Notwithstanding the overwhelming vote the Kurdish referendum for independence received, there is no gainsaying that regional circumstances were far from suitable for such an undertaking, let alone its materialization. Iraq has just recovered from the clutches of rule of the self-styled Islamic State, and the last thing it wanted was loss of economic wealth in Kirkuk to Kurds. Recovery of Kirkuk was, therefore, always on the cards, but what has come as a surprise to many is the way this recovery has been achieved, despite the otherwise bloody rhetoric that was fanned out before Iraqi forces moved in, in a pretty bloodless manner, thanks to Tehran’s back-channel diplomacy and the fact that Ankara, too, had rung alarming bells in support of Baghdad’s bid to recover a region that stands as its life-line. The situation was equally alarming for the US because both Baghdad and Kurds remain US allies and clients of its weapons.
The Pentagon, which has about 10,000 US troops in Iraq, and is allied with Baghdad in the fight against ISIS and also keeps close links with the Kurds, has been insisting that clashes between Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces were a result of some “misunderstanding,” and stressed that it was not supporting any of the belligerents. While the US might be trying to be “neutral”, ground realities indicate that if there was one thing that prevented Iraq from plunging into yet another civil war, it was Tehran’s and those of its allies’ effective diplomacy, which came as a result of the realization that another civil war will potentially undo the gains they have made against ISIS and will allow terror groups to regain their strength.
Enters Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, who was at the helm of brokering a deal between Kurdish factions and the Iraqi security forces—something that paved the way for a peaceful takeover of the city’ key strategic sites by the Iraqi forces. How did this happen?
On October 15, Soleimani’s visit to Iraq was reported. The visit took place at a time when there Iraqi forces and their allied militias were in a standoff position vis-à-vis Kurds, and the latter had already rejected the Iraqi forces’ demand for withdrawal from Kirkuk. In that intense situation, while the US military advisers were actively ‘monitoring’ the situation sitting in a nearby K1 air base in Kirkuk, Tehran acted and brokered a deal. One thing, apart from Soleimani’s masterful negotiations, that helped him make the deal is the split between Kurdish regional government (KRG) led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party of the late Jalal Talabani.
The split continues to make difference on the ground. As such, while Barzani led Peshmerga units described the takeover as akin to a ‘declaration of war’ and vowed that Baghdad will pay a heavy price, this Kurdish faction also accused the PUK of “plotting” against the Kurds and of committing “a great and historic treason.” The PUK responded by accusing Massoud Barzani, the de facto president of the Kurdistan Region, of reaping what he sowed for his obstinacy in going ahead with the independence referendum against the advice of the Kurds’ closest allies.
Notwithstanding the internal rift, the rift in itself doesn’t explain why KRG did not resist the Iraqi forces. While some reports have suggested that the Peshmerga did not have enough weapons, the underlying reason is that KRG, a landlocked region which depends upon Iran, Iraq and Turkey for its oil trade, was left with no other option but to succumb to the pressure coming from Iran and its chief allies, Iraq and Turkey.
While relationship between Tehran and KRG have historically been cordial, things had changed with KRG’s decision to hold referendum and demand Iraq’s split into at least two countries. This led Iran to not only to close air space for KRG but also banned any trade in crude and petroleum products between the KRG and Iran. While the impact of this ban is negligible on Iran, it would force the KRG to look for smuggling routes for its crude output, which will both be costly and risky.
In addition to it, Iran’s blockade was followed by Tehran’s new ally, Turkey as well. For one thing, KRG, to survive, depends on Turkish route. In the wake of the referendum, gloomy clouds have started to loom large as Ankara has been adamant and Erdogan has hinted that he could shut down the pipeline at any minute. Besides it, Turkey has also announced the closure of Turkish airspace to the KRG, stressed Iraqi territorial integrity, and declared the referendum as illegal, and endorsed Baghdad’s offensive on Kirkuk.
Clearly, it is Tehran-Ankara ‘bro-mance’ that went a long way in squeezing the Kurds out of Kirkuk and paved the way for a bloodless victory for the Iraqi security forces. Period!
Things might not remain as bloodless in the future as now. There are signs that Iran’s role, which is clearly an indication of its increasing influence in the region, is likely to draw reaction from the US and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel. As such, what we should expect is intensification in the anti-Iran narrative that is being built to scrap the Iran-nuke deal. Already, Shwan Shamerani, commander of the Peshmerga’s second brigade in Kirkuk, has claimed that they have conformed intelligence that there are fighting with the Iraqi forces the Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guards.
This claim was given more air by Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Iraq, who said that Iran backed forces, using US made weapons, had attacked Kirkuk and that the US should disable “these tanks to prevent their use by Quds force proxies.”
This narrative is already echoing in the US where Senator John McCain said that “there will be severe consequences if we continue to see American equipment misused in this way.” We, on our side, should make no mistake that the Kurdish question and Iranian role in it will become the decisive points on which the Middle East’s geo-political game would be played. For now, however, Tehran has struck a blow to the US and its allies by helping Baghdad retake its life-line, making the US look like a like a hapless bystander.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.