Reports emerged Monday that ISIS had been defeated in Raqqa, the Syrian city it claims as its capital, signaling a major victory in the years-long battle against the militant group and the near end to its self-declared caliphate. But already there are signs the post-ISIS battles are only beginning: In neighboring Iraq, government forces have recaptured Kirkuk, an oil-rich province that has been under Kurdish control since 2014, after beginning to move on the disputed region over the weekend.
Iraqi government forces had retreated from Kirkuk in 2014 amid what seemed at the time to be ISIS’s unstoppable advance in northern Iraq. Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga quickly filled the void, taking control of the region that both the Kurdish government based in Erbil and the Iraqi national government based in Baghdad claim is rightfully theirs. (The Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, enjoys broad autonomy from Iraq and seeks an independent state.) That move angered not only Baghdad, but most of Iraq’s neighbors, who feared the Iraqi Kurds were setting the conditions to create a Kurdish state that would embolden Kurdish separatist forces in their own countries. But while the U.S.-led military effort in the region focused on uprooting ISIS from Iraq and Syria, longstanding regional rivals found ways to cooperate against their common enemy, setting aside major differences—until last month.
That’s when the Kurds—in defiance of international pressure—held a vote on whether Kurdistan, including Kirkuk, should be an independent state. The nonbinding referendum passed with 90 percent of the vote, and latent Iraqi and regional tensions came to the surface in the process.
Ben Van Heuvelen, editor-in-chief of Iraq Oil Report, a publication focused on energy and security in Iraq, said in an interview that he believes the referendum pushed the Iraqi government to act. “Would this have happened had the referendum not been held?” he asked. “In my mind, the answer is just unequivocally that there’s no chance that this would have happened.”
Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, the British think tank, told me he believed that, in particular, Kirkuk’s inclusion by the Kurdistan Regional Government within the borders of a hypothetical independent Kurdistan set the Kurds “on a very dangerous path.” Kirkuk accounts for about 12 percent of the total oil produced in Iraq, and its status is considered disputed between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government; under the 2005 constitution, which entity it joins was to be decided by referendum, though Kirkuk has not held one of its own to decide. The KRG made the decision for them. “It’s a huge gamble being played by the president of the Kurdistan region,” he said, referring to Masoud Barzani. “And this is the consequence of it.”
Last week marked a turning point: Iraqi government forces recaptured Hawija, which is in the province of Kirkuk, from ISIS. The city was one of the last ISIS-held areas in northern Iraq, and lies southwest of the province’s capital, also called Kirkuk. From there, Iraqi forces were supposed to go to the border with Syria to battle ISIS. Instead, they marched northeast toward the city of Kirkuk and captured it Monday.
“Federal forces have achieved a large portion of their stated objective which is to reassert federal control over areas in which they were present before ISIS in 2014,” Van Heuvelen said.
They have Washington’s support, in theory. The U.S. position is that Iraqi federal forces should have a presence in all areas that are constitutionally defined as part of federally controlled Iraq, including Kirkuk. “The U.S. government has taken Baghdad’s side” on Kirkuk, Van Heuvelen said. (President Trump said Monday the U.S. wasn’t taking sides in the conflict.) “And to the extent that the U.S. is serving as a broker between the Baghdad government and Kurds, the party that it’s talking to is the Kurdish faction that is most conciliatory and most willing to compromise.”
It’s not just Arabs and Kurds facing off in Kirkuk; the dispute has also pit one Kurdish faction against another. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is one faction; it is allied with Iran and the U.S. and more open to reconciliation with Baghdad. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which organized the independence referendum and opposes Iraqi control of Kirkuk, is another. The PUK controls most of the city of Kirkuk, and as Iraqi forces drew closer to it, some peshmerga allied with the group withdrew from their positions. Areas where the Iraqi military was reported to be in firefights with peshmerga were reportedly controlled by KDP fighters.
Also underscoring the bizarre nature of regional politics, Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was in Iraqi Kurdistan over the weekend, meeting with PUK officials to mediate a resolution to the standoff. The IRGC was slapped last week with U.S. terrorism-related sanctions, but in Kurdistan, at least, its goal is allied with Washington’s: to promote a strong Iraqi government. (The two factions are on opposite sides of the equation in Syria, where Iran supports the government of Bashar al-Assad—though both are opposed to ISIS there.)
Iran’s influence is worrying to the U.S. and its Sunni Arab allies in the region. The Islamic Republic supports Shia populations across the Middle East, most especially in Iraq, which is majority Shia. Mansour said the Kurds were an early and important U.S. ally in the Iraq war calculus because they ensured an anti-Iranian movement. “But what’s happened recently is the U.S. has decided that they want to play with [Iraqi Prime Minister] Haider al-Abadi instead—and that he is their number-one guy—because he presents himself as ... being willing or wanting to minimize Iranian influence, as well as to build up the Iraqi state,” he said. With its major backer, the United States, now working closely with Iraq, the Kurds are faced with a familiar historical reality: They have few allies.
“The problem for the Kurds is that they need diplomacy,” Mansour said. “Without any sort of diplomatic lifeline, without any sort of ally, they can only lose. It’s a matter of their survival.”
The U.S., which wants to focus on ISIS until the group is fully defeated in the region, would like its allies in Iraq to work together against the militant group. The Kurds, after all, are also a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria. But as Van Heuvelen said: “As has happened so many times in U.S. policy in Iraq, the U.S. government has acted as a firefighter rather than a proactive mediator. And the crisis only got the serious attention it deserved after it was too chaotic to solve.”
The situation in Kirkuk could herald the start of even more chaos—despite the U.S. military’s claim the exchange of fire between Iraqi forces and Kurds was the result of a “misunderstanding.” As Van Heuvelen put it: “The precedent that has just been set is that these disputes are now being resolved through force—not politics.”
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