The developments around Kirkuk have possible significance beyond the internal Iraqi arena, including implications for Israel due to the possible impact on areas close to Israel

Baghdad Regains Control of Kirkuk: Strategic Implications

By -- Eldad Shavit, Gallia Lindenstrauss —— Bio and Archives--October 24, 2017

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Baghdad Regains Control of Kirkuk: Strategic Implications
In a swift military action on October 16-17, 2017, the Iraqi government regained control of Kirkuk from the Kurds, who took over the area in 2014. The oil-rich Kirkuk district has been a source of conflict and the subject of negotiations between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government for many years. However, until now the central government in Baghdad refrained from military conflict over the area, since in recent years efforts were focused on joint activities against the Islamic State. In the background to the takeover are the results of the referendum in the Kurdish region held on September 25, 2017, in which 93 percent of voters confirmed the Kurdish desire for independence. Kurdish independence aspirations encountered sweeping opposition from the Baghdad government, Iran, and Turkey, as well as from the international community, particularly the United States.

Completion of the military campaign with a relatively small number of casualties was made possible when the Peshmerga fighters (the Kurdish military force) retreated from their positions without conflict. This occurred after the leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) the political enemies of the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barazani, (from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the KDP), reached an agreement with the Iraqi government. The agreement was achieved under the auspices of Iran and following the visit to the region by Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani. Along with the Iraqi army, forces from the Popular Mobilization Unites (PMU) entered Kirkuk; this is an umbrella framework of Shiite militias in Iraq, under the patronage of Iran, which cooperate with the Iraqi army in the war against the Islamic State.

The Kurdish retreat from the Kirkuk region is a mortal blow for the local economy, due to the loss of the extensive oil reserves. According to data from the international oil authorities, so far the region’s oil fields have yielded some 590,000 barrels of oil, out of a total of 790,000 barrels per day produced by the Kurds, yielding an annual income of some $8 billion. This is also a severe blow for the ability of the Kurds to realize their aspirations for independence. It damages the status of President Barazani, intensifies internal criticisms of him and his judgment, and invites a leadership crisis in the region. Moreover, it highlights the traditional existing differences among the Kurdish forces. In view of the split in the Peshmerga forces, Peshmerga commanders from the KDP even accused the PUK commanders of betrayal. It is not clear what was promised to the PUK leaders, apart from a continuation of their traditional Iranian support, but they were clearly ready to torpedo any attempts by President Barazani to work for independence.

At present, most of the Kirkuk region is calm, but tensions and the possibility of deterioration into violence remain high. In spite of declarations by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that the PMU forces have left the region and he aims to continue the dialogue with the Kurdish leadership, the intentions of both sides are still not clear. Peshmerga elements even promised “revenge.” Evidence of the lack of confidence among the Kurds over government intentions lies in the flight of thousands from Kirkuk following the events.

In any case, the success of the Kirkuk campaign culminates the efforts by al-Abadi to show Iraq’s opposition to Barazani’s moves for independence. Any hesitation about embarking on a military campaign would have damaged him politically, and he will likely now emerge as a determined, reliable, and brave leader who promotes the country’s interests. This comes in advance of the parliamentary elections, planned apparently for mid-2018 (there is still no final date) and the expected conflict between him and his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Abadi, who is careful to maintain good relations with both the American and the Iranian governments, will probably now seek to stress his cooperation with Iran, in view of the closeness between his rival and Iran.

Although Iran denied that it was involved in the Iraqi campaign to free Kirkuk, it has not hidden its satisfaction with the outcome, and spokesmen have emphasized Tehran’s support for the campaign. They say that the Kurdish President should admit his mistakes and renounce his aspirations to lead the Kurds to independence. Iran, which in part was concerned about the effect of these aspirations on the Kurdish minority in Iran, led the regional efforts with Turkey to oppose Barzani’s move. Restoring Iraqi control of Kirkuk and the practical possibility that this has torpedoed the efforts to achieve independence reinforces the involvement and influence of Iran in general, and of the Revolutionary Guards and Qasem Soleimani in particular, on the Iraqi government, and illustrates their ability to maneuver in the internal Iraqi arena. The influence of Iran and the Revolutionary Guards will probably increase further as the Iraqi elections approach, in view of the understanding that closeness to Iran stands to add to the candidates’ success. This is apart from the continuing Iranian support for the Shiite militias operating in Iraq.

Tough pronouncements against Barazani and what was described as an irresponsible move and a “betrayal” also emerged from Ankara. In recent years, trade relations between Turkey and the Kurdish region have blossomed, including the use of Turkish territory as a route for the region’s oil exports so as to bypass Baghdad. The level of coordination between Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara in their strong response to the referendum accelerated the collapse of the Kurds in Kirkuk. In Kirkuk itself there is a significant Turkmen population, ostensibly protected by Ankara. Ankara disliked the shrinking of the relative weight of this population in the region due to the processes of Arabization and Kurdification over the years. At the same time, the economic weakening of the Kurdistan Regional Government could work against Turkey’s economic interests. In addition, for a number of years Ankara has not been happy with the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, in particular the strengthening of the Shiite militias. Existing tensions in this context could worsen in the future.

Continued below...

The opposition of the American government to the Kurdish referendum and the US position regarding the move in Kirkuk underscore that the central objective of the United States was and remains the preservation of Iraqi unity and the defeat of the Islamic State, and that at present there is no evidence that the administration is changing its objectives in this context. In recent days, US spokespeople have repeated that “ISIS remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace.” The statement by President Trump that the United States is not taking sides in the Iraqi-Kurdish struggle and the void that this policy leaves (which was also made clear by the administration’s failure to mediate between its two allies, the Kurds and the Iraqi government) appears to reinforce the understanding among the various forces in the region that in spite of its declarations to the contrary, the administration is unwilling to expand its involvement to deal with the daring and determination of Iran to increase its influence in Iraq, and the military and economic assistance that it gives to the Shiite militias. Moreover, the impression is that Iran’s moves actually coincide with US interests – maintaining Iraq’s existing borders and continuing the campaign against the Islamic State.

The developments around Kirkuk have possible significance beyond the internal Iraqi arena, including implications for Israel due to the possible impact on areas close to Israel. Success in causing real damage to Islamic State centers in Iraq and Syria brings to the fore old/ new conflicts, including the Kurdish-Iraqi struggle, and spur all the forces in and around the region to act quickly to protect and promote their interests. While the United States continues to stress that efforts must focus on the Islamic State, elements led by Iran are not waiting, and are acting quickly and with determination to prepare the ground for the post-Islamic State era, capitalizing on the group’s weakness. The aggressive strategy against Iran’s regional activity expressed by President Trump in his speech on October 13, 2017 will soon be tested in Syria, on completion of the capture of Raqqa from the Islamic State and the actions by all elements involved to use these developments to promote their own objectives.

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