By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In Forty-eight hours the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian-backed Shia militias have re-drawn northern Iraq. In a shocking reversal after three years of liberating and securing areas from Islamic State, the Kurdistan government ordered a massive withdrawal of its Peshmerga from areas disputed with Baghdad. Without any warning or open coordination, it moved thousands of men and local politicians. It abandoned offices with the flags flying, and left communities unsure as to what comes next. For observers of the region it has happened so fast that many are to stunned to provide explanations. Here are some observations, lessons and questions.
If Kirkuk was betrayed what happened in Sinjar? The narrative from Kurdistan leaders and insiders has been that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) “betrayed” the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and “sold” Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah to Baghdad. This narrative would seem partly reasonable if it weren’t for the withdrawal of KDP-affiliated Peshmerga from frontlines in Makhmour, Gwer, Bashiqa and most of all Sinjar (Shingal). The battle for Sinjar lasted from the fall of 2014 to November 2015 when most of the city was liberated. Why was it abandoned? The two days of withdrawals from October 16-17 indicate coordination on both sides. It can’t be that the PUK chose to abandon Kirkuk and that therefore the KRG decided to withdraw from Sinjar as well. There is no connection between the two. Sinjar was not more threatened because of Kirkuk. The Iraqi army sent its best units against Kirkuk, including the ISOF and FedPol and ERD. Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were in Kirkuk. But there was no major Hashd al-Shaabi force facing Shingal city. Rumors of artillery in Kocho is interesting, but what was the withdrawal?
Pro-Kurdish observers left puzzled Many observers of the Kurdish region were left puzzled by what was happening. Many had supported the right to a referendum for independence. They were shocked to see joy on September 25 turn to despondency on October 17th. Initially they were cynically consoled by the evidence that the IRGC and Iran’s Qassem Soleimani had somehow engineered a brilliant political ploy using his contacts in Sulaymaniyeh. He had come to the funeral of Mam Jalal Talabani and leveraged it to use the existing influence in Suli to encourage the Talabanis to come to an agreement with Baghdad. But the massive withdrawals from strategic locations in Makhmur, Gwer, Bashiqa, Sinjar and even areas around Mosul Dam leave many questions. Iran had influence over Suli, but who had influence over the thousands of Peshmerga leaving areas that had been hard fought for. These include areas the Peshmerga have been in since the 1990s.
Why invest in a referendum and then leave places that voted? One key question involves why the referendum was held in areas that were abandoned. If it is true that the agreement or decision to leave these areas was made a week or more before it happened, that means the decision came right after the referendum. Why would the KRG invest such resources to do balloting in Bashiqa or Sinjar or Kirkuk, and then leave the areas that had voted for independence? Political capital was invested and despite a huge amount of international pressure, the KRG went forward with the referendum. For many observers this was seen as admirable. But there is a shock that the same areas that so much was gambled for would be walked away from.
International community didn’t have time to react If the Peshmerga had held for several days of fighting, there is reason to believe the international community, or at the very least the US, might have taken notice and done something. By leaving quickly the KRG provided no method by which supporters might support not withdrawing. The narrative that Iran is a major winner from the events of October 16-17 is correct, but even those who would like to confront Iranian hegemony or stand against Iran, were handed a fait accompli by the withdrawal. Any attempt by the KRG to return to those areas it left will now be seen as “Kurdish aggression.”
Lack of information In the aftermath of the withdrawal the statements to media indicates that the pre-Mosul offensive Peshmerga lines have been returned to. But the article notes “Over the past two days, Peshmerga forces have withdrawn from a number of disputed areas including Kirkuk, Shingal, Gwer, Makhmour, Khanaqin, and Snune.
Yet the article claims that “the basis of understanding for the mechanism of deploying Iraqi and Kurdistan Region forces.” Peshmerga took Kirkuk fully in 2014, while “Shingal, Gwer, Makhmour, and Snune all came under Kurdish control during the war against ISIS before the Mosul offensive. Khanaqin has been under Peshmerga control since 2003.”
