In the spring of March 2003, I stood on the border of Turkey and Iraq, as part of a U.S. intelligence operation to support NATO’s security effort of the Turkish border, support U.S. air operations, and combat operations support to U.S. special operations infiltration missions into northern Iraq. The latter, was a series of subordinate operations under Operation Iraqi Freedom known as Viking Hammer, which included sharing intelligence with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who supporting our special operators in northern Iraq. We depended on each other for intelligence and combat support ops and that relationship continued during combat efforts against ISIS. Now the Kurds recent referendum for a free Kurdistan has caught the U.S. between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.
In the aftermath of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and amid the coalition’s domination of its airspace, Iraqi government forces responded to the recent bid for independence by the ethnic Kurds, known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the northern part of the country with force, deploying military assets to secure the region’s oil-rich refinery cities and solidify Baghdad’s long-term control over the country.
Historically, we have seen this scenario play out time and time again for decades. In recent years, the autonomous and independent seeking Kurds have ventured on a series of uprisings that shook Iraq in the years following Operation Desert Storm and later during the imposition of no-fly zones from 1991-2003 by the U.S., the United Kingdom, France and other Coalition nations. Now, roughly 25-years later, the exact same scenario is unfolding out once again, as the Kurds seek their due — and as a result, the stakes have never been higher.
Several weeks ago, following a historic referendum by the Kurdistan Regional Government KRG on September 25th, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered government forces into the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to conduct military operations to what the government claimed were to “impose security” on the region. And with the U.S. already involved in the fight against ISIS, the U.S. found itself caught in a complicated balancing act between two allied forces, while at the same time as Iran and other foreign powers seek to fan the flames of regional conflict once again with its former enemy — the increasingly complex and violent conflict threatens not just to destabilize the entire region, but perhaps even derail the ongoing and successful U.S.-led multinational campaign against ISIS which is now on the brink of victory.
To better understand the current situation and how the situation arrived at this point of conflict with the Kurds the following must be considered and assessed. Again, on September 25, 2017 millions of ethnic Kurds went to the polls to formally establish the semi-autonomous region’s independence from the Iraq and end a century of internal conflict, despair, and neglect. In this referendum, roughly 92% of the 3 million Kurds in the region voted in favor of independence. As in prior attempts, despite the gravity of the vote, the political rebellion is nothing new. Previous efforts for Kurdish independence have seen similar results. Historically, such efforts has been a fixture of Iraqi political life since the unique political and legal status of the region was considered during the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement of 1970.
For 26-years, Kurdistan had enjoyed de facto autonomy as a federal political entity within Iraq after Iraqi government troops pulled out of the region following the 1991 popular uprisings. Nevertheless, the KRG had been planning a full-blown referendum since as Iraqi security forces abandoned oil hubs like Kirkuk in the face of a growing ISIS advance after the formal U.S. “withdrawal” from Iraq in 2011. The occupation of Kirkuk appeared to have emboldened Kurdish officials; with the Kurds claiming the oil nexus was “cleansed of Kurds and settled with Arabs under Saddam to secure control of the oil that was the source of Iraq’s wealth.
Looking back, “Everything that’s happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence,” Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani told the BBC in 2014, just as U.S. military personnel were gearing up to return to the country to battle ISIS. Barazani went on to say that, “From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people.”
Many raise the question as to whether a military intervention unexpected or unforeseeable. That comes down to how one views the situation. In the interim or short term the answer is no. On September 12th the Iraqi parliament announced that it considered an independence vote by the Kurds to be a “threat to … the civil peace and regional security” and had authorized Iraq PM al-Abadi “to take any measures necessary to preserve Iraq’s existing borders,” according to Al Jazeera. A week later, on September 18th, Iraq’s Supreme Court declared the Kurdish resolution illegal, irreconcilable with the country’s fragile constitution. Then on October 1st, Iraqi security forces conducted highly public joint military exercises with Iranian Artesh and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) units, an overt show of force designed to induce the Kurds to perhaps believe and forget the whole independence thing, in a sense have a change of mind.
In response on October 11th, the KRG announced that it suspected a combined effort by Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) militias, really an organized Iranian insurgent force, were preparing for a major attack on Kirkuk and the northern city of Mosul, the latter of which has served as the heart of ISIS’ caliphate in Iraq until its liberation by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces this past summer. After two days of negotiations demanding that Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers vacate Kirkuk, Iraqi forces made their move late on October 14th, deploying troops in an armored convoy with the purpose and mission to occupy the city’s provincial government headquarters. Accordingly, the Iraqi government coalition forces included Iraqi ISF forces, Counterterrorism Services troops(elite U.S.-trained), and several Iranian-backed units PMF militia brigades.
