First-time drone attack in Erbil seen as Iranian test of US, Kurdish response

The Kurds are unlikely to be drawn into a proxy war where they have no interests at stake.
Friday 16/04/2021
The model of an aeroplane decorates a square near Erbil’s International airport in the capital of Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdish region on April 15, 2021. (AFP)
The model of an aeroplane decorates a square near Erbil’s International airport in the capital of Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdish region on April 15, 2021. (AFP)

BAGHDAD – The strike on US military base at Erbil airport with the use of a drone is a cunning test by Iran and its allied militias in Iraq of the willingness of the US to step up its response after such assaults, analysts say.

The drone attack which late Wednesday hit a previously safe area far from the reach of the pro-Iranian militias’ missiles, is also seen as a test of the Kurds, and specifically whether they themselves will respond to the strike.

Kurdish officials said that a drone dropped explosives near a base where US forces are stationed at Erbil airport in northern Iraq. Another missile attack killed a Turkish soldier at the nearby Bashiqa base.

Although it is the first time that pro-Iranian militias have used a drone in an attack, analysts and experts believe that the goal behind the strike was to send a clear message to Washington the gist of which is that these militias are able to target US presence anywhere in Iraq. Another message is that these Iranian proxies can ratchet up and diversify their attacks in ways the United States does not expect.

Analysts believe Iran wants to show the US its ability to manoeuvre and refuse to submit to outside pressure while trying to improve its position during the Vienna nuclear talks.

Observers wonder about the US response. The question is whether the United States will widen the scope of its reactions to attacks that are aimed at pressuring it to withdraw from Iraq or whether it prefers to leave the matter in the hands of the Kurds.

The drone strike also raises questions about the Kurds ability to defend their province and shakes the image that the Peshmerga forces try  to project of themselves as a major actor in terms of protecting Kurdish territory and engaging in the war on terror.

In their use of drones, mainly Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), pro-Iran militias have drawn the lessons  of the Houthis’ experience of the war in Yemen against government forces and Saudi positions.

A US military official said that the militias “now have drones capable of launching missiles and flying a distance of 1,200 to 1,500 km, if they have fuel tanks attached.  They can also reach a programmed destination through the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Iraqi academic and political analyst Rahim al-Kaabi believes that the aim of the  militias is to drag the Kurdistan region and its security forces into an open military confrontation in which Iran would like to turn Iraq into a battleground between its forces and those of the United States.

Kaabi told The Arab Weekly, “The Kurds have understood, since the first bombing of Erbil airport, that the goal is not security or military as much as it is an attempt to reshuffle the cards by escalating tensions in that part of the region, undermining the sense of security that Americans have had there and unsettling the relationship between the Kadhimi government and Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Two months ago, a foreign contractor working for the international coalition and an Iraqi civilian were killed in a missile attack on Erbil. A pro-Iran faction claimed at the time responsibility for “attacking a Turkish base.”

However, the Kurds are unlikely to be lured by Iran into a showdown that is not in their interest.

Most likely, they will deal with what happened on their territory as a proxy war in which they have no direct interest, even if the Americans ask them to respond to the source of the attacks.

It is possible that Kurdish silence will satisfy the United States, considering that Iran’s intent is to try to disperse Western and Israeli pressures around it over the nuclear issue and to spread tensions on more than one front.

But the Kurds will not accept that the security situation could spin out of control in their areas, as that scenario would jeopardise the stability of the region as well as their plans  for independence.

Kaabi says that Iran would be antagonised by Kurdish patience and refusal to be dragged into  into a confrontation as Tehran is currently short on time in the current negotiations with world powers over its nuclear programme.

Accordingly, it is tempted to play all its cards even at the risk of losing them all.

Ali al-Faili, a leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, says that the militias, who follow a pre-ordained foreign agenda, are not happy with the stability of the Kurdistan region. Therefore, they continue to target Erbil airport and Bashiqa base, in order to disrupt the stability of the Kurdistan region and Iraq.

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Faili urged the Kurdistan government to intensify its cooperation with the Iraqi government in order to curtail these moves “that are driven by foreign agendas”.

Kurdish political researcher Kifah Mahmoud says that Iran is trying to turn the Kurdistan region into another battlefield for its wars.

He sees this attempt as a lost bet for a number of reasons including the lack of support for Iran in the Kurdish region, both ideologically and politically, especially after Tehran’s involvement in the incursion by the Popular Mobilisation Forces in disputed areas and their attempts at converting the Sunni population to Shiism .

Talking to The Arab Weekly, Mahmoud pointed out that the solidarity of Arab and  European nations as well as the US with Kurdistan is “evidence of the resilience and credibility of the Kurdish position in combating terrorism in all its forms”.