KRG weakened in eyes of enemies and partners The withdrawals make the KRG appear weaker in the eyes of its enemies and its friends. From the enemy perspective it has abandoned huge areas without any force. This will make Baghdad, Iran and others want to test what remains of the KRG. Although this is the Kurdish heartland there are other economic concerns involved, not least involving oil. The KRG had a reputation for security and stability. Investment has flowed since 2003. However the closure of the international airport and other threats make the region seem less stable. That is what Baghdad wants, it wants to turn the KRG into a weak pliant statelet. It wants to ruin its international contacts. The KRG obviously does not want that. But its inability to communicate what it was doing on October 16-17 make it seem unreliable. Unless it can restore faith in its stability and power, it could have long-lasting harm.
Anti-Kurdistan voices are celebrating Not only in Baghdad and Tehran, but in other places anti-Kurdistan voices are celebrating. These include not merely enemies of the Kurds, but also other agendas and interests. Some journalists who were based in Erbil often disliked the KRG and supported other forces, including Baghdad. Others have been passionate supporters of Yazidis or other minorities such as Christians. For them the retreat of the Kurds, and often specifically the KDP is a cause for celebration. What they have not asked is whether the minority groups they support were given any choice. Will Yazidis return to Sinjar now that the Iraqi government is back in charge? Will Christian towns be revived, when so many Christians have fled to the KRG’s Ainkawa. If minorities disliked the KRG why did so many of them flee there, rather than Baghdad? They sought security and put down roots. The fetish for “federal” rule from Baghdad is popular among some commentators, activists, and academics, or voices in diaspora communities. Will the PMU and local affiliates rebuild life and bring security or return these areas to 2009 and 2013 governance? The religious theocracy that comes with Baghdad’s rule (remember bans on alcohol) do not bode well. If Baghdad has been the great steward of minorities one would expect many from Sinjar and Nineveh to have gone there. Baghdad has not materialized as the hope these voices imagine, time will tell if they are right or wrong.
Iran’s road to the sea becomes a highway The stories about Iran seeking a “road” or “corridor” to the sea have now become even more relevant. Iran’s role was clear in Kirkuk where the Shia militia leaders played a key role. Iranian intelligence, IRGC Quds Force and others were central figures. They, along with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, are cheering. Iranian empowerment will have consequences. It could eventually backfire as Iran’s proxies overreach. So far that has not happened.
What affect on Rojava? The Iraqi government has now taken back most of the Syrian border with Iraq. That includes Rabiah and isolates the Yazidi YBS in Sinjar. Meanwhile in Raqqa the SDF has defeated ISIS. This is in contrast to the crises in Erbil. However the Kurdish PYD and the YPG in Rojava will now have to ask what comes next. Feelings that the US betrayed the Kurds in northern Iraq will leave them wondering what happens when the regime demands lands back in Rojava. Will the regime do what Iraq did, and will the US tell the to hand over land. Will the US pull up its investment in the SDF after ISIS is defeated. The rapid changes on the ground in the KRG will cast doubt about any long-term US commitment to Rojava.
Is US policy spiteful and if not then what is it The US has expressed no support or Erbil, a city and polity it has invested in over the years. Not only did it use the harshest language condemning the referendum, it has seemed to step back from any relations with the KRG since the referendum. This almost indicates that the US seeks to give Baghdad a green light to reduce the KRG’s autonomy. The US has sometimes viewed Erbil as a headache to its attempts to remake Iraq after 2003. The US wanted to own Iraq and turn it into a unified ally after 2003. US administrators want Iraq to be a US success story. Instead Iraq has become a disaster in US foreign policy. But “Iraq hands,” those who have been involved in the last decade don’t see it that way. For them Iraq is always on the verge of power-sharing agreements, federalism, and a multi-cultural society that is moving in the right direction. That a third of the country is damaged in the recent war, that millions have not returned home, and that militias control parts of the country, is not a concern. Erbil is too independent in Iraq. It is too secular and to free in a sense. Western diplomats often feel more secure in the Green Zone in Baghdad than in Erbil. Not because they are more secure, but they feel more like proconsuls in a small bubble. The freedom of Erbil makes them feel in a more western country, one where their presence is less exotic.