As a result, overwhelmed, the KRG ordered Kurdish forces to withdraw, accusing the Iraqi military of conducting a major, multi-prong attack as the latter secured Kirkuk’s valuable oil fields and transportation hubs. Now at the same time, on the western border of Kurdistan, Turkey too lies in wait: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reported to have consulted with the Iranian government regarding the Iraqi-Kurdish conflict, expressing concerns that the Kurdish vote would bring chaos to the region and therefore in-turn initiated his own military exercises on the border.
One of the key questions and concerns thus is why would the Iraqi government escalate things? First off, for any country, security is a must. Certainly, for Iraq and any of the other countries that Kurdistan encompasses, the independence referendum in Kurdistan could potentially put security in the hands of the Kurdish Peshmerga. For the Iraqi government and its thinking, a transition that would threaten to undo efforts by Iraqi security forces to dislodge ISIS from the strategically important cities of Hawija and Tal Afar which lie geographically between Kirkuk and Mosul. Further, given the Peshmerga’s defense of Kirkuk after the ISF abandoned the city to ISIS in 2014, security capability seems like an unsatisfying explanation, especially given the uncomfortable dynamics between the Peshmerga, the PMF paramilitary militia, and local tribal forces who generally hate each other without ISIS militants to draw their ire.
Strategically however, it is obvious, like all things, oil’s the real goal here. The real prize. The Kirkuk Field can generate roughly 1 million barrels a day, at the current rate, a substantial source of oil revenue that could keep the Kurdistan provisional government funded, effectively functional and in power for decades. Unexpectedly, PM al-Abadi tipped his hand on Oct. 16 by advising local civil servants in Kirkuk to continue performing their duties and fulfill our constitutional duty and extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city. Indeed, while the steady decline of ISIS in Syria, particularly now with the liberation Raqqa, the ISIS regional headquarters this morning, has led to a growing push among foreign-backed and government forces there to secure oil and gas fields on the eastern border with Iraq. Going forward, if anything, the Iraqi government is simply planning for the next big fight after U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) comes to an end, and that fight will be for oil.
Finally, there are strategic considerations that must be addressed. The conflict between the Iraqi government and the Kurds is uncomfortable for the United States as a strategic player in terms of both military strategy and the broader geopolitics of the region. The Peshmerga, the Kurish army consists of between 80,000 and 240,000 forces, and is historically more capable than the new post-Saddam Iraqi military which the U.S. Department of Defense took on the task of rebuilding after the 2003 invasion, have proven an essential component of Operation Inherent Resolve, especially during the long road to oust ISIS militants from their Iraqi stronghold of Mosul this past summer. Certainly, as a result, the U.S. has skin in the game — during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford expressed his concerns that the Kurdish referendum might end up seeing Peshmerga disappear from the front lines of OIR, as the Pesh were a critical component of that effort.
Should an internal conflict ensue, both the Iraqi ISF and Kurdish forces risk giving ISIS breathing room to reassert and reconstitute itself in the region by fighting each other, and likewise, the Pentagon has attempted to downplay the rising tensions in Kirkuk. In an early October statement, the Pentagon urged both the Iraqi government and KRG to refrain from destabilizing actions, and to instead focus on the mission of fighting and destroying ISIS. Further, in recent days the U.S. military attempted to characterize the ISF maneuvers in the region as coordinated movements, not attacks, calling the clashes between KRG and ISF forces an unfortunate misunderstanding, being the result two elements trying to link up under limited poor visibility conditions.
It is obvious things have changed based on the Iraqi Prime Ministers orders in September. It should be remembered that the Iraqi government forces and the Kurdish forces have been existing at the same time in many areas, in the mission to defeat ISIS. The politics of an effort for an independent Kurdistan had change the political and now military landscape with the U.S, caught somewhat in the middle.
Likewise, beyond the internal politics of Iraq, Iranian and Turkish military overtures also capture a changing balance of power regarding U.S. military and political influence in the country. The greatest concern is that the political environment in Iraq is such that Iranian General Qassum Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, could role-up in Kurdistan and hand-deliver a direct ultimatum from Ayatollah Khamenei to KRG officials.
In the end the reality is that should the clashes in Kirkuk and within the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq escalate into an all-out, full-blown conflict between KRG Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces, there is no doubt that the region will likely devolve into the crowded, chaotic battlefield that currently defines war-torn Syria, a morass of overlapping foreign and domestic alliances that will threaten to plunge the Middle East into a major regional war or even perhaps a semi-global conflict. Furthermore, amid that chaos, ISIS, already on the verge of defeat with its last major stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, being vanquished earlier today may find fertile soil to take root in back in Iraq once again — it is a vicious cycle that may find the U.S. military forever entrenched in Middle East regional war with no end. Running away from it, certainly is worst as it will create numerous vacuums that will invite ISIS, al-Qaeda and Iran to fill making the region and the world even more dangerous. President Trump’s recent reestablished relations with 55-regional Middle East leaders was seminal and dialogue needs to continue. Word since, is that most are on board and excited about working with the new President…a refreshing reversal of the last eight-years. Positive engagement will be key.