In order to try to provide a profound analysis of what has happened in Iraqi Kurdistan and offer not one, but two, different, but complimentary views, on this topic: Pepe Escobar’s and Alexander Mercouris’ (in alphabetical order). Enjoy!
Kirkuk redux was a bloodless offensive. Here’s why
Not only are the Kurds in Iraq eternally riven, but the KRG knows it needs its oil pipeline to Turkey to remain open. And then there is the role played by a certain Iranian negotiator to consider
The Battle of Kirkuk lasted less than 24 hours. In a lightning – and mostly bloodless – offensive, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) retook control of the North Oil Co. and North Gas Co. headquarters, the K1 military base, the Bai Hassan oil field, and two domes of the Kirkuk oil field on Monday.
Baghdad did what it had previously said it would do: reestablish federal authority over the key strategic assets of Kirkuk province, which had been controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga since the 2014 Islamic State offensive.
But why did it take only 24 hours? There are two main reasons. One, the eternal, internal split between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), led by wily tribal schemer Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party of the late Jalal Talabani; and two, a brokered deal for Baghdad’s advance. The Kurdish Peshmerga described the takeover as “a flagrant declaration of war” and vowed that Baghdad will pay a “heavy price.” That’s largely rhetorical.
The Pentagon – which has 10,000 US troops still in Iraq and is allied with Baghdad in the fight against ISIS but kept close links with the Kurds during the 2003-2008 occupation years – has been essentially helpless. The “coalition” the Pentagon essentially leads against ISIS insisted clashes between Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces were a mere “misunderstanding,” and stressed it is not supporting any of the belligerents.
How did we get here? Follow the oil.
Kirkuk province was occupied by the Peshmerga in 2014 as the Iraqi Army collapsed and ISIS occupied Mosul and its environs.
The KRG has been autonomous, in practice, ever since Daddy Bush imposed a no-fly zone on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after the 1990-91 Gulf War. It is composed of three provinces: Sulaymaniya, Erbil and Dohuk. Annexing Kirkuk is pure wishful thinking.
Still, Kirkuk was included in the recent referendum on independence (92% said “yes”), which Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly stated violated the Iraqi constitution as the Kurds “chose their personal interests over Iraq’s interests.”
Kirkuk is largely mixed: there are Kurds, Arabs (both Sunni and Shi’ite), Turkmen and Assyrian Christians. Historically, Kurds consider Kirkuk as “our Jerusalem” and refuse the 1960s-1970s “Arabization” that made it more Iraqi.
The 2005 Iraqi constitution – with predominant Shi’ite and Kurdish input, and largely influenced by Washington – included the possibility of a referendum in Kirkuk. This referendum never happened. What happened after 2014 was some “soft” ethnic cleansing by Barzani: nearly three million non-Kurds were “encouraged” to flee Kirkuk province.
The holy of the holies, once again, is oil. Kurdistan’s energy reserves are estimated at around 45 billion barrels of oil and 150 trillion cubic meters of gas. Both the KRG and Baghdad each export roughly 565,000 barrels of oil a day to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in Turkey – not far off the volume of OPEC member Qatar. Major clients are Israel and Germany, with Turkey only in sixth place. The KRG’s fields are largely operated by foreigners such as Genel and Gulf Keystone, in addition to Gazprom, Rosneft and Chevron.
There’s no Route B for Kurdish energy exports. When the Baghdad oil route was seized by ISIS in 2014, the Peshmerga captured several oil fields around Kirkuk and the KRG built its own alternative pipeline to the Turkish border.
What makes matters even more complex is that for the past three years Baghdad has had no choice but to use the new Kurdish route for its exports to Turkey, even as it brands Kurdish oil exports illegal. Now Baghdad is vowing to immediately rebuild the federal pipeline, totally bypassing Kurdistan.
So the KRG, to survive, depends on the oil-to-Turkey connection. In the wake of the referendum, their situation is beyond critical. Ankara has been adamant: don’t even think about independence. Erdogan has all but spelled out that he could shut down the pipeline at any minute. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag has announced the closure of Turkish airspace to the KRG, stressed Iraqi territorial integrity, qualified the referendum as illegal, and endorsed Baghdad’s offensive on Kirkuk. Tehran has also given its backing to Baghdad imposing a full land and air blockade on the KRG.
