The war against the Islamic State and the plight of Iraqi Kurdistan



The 10th June fall of Mosul to the irregular forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), now calling itself the ‘Islamic State’, accompanied as it was by the total collapse of the lavishly equipped and US-trained Iraqi army, presented both threat and opportunity to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). As its peshmerga forces exploited the vacuum left by Baghdad’s fleeing soldiers and took full control of areas, including oil-rich Kirkuk, that the Kurds had long claimed as rightfully theirs, many proclaimed the Kurds as the true victors. In absolute terms, they had augmented their territory by forty percent, increased the energy resources under their control, and had also captured some equipment left behind by Iraq’s army. In relative terms, Baghdad now appeared far too weak to resist Kurdish demands, an impression that was intensified by the ultimately successful pressure on Iraq’s stubborn Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down.

Although numerous skirmishes broke out between Islamic state forces and the peshmerga, Islamic State forces seemed more intent on advancing southwards towards the Sunni Arab towns and villages north of Baghdad, thereby appearing to threaten still more dramatically the prospects for Iraq’s very survival. Erbil’s preference was to defend its gains rather than to engage in the fight between the jihadists and Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government. With Ankara, Iraq’s Kurds had long argued that Maliki’s policies were alienating Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, and firmly believed – and still believe – that the Islamic State’s successes owed a great deal to support from Iraqi tribal leaders, Ba’athists, and ordinary citizens. KRG President Massoud Barzani’s call for a referendum on Kurdish independence demonstrated Kurdish headiness and stoked a wider excitement that Kurdish independence was now irresistible.

Yet within weeks the picture shifted dramatically. Now it was the turn of the peshmerga to evaporate before Islamic State advances in the north, as thousands of Kurds, Christians, Sunni Arabs, and members of the Yazidi minority fled towards a KRG whose capital, Erbil, now itself appeared threatened by the militant advance. The peshmerga had long been denied the American military assistance afforded to Baghdad for fear that it might precipitate Iraq’s breakup, while Baghdad had long been withholding the payment of peshmerga salaries. In order to defend the KRG, protect the thousands of Yazidis and others that had become victims of the Islamist State’s advance and of its brutality, the US initiated a still-ongoing air campaign against jihadist forces in northern Iraq.

The reputation of Iraq’s peshmerga was punctured still further by the leading role played by Syrian Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) in rescuing thousands of Yazidis trapped in the mountains, and by Turkish Kurds from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in liberating the town of Makhmour from its Islamic State occupiers. The humiliation was deepened still further when Barzani felt obliged to thank them for their efforts, as he had hitherto regarded them as undesirable competitors for his leadership of the region’s Kurds.

Although the fog of war persists, the KRG’s complex circumstances can now be seen more clearly. Washington and its allies have now initiated indirect arms supplies to the peshmerga, insisting that any deliveries must first receive a green light from Baghdad. Washington has also continued to actively oppose the KRG’s oil exports via a recently-constructed pipeline into Turkey, thereby aligning itself with the position that Baghdad alone can sanction oil exports from Iraq. Washington is also obliging the Kurds to participate fully in the effort to put together a post-Maliki government of national unity in Baghdad, even though most observers regard the endeavour with skepticism given Shia majoritarainism, Sunni Arab alienation, and the widespread Iraqi Arab rejection of Kurdish demands for greater autonomy. Each of these positions is determined by the US commitment to Iraq’s unitary state.

Furthermore, over a million refugees have so far flooded into Kurdistan, threatening to overwhelm its ability to cope and to destabilise what has hitherto been the only stable part of the country. Although international aid is beginning to trickle in, Baghdad is offering little support to the Kurdish authorities. Erbil’s predicament has been made worse still by Baghdad’s withholding of the KRG’s share of the national budget since the beginning of the year. The KRG is broke.

So, what next for the KRG? To put it brutally, the US position appears to rely increasingly on Iraq’s Kurds to confront Islamic State forces on the ground, while continuing to obstruct Kurdish aspirations for greater autonomy. The US remains absolutely committed to the idea of a Shia-led Iraqi government despite the record to date, which has been to marginalise Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and to fail to address the constitutionally-sanctioned Kurdish positions on the so-called ‘disputed territories’, notably Kirkuk, and on the development of energy resources in Kurdistan. In the negotiations to put together Washington’s much-vaunted ‘government of national unity’ in Baghdad, the Kurds will seek to have their grievances addressed, and the Sunnis will take a great deal of coaxing before they again trust a Shia-majority government. Constitutionalism, inclusiveness, genuine power-sharing, and the de-sectarianisation of Iraq’s institutions, including its armed forces, will not be achieved overnight, if ever. Yet the Kurds and Sunni Arabs are likely to be held responsible for any failure.

It is doubtful that the Kurds can alone beat back Islamic State forces on the ground, and unlikely too that Iraq’s army could either do much better or find itself greeted as a liberating force by Iraq’s Sunnis. At the moment, Kurds, Shia militias, and elements of the Iraqi army are cooperating in the ground war against the Islamic State – with contributions from Iran. Even if they succeed, the Sunni Arabs will remain sullen and Iraq’s Kurds dissatisfied. More likely, if and when Islamic State forces retreat, Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish Iraqis will turn on each other.

In any case, in the battle against the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq constitute a single front. After all, Islamic State originated in Syria, funded and supported from within the Gulf states and Turkey, notwithstanding its capture of Iraq’s Anbar province last year. It is hard to see quite how the country can be put back together. Assad does not look like losing – and if he does, we can anticipate some sectarian cleansing of his Alawite co-religionists – and the ‘opposition’, consisting as it does of around one thousand separate groups, does not look like winning. Whether in the form of the Islamic State or by some other nomenclature, militant Sunni jihadism looks set to persist and even grow, in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the entire region and beyond. Interestingly, the most formidable opponent of the Islamic State in Syria has been the YPG, which has successfully defended Kurdish self-governing enclaves but which, as an offshoot of Turkey’s PKK, is generally regarded as a terrorist organisation and has received no assistance whatsoever.

Given this regional turmoil, the future looks a long way off for Iraq’s Kurds. The KRG is being destabilised, its forces are being used as fodder in battles that are not entirely their own, and its economy is facing ruin. Its best hope now is that the region’s intensifying turmoil will eventually bring the West to the conclusion that the Kurds represent its best friend in the region and maybe its best – or even only – hope of establishing an island of security in a sea of confusion, collapse, violence and animosity. But Washington has a very long way to go before it gives up on its commitment to a Shia-dominated Iraq or, in practice, its prioritisation of the war against Assad over all other considerations. How much regional collapse does it take before the US finally embraces the aspirations of its best friends in that troubled vicinity? Don’t hold your breath.

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