Updated: As of 17th October 2017
Iraqi forces backed by the PMU have launched an operation to seize the oil fields around Kurdish occupied Kirkuk, in retaliation for recent Kurdish independence moves. I will briefly explore the regional ramifications of this immediate move. For a while now, I’ve maintained that the Kurdish issue has the potential to align Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq much closer together, and this is exactly what we are seeing develop. The US, Israel and their Kurdish proxies are looking more untenable, for now at least.
Turkey and Iran have both come out to support Baghdad. There are reports of the Peshmerga withdrawing, but this operation is still in its infancy and nobody really knows if there will be a violent Kurdish backlash, although that appears unlikely at this stage given what appear to be high level orders for a bloodless withdrawal. For now the Iraqis are taking over vast parts of Kurdish occupied territories around Kirkuk, Mosul, Diyala and Sinjar, with Kurdish Peshmerga given orders to retreat. Qassem Soleimani is rumored to be in Erbil for talks with Barzani, highlighting the importance of this development. However, there are also reports of the PUK cooperating with Baghdad during the offensive, signalling friction amongst the Kurds and disapproval of Barzani’s judgements as leader of Kurdistan.
The Kurds have traditionally been split between 2 warring parties despite Barzani being supreme leader of the Kurds, – the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) led by the Barzani clan, and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) led by the Talabani clan. The PUK could be hammering out a deal with Baghdad, leaving the Barzani-dominated KDP out in the cold, with little option but to withdraw their KDP Peshmerga as well. Essentially, the move onto Kirkuk by Baghdad has pre-empted any further Kurdish moves towards independence.
US in difficult position; potential windfall for Syria
Having backed Baghdad against Kurdish independence within Iraq for the time being, the US now finds itself in a quandary, knowing that Baghdad has the upper hand with these moves and unable to do anything against them. Baghdad and Tehran have seized the opportunity to call the Peshmerga’s bluff and have taken measures immediately in the wake of the Hawija offensive against ISIS, to secure sections of Kirkuk province. The Peshmerga are considered by Washington as its only useful pawns in Iraq, as are the Kurdish dominated SDF in Syria. These groups, including their US and Israeli backers, are now increasingly looking cornered in the Middle East. The status of Kirkuk under Iraqi Constitution still remains a grey area subject to dispute and pending resolution, however, the Kurds are known to have opportunistically seized lands in Iraq while fighting ISIS, having expanded their presence around Kirkuk and Mosul in the wake of these operations. This includes Yazidi, Shia, Turkmen and Arab lands, moves which have landed them in trouble with the Iraqi government and the PMU, who have launched operations to reclaim some of these areas, such as around Tal Afar. Tehran and Ankara have also raised suspicions about Kurdish ambitions post-ISIS, – something that resonates with their own problems with Kurdish separatism. The US is watching nervously as its position in Iraqi Kurdistan now slides into uncertainty. At worst, it could carry out unilateral air strikes against PMU forces embedded within the Iraqi army as a warning. It could also pressure the Iraqi government to cease further moves. However, this will be seen as blatant hypocrisy, as the US has supposedly stood by Baghdad’s claim on its sovereignty. It therefore risks US credibility, and the US now finds itself in a dilemma.
The very same can be said of the Kurdish SDF in Syria, having seized lands far beyond their reach, stretching Kurdish forces thin. This move will be watched closely by Damascus, as well as Ankara. If the Iraqis are able to reclaim Kurdish lands opportunistically seized in the wake of ISIS, then this will only set a template for the Syrian government to follow. Damascus knows the SDF is stretched thin and has bitten far more than it could chew in northern Syria, despite the record graduations of fresh new SDF recruits. These forces lack experience and heavy weapons, relying overly on the US. Moreover, Turkey is applying heavy pressure from the north, and from Idlib, on the Kurds. The SDF also faces tension within its own ranks with Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen tribes, and events in Kirkuk will in no doubt affect their calculus.
Syria could start its own mirror offensive to reclaim what it rightfully sees as Syrian territory in the northern part of Syria, where the SDF now nervously occupies. The regional chessboard is shuffling yet again.