Soleimani did it
The non-Battle of Kirkuk featured only a few clashes between the ISF and the Peshmerga. A key reason is the internal Kurdish split. The Peshmerga actually accused a faction of the PUK of “plotting” against the Kurds and of committing “a great and historic treason.”
Barzani – technically the commander-in-chief of all Kurdish armed forces – did see the writing on the wall. He ordered the Peshmerga not to attack the ISF, only to react, “using every power,” according to his assistant Hemin Hawrami.
Prime Minister al-Abadi took no time to appoint an Arab politician, the current leader of the Arabic Council in Kirkuk Rakan Saeed, to replace Kurdish Najmaldin Karim as the governor of the province. Al-Abadi had previously instructed the ISF to “cooperate with the Peshmerga and avoid confrontations, and to protect all civilians.”
The going really gets tough when it comes to the role of the Hashd al-Shaabi, the People Mobilization Units (PMUs) that fight side by side with the ISF.
Karim Nuri, a commander with the Hashd al-Shaabi, told Kurdish news agency Rudaw that anyone fighting against the ISF is “the same as ISIS.”
Enter the nefarious Zalmay Khalilzad, a.k.a. “Bush’s Afghan” and former US Ambassador to Iraq, furiously tweeting that Iran’s “IRGC-backed militia led by terrorist Mahdi Mohandis has begun an assault on Kirkuk.” Mohandis is the deputy head of Hashd al-Shaabi.
Khalilzad is spinning a narrative that will be digested as fact all across the Beltway – that the PMUs are “using Abrams tanks provided by the US to the Iraqi armed forces against the Peshmerga.” He even asked Trump, rhetorically: “Shouldn’t we disable these tanks to prevent their use by Quds force proxies?”
Shwan Shamerani, commander of the Peshmerga’s second brigade in Kirkuk, actually doubled down, stating that “the Iraqi army and the Hashd al-Shaabi are not the only state that are attacking us. We have intelligence with 100 percent accuracy that there are also the Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guards among them.”
A Hashd al-Shaabi operative clarified that the PMUs especially want to protect the Shi’ite majority areas of Kirkuk. Half of the Turkmen who also claim Kirkuk are Shi’ites; Turkmen are currently about 10% of a total population of 1.2 million.
He stressed that the Hashd al-Shaabi take their orders from Baghdad – from Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr organization, which is loosely linked with the IRGC, and from Mohandis, the commander of the PMUs, but not from Iran. “We had hoped that we would get support from neighboring countries but this didn’t happen,” he said. “We get all our equipment from the central government.”
The key, irrefutable fact on the ground is that the PMUs work side by side with the ISF. And there’s nothing the Pentagon can do about it.
The impotence of the US$1 trillion US Warfare State is reflected in Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal’s wording: despite the KRG’s “unfortunate decision to pursue a unilateral referendum… we continue to support a unified Iraq.”
And that leads us to the definitive answer to why the Battle of Kirkuk was essentially bloodless, as Asia Times confirmed with Baghdad diplomats. It has to do with Washington’s supreme bête noire: Tehran.
Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, is considered a “terrorist” all across the Beltway. But it was this “terrorist” who brokered a complex deal between the PUK, the PMUs and Baghdad to make the Kirkuk takeover as smooth as possible. Way beyond the fight against ISIS, Soleimani has been a master negotiator with Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds alike – no distinctions. No wonder Barzani had to retreat. No one wanted an Iraqi civil war.
What we have just witnessed is the near breakout of warfare between two alleged US “clients” in Southwest Asia. And yet civil war – along with the balkanization of Iraq – was prevented. The facts on the ground speak for themselves.
Collapse in Iraqi Kurdistan: US’s Plan C fails before it begins
On 6th October 2017 – less than two weeks ago – I wrote a lengthy article for The Duran explaining how the US, having failed to achieve regime change in Syria (“Plan A”) and having failed to engineer the partition of Syria on sectarian lines (“Plan B”), was now seeking to use the Kurds to destabilise both Iraq and Syria by supporting the setting up of quasi-independent Kurdish statelets in these two countries, in order to stem the rise of Iranian influence there.
In that article I predicted that this Plan C would fail, just as Plans A and B have done, and that its effects would be to alienate Turkey further from the US, bring Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq closer together, and would isolate the Kurds in a region where they were already in danger of becoming over-extended.
