By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Renewed clashes at Altun Kupri between Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces on October 20th led to more confusion in the ongoing crises that is reshaping Iraq. After three years of war against Islamic State the new Iraq is beginning to take shape. This is an Iraq where the Shia militias (PMU, Hashd al-Shaabi) play an important role and their coreligionists in the regular forces often fly Shia flags and even have posters of Iranian leaders. It is also an Iraq that enjoys unprecedented support from the West and the US-led coalition. Photos of western diplomats meeting with Iraqi politicians who not so long ago were under investigation or seen as Iranian-backed extremists, illustrates how beholden to these figures such as Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji, the West has become.
The latest fighting once again raises more questions than it answers.
US weapons on both sides, US doesn’t really seem to care The silence of US officials on fighting in Iraq is extraordinary. While Baghdad fought the Peshmerga, US Special Envoy for the war on ISIS Brett McGurk first was near Raqqa on October 17 and then speaking with NATO about the war on ISIS. Not discussed it seems, was the crises in Iraq. The senior US official dealing with the war on ISIS, who had said the Kurdistan referendum would distract from the war on ISIS, didn’t bother to go deal with the actual distraction in Kirkuk. That distraction has tied down the ISOF, ERD, Iraqi 9th armored and other units. The wall of silence by US officials and lack of any visits to Erbil appear to indicate they have given Baghdad a blank check to do what it wants and the US no longer sees the Kurdistan Regional Government as a partner. This is a major reversal from past years.
US statements don’t seem to explain what is happening and US diplomats aren’t in Iraq: While US President Donald Trump has said the US won’t “take sides” between Baghdad and Erbil, other statements are unclear. “We remain very concerned about the situation in northern Iraq…We urge both parties to stand down and resolve any dispute peacefully and politically, remain united in the fight against ISIS and remain united against a common threat in Iran,” said Michael Anton, spokesman for the National Security Council. “Concern” is kind of a throw away word because if the US was concerned then we would see real concern through action. Secretary Tillerson is on the way to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Qatar and India. Not Iraq. When weapons the US supplied are being used by two partners in the war on ISIS against each other, you’d think the US, which claims to not want to distract from the ISIS conflict, would go to Baghdad and Erbil. This doesn’t seem to indicate unintended consequences of the war on ISIS, because the US doesn’t appear to be particularly surprised by the clashes. The coalition has said all along it was a planned and coordinated move. The lack of US surprise and interest leaves many questions.
Saudi Arabia is growing closer to Baghdad Not long ago Erbil thought it would enjoy support from Saudi Arabia and Turkey for its aspirations. But things change over time, and in the last year Saudi Arabia has sought to reach out to Baghdad. It has opened a border crossing, and flights have resumed. The US seems to have worked closely on this relationship, with Brett McGurk tweeting about it often. Saudi Arabia is now rumored to be involved in rebuilding efforts in Raqqa. Saudi Arabia Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan was in Raqqa on October 17. He is a former ambassador to Iraq, known for opposition to Iranian influence. On October 19 Abadi received a call from King Salman of Saudi Arabia for an invitation to a bilateral coordination meeting. Rex Tillerson will attend that meeting in coming days. VOA notes: “The inaugural Coordination Council meeting comes amid a warming of relations between Riyadh and Baghdad. The gathering is seen as part of U.S. efforts to reduce Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq by encouraging Baghdad to align more closely with Riyadh.”
Sacrificing Erbil to please Baghdad and Tehran dovetails with policy on Saudi Arabia: US policymakers, faced with the issue of supporting Erbil which was a key player against ISIS and is a pro-American stable autonomous region, and working to bring Abadi into the Saudi Arabia camp presented the US with a difficult choice in recent weeks. To get Baghdad to Riyadh meant giving Baghdad something. Baghdad wanted Kirkuk back, with its oil reserves and to increase perception of Abadi as a strong Iraqi nationalist with credentials of having “showed the Kurds.” In this sense, the US supported Abadi’s decision after the Kurdistan referendum to force the Kirkuk issue. As early as September 28 Baghdad threatened to send troops to Kirkuk. Bafel Talabani’s recent interview with France 24 reveals that just before the referendum “McGurk, [UK ambassador Frank] Baker came with a proposal that would guarantee rights to a referendum in two years if we negotiate with Baghdad.” When that was rejected, the US could use rejection as an excuse to move forward with other players.
Values and practicalities of US policy Saudi Arabia and Turkey were close to Erbil. The referendum helped harm ties with Turkey while Saudi Arabia has made a more pragmatic choice. From the US perspective Erbil doesn’t offer it much in grand strategy. Erbil may be secular and host minorities and IDPs and it may have more democracy and more free press than many neighboring states. While US values dovetail with the Kurdish region, US policy has never felt that values are particularly important in the last decades. That is why the US is closely allied with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other players. Saudi Arabia and Turkey didn’t mind sacrificing the KRG, Iran and Baghdad oppose the KRG. Some EU states support Iran or at least accept Iranian hegemony in the region. What is left after all that is basically no support for the Kurdistan region. McGurk said as much in his Sept. 14 press briefing in Erbil.
