the U.S. military and its partners
The American diplomatic ploy might have worked when both sides were simply in a tense standoff. Unfortunately, the Iraqi government has made it perfectly clear that this is not a “misunderstanding” and that it is simply making good on threats to act it made weeks ago after it rushed to impose an economic blockade already aimed at strangling the region into submission. It has become increasingly clear that the very ability of a “peaceful exercise of joint government” to continue existing at all in Kirkuk and potentially other areas of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, is at the core of the dispute.
“We showed them [the Kurds] the magnitude of the danger that will be exposed to Iraq and its people, but they preferred their personal and partisan interests to those of Iraq, with its Arab and Kurdish people and the rest of its components,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi said in an official statement. “We have only acted to fulfill our constitutional duty to extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city, which we want to remain a city of peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis.”
The thousands of Kurds fleeing north from Kirkuk clearly do not feel there has been any confusion on the part of the government in Baghdad. The Peshmerga’s top General Command described the Iraqi push into the province as “a flagrant declaration of war.” Video of an Iraqi U.S.-made M1 Abrams tank knocking off a billboard depicting KRG President Masoud Barzani only underscores the true nature of the situation, as do unconfirmed reports of Iran-backed militiamen beheading captured Pershmerga.
The U.S. government’s long-standing position that all parties in Iraq should remain focused on defeating ISIS and that the Kurdish poll was a dangerous distraction from this shared cause, has only made it harder for it to influence either side, too. American officials have repeatedly deflected on whether or not they believe that an independent Kurdistan is either viable or in the United States’ interests now or in the future. Earlier in October 2017, the United States allowed a deal where it paid the salaries of Peshmerga fighters to lapse, calling into question its commitments to the KRG.
Though the terrorist group will likely remain a significant security threat for the foreseeable future, the rapid collapse of ISIS’ physical “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria has reduced the immediacy of that threat. The situation had definitely begun to stabilize enough for the KRG to see an opportunity to make a serious push for independence and for Iraqi authorities to feel they could divert significant military resources to help in suppressing the results.
The longer the U.S. government waits to either publicly take a side, or even admonish both sides, the more politically complex the situation will get, something we at The War Zone had warned was a distinct possibility right after the independence vote. In September 2017, I wrote:
If the referendum does pass, the United States could then find itself compelled to take a position on Kurdish self-determination and the future of the region, whether it wants to or not, even if only tacitly. Facing a unified front from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Russia, with even Israel staying silent, the U.S. government may feel it has little option but to turn on the Kurds once again or risk getting embroiled in a major conflict it has no desire to be a part of, at least according to the past statements from the State Department and the Pentagon.
Without American support, there's a real question about whether the KRG could reasonably hope to survive the economic or military pressure from the forces already converging on it. In addition, not supporting the Kurds, might embolden the United States' opponents and give the appearance that the U.S. government is unwilling to challenge Russian and Iranian hegemony in Iraq, which would be politically problematic at home.
That last point is particularly important given President Donald Trump’s recent unveiling of a new U.S. government policy toward Iran on Oct. 13, 2017, which included designated that country’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. It's no secret that that Iran, but way of the IRGC, has been actively advising and aiding the Iraqi military and supporting state-sanctioned predominately Shia Muslim militias commonly known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or the Al Hashd Al Shaabi. The PMF, as well as the Iraqi Federal Police, another organization with long-standing ties to the IRGC and Shia militias, have been at the forefront of the Kirkuk operation, though regular Iraqi Army and elite Counter Terrorism service personnel have also been involved.
The KRG appears to be hoping to play off this by highlighting this Iranian backing in nearly all of its official statements on the situation, as well as pointing out their use of American-supplied weaponry. This is an obvious implication that officials in Baghdad are diverting aid to groups the U.S. government considers terrorists, something many observers have highlighted in the past.
The Trump Administration could find itself in a political conundrum whereby choosing not to unequivocally support the Kurds effectively puts it on the same side of the argument as Iran and the IRGC. This in turn could undermine Trump’s stated goals in constraining Iranian influence in the Middle East and elsewhere and become a major domestic political issue. There are already reports that American personnel, including special operations forces, may be in danger of getting caught up in the fighting.
But to make things even more complicated, though the Kurds have denied this is the case, there are unconfirmed reports, video, and pictures that suggest the Peshmerga has called upon the support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Better known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, both Turkey and the United States have officially designated this Turkish Kurdish faction as a terrorist group. One video reportedly shows a Humvee flying the group's flag and carrying a picture of Abdullah Öcalan, its leader, who is currently in prison in Turkey.
American and Turkish officials have already sparred rhetorically over U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish factions, commonly known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, which Turkey says are simply another arm of the PKK. The U.S. military has repeatedly insisted that the two Kurdish groups are not formally linked and that the Syrian Kurds do not represent a threat to Turkish interests.
Turkey categorically disagrees and has already threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan in coordination with officials in Baghdad in response to the referendum. In addition, Turkish troops have recently begun taking up positions in northern Syria to block the expanding influence of the YPG as part of a Russian-backed plan for “de-escalation zones.”
Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, with direct help from his Russian and Iranian benefactors, has similarly made significant gains against ISIS and its domestic opponents as of late. This has directly threatened American forces in the country and challenged the U.S. government’s ability to have any say in the future of the Assad regime or the nature of governance in the country’s northwestern regions that its Kurdish and Arab partners have liberated from the terrorists.
With all this in mind, it is hard to overstate the potential for a far larger and more dangerous regional conflict to grow out of this emerging, localized skirmish in Kirkuk. Though the U.S. government is undoubtedly working behind the scenes to try and stop the fighting and reduce tensions before it gets to that point, those efforts are undercut somewhat by public pronouncements that sound detached from the reality on the ground.
What happens in Iraq, as well as Syria, after ISIS ceases to be an immediate danger is something we at The War Zone have been concerned about for some time, and is surely a question the United States should have been thinking long and hard about before now. As Iraqi and Kurdish forces began to push into Mosul, one of the terrorist group's major Iraqi strongholds, in July 2017, we wrote:
Finally, there remains the question of how Iraq will find peace once ISIS no longer holds territory within its borders. With Iranian-backed Shiite militias, U.S.-backed Kurds, and the Iraqi Army itself empowered and armed like never before, can Iraq keep itself from falling into civil war? And what is America’s plan should that occur...or is there one at all?
If the United States continues to find itself unable or unwilling to take a stronger position, it may be difficult, if not impossible to contain the many agendas of the myriad actors already involved in the crisis, none of whom appear to be inclined at present to back down.
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