What I did not imagine when I wrote that article was that it would take all of two weeks for Plan C to start to fail. This was because I seriously overestimated the strength and coherence of the Kurds, especially those of Iraq, whose Peshmerga militia it is now clear was grossly overrated, not just by me but by many other observers of the region.
Iraq’s effortless recovery of Kirkuk, and the rapid collapse of Peshmerga resistance in the surrounding areas of the city came to me – as I suspect it did to many others – and as it certainly did to the US and to the Kurds themselves, as a total surprise.
I suspect the main reasons for this collapse are threefold:
(1) The Peshmerga does not appear to be the formidable and disciplined force it once was or was reputed to be.
In saying this some qualification is needed since the Peshmerga has never really been tested in a serious way ever since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in 1991, and it consistently failed when pitted against his army both before and after that defeat.
However it did appear following the collapse of the Iraqi state following the 2003 US invasion that the Peshmerga was the only coherent ‘Iraqi’ force left in the country, and the fact that in 2014 ISIS appeared to make little headway against it, whereas whenever the US trained Iraqi army fought ISIS it immediately collapsed, reinforced that impression.
Possibly the long years of apparent peace in Iraqi Kurdistan made the Peshmerga complacent, and perhaps its internal cohesion has been undermined by the notorious corruption of the Barzani regime it answers to; or perhaps the Peshmerga was never as strong as it seemed, and the impression of strength it gave was simply a mis-impression caused by the earlier weakness of all other Iraqi players.
Regardless, the contrast between the abject rout of the Peshmerga units in Kirkuk and in the surrounding region which has taken place over the last few days, and the fanatical resistance put up over many months by ISIS in Mosul speaks for itself.
(2) The Iraqi army has been transformed, and is a far more determined and effective force than it was just three years ago.
As to that, the Iraqi army’s victory in the face of fanatical resistance against ISIS in Mosul, and its effortless victory against the Peshmerga in Kirkuk and the regions surrounding it, speak for themselves.
I will here express the view that the reason for this sudden dramatic improvement in the combat capability of the Iraqi army is not the flood of US weapons and training it has received since its ignominious collapse before ISIS in 2014. After all the US has been trying to rebuild the Iraqi army in its own image continuously ever since it invaded Iraq in 2003, with no indication prior to 2014 that it was achieving any success.
Rather I suspect that the reason for the Iraqi army’s transformation since 2014 is the less visible but far more effective help it has had since 2014 from Iran.
The result is that though the Iraqi army still uses US weapons, it acts in battle with a determination and discipline it never showed before.
(3) The failure of the US to support the Peshmerga.
I suspect that this is the single most important reason for the Peshmerga’s sudden collapse.
As I wrote in my article of 6th October 2017, I think it is most unlikely Masoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s ‘President’, would have dared to hold the independence referendum that he called without receiving at least an amber light from Washington.
That probably made him and the Peshmerga leadership think that the US would step in to save them if Iraq reacted in a way that put them in jeopardy. This presumably explains why they seem to have failed to prepare even in the most basic way for the Iraqi army attack, which Baghdad publicly warned them was coming.
In the event when the Iraqi attack came the US did nothing, and in its absence Peshmerga resistance disintegrated.
This touches on a point I made previously in my article of 6th October 2017. Though there is no doubt of the support of many US officials in Washington for Plan C, it has never been fully discussed and agreed within the US government and there is no consensus behind it, so that it is doubtful that President Trump even knows about it, whilst Secretary of State Tillerson – who almost certainly does know about it – is openly hostile to it.
The result was that when the Iraqi army marched on Kirkuk there was no agreement within the US government about what it should do about it, and in the absence of any such agreement the US did nothing.
The result was that without US help and with most of the local population opposing its presence and supporting the return of the Iraqi army the Peshmerga simply melted away.
There were almost certainly other factors behind the Peshmerga’s collapse.
There has for example been much discussion – especially amongst the Kurds – about divisions between the Kurds themselves being the cause of the collapse. Amidst the angry recriminations there has inevitably also been some talk of betrayal. I am not sufficiently familiar with internal Kurdish politics to comment about this.
Another factor to which however I give far more credence concerns the role of Iran.
Whilst the last two years have shown that the Russians are the masters of military strategy and technology in this region, it is the Iranians with their exceptional knowledge of the region who are through their various intelligence and security agencies the region’s undisputed masters of covert activity.