Of course the US knew the plans for Kirkuk “Abadi would not have attacked without informing the U.S.,” David L. Phillips, a former State Department adviser who has worked on Iraq told the New York Times, “At a minimum, the U.S. knew that the attack was coming.”
Because they understood the timing of the Kirkuk operation It is clear that the Kirkuk operation took place after the Hawija offensive when all the Iraqi units needed would be in proximity. From September 21 to October 8 Iraqi forces took Hawija from ISIS, the last ISIS pocket near the Kurdish region. The Iraqi forces could not move on Kirkuk while ISIS was nearby and the Kurdish frontline was defending against ISIS, because it would have jeopardized the Kurdish frontline by outflanking it and the coalition would have had to act.
The US coalition said they had heard of no threats to the Kurds and called the movement of armor natural. It seems clear that the decision to move on Kirkuk between October 12-16 was known to the US since US advisors serve with the ISOF and other units. They were probably withdrawn before the offensive began. Hawija’s offensive, which was initially to include the Peshmerga, was timed to begin before the referendum so it would finish after and then the Kirkuk operation could be put in motion. The coalition also reduced and suspended training in the Kurdistan region related to the coalition’s KTCC training center. Once the Iraqi forces moved on Kirkuk the Germans also announced a suspension of training in the Kurdish region. The German support is part of the KTCC, so their announcement confirms what was quietly done several weeks before.
Did the US really ignore Iranian involvement in Kirkuk: When the coalition was asked about the October 16 takeover of Kirkuk, the spokesperson denied the Iranian-backed PMU had played a role. “From our official reporting from our elements that participating and have re-established security in and around the Kirkuk area, those are Iraqi security force elements like the Counter-Terrorism Service, the Federal Police, and we do not have reports of PMF units or the types of units you had mentioned that we have received,” said Col. Dillon. This is in contrast to the dozens of articles that have claimed that the operation in Kirkuk “puts Iran and US on same side.”
The role of Shia militias The US has long understood the threat of the Shia militias. The New York Times wrote in 2014 “Shiite militias pose challenge for US in Iraq.” Shia militias played a key role in 2016 in defeating ISIS south of Kirkuk in areas around the village of Bashir, which became a flashpoint on October 12-16, 2017. On September 27, 2017 “In Tuz Khurmatu, the Tehran-backed Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al Haq and Khorasani Brigades showcased their forces.” Qais al-Khazali warned of war with Erbil if the referendum was conducted in Kirkuk. In December 2016 he had said that after ISIS was defeated, Iraq’s biggest “problem” was the Kurds. On October 9 he vowed to “enter Sinjar and Kirkuk soon.”
And Iran…. Dexter Filkins notes in his October 16 piece at The New Yorker that “on Sunday [October 15], Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s chief spymaster, travelled to the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya to meet with the leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or P.U.K., one of the two main Kurdish political parties. He notes “Also accompanying Iraqi forces in Kirkuk was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi militia commander convicted of bombing the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1983; he has been designated a terrorist by the United States government.” Not everyone agrees, some say there is less evidence of Shia militia involvement. Pro-Baghdad writers tend to see less while pro-Erbil writers tend to see more. But it’s hard to deny the the role of Iran due to presence of Soleimani, al-Amiri, al-Muhandis.
Erbil in crises On October 20th protesters arrived at the US consult to ask why the US was not supporting Kurdistan. Many felt it had betrayed them. They asked why US military vehicles in the hands of Iraqi army were being used against them. The general trend in Erbil and the KRG has been to continue talking about restraint and dialogue. But there is no response from the US or Western powers. In a statement on October 20th France appeared to appeal for restraint from Baghdad. “We ask the federal government to show restraint and fully respect the rights of the Kurds,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes Romatet-Espagne told reporters.
Kurdish infighting The real story, beyond Iran’s involvement, is that much of what happened in Kirkuk was enabled by Kurdish infighting between the KDP and PUK. Jonathan Spyer writes at The American Interest “The Kurdish retreat appears to have been the product of a deal between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish party that dominates in Kirkuk, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The PUK-Iran relationship dates back 25 years, to the days when both were engaged against the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad. Due to this alliance, the PUK only reluctantly supported the Kurdish independence referendum of September 25. Indeed, the fractured nature of Kurdish politics, the absence of a single, united military force, and the differing international alliances and orientations of the two main parties in the KRG.”