It appears the US thought that its work with the KRG during the conflict, such as establishing the KTCC training center and paying Peshmerga salaries, would result in a quid-pro-quo. That means when Washington told the Kurds what to do, such as cancelling the referendum, they were expected to listen. When western diplomats say “not the right time,” for a vote, they mean it. When the KRG didn’t listen, the West sought to teach it a lesson. Using Iranian-backed sectarian militias to do that was reasonable in their view.
Jettisoning the disputed areas to save the heartland? The perplexing rapidity with which the Peshmerga withdrew may not be that perplexing in retrospect. I visited Shingal in 2015. The town was in ruins and mostly empty. Other areas such as Snune were barely functioning. I asked many times what were the plans to reinvigorate this area. People said it was to soon, ISIS had to be defeated, towns had to be de-mined.
In Mosul in 2016 the neighborhoods in the east that were liberated returned to life as usual weeks after being liberated. The contrast with Sinjar was stark. Almost two years after liberation Sinjar looks today as it did in November 2015. Facilities didn’t return and neither did many civilians. The KRG plans for Sinjar were never clear in this respect. Those who wondered why more wasn’t done to document the mass graves of Yazidis and rebuild were met with silence. It isn’t reasonable to conclude that the plan was always to abandon the area, because then the leadership could have said that and given it away before. It’s more unclear than that. But there is evidence that there were never plans to invest in the disputed areas. Part of this was due to an economic crises. But there are other issues involved. During the war against ISIS the Kurdish frontlines rarely moved forward. They didn’t want to waste lives conquering areas that are not part of Kurdistan. So why take Sinjar? Kurdish Peshmerga had been in Sinjar before ISIS attacked in 2014. They were accused of abandoning Sinjar while the PKK-YPG fought against ISIS on the mountain. So competition and a need to redeem the failure of August 2014 entered into calculations. This may provide some explanation for the ease with which it was abandoned.
Saving the Peshmerga for the next round? Abandoning the disputed areas will preserve the Peshmerga forces. But it will leave many of the individuals wondering about what comes next. Peshmerga in Kirkuk say they didn’t receive proper orders. Yet it seems that most units withdrew intact. Lots of equipment does not seem to have been left behind, unlike the rout of Iraq’s army in 2014. Husbanding these limited resources may appear essential from Erbil and Suli’s viewpoint.
Unity? There are calls for unity in Erbil but not in Suli. Any idea that unity would come out of this is unclear how that might happen. It has caused accusations of betrayal. This affects the Peshmerga as well. Over the last years there have been plans to professionalize them and reduce their reliance on political parties. The withdrawals have shown that that did not happen. Some PUK Peshmerga withdrew, some fought, but overall the chaos was related to a lack of a unified command and transparent information. The future does not seem to indicate that they will grow together but rather grow apart. The Kurds successfully put the rancor of the 1990s civil war behind them to a degree after 2003. But the deep divisions between Erbil and Suli are clearer than ever. Some PUK factions such as Kosrat Rasol and Najmaldin Karim will remain in Erbil it appears, while the rest of the PUK will have to put its house in order.
Can the KRG get its autonomy back? There are conflicting reports that the airport in Suli will be re-opened. However it appears that it will be controlled by Baghdad. Will visa-free travel return. This is also a demand at the borders. This is a major setback for the region, returning it to a pre-2003 role almost. Observers will now wonder if the whole region has not only been plunged back into the 1990s in terms of power and control, but if it is more divided and whether outside actors such as Iran and Baghdad want to increase those divisions.
Iran wins big, but what did America gain? It’s clear this was a major victory for Iran, in which it used a stratagem to dismantle part of an enemy without bloodshed. This is the Iranian regime goal. It likes to splinter its enemies as it has successfully done in Syria with the rebels and in Lebanon with the opposition, getting Christians in Lebanon to divide into those that side with Hezbollah and those that side with Saad Hariri. But what do the Americans get out of a weakened Kurdistan. The Kurdish region was one of America’s closest allies in the region and one place there was no anti-American sentiment. A safe and secure place where Americans and westerners could go where they wanted. It seemed like the ideal of a democratizing and more secular space that America would support in the region. There was virtually no terror in the Kurdish region and a strong security service. However that has been called into question. What did the Americans gain? They have substantially weakened the KRG and handed parts of Iraq to the Iranians, including terrorists that the Treasury Department sanction, for no noticeable gain.