To be clear this is an essential tool of statecraft, particularly in this region, and the fact that the Russians and the Iranians have over the last two years been working together with their differing but complimentary skill-sets is the reason why they have so successfully swept all before them.
The nature of covert ‘cloak-and-dagger’ activity is that it is largely invisible, but inevitably there are already reports circulating that Iran’s General Soleimani,- the commander of the IRGC’s Quds’ Force and the reputed mastermind behind all this activity – has been seen in the region, doing whatever it is people like him do.
Whatever General Soleimani and the Iranians have been up to, it is a virtual certainty that they were acting in concert with the Turks, who as I discussed in my article of 6th October 2017 were also incensed – and with good reason – by Barzani’s independence referendum, and who would therefore have been more than willing to help the Iranians and the Iraqis cut Barzani and the Iraqi Kurds down to size.
The Turks have considerable influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is dependent on Turkey economically, and they no doubt backed whatever threats and blandishments General Soleimaini may have made to Kurdish commanders and officials with threats and blandishments of their own.
Given that some of these Kurdish commanders and officials have financial interests that connect them to Turkey, threats and blandishments coming from Turkey might have weighed on them heavily. Regardless they will have been left in no doubt that in any confrontation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army, the Iraqi army would have the backing of Turkey as well as of Iran.
Given that Iran and Turkey are by many orders of magnitude the two strongest powers in this region, any Kurdish commanders or officials hearing that would have known that in a contest with the Iraqi army the Peshmerga would not prevail.
However if Kurdish divisions and the undercover activities of General Soleimani and the Turks doubtless played their role in causing the Peshmerga collapse, the overriding reality is that the Peshmerga turned out to be much weaker than expected, the Iraqi army turned out to be much stronger than expected, and the US failed to take action to help the Kurds.
As to the last point, I would refer to a prediction I made in my article of 6th October 2017, which has been proved true far sooner than I ever expected
…….by positioning themselves as the allies or even the proxies of the US and Israel, the Kurds have upset the major regional powers – Iran, Syria, Iraq and Russia – whilst alarming Turkey, which is now threatening to impose an economic blockade on Iraqi Kurdistan.
If the Kurds are not careful they could find themselves isolated in the region, with all the major regional powers uniting against them.
Should that happen there is no guarantee that the US would ride to their rescue. On the contrary the recent experience of the Middle East suggests that relying on the US to do so would be a serious mistake.
(bold italics added)
What are the implications of these latest events and of the Iraqi recapture of Kirkuk?
Firstly, the Kurdish position in Iraq has been very significantly weakened, though it has not collapsed completely, whilst the position of the Iraqi government in Baghdad has been very considerably strengthened.
The Iraqi army has driven the Kurds out of Kirkuk, a city where Kurds are a minority, and out of various areas of predominantly Arab population.
The Iraqi army has not however challenged the Kurds within the own established territory where they are the majority. It is unlikely that it has any plan to do so, and were it to do so it might find Peshmerga resistance to be much tougher in defence of ethnic Kurdish territory than it was in Kirkuk.
However loss of Kirkuk and the oil rich region around it deprives Iraqi Kurdistan and the Barzani regime of a key source of revenue. This has decisive implications for the “independent Kurdistan” project. With Kirkuk and its oil an independent Kurdistan cut out of Iraq’s northern regions looked economically viable (there was even some wild talk of it becoming a Kurdish Dubai). Without Kirkuk and its oil it no longer does.
What that means is that though the Kurds remain a potentially important force within Iraq, the idea of an independent Kurdistan separated from Iraq is no longer practical, with the balance of power within Iraq having shifted decisively in favour of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Though it may take some time for the Kurds in Iraq to accept this – and in the case of some of them they may never do so – over time, urged on by Iran, Turkey and Russia, most of them probably will accept it.
That points to an eventual rapprochement between the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, one which possibly gives the Kurds a measure of autonomy but which nonetheless keeps Iraq intact within its current internationally recognised borders.
That makes the consolidation and stabilisation of the Iraqi state within its internationally recognised borders a much more likely prospect than appeared to be the case just a year ago.
Moreover this will be an Iraq aligned with Iran and anchored in a regional system consisting of Iran, Iraq and Syria, and probably in time Turkey also, rather than an Iraq aligned with the Saudis and the Sunni states of the Gulf, as was the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Secondly, the loss of Kirkuk puts in jeopardy the Syrian part of the US’s Plan C.