These disputes have come out in the open after years of unity fighting ISIS as the PUK seeks relevant and a new position in Iraq. Ala Talabani and other members of the family have been prominent since October 16th articulating a very different view from Erbil. On October 19th Ala Talabani met with al-Khazali in Baghdad to “discuss Kirkuk future.” Behind Khazali was an Iraqi flag, there was no Kurdish flag present. According to accounts of her recent interviews, she said “Qasim Sulaimani visited us in Sulaimanyah & his offer was positive.” Bafel Talabani has also made comments suggesting an “honorable” deal could have been made before October 16 but because the KRG did not accept it, “catastrophe that has befallen Kirkuk.” His interview reveals that Kurds tried to press for a deal whereby the coalition and Baghdad would receive the K1 base but Kirkuk would remain under Kurdish control. However he claims divisions within the Kurdish leadership meant the deal was not signed and Abadi went head with the offensive, handing them a fait accompli. Eli Lake’s new piece confirms this last minute US attempt to broker a deal, similar to the failed US attempt days before the referendum. It appears that between October 12-16 the ultimatums Baghdad gave were clear and the Kurdistan leadership either didn’t believe it was real or felt the US would step in. In the end chaos reigned and the Kurdish forces withdrew in disorder.
Ranj Talabany has also made a series of tweets critiquing the government in Erbil and explaining the Iraqi forces actions. Some of his tweets were subsequently deleted.
Some US policymakers think KRG is in the way of their plans The US policy supporting Abadi sees him as the savior of Iraq and they prefer his Iraq to Erbil’s concept of Iraq. It is not just the concept of “unity” and “one Iraq” but the idea that he must be made into a client relying on the US for support and in so doing he can be encouraged to be less close to Iran. This may seem fanciful considering the clear role of the IRGC’s Soleimani, but the US doesn’t see a sunk cost. Erbil’s insistence on a referendum was a kind of headache, but it is not the reason for the movement on Kirkuk. Instead it accelerated the process. The US could then use the referendum as a reason to encourage Baghdad. But in general Erbil’s attempt to act independently already had ruffled Washington’s feather. It was too successful in a sense. The US thinks that since it helped create the conditions for the KRG in the 1990s that the KRG should do as asked.
The UK angle Some Kurdish voices online have blamed the UK for some of what has happened, claiming. The entire role of the UK is not clear, but it has been harshly against Trump’s view of the Iran deal. The UK was critical of the referendum and has been critical of other actions of the KRG. Unlike the US there was less expectation it would side with Erbil. The UK has a close relationship with Abadi and there are fears about him obtaining a second term. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called Abadi on October 19 and praised his actions, according to Abadi.
It is likely it views the PUK play for Kirkuk as a benefit and a force that the UK can work with to speak to Tehran. UK Ambassador Frank Baker has frequently praised the Talabani family, some of whom lived in the UK. According to his twitter he met senior Talabani family members such as Lahur, Qubad and Bafel in January, May and July 2016 and February, May June and August 2017 with many discussions about internal “Kurdish dialogue.”
Further dividing the Kurdish region in two The central governments moves against the KRG has been calculated to make it lost credibility through its divisions and withdrawals. This seems a crises of leadership as Peshmerga units don’t seem to have clear orders. Even on the Oct. 20 fighting, there was an absence of leaders at the front. It’s often not clear what is happening or why. Why was Sinjar withdrawn from? Why Makhmour and Bashiqa? There are theories that it was to force the US to act and support Erbil. But from the US perspective all the KRG was doing was abandoning land which makes it look less reliable. A negotiated withdrawal is reliable, packing up and leaving in the night is not. It’s easy to critique in retrospect always, but what is clear is the deep divisions in the KRG that existed since decades were waiting for the post-ISIS era to return. The PMU and Baghdad were also waiting for after ISIS to reduce the KRG’s power. They were happy to exploit those divisions via Tehran to get what they wanted which is a to roll back the clock on the KRG’s independence. The KRG had been running its borders, airports and army and selling oil. Baghdad wants to reduce or end all that. Problems within the Peshmerga have been revealed as well. Despite reforms and a unified command, the fact that most withdrew due to commands from Sulaymaniyeh revealed that they are as divided as they were. In addition the lack of heavy weapons used on October 20th to defend Altun Kupri (Pirde), shows that there was still a lack of coordination and clarity of purpose. All of this has weakened the Peshmerga’s image and the KRG’s image. It illustrates that the Iraqi Security Forces have come a long way from 2014. It is unclear what the central issue is affecting the Peshmerga’s performance, whether it is unwillingness of high command to commit them or internal divisions.
At the same time the US and Baghdad and Iran have accomplished what they wanted, The Iraqi army seems competent and stable, it has redeemed itself from 2014. Iran has managed to normalize and mainstream its militias as part of the government and get the US to quiet give a stamp of approval basically to working with them.
Conclusions Many questions still remain but the issue of bringing Abadi closer to Saudi Arabia and setting aside the KRG or even viewing the KRG as a problem in the way of the West’s work with Baghdad may explain the silence in the US and elsewhere that has ld to shock in Erbil and also bewilderment among some Kurdish observers and US politicians who support the Kurds.