Iraqi Kurdistan’s choices after the loss of Kirkuk

Originally published in the Greek weekly newspaper “Paraskinio”, issue 602, p. 48, on Oct. 27, 2017

The developments of the last days on Iraqi territory were expected, as I had predicted in my older article. Iraqi forces, backed by militant Al-Hashd al-Sha’abi, and the Turkmen battalions trained in Turkey, headed for the Iraqi Kurdistan region that declared its secession from Baghdad’s central government last month. This progress has led to the control of the city of Kirkuk and some of the surrounding villages. They also went northwest to control areas around Sinjar. During this advance, some violent conflicts were observed by the local forces of Peshmerga. In many other areas, Kurdish forces suddenly retreated, especially from the K1 military base and from most of Kirkuk’s petroleum fields, something that was not expected by many observers, even by the Kurdish leadership. However, on the second day of the attack, the withdrawal of Peshmerga forces belonging to the Kurdistan Patriotic Union party was confirmed through statements and leaks, in coordination with the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani, who met with party leaders hours before the advance.

This attack has been prepared before the referendum on secession through intensive visits between Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran. Iran and Turkey consider this secession as a spark that can extend the fire into their lands. Erbil’s sources confirm the presence of Iranians and other foreign forces, among the forces that advanced to Kirkuk. The important role played by the Turkmen minority in the battles south of the city confirms Turkey’s role in them.

Amid this tension in the Iraqi territory, Western statements and the sudden change of positions in these countries followed. The German government, via its Foreign Minister, in a telephone conversation with the Iraqi Prime Minister, assured him that Germany supports the territorial integrity of Iraq. This means that he does not object at all to this attack. Please note that the German government is one of the numerous European countries that supported the Kurds in the region. France has a similar stance.

The US

For his part, Trump himself said the US government would not take a stand for any side, which means a green light for the Iraqi government and Iran to continue this military operation. A Western source confirmed that Erbil government officials contacted US officials after the Iraqi attack on Kirkuk demanding support and pressure on Baghdad and its allies to halt the attack, but the American response was clear: Erbil refused the American proposal to postpone the referendum for two years, which disappointed the US, so Erbil is forced to take responsibility for its decision. Trump himself, who a few days before the attack confirmed the rejection of Iran’s hostile actions in the region, is now watching hypocritically its new military movements in northern Iraq.

The position of Israel

The Israeli Government is the world’s only supporter of the secession of Erbil from Baghdad. This was evident in statements by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and several Israeli officials following the announcement of the Kurdish referendum. With the onset of the attack on Kirkuk, Israeli officials headed by Netanyahu had many international contacts to form an alliance to stop it. Netanyahu called on the French president, who stressed that France is opposed to Erbil’s secession at the moment. Netanyahu also had telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who replied that things are currently complicated in the region and that he cannot face the regional forces. On the other hand, Israeli officials continued meetings with US officials, but the answer was no different. So Israel knows very well that it cannot do anything on its own at this stage.

Erbil’s options

The Barzani government is currently in a very difficult position. It has three options. The first is to agree to a diplomatic solution that satisfies Baghdad and thus cancels the results of the referendum and Erbil remains part of the Iraqi territory. But things will not be like before. The central government of Baghdad will seek the transfer of forces to points within the Kurdish region, mainly in Erbil. The second option is the military, where Erbil should fight against Baghdad, Iran and Turkey, but without American or European support. The results of this battle will not be in the interest of the region at all, and the central government of Baghdad will eventually restore its power to Kurdish lands, ending the Kurdish government for all. The third option for Barzani is to move credible forces to Kirkuk in order to control it in a short period of time by regaining his authority and then demanding a ceasefire to enter into negotiations. It is likely that Barzani will agree to cancel the results of the referendum but will require more assistance from Baghdad and will demand the economic exploitation of oil and gas without the participation of Baghdad.

Amid this turmoil in the Middle East, Iran, Turkey and Russia are increasing their influence in the region, and the United States has disappeared as it does not have a clear strategy, something that negatively impacts the balance. Thus, Erbil was included in the areas that suffer from this negative American stance. The next few days will only bring more wars and conflicts unless a miracle happens.