The supplies the US has being sending to the Kurds in Syria – including the vast arms supplies I discussed in my article of 6th October 2017 – have been going to the Kurds in Syria via Iraqi Kurdistan, with most of the supplies flown by the US to the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil and transported by road from there to Syria across Iraq.
With ISIS on the brink of defeat and with Iraq now in possession of Kirkuk, US leverage on Iraq has significantly weakened.
With Iraq now even more closely aligned with Iran and Syria than before, the extent to which Iraq will continue to tolerate this traffic across its border from Iraqi Kurdistan to Syrian Kurdistan must be open to doubt.
Whilst there is an alternative route via Turkey – one which the US has used – the Turks are likely to draw a line at large-scale arms supplies to the YPG – the leftist Kurdish militia which leads the Kurds in Syria – which they brand an anti-Turkish terrorist organisation.
Whilst it would be an exaggeration to say that the Kurds in Syria are totally cut off from all supply by the US, the extent and sustainability of that supply is now in doubt.
More to the point, the Kurds both in Iraq and Syria have now been provided with a lesson about the limits of US support for them.
If Barzani and the Peshmerga leadership in Iraq did gamble on US support when they called their referendum, then that gamble has obviously failed.
Both the Kurds and the US have in fact overestimated each other. The Kurds in Iraq and Syria made their calculations based on assumptions of US support for them if the Iraqis or the Syrians attacked them. The US made its calculations based on assumptions that the Kurds would be able to defend themselves and would not need US support if attacked.
Both assumptions have turned out to be wrong.
The Kurds in Syria – politically more sophisticated than those in Iraq, and facing potentially even more powerful and dangerous adversaries – seem to be learning the lesson.
Even before the debacle of Kirkuk there were reports that some Kurdish leaders in Syria were becoming concerned that the Kurds in Syria were getting too close to the US, and were becoming over-dependent on the US.
The US’s failure to come to the rescue of the Kurds in Iraq in Kirkuk will have reinforced those concerns.
Unsurprisingly it seems the Syrian Kurds are now trying to hedge their bets, turning increasingly to the other Great Power – Russia – for help to get them out of their current predicament. Some reports say that one of their top officials – Sima Hamo, the commander of the Kurdish led ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ – visited Moscow last weekend for talks with Russian leaders.
If the Kurds in Syria really are turning to Moscow for help then it is the clearest possible sign that they realise the extent of their own overreach and that the project of an independence Kurdistan separated from northern Syria is unsustainable. The Russians are far too committed to President Assad’s government in Damascus ever to agree to it, and the Kurds know it.
The Russians have however in the past shown sympathy to Kurdish aspirations, and they have recently floated ideas about some form of autonomy for the Kurds in Syria.
Possibly it is these ideas that the Syrian Kurds are now looking to build upon. If so then the Russians will make it clear to them that a precondition for doing so is negotiations in good faith between the Kurds and the Syrian government in Damascus.
Needless to say should such negotiations for a general settlement of the Kurdish question in Syria ever take place – possibly within the framework of the Astana talks – then the US’s Plan C for Syria will have unequivocally failed, before it has properly speaking even begun.
Already there are signs of recriminations in the West over this latest Middle East debacle.
In Britain the Daily Telegraph – a reliable voice for the neocon regime change lobby in the US and Britain – is already complaining bitterly about the ‘betrayal’ of the Kurds.
More harsh words were said on this same subject in a Press TV television debate which I attended by a US journalist who is a strong supporter of the Trump administration. Significantly it was Iran that he blamed for this turn of events, even though it was the Iraqi army – nominally still allied to the US – not Iran, which drove the Kurds out of Kirkuk.
In truth what the rapid unravelling of Plan C shows is the rapid decline of US power in this region.
Whereas once the US was this region’s undisputed master, now every step the US takes – whether it be its attempt to use the Kurds to destabilise Syria and Iraq so as to stem the rise of Iranian influence there, or its reneging on its nuclear agreement with Iran – seems only to alienate the region further from the US, and to accelerate the decline of US influence there.
Suffice to say that Iran – the US’s prime bugbear in this region – now has good relations with Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, as well as with the Central Asian states. By contrast the US is on bad terms with all of them.
The region is being reshaped in spite of the US and contrary to its wishes, and there seems to be increasingly little it